Vegetarianism, food ethics, and me

I would like to share some of my thoughts. I am no writer but I still hope to be able to articulate my thoughts in a simple manner. So here goes:

About 4 months ago, I moved out of my parents’ house and into another apartment within the same city. While this might pass as a casual comment in many circles, such an act is but rare and almost unheard of in my community given the powerful, closed joint family system(s) that exist within. Point being, it was a BIG step for me.

I felt like I needed some space of my own where I could experiment and learn from my mistakes. I also felt that it would enable me to really grow up as an individual with my own identity. Don’t get me wrong – my life was great. Food, laundry, accommodation, clothing everything was taken care of. I didn’t have to worry about a thing in my parents’ house.

In the last four months itself, I have learnt a lot. I mean who knew that when a recipe calls for 4 tbsp of chilli powder, it probably is wrong. My watery eyes, steamy ears and leaky nose all but confirmed it for me.

Source: GIPHY

But seriously, I began to awaken my dormant thoughts and beliefs that went silent in the familial system that I was a part of. One such thought that has been lingering on since college is about vegetarianism and more specifically, about why I am a vegetarian.

Let me give you some context. When I was still in school, my uncle (father’s brother-in-law) renounced the world and became a Jain saint. My maternal grandmother performed Santhara or Sallekhana when I was in college. For those not in the know, that means that she did a fast unto death. To this day, some members of my extended family do not enter restaurants where non-vegetarian food is served. Some also do not eat at vegetarian restaurants where Jain options aren’t available. Most of my family members have married within the community. Yes, the community is more on the conservative end of religious beliefs and social practices.

So for me to even think about let alone question the idea of vegetarianism flies in the face of such deeply rooted beliefs. For me to make a public post on it is a whole other story. By making this post public, I stand to lose and put to strain all of those loving relationships developed over the course of my life with my extended family. I risk bringing disgrace to my parents, being treated as an outcast and acquiring the ‘rebel’ label in the community. While all this sounds quite dramatic, it is all very real.

EDIT – After having this draft reviewed by some of my trusted friends and family, I feel the need to state that I have made this post public against the wishes of my parents.

For context, my parents are currently pursuing a post-graduate course in Jaina studies at the University of Madras. Everything I say here goes against most of their beliefs and what they continue to learn.

No part of the process behind coming up with this post has been easy. It has been an extremely difficult choice to make especially from an emotional standpoint and one that I will remember for the rest of my life. I may never be forgiven for choosing to do things the way I have done in recent years, but I feel it is important to stand by what I believe in.

I would also like to make clear that none of what I say here is intended to convince you to make one choice or another. I believe that everyone must be given the freedom to make their own choices and those choices ought to be respected without fear, judgment and/or emotional threats.

Despite the unfavourable outcomes, I strongly feel that I need to talk about this topic and express my thoughts. Maybe it is my hope that members from the community are exposed to different streams of thought without prejudice. Maybe it gives people the courage to stand up for what they believe in even when it comes into conflict with what their loved ones might believe in. Or maybe it is the fact that it is my voice, as a member of the community, that might make people more inclined to pay attention and listen.

Why is the idea of vegetarianism so important to me? I mean why write so much about it?

I am who you would call a lacto-vegetarian. I eat plant-based foods and dairy products (no eggs). That’s just the way I’ve grown up. It is important to know the difference between a vegetarian and a vegan diet.

In school, I refrained from touching or passing dishes around that contained non-vegetarian food. I frantically look for the green dot symbol on the nutrition label of every food product that I purchase. In India, the green dot on the nutrition label signifies that the product is vegetarian. To this day, I ask the hosts if the birthday cake is ‘eggless’. I have refrained from consuming any form of non-vegetarian food. Maybe it was my way of protesting the use of animals for human consumption. Maybe I was respecting my family’s values and wishes. Such is my upbringing.

The Green Dot
Source: Consumer Voice

I have slipped up a few times of course. Tired of eating cheese pizzas for breakfast in Disney World, we tried something different on the last day of our trip. We ate a strange tasting pizza that had bright red tomato-like slices as the main ingredient. We were told that it was a vegetarian pizza. Only later did we find out that those tomato slices were actually slices of pepperoni.

All through my childhood, I was very skinny, frail and weak. Many times, I felt physically incapable of doing what most of my peers could do. On the basketball court, I was pushed around very easily, I was unable to stand my ground. A simple fall would fracture my hand and recovery was long.

That’s me on the right

So, in college, I started training with the essential goal of gaining muscle and getting stronger. I came across numerous articles, blogs and videos that kind of perpetuated the notion and myth that you needed to eat meat to pack on serious muscle. I eventually found that to be untrue. But maintaining a vegan diet on the other hand, was not easy too. I stayed lacto-vegetarian.

