Time for Lent: Vegetarianism

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When I was young, my family’s vegetarianism embarrassed me. I thought vegetarianism was a strange affectation, just one of many things that made me self-conscious, eccentricities that separated me from non-Adventist friends. I no longer feel this way and am again vegetarian; however, I do think that the vegetarian life can seem like little more than an Adventist peculiarity. Lent is set aside (by many denominations and a small group of progressive, blogging Seventh-day Adventists) as a time for reflection and analysis. To this end, reflection on the rationale for vegetarianism may be an appropriate way to spend this period.

One of the more well-known Lenten traditions is the foregoing of meat. For Adventists, vegetarianism tends to be a year-round tradition, but may be examined less than a Lent’s worth of abstinence for Catholic or Orthodox Christians. My purpose in this blog is not to discuss traditional Adventist reasons for vegetarianism (a good topic), but rather to encourage a discussion of ethical, sustainable eating, and how this relates to Adventists who come from a perhaps under-analyzed, but salutatory culture of meatless living.

Foregoing meat at Lent has multiple meanings. One is self-abnegation, giving up a luxury or distraction from a relationship with God –in this case meat is a luxury to temporarily do without. Another meaning is an older reason for abstinence: solidarity with poor people who could not afford as much meat as wealthy people. In the US, low-income families probably do not eat less meat than wealthier families – everyone eats more than they did one hundred years ago. The health effects of eating cheap food, including fast food (much of which is factory-farmed meat), however, disproportionately harm the poor.

Our economic and cultural system rewards cheap food, externalizing the consequences of factory farming to our health, the quality of life of the animals we raise to eat, and the environment (e.g., studies by the UN and Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production have shown that worldwide, the meat and dairy industries contribute more to climate change than the transport industries). So while giving up meat in solidarity with the poor probably does not make sense in the US, giving up meat because factory farming and the fast food industry in the US and climate change on the global scale disproportionately harm the most vulnerable populations is a sensible, meaningful thing to do.

We do nothing in a vacuum. Our eating habits affect other people and the environment more than most personal choices. Americans on average eat the equivalent of 21,000 individual animals in a lifetime – think of the volume of animal waste, energy use, and pain produced by raising and killing this army of animals. As difficult as it can be to connect all the hidden steps in an economic exchange, these externalized costs are real and worth meditating on. If you do eat meat, in light of the environmental and ethical consequences, you might ask yourself why. For those who are unfamiliar with these consequences, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is a good start. If you do not eat meat, researching the environmental and ethical rationale for vegetarianism is still helpful because vegetarianism that is simply a tradition has little chance of influencing others by example.

It should be noted that vegetarianism is not the end-all for ethical eating. When we buy eggs at the grocery store, we tend to ignore how painful and cramped the lives of laying hens are, how their beaks are clipped off without painkillers to keep them from wounding each other in their body-to-body cages, how their lives are, according to Michael Pollan, worse than any other factory-farmed animal.

I cannot relate a strict diet to follow or specific path to convincing friends and neighbors to think about the environment and the lives of animals before buying a tuna sandwich, but by studying the global and local effects of the meat and dairy industries we can move toward a more sustainable way of eating. The stakes are high – the suffering of millions of animals and the health of our planet are directly related to the way we choose to eat. For Lent, I encourage you to think before you chew, and then think about what you can do to influence our society’s factory-farm driven, environmentally irresponsible food culture. To that end, here are some resources:

Farm Forward: “Farm Forward implements innovative strategies to promote conscientious food choices, reduce farm animal suffering, and advance sustainable agriculture.” (www.farmforward.com)

Farm Sanctuary: “Works to end cruelty to farm animals and promotes compassionate living through rescue, education and advocacy.” (www.farmsanctuary.org)

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Even if you are against throwing tomatoes at fur-wearing fashion models, even if you think PETA is full of violent wackos, there is no arguing that they have effectively brought animal cruelty into the public consciousness. (www.peta.org)

Eating Animals: Read the book, but also check out the website, where you can find the above links and many more. (www.eatinganimals.com)

Note: Most of the information I use in this blog comes from Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, with some input from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. These books are excellent, especially Eating Animals, and I would be remiss if I did not note that I barely scratched the surface on these complicated, disturbing issues. I tried to link to their sources when possible, but I would recommend reading the books to get a clearer picture (and to see where I got that 21,000 animals per year figure).

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While studying anthropology at Andrews University, Andrew Gerard co-founded ACTION, a student group committed to social justice. Andrew now works at Habitat for Humanity and blogs at Notes from the Fault and Adventist Activism.

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