Agribusiness, Food, Vegetarianism—-and Taxes

[cross-posted on ataxingmatter–see posting there for additional comments]

As some of you may know, I am one of the many people who eat a vegetarian diet. I don’t eat cows, pigs, fish, whales, sharks, chicken, turkey, sheep, wild game, tame game… As I sometimes say when people ask me about my diet, I eat everything you eat, except for a very short list of items–the critters that can move themselves from one place to another (or move their appendages) under their own propulsion.

(Note that we often have two words for animals that we eat–their live-form word –e.g., cow, sheep, pig– and their edible-corpse form word –e.g., beef, mutton, pork. That evolved when we borrowed the Romance language word for what we ate but kept the Germanic language word for the animals.)

It started when I was a child–I was one of those who would cut the meat into tiny pieces and then spread it all over my plate so it looked like I’d eaten it. The idea of eating a cow, with those beautiful liquid brown eyes, was repulsive. (My father came from a family with thirteen kids in the hills of Tennessee, so I’d seen cows up close.) I even took a whole piece of veal once and hid it behind the dining room cabinet (taking it out to the wastebasket after it dried)! I refused to eat the squirrel and venison that my dad brought home from hunting trips (mostly, if not always, somebody else’s kill). I even refused to let my cocker spaniel share in that dead stock.

But now that I’m an adult, why do I maintain that diet? I get asked that a lot.

Funny, nobody says (with shocked exression)–“Gee, you eat meat? Why would anyone ever want to eat a toxins-laden dead corpse of an animal that lived a horrendous life and suffered an agonizing death? ” But they do often ask–usually treating it as a good-natured tease about a wacky alternative diet–why I’d want to avoid eating corpses.

James McWilliams got me thinking about this again this morning, when I read his “Bellying up to environmentalism” in the Washington Post for Nov. 16, 2009, where he noted that we should be asking questions in the reverse, that make meateaters feel uncomfortable at defending their own meateating. After all, there’s really no good reason for eating meat other than that someone is so addicted to its taste that he or she can’t exert the willpower to do without it.

The whys for not eating meat, on the other hand, are legion. Let me just list a few here, from the mundane to the truly significant:

1. cooking is easier–throw veggies in a pot and steam them; throw veggies in a pot and make soup, throw veggies in a fry pan and fry them, throw beggies in a pot and bake them; and variants thereon

2. clean-up is a lot easier–none of that icky clinging greasy layer of animal fat on every pan

3. refrigerated leftover use is easier–throw the leftovers in a pot and steam them (etc. from one above) and there’s none of that congealed lard on top of the leftovers in the fridge

4. rotten vegetables in the fridge are less disgusting than rotten corpses in the fridge

5. a decent diet is generally considerably cheaper

6. the more people who adopt a vegetarian diet, the more people who are currently going hungry could be fed

  • one of the many articles I’ve read said something that stuck with me (sorry, don’t have the cite)–that it takes the same resources to feed one meat-eater that it takes to feed about 80 vegetarians.
  • That’s because of the huge waste as you use up primary foodstuffs to feed the animals that will be slaughtered, then use up primary energy stuffs to slaughter, process, ship and deliver the meat to the meat eater, compared to even transported vegetables (localvore, with vegetables, is even more saving of resources)

7. without meat-eating, there are no feedlots where animals literally eat and sleep out the remainder of their short lives in their own shit

8. you can have a small flock of hens who live out their natural lives with nice living conditions (indoor/outdoor)

  • disclosure: I had one hen who lived to be 22; she was still laying eggs up until the week or so before her death from natural causes

9. Hens lay bigger and bigger eggs each year that they live past the first year w(hen most are slaughtered) and they still lay fairly regularly

  • disclosure: 6 eggs every 7 days was typical in my experience

10. Even hens have personalities

  • disclosure: when I lived in upstate New York, I had one named Gumption who loved to fly up to the top of a two-story house and survey her domain, and another named “kiss me” who would follow me around all day like a pet dog

11. Animals that we eat are as smart as–or smarter than–animals that we keep for pets (pigs compared to dogs, for example)

12. Animals care for their young and suffer when their young are taken from them (think dairy cattle and the young that are bred so that the mothers will give milk)

13. Some eating of animals is even more obnoxious than the norm (think “veal calves” that are taken and put in tiny sheds to they can fatten without any musculature development or “foie gras” where geese are fattened by having food stuffed down their throats with a tube)

14. Life is precious: there is no reason to sacrifice animal lives to lead a decent human life, so why do it?

15. Agribusiness–the main way that animals are raised and sold for meat–is an environmental nightmare

  • use of fertilizers to grow the grain that is fed to the cattle that are fed to the humans results in polluted land, water and air and uses up petroleum and other resources
  • consolidation results in long transportation (inhumane to animals; wasteful of oil and gas resources)
  • the subsidies (including some tax expenditures) for agriculture have gotten out of control–costly, misdirected, ill-conceived, and essentially now a form of corporate welfare for huge agribusiness enterprises

16. A meatless diet is healthier for humans than a meat-based diet, so we could cut health-care costs by simply cutting out meat

17. The process of butchering animals is a cruel leftover from the dark ages–people who work in slaughterhouses are inured to suffering, and that may well spill over into their “normal” lives outside work

18. The process of butchering animals is itself a source of harm–

  • sick animals are slaughtered, making it possible that eaters of that dead flesh will be sickened as well (mad cow disease);
  • animals are slaughtered in the midst of their own excrement, and some of that excrement gets into the food chain (making people sick as well);
  • the leftovers from the animal slaughter have to be gotten rid of somehow, leading to even more water, land and air pollution
  • workers are exposed to awful conditions–not just the process of mercilessly killing animals day in and day out, but also the risk of infection and injury on the line

19. The use of antibiotics in animal feed (given to healthy and unhealthy animals alike) ensures that resistant strains will develop even more rapidly, while leaving excess antibiotics not absorbed by the animals to pass out in their urine and excrement and into the land and water to act as toxins to others (including fish and birds and humans) leading to additional environmental nightmares…

20. Agribusiness pig farms and cattle feedlots are a blight on any humans within their vicinity (as well as a disaster for the natural world, noted above under environmental problems) from the stench of the manure (that can pollute the countryside for miles around) to the ugliness of the barren, treeless manure-laden fields.

So what to do? Maybe we should enact an excise tax on all meat products, like a”sin” tax for sodas and sweets and cigarettes. Comments, anyone?

PS Arthur C. Clarke has a great sci fi short story, taking place some time in the future, when a more advanced civilization than ours is aghast at the purported discovery that their ancestors used to–cover the young ones’ ears–eat dead corpses of animals…..Clarke’s ideas were way ahead of his time in lots of ways.

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