As someone involved with the field of fitness, I stumble upon the following claims every day:

  1. Plant protein is on par with animal sources of protein when it comes to gaining muscle
  2. The vegetarian/vegan diet is healthier than all other diets
  3. If you eat animals and animal products, you are selfish and have no care for other beings and the environment

The recent controversial film – The Game Changers – attempts to add credence to some of these claims. The vegan diet has become all the rage now.

When it comes to the animal vs. plant protein debate, bioavailability, digestibility, quality and ‘completeness’ of the protein has long been a serious bone of contention. Proteins are the major structural component of muscles and are made up of amino acids. Human adults need 21 such amino acids for proper growth and metabolism. 9 out of these 21 are essential amino acids – meaning, they can’t be synthesised by the body and must be obtained from the diet. Plant sources of protein, unlike animal sources, are incomplete in that they lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes can ensure consumption of all amino acids however. (Citation Link). Having said that, the economics and practicality of that choice may not always be optimal or favourable to one’s situation.

Back in college, vegan protein powders were but rare and unheard of in India. Whey protein was already expensive. It was almost elitist to consume vegan protein. The kinds of food that I needed to consume to be able to gain muscle on a vegan diet was radically different from the typical Marwari vegetarian diet that I was used to. Soy, tofu were all new to me. It required significant mental resource and agency to be consciously vegan and convince my family that that was the healthy route to gaining muscle in an ethical manner. I was not prepared for it and didn’t pursue it then.

It is possible to get all of the essential amino acids from plant protein, but one has to be very selective about the foods consumed to cover the EAAs in the required quantity while also not overshooting overall caloric intake (economic access to some of these foods is also a concern). That is, of course, assuming you want to maintain lean body mass. So to answer the question of whether animal protein is superior or not, the answer is yes, it is superior when it comes to maintaining and reaching desired levels of lean body mass. Is consuming animal protein absolutely necessary in order to survive? No, most certainly not.

The claim that any one diet is healthier than all others is somewhat stupid. There is no magic diet. Context, calories, protein, fibre, micronutrients all need to be taken into account. For any diet to work in the long term, it has to be sustainable for the individual. On a vegan diet, one might need to take more care in terms of supplementing to meet nutritional deficiencies. Vitamin B12 supplementation is but one example.

I’ve grown up eating a lot of carbohydrates in my typical vegetarian diet. Take my early morning and mid-morning breakfast meals from last week for example. I consumed 1 scoop of whey, 150 ml milk, 50g of chocos, 1 banana, 2 idlies, 1 masala dosa, 1 medhu vada, 2 tbsp of coconut/mint chutney and ½ a cup of sambhar. I consumed some 1300 calories with 140 g of carbs from these two meals alone. If someone were to tell me that the keto diet was the healthiest of all and therefore I should follow it, I probably would tell them to stick their unempathetic, cold head into the sand like an ostrich (the keto diet requires you to consume less than 100 g of carbs per day – unless you’re a keto ostrich, it doesn’t take much to deduce that I like my carbs and therefore, the keto diet will not be sustainable for me).

The Real Ostrich
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Keto Ostrich
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Often times people in the fitness industry say that if you are a vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, then by all means you should go for it and that there is no-one to judge you for your decision. This statement, although well intentioned, can sometimes lead people to draw the conclusion that if you aren’t vegan or vegetarian, then you are unethical and/or immoral to that extent in your choices. I know that it made me feel immoral in my choices. Every action is a personal choice. Is it morally justifiable to use animals?

I recently read parts of the book ‘From Field to Fork’ by Paul B. Thompson which discusses this very topic of food ethics. Sure, I have my own biases, but the author brought forth interesting points that supported my beliefs that ethics is not all black and white. Context is key and it should be used to ask better questions. While some of my friends joke that I read this book to justify my future consumption of non-vegetarian food, honestly, I read the book with the attempt to understand the complex issues surrounding food and ethics. Not that I have become any wiser but I am happy to report that I now have some tools to ask better questions.

Source: Link

But what is food ethics all about? Quite broadly, food ethics encompasses issues focussed on supply chains and its corresponding socio-environmental impact on one end to dietary choices and its impacts on the other end. These issues are somewhat new especially with the rise of factory farming, humanely raised animals, fairly traded, organic products and the push to support local.

EDIT – I feel the need to clarify that food ethics encompasses a wide range of issues including but not limited to:

  1. Social issues – unjust working conditions and welfare of farmers and migrant labourers, the politics of caste discrimination – beef consumption in India, food security, etc
  2. Economic issues – food technology and corresponding environment, social and economic issues,  supply chain issues, etc
  3. Environmental issues – sustainability, resource sufficiency, distributive justice between current and future generations, rich and poor, humans and non-humans, animal welfare, the food mile debate, carbon footprint debate, etc
  4. Health related – impact of dietary choice on the individual’s health

This is by no means an exhaustive list. All of these issues are equally important and relevant. However, delving into each of these issues is beyond the scope of this blog post. I have highlighted and discussed briefly only a part of some of these issues.

