I don't cook very much meat. In fact, I probably cook 1-2 lbs of meat, if that, every month. That's it. This is a hold out from my vegetarian days. I was a vegetarian for four years, and even when I stopped, cooking meat still freaked me out. Besides that, on the rare occasion I cook, I usually choose to make the foods I grew up on: daals, sabzis, etc. As a result, most of the dishes I cook are vegetarian. By contrast, when I eat out, anything goes. And because most menus feature a considerable amount of meat, meat it usually is.
Thus, lately, I've started to worry that along with my bad restaurant habit, I've developed a bad meat habit. Growing up, my family ate meat, but given that we are Indians, meat was never a daily presence at the dining table. When I was 15, I gave up red meat, mostly for health reasons. When I entered college, I ended up giving up all meat for reasons I was never able to fully articulate to myself. I think part of it was that I didn't enjoy eating meat at the time. And part of it, honestly, was because being a vegetarian gave me a sense of identity. As an eighteen year old trying to negotiate college life in the Midwest, I think it was very important to me to be able to label "who I was." But it didn't last. By the time I turned 22, I had decided that my reasons for being vegetarian were pointless and arbitrary (which they kind of were.) And so I decided to start eating meat again, except for beef which my ever-vague association with Hinduism forbade. At 24, I decided that because I'm not really religious, I might as well eat beef. So now, I eat everything, though I still eat very little pork and beef, and mostly eat chicken, turkey, fish, and now bison.
Interestingly, it's only now, as a little eco-freak, that I have real reasons for laying off the meat. But by this point, I've developed a taste for the good stuff. I don't want to give up sushi or Korean barbecue, or bison burgers. But more and more, I'm starting to question if my eating meat is particularly ethical.
Michael Pollan makes good arguments for eating meat in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and for a while, I clung to his arguments. To briefly summarize, Pollan argues that vegetarians who eschew eating meat because they care for animals are putting a pig's interest ahead of Pig's interest. Meaning, that by eating domesticated animals, we, ironically, ensure the species survival. And indeed, demand for bison meat has enabled American ranchers to grow the bison population to the point where bison will probably never be endangered again. This argument makes good sense.
Except that, the truth is, while I care about animals to a certain extent, I don't care about animals more than I care about humans. My priority is always people first, then other species. I am aware that it's a selfish belief system, but, there it is. Given this, it follows that I should lay aside the questions of pig or Pig and instead focus on the questions of man and woman.
Is meat consumption good for other human beings, particularly those in the third world? Not really. Raj Patel writes on his blog, Stuffed and Starved, "The amount of grains fed to US livestock would be enough to feed 840 million people on a plant-based diet. The number of food-insecure people in the world in 2006 was, incidentally, 854 million."
Now, I know that the problems with food insecurity have more to do with distribution than production. I know that even if everyone in America suddenly became a vegetarian, that doesn't mean that hunger would be eradicated. But it gives us perspective, doesn't it? We Americans may feel like we have a "right" to meat, but don't those food-insecure people have more right to food, period?
Michael Pollan's other argument was that in certain areas of the country, the land really wasn't suited for vegetable growing, and thus, meat eating WAS the most energy efficient use of the land. While that might be a fair argument in New England, it really doesn't hold water here in fertile California. Just because SOME people's land is best suited to animal raising, doesn't mean that we all should get a free pass, meat wise. In that case, it seems that, yes, meat eating should be acceptable in areas where meat is pretty much all that's available, or where meat eating is energy efficient. But in areas where the land is perfectly suited for vegetation, we have no excuse.
And yet, even with all those arguments in favor of vegetarianism, I can't bring myself to abjure completely. Why is it so hard to give up? Raj Patel hypothesizes that societal taboos against vegetarianism (i.e. the belief that "real men" eat meat) make giving up meat more difficult.
But, I'm a woman, an Indian, an environmentalist, AND a Californian, for crying out loud. Plenty of people already assume I must be a vegetarian. Besides, if I could buck society as an 18 year old in the Midwest, surely I could buck society now.
Alas, I can only admit that I enjoy meat too much. I'm also, strangely, much healthier now that I eat some meat. My cholesterol is lower, and I weigh less than I used to. So, for the time being, I plan to continue my omnivorous ways, but I intend to watch my meat consumption much more carefully than I have been. Because, I believe in good things in moderation. And I think, for me, eating a little meat here or there, is defensible. But meat should be seen more as a privilege and treat, and less of a right or daily rite.