Interlude from the Wynn: Thoughts on Weekday Vegetarianism

25 Mar

I’m on vacation at the Wynn, which is vegan paradise for two reasons: 1) Every restaurant–and there are plenty–offers a vegan option! and 2) The vegan menu is way cheaper than the regular menu.

For example (pictures to come) I got a vegan burger, fries, and a little shake (yes!  Too minty, but a good consistency and taste otherwise, especially if you’re into mint, which I’m not) for $9, or more than double that if you go carnivorous and feel like fries, too.  Nice!   So we also got the cashew cream spinach and artichoke dip, which was both huge and delicious.  This morning?  Vegan blueberry muffin.  Yesterday evening?  Vegan chocolate chip cookie.

While I agree that it’s a joy to go to a vegan restaurant and eat anything on the menu, even more exciting to me is just knowing you can ask, “Is there a vegan menu available?” knowing that the answer is always yes, and then being able to eat ANYWHERE, basing your decision on what kind of food you feel like instead of what places offer something you could maybe eat if you were a rabbit half your current size.

Anyway.  Awesome!  (My omnivorous boyfriend is even eating a bunch of vegan food here, partially because it’s good, and also because it’s cheap.  Motives aside, the adorable little cows thank you very much.)  Actually, it’s because my boyfriend is taking some time to do schoolwork (poor thing) that I am taking a break to write once again, this time about the merits and demerits of weekday vegetarianism.  I must caution that this is a long article, but it’s an interesting topic since the whole “Meatless Monday” and “flexitarian” thing is gaining ground.

As I write more, I realize this is approaching dissertation-length, so I’ll sum up my points before the cut.

  1. Weekday vegetarianism is not inherently more eco-friendly than eating meat–that is, the mere elimination of meat and its replacement with any old thing does not necessarily consume fewer resources.  A romp with some statistics shows us how.
  2. The use of “vegetarian” to mean things other than its commonly accepted definition detracts from our ability to understand each other when we describe things or people as vegetarian.  It has nothing to do with exclusion or smugness or only wanting Certain People to be given the title of vegetarian; it just has to do with having a comprehensible debate with agreed-upon terms.
  3. If the ethical precepts of vegetarianism are given any credence by weekday vegetarians, as they seem to be in the TED talk referenced later in this post, then weekday vegetarianism becomes “I only kill things for fun on the weekends, but it just doesn’t bother me as much when I limit it to those particular days!”

I figured I’d catch up on some of my online reading and came across this article on TreeHugger, which neatly summarizes the TED talk that it references, Graham Hill’s “Why I’m A Weekday Vegetarian.”  Okay, I’ll bite, especially since one of my initial reasons for dropping meat and dairy was because of its fundamental unfairness not just to animals but to humans, in that a meat-centric diet is an inefficient, wasteful, and inevitably environmentally toxic way to eat (not to mention the obvious health issues, but I digress).  Let’s put animal ethics aside for a moment–sorry!–and just talk numerical efficiency.

1. Is weekday vegetarianism a good solution to waste?  Well, as early as 1997, ecologists knew that the US system of grain-fed livestock, at least, was massively inefficient; for example, “beef cattle production [the least efficient conversion] requires an energy input to protein output ratio of 54:1″ (reference here).  Chicken, which is the most efficient, is still a 4:1 input/output ratio, and in general, “For every kilogram of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed nearly 6 kg of plant protein.”  That is a lot of wasted food, which I find upsetting because a lot of people are hungry in the US and overseas, not to mention the rising cost of food prices due to correspondingly increasing energy costs (more people want fuel; there’s the same amount of fuel available; price goes up).  As we globalize and standards of living go up, diets tend to Westernize, which means that more meat gets eaten, which means more inefficiency and global strain.

You’ll note, if you read the entire linked article, that pasture-raised livestock is not critiqued in this efficiency analysis.  In fact, it’s mentioned that grass-fed cows, for example, are a good use of “marginal” land (which is not defined in the article, but is meant to describe land that is not inherently profitable for one reason or another.)  If you do eat meat, grass-fed is healthier for you; it becomes a useful source of omega-3s, for example, because it is a better-apportioned ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats; it is also more nutritionally meritorious (see Wikipedia’s summary and references here–yes, as long as sources are cited, Wikipedia is a fine source to use as an entry point for topical exploration.)  Grass-fed is also better for the cows, because they are supposed to eat grass, not grain; the lack of fiber is unhealthy for their digestive systems, letting acid and bacteria accumulate in the rumen and preventing cows from digesting important nutrients (see here for more).  Not only that, but in the first linked Cornell article, if every cattleman switched to grass-fed beef this instant, between the amount of animal protein left over in conjunction with current amounts of plant protein, every man, woman, and child in the US would still exceed the RDA for protein.