Today, I’d like to confine myself to the domain of ethical vegetarianism as that is the topic that has been closest to me ever since I was born.

There are many arguments made for the case of vegetarianism. For the purposes of this post, let’s define vegetarianism as non-consumption of any animal. There are practical arguments that a vegetarian diet is healthy for you and better for the environment. There are philosophical arguments that it is very arrogant of us to override the most basic interest of another creature to stay alive, if we can help it. Animals in free-range conditions may not suffer as much but surely death counts as a harm? Do we have the right to inflict that harm?

Is it ethical to eat meat? I’ve always felt I should say ‘no’. It is logical, isn’t it? How can one take some other being’s life? This is what I have believed in all through my life. Yet, I have continued to consume animal products – milk and its by-products. What about the treatment of animals?

The other day I visited a farm and noticed a calf was drinking milk from its mother cow. The staff at the farm briefly held the calf back from drinking milk while they collected a small portion of milk for us. Was that ethical on our part to keep the calf waiting so that we could consume some of the milk? What if the calf wanted to drink more? It surely didn’t feel ethical.

Animals that humans use for food are indeed, sentient – that is, they register feelings of pain and well-being. They are conscious beings. Meat-eating and food practices that entail breeding, slaughter and keeping animals in farms for their entire lives are linked to harm. There are serious concerns with factory farming.

Around 1965, based on the Brambell Committee’s report, the following five freedoms were for the first time codified to ensure animals’ key needs were met in any production setting (read factory farms):

  1. Freedom from thirst and hunger
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

(It is important to note that these freedoms are not absolute conditions but more so a gradient suggesting relative levels of well being. For example, physiological stress during peak moments like that of a sexual orgasm is not something that must be eliminated as may be understood from a reasonable interpretation of freedom from fear and distress)

The book raised these three important questions with regard to factory farms:

  1. Is it ethically acceptable to eat animal flesh, or to raise and slaughter livestock for animal food products?
  2. Are present-day methods for raising livestock ethically acceptable?
  3. How should present-day livestock production systems be reformed or modified in order to improve animal welfare?

Here are some of my notes from the book:

If one were to answer question 1 with a resounding no, then no other question would be relevant and one would turn into a vegetarian overnight. This is of course, ignoring the thought experiments where you know you are stranded on a boat in the deep dark sea or a desert island. Well, what about the case of plants? Are we morally justifiable in taking the life of a plant? Plants may not have a brain, central nervous system or pain receptors, but does that give us the right or make it morally permissible to take the life of a plant? Are we not growing plants for consumption? How do we survive without plants? The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer. Reality is complex. I always used to answer no to the question of whether it was ethically acceptable to eat animals and animal products but now, I’m not so sure.

However, if one answers yes, the other questions gain significance. Paul argues that question 3 is especially important because no matter how strong pro-vegetarian social movements are currently, animals will continue to be produced in factory farms. Everyone can’t turn into vegetarians overnight. If things were that simple, these questions wouldn’t arise in the first place. There are major socio-economic constraints with respect to question 3.

But does improving animal welfare in factory farms just make it easier to avoid the important question of whether it is ethical to eat animal products in the first place? If no, moderating harm to animals in factory farms, does nothing to move us towards a more ethical resolution. It most certainly does NOT make it a lesser evil. Humane slaughter is an oxymoron – no amount of compassion can make it morally justifiable to take the life of an animal – right?

If animal welfare is the goal, why not produce all eggs in ‘cage-free’ or ‘free-range’ conditions? ‘Free-range’ systems are more labour-intensive as birds are free to drop their egg(s) wherever. To meet modern standards of sanitation and safety, workers must search for the stray eggs. Producers thus price the eggs accordingly to recover the costs. On the one hand, while the free-range system may provide good welfare for the average bird, consider the case of the least dominant bird as a thought experiment. If there are a lot of birds occupying the same space, the least dominant bird will get pecked a lot, much much more than what is typically considered ’normal’ behaviour. Is that ethical? Must we ban caged production? The answers are not clear.

Free-range chickens
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We do not understand animal physiology, behaviour and neurology fully yet and we might be erring in assuming that they are like us humans. What we do know is that animals suffer when they are killed. However much they are ‘humanely raised’, when they are rounded up and sent to slaughter houses, they do suffer from fear (transported and stored in confined spaces) and heat.

