In reading about different diets, we may have come across words of encouragement by famous people on the merits of vegetarianism. Einstein has said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” From Paul McCartney: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” And from Mahatma Gandhi: “I do feel that spiritual progress does demand, at some stage, that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.”
There’s no doubt about it—vegetarianism has been around for a while, whether as a guiding spiritual principle from religious groups and hippies to abstain from eating the flesh of animals so as not to harm another sentient being who feels emotions and pain, or from health conscious folks who believe it is the best diet. Today, thanks to courageous journalists filming inside industrial meat operations, more and more people are deciding to abstain from any food derived from animals, and this is called veganism.
But any decision about the best diet for our individual body will require some education and experimentation to see how well the body likes the diet. True healthy eating requires clean and healthy food. In our acceptance of the modern way to greater food production (dusting food crops in the field with chemical sprays), we accepted as normal the ingestion of chemicals that should never be anywhere near the mouth of any animal that eats, including us. When we do an internet search for “the Dirty Dozen of Food: Chemicals on your Produce”, we can see exactly what these chemicals are and their effects. It’s pretty scary stuff—and reads like an inventory of carcinogenic, reproductive, developmental, and neurological toxins. Of all foods listed, peaches with their fuzzy porous skin have the highest rating of foods with chemical residue, with apples and bell peppers also high.
The Dirty Dozen list is simple proof that not all food is equal in quality. Most of us learn at a young age not to mess around with anything that has a skull and crossbones on it. And yet this is the reality of the state of produce in many parts of the world. Unless we are on a very high spiritual plane, a positive attitude alone—not even from the noble intentions of a sincere vegan—cannot magically transform a chemically-doused vegetable into one that our body is happy to receive.
Recently I saw a new movie about veganism called Vegucated with my friend, another old foodie. We recognized that the moviemaker was very keen to educate meat-eaters about the horrific practices of industrial meat production by showing them the inside of slaughterhouses. But as these people learned about the joys of alternative meat products i.e being able to have a “guilt-free” hot dog, we both became very frustrated to see that no mention was made of GMOs in these food items, all of them highly processed foods that usually contain GMO corn, soy or canola. The sad truth is that GMO crops destroy topsoil, imperil our water supply, and threaten to contaminate organically grown crops and seed through natural means such as the wind, or pollination from bees (which we now know are also suffering from the profit-motivated high-tech GMO experiment). As for how GMOs affect our health, Jeffrey Smith provides extensive research in his book Genetic Roulette that shatters the biotech industry’s claim that GMO foods are safe to eat. I believe that if the creators of Vegucated want to be intellectually honest, they would take a stand on the dangers of GMO foods by taking back their uneducated endorsement of GMO-laden meat alternatives in a vegan diet.
Perhaps even more disillusioning to the sensitive vegan mentality than a veggie dog that may not be guilt-free, is the fact that in large-scale modern agriculture, the growing of vegetable food crops is not an ‘animal-suffering-free’ picture. As Barbara Kingsolver so articulately points out in her international best-selling book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “The blunt biological truth is that we animals can only remain alive by eating other life.” She then explains that “countless winged and furry lives were extinguished in the plowing, cultivating and harvest… An estimated 67 million birds die each year from pesticide exposure on US farms. …Foxes, rabbits and bobolinks are starved out of their homes or dismembered by the sickle mower. …To believe we can live without taking life is delusional.” Such deaths from pesticides and habitat removal are uncountable. In knowing this, vegans may grow in compassionate awareness of their predicament that if such food is their only choice (if organically grown food is unavailable where they shop or they cannot afford it), then they are doing their best to not harm animals.
As someone who has raised animals humanely, Kingsolver is also offended by what she calls “ve-vangelical pamphlets” showing jam-packed chickens and sick cows being the reason why people need to stop eating meat. She reminds us that not all meat is produced in such an ugly way, and that globally speaking, the vegetarian option is a luxury. “The oft-cited energetic argument for vegetarianism, that it takes 10 times as much land to make a pound of meat as a pound of grain, only applies to the kind of land where rain falls abundantly on rich topsoil.” When we appreciate this very basic fact about growing food, we realize that many of the world’s people on every continent—on the fringes of desert, tundra and marginal grasslands where very little food could grow—would starve without animal protein.
And as we think about not harming animals, we can extend this type of thinking to one of Gandhi’s strong beliefs called Ahimsa, the sanskrit term meaning “to do no harm”. If we drink coffee, and if we like to pamper ourselves with chocolate, perhaps the world’s most hedonistic treat, then we can practice Ahimsa by purchasing fair trade products. Otherwise, we are hurting others because some of these crops are produced from the labour of slaves, many of them children who are abducted or sold by their families. Surely our children would not want to know that their special treat causes suffering to other children.
In our journey to become conscious eaters, it is useful to look at the larger picture. Even if we grow our own food and know the exact whereabouts of the food items we buy, we may still never know all the ways that we harm others in the chain of events that starts with growing food and ends with eating it. It is clear that not all meat is tainted, nor are all vegetables benign. I truly believe it is almost impossible to be completely pure about what we eat. But we can do our best and forgive ourselves for our imperfect human ways.
Tsiporah Grignon is a Gabriolan of 38 years, and considers herself “an old foodie”. She is a keen observer of our times, through looking at geo-politics, and through her study of Evolutionary Astrology, which offers in-depth insights into our potential as compassionate human beings.