Why I think being a full- or part-time vegetarian is a good idea

This is the first post in a new category about food. I was going to start with a review of the cookbooks I own, but it’s better to start with a more important issue regarding this subject, which is the consumption of meat. After giving it much thought, I’m now at a point where I’m in favour of being a part-time vegetarian. Or to put it differently, at least halve my consumption of meat. Right now while I’m living with my parents our eating habits are a far cry from even part-time vegetarianism, because meat is served for dinner at practically every day of the week. Let’s start exploring what my reasons are for thinking part- or full-time vegetarianism is a better choice than eating meat.

When we consider approximately the last two millennia, meat was historically a luxury for the majority of the population and it wasn’t eaten every day of the week. This is common knowledge, but it seems to be a bit hard to find a good source for this statement I have to admit. When we go back to hunter-gatherer societies there seems to be more controversy over the composition of their diets. But that all doesn’t really matter because there are better reasons against eating meat than those in favour of eating meat. Many websites can be found on the Internet which advocate vegetarianism, the Vegetarian Guide is an example which is quite convincing. It contains good counter arguments to common positions taken by people who do eat meat, I especially held the ‘but we have canine teeth so it’s natural for us to eat meat’ in high regard until I learned that’s not a convincing argument after reading that website. There are many other strong arguments in favour of being a vegetarian, such as that it provides many health benefits, although there is again dispute on this topic.

The most important reason for me is the environmental impact of meat production, related to environmental vegetarianism. While there is again some criticism on these views, I’m convinced that the pressure on the environment will be catastrophic if we keep consuming meat at the current pace in the developed nations while developing nations adapt to our diet and increase their meat consumption. Besides environmental cost there is also the human cost. It is more efficient to grow plants for food than it is to produce meat: the effort made to grow fodder to feed animals for their meat could instead be used to grow a larger amount of plants with the same resources to feed a larger amount of people. This means that in the developed world we’re exacerbating the problem for those in developing nations who struggle to acquire food due to rising food prices; in a sense we’re depriving the poor of their food because of our desire for meat. It goes without saying that I don’t want to be unethical.

I think it’s your own responsibility to do something about this problem. For me this means that I will only eat meat and fish (both in a 50% ratio) as a main dish for dinner for a maximum of three days per week, or maybe not at all. Right now this is something I can’t realise because I’m not going to convince my parents and siblings that it’s a good idea, but when I’ll live on my own and I can prepare my own food I will certainly follow this plan. I don’t expect serious problems in following the plan, because during my time in Nepal I ate vegetarian food for weeks without missing meat because the vegetarian food was so good. The only difficulty is preparing delicious vegetarian food myself, at the moment my culinary skills still need improvement and I’m still unable to prepare the vegetarian dishes which I appreciate so much in Indian restaurants with a similar quality at home. Because at the root the whole problem is caused by reckless population growth, I don’t intend to father more than two children, preferably just one.

In fact, I had a discussion about this during dinner with my parents and siblings. Not deliberately because I knew discussing it would be tiresome, but accidentally. I decided to skip the meat dish and go for the vegetable dish, then my mother asked if I didn’t want the dish with meatballs. After explaining the various arguments in favour of eating less meat which I already explained here, I’m accused of imposing my will on them. Possibly because I can get a bit worked up during certain discussions, but of course I point out that I merely explained myself and tried to convince them, not command them, to which they concurred. Then they point out it’s their opinion they don’t eat much and I hear another argument about not liking vegetarian food.

There are statistics on meat consumption by country providing data on per capita meat consumption in kilograms for 2002. Depending on who you compare to and it can be very much or not so much. I like to compare to the developing nations, in which case we consume far too much. My father, mother and siblings would probably compare themselves to the USA, in which case it’s not so much. What is interesting is that we consume twice as much meat in the Netherlands (89,3) as in Japan (43,9), which is on the same level of development as the Netherlands. Also consider Norway (61,7), which is not only on the same level of development as the Netherlands like Japan, but is also part of the West. Turkey (19,3) surprised me because of it’s small consumption, considering the Turkish food establishments in the Netherlands are most popular for their meat dishes such as doner kebab. Turkey is not on the same level of development as the other countries I mentioned earlier, but still scores high on the Human Development Index. Concerning the taste of vegetarian food, in my experience it’s not different from the taste of meat. Vegetarian food can be just as appealing or unappealing in taste as meat can be, it all depends on the ingredients for the dish and how it’s prepared.

However, when I started calculating our meat consumption in a whole year a different picture emerges. Let’s say we eat 150 grams of meat on average every day with five persons. This is probably a high estimate because it doesn’t take into account the one day or two days in the week when pancakes, pizzas or other food which doesn’t contain much meat or even none at all are on the menu. When 365 days are multiplied by 0,15 kilogram, I get 54,75 kilogram, which is a lot less than the average for the Netherlands. I guess it matters more how much meat you eat every day than how many days you eat it in a week. I still think it’s too much, I’d aim for 20 kilograms in a year at maximum.

I don’t care much ethical reasons for vegetarianism. A cow could be slaughtered by humans, or it could end up with a far more painful death when it’s torn asunder by predators in the wild. What’s the difference? If I don’t have any problem with a killing an annoying mosquito or fly, why should I have a problem with killing a pig for food? Seen from a different perspective that’s not a good argument though; mosquitoes and flies suck your blood, contaminate your food and can transfer nasty diseases while a pig has never done anything wrong to me. My opinion is that other animals aren’t what I’d call intelligent life like our own species, which is enough justification for me to kill them. I should also mention that I have disdain for people who decide to become vegetarian only when they see an animal getting killed and slaughtered. It’s extremely naive, as if they thought meat is grown on a tree. Similarly, I think that people who feel less guilty when they eat meat from an animal which had the opportunity to graze freely and lead ‘a happy life’ before being slaughtered are hypocrites. While I don’t like unnecessary violence against and suffering of animals, it’s self deception to think that you had the best interest of animal in mind when it experienced a good (or rather, ‘better’) life before it ended on your plate.

What is strange is that despite all the negative consequences of producing meat, in the Netherlands meat is barely more expensive or sometimes even cheaper than vegetarian food. For example, a hamburger costs € 1 at McDonald’s restaurants while a Side Salad is more expensive (it used to be € 1 as well). The costs of the negative external effects such as rising food prices in developing nations and environmental degradation are not included in the costs of meat. That’s why I think an excise tax on meat would be a good idea.

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