So, long story short?  We clearly don’t need as much meat as we’re producing, and pasture-raised livestock is better for the animals, the planet, and us.  In terms of efficiency and ecology, yes, weekday vegetarianism–just eating less meat–is a good thing.

Is there any downside to it?  Well, besides the obvious–I’m pretty sure most cows would probably just choose to be left well enough alone and not be food at all, if they were allowed.

First off, in the spirit of our earlier numerical analysis, let’s examine the costs of vegetarianism and not veganism.  I know, I know–I’m about to go off into “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” (thanks, Anthony Bourdain) territory by suggesting that weekday vegetarianism with an ignorance of dairy consumption is borderline useless, but hear me out.  You know, if you’ve still read this far.

Let’s go back to that infinitely useful first article.  What about milk, dairy, and eggs–presumably, none of which are limited in a meatless week?  The efficiency of milk protein is 14:1, which is not much better than turkey (13:1); so, if you give up your turkey burger but replace those calories with a milk-based source of food, you haven’t actually done much in terms of efficiency.  Eggs are even worse, with an efficiency ratio of 26:1, outstripping the production needs of all but the worst (beef’s 54:1 ratio and lamb, checking in at 50:1).

So, you’re enamored of the weekday vegetarian thing.  You look for meatless recipes.  On Meatless Monday’s website, you come across the very first article I ever saw on the subject, and check out Mario Batali’s Duck Eggs Over Easy with Fontina on Grilled Bread.  Despite the whole-wheat bread, I doubt that we’re making a lot of nutritional progress here, so let’s talk efficiency and make a crude comparison, based on the assumption that, like most Americans, the meat you consume most frequently is chicken (according to a 2009 American Meat Institute report, 86.5 pounds per person annually, or about a quarter-pound for everyone daily), and you’re going to have this conglomeration instead of grilled chicken, keeping constant your non-animal-products of whole-wheat bread and vegetables.

Have you increased, or decreased, your environmental footprint by changing where you find your animal protein?  A quick look at the recipe: serves 4, eight duck eggs, 1/2 cup of cheese; let’s ignore the butter because it’s included as a cooking means, not as an end.  WolframAlpha says that eight raw duck eggs weigh 1.2 lbs and a half-cup of cheese weighs 0.25 lbs.  (WolframAlpha is very useful when you have incredibly specific questions like this.)  Since the 4:1 input ratio is unit-free, let’s assign identical units–pounds–to input and output (they’ll cancel and the ratio is still valid), saying that 4 lbs input = 1 lb chicken.  Conveniently, this is what you would need to feed four people their daily chicken ration (this sounds great, because 0.25 lb or 4 oz is in bounds for the serving size for meat recommended by the USDA, but remember, we ate other meat that day, too.)  In order to procure the required ingredients for this recipe, you need 31.2 lbs input : 1.2 lbs eggs and 3.5 lbs input : 0.25 lbs cheese.  You now need 34.7 pounds of raw inputs to feed the same amount of people that 4 pounds of inputs also fed.  Also, since we’re pretending you had grilled chicken, you’re probably eating a pile of dietary cholesterol now, too.

Where does this lead us?  Unless you are sticking to plant-based proteins, not other sources of animal protein, to replace your meat, you’re not getting anywhere in terms of efficiency or health.  Weekday vegetarianism is not inherently better than eating meat in terms of efficiency.  Imagining that it is so is tantamount to slacktivism, like posting pictures of starving children on Facebook and “raising awareness” but not contributing in any useful way.  You feel like you’re doing something, but you’re not.  I will always agree that doing something is better than doing nothing, but I’d like to add the caveat that it needs to be something useful.  An egg and cheese meal is not useful.  This sounds extravagant, but think about having fettucini Alfredo–egg pasta and a cheese sauce, often one of the cheaper, meatless offerings at an Italian restaurant.  You’re still not really helping.

Now that I’ve let this become personal, it’s time to tackle the second point: If you don’t eat meat on the weekdays, but have a free-range Reasonably Happy Cow on the weekends, you are not a vegetarian.  Sorry.  As we tend to do with most words when we don’t seem to know what they mean, let’s turn to a reliable source: the dictionary.  Oxford English says that a vegetarian is “a person who does not eat meat or fish, and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons.”  There it is.  Not, “I’m vegetarian, but I can’t resist a good rack of ribs!”  Or, “I don’t eat meat, but I really just have to have some bacon sometimes.”  Or, “I only eat meat on the weekends.”  Which are now all things that I have heard!  None of this is vegetarianism because it does not meet the criteria laid out in most commonly-agreed-upon definitions of the word; if you purposefully eat meat, you are not vegetarian.  I include the qualifier “purposefully” particularly because I’m sure every vegan has had that learning curve where they don’t realize that stearic acid is not vegan and get the wrong soap or something, and if you order the Vegetarian Platter and there are roly-poly fish heads on it, you still tried.  Since intent is all that can be controlled here, intent is what matters.