Does that mean that everyone should answer question 1 in the negative? Consider this scenario. According to the World Bank (2015 data), nearly 10% of the world’s population lives under the ‘extreme poverty’ line – that is they earn less than 1.90 US dollars a day. Nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than 5.50 US dollars a day (LINK).

According to research by household economists, when people move from extreme poverty to just being poor, the main thing that they spend their second euro per day on is animal protein. They buy a little meat to eat, or possibly some eggs or (less frequently) milk.

Page 149 – Thompson, Paul B. From Field to Fork. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Assuming this statement from the book to be true, are they morally wrong to consume animal protein? Some ethical vegan advocates argue that people in extreme circumstances can be excused from an otherwise universal obligation. That act might become justifiable in that moment or situation but may not be justifiable in everyday life.

Is universal veganism the ideal then? Some argue by saying that most ethical decision making is intuitive and unreflective. Families in industrial societies living on the margin, working multiple jobs, and having little time to critically think and cook should not be morally obligated to be living the vegan ideal. Their children may go hungry every now and then. Or consider the Inuits, for whom a plant-based diet is a biological impossibility. They have evolved a hunting culture. Of course, it is possible for them to consume tofu thanks to globalisation but is it morally obligatory for them to be vegan?

The claim that eating meat is merely a ’trivial pleasure’ displays ignorance and/or disrespect to those living under dire circumstances even if it is true that they can live without meat. It isn’t easy for everyone to simply ‘make the switch’ to becoming a vegetarian no matter how ‘easy’ it might be for one person, living in the minority.

If I were to be a vegan, and continue to work towards my current goals, I would have to be extremely selective about the kind of foods I eat and where I source them. Not only would it require more effort and time, it would be expensive financially too. High quality vegan protein supplements are expensive, at least here in India. There are also other supplements I might need to consume to ensure I do not become deficient in key micronutrients. Considering I’m living on my own now, I honestly feel that it isn’t feasible for me to be vegan. But does convenience and laziness justify animal consumption? Is that ethical? I don’t know.

I firmly believe that we must reduce animal suffering and pain as much as possible. How we can do that is not something I have an answer to yet. Am I becoming a non-vegetarian because I’ve been told that meat tastes good? I don’t think so. Well then, is it because it will make it more convenient for me, financially and otherwise, to reach my goals of building muscle and becoming the strongest version of myself? While it will certainly help, I don’t think this is why. I think I would like to experiment and see how it works out for me. I may choose to be a vegetarian later too. I should have that choice to live the way I’d like to. Are those choices morally justifiable? I don’t know.

Conclusion

What I hope to point out is that there is no black and white answer when it comes to what is ethical with regard to whether one must be a vegetarian or not. The answer isn’t clear and is contextual. I am not here to tell you what to eat for ethical reasons.

Having said that, from a nutritional standpoint, when it comes to body composition goals of maintaining lean body mass, animal protein is indeed superior to plant protein from an economic, bioavailability and practicality standpoint.

Is it morally obligatory for everyone to be a vegetarian? I most certainly think not. I personally have been a vegetarian all of my life for social reasons and constraints. However, I feel that I should be allowed to choose, without judgment and consequent reaction, as to what I should like to consume. Based on my current goals of gaining muscle and being the strongest version of myself, I feel that I need to consume some animal protein. Am I being unethical? I honestly don’t know.

The freedom of choice is powerful. Maybe I consume non-vegetarian food now and maybe I choose not to later. That choice, in the end, must be mine and mine only. The option to exercise that freedom ought to be respected. But is that choice morally justifiable? That is a point of debate and may not have a clear yes or no answer.

Ideally, if we could eliminate animal suffering and pain, we would be living in a better world. How we do that, in a morally justifiable way, is the challenge.

So if you feel constrained due to economic, social and other reasons from choosing what you would like to eat, give these ethical questions some thought and that might help you obtain a clearer understanding of why you do things the way you do. Society might judge you for your choices, you might even become an outcast in your community and bring shame to your family, but stand up for what you believe in. I might be a fool for doing so, but at least I tried.

If you made it this far, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this post. I know I might have made many mistakes, factual and otherwise, while expressing myself through this post. It is not my intention to harm anyone or suggest that one approach is better than the other. I write this with an open mind. Please feel free to comment below your thoughts!

Sources

  1. Thompson, Paul B. From Field to Fork. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  2. Biolayne:
  3. Protein – Which is Best? – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3905294/
  4. The World Bank data – link

3 thoughts on “Vegetarianism, food ethics, and me

  1. Thank you for putting all these different facts and perspectives in one place and for giving out major food for thought. I have had this debate countless times with family and friends but purely on gut feeling – I had no facts to back me up. I’ll hark back to your post now whenever in a bind. 🙂
    P.S. Loved your infographics on Instagram!

    Like

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