I wouldn’t have such a hairy freaking problem with this if people were, in fact, more willing to qualify their eating habits as, say, flexitarian or weekday vegetarian or pescetarian or I-Don’t-Really-Eat-Meat-Except-When-I-Really-Feel-Like-It, but they’re not.  And I shouldn’t have to explain to people when I say that I’m vegan, before we even get to the whole dairy and animal-byproducts thing, that poultry is meat and I don’t eat meat, and fish are somewhat smarter than you think and I don’t eat fish, either!  Not because you get tired of explaining your diet if you are not a meat-and-potatoes kind of person, but also because vegetarianism is not new.  Veganism, okay, that’s a more recent development, but vegetarianism has been around since ancient Greece and India.  So knock it off.  A chicken and pasta plate is not vegetarian, and at no point has it ever been!  We can’t have a sensible conversation about tables if I think a table is what you eat from and you think it’s what we sit on, and we can’t have a sensible discussion about vegetarianism if we don’t subscribe to the same definition.  It is the complete abstention from the consumption of any flesh–land animals, sea animals, birds, all of it.  (Side note: All vegans are vegetarian, because they consume no flesh, but not all vegetarians are vegan.  Kind of like how all squares are rectangles because they have two sets of parallel, equal sides and four right angles, but not all rectangles are squares because those two sets of parallel sides are not always the same length when taken as a total set.)

Before I close on the “What is a vegetarian?” debate, which really shouldn’t be a debate, let me ask one more semi-rhetorical question.  Why are you bothered that the label “vegetarian” can’t be applied to you?

seriously bro

Why is it that people get cranky when the label “vegetarian” is taken away from them because they don’t actually fit the definition of what a vegetarian is?  Is it because, secretly, you think being vegan/vegetarian is actually kind of cool?  (SPOILER ALERT: living ethically is actually pretty cool)  Are you the one seeing it as a secret club, and you’re mad because someone said your VIP tickets aren’t valid?  Are you the one saying, “I can’t, I’m vegetarian” to get out of your aunt’s gummy pot roast, even though you knew she was going to screw it up again and you went to Five Guys beforehand?  Don’t be mad.  Just drop the rest of the meat!  You don’t eat that much anyway, right?  Hey, if you’re a weekday vegetarian, all I’m asking out of you is two more days.  What do you think life without dead animals is, a sad little doldrum of uncooked tofu?

I guess this was my initial reaction to the TED video when I watched it.  The speaker says, “Can you imagine your last hamburger?”  There’s silence, and then laughter.  A last hamburger?  Perish the thought!  Man cannot live without hamburger. It’s the taste argument, which gets under my skin like nothing else, because taste is subjective and the argument that animals suffer and feel pain is absolutely objective.  This is why I am a vegan: I feel that the science is on my side.  There’s nothing that I can’t find in plants that I can only obtain in animals, minus B12, and B12 supplements have been working fine for years now, literally–my father can remember his mother going for B12 shots as she aged.  I’m not too worried about B12.  But animal agriculture is generally bad for the environment, bad for people, bad for health, and bad for the animals, obviously.  These are just facts.  It’s just true.  And then someone comes along and says, “Oh, but I really like hamburgers!”

I know.  I’m sorry you do.  Like Bobby Hill says, “I wonder if cows get just how good they taste!”  I confess, I really liked eating cheeseburgers.  Particularly bacon cheeseburgers.  If I was going to have a burger, it was going to have bacon and cheese or else.  But I let them go.  I gave up my whole-milk lattes (I was very particular that it be whole milk for good foam formation) for soy.  And I still don’t feel deprived!  I’m happy.  I feel like I live a full, healthy life, full of delicious food and great animal-free clothes, shoes, makeup, toiletries, and so on.  Wherever it’s possible, I say no to hurting animals, people, and my environment.  Not only that, but feeling compassion for voiceless, innocent animals has inspired me to try to feel more compassion for people, who tend to make me angrier than animals generally can.  I find that it’s really improved my life to be vegan.  And I am saddened when people say they can’t give it a try because they really like cheese.  I’m sure this won’t win me any fans, but it feels like a cop-out–and weekday vegetarianism feels the same way to me.  If you really think it’s cruel to hurt animals, send a message.  If you go out for a nice steak on Saturday, that cow did not live a good life, because it isn’t cost-effective for the restaurant.  We all know how meaningless the “free range” label is–unless you go to the farm and see the animals, you don’t really know how they’re living, and if you don’t seek it out, you probably don’t really care, because the label on the package makes you feel pretty good about your decision anyway.

I know a “binary decision” is kind of unappealing, when it’s put that way.  But if the binary is killing things because they’re tasty/not doing that any more, I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance of being a weekday vegetarian.  If I find it unpleasant to do, as the TED speaker seemed to, I can’t pick a day where I’d rather eat meat or dairy.  Though it might feel hard, you can do it!  And it is worth it.

No half measures.

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