The Great Debate

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Up close and personal with meat in Cañaris (Cajamarca, Peru).

I believe in eating meat. After countless discussions, articles, and testimonials, this is the conclusion I have reached. Too much cholesterol is bad for your health. Meat is expensive. Our current animal farming and production systems need reform. Animals have souls and feel pain just like humans. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these arguments, and I especially agree with the third statement. But as a student of history and anthropology, eating meat just makes sense. Ideally, it can be done in a way that respects the life of the animal and minimizes wastefulness. Practically, it provides nutrition to people who don’t have the luxury of choosing where their food comes from. I think about food, meat, privilege, and access regularly and have never questioned my views until I read these two articles about feminism-vegetarianism/veganism. I was blindsided. For some reason, I had never considered that every burger I ate or every steak I cut into was a sign of my willing complicity with the repressive objectives of patriarchal order. Feminism and vegetarianism/veganism (I put these two together not because they are the same but because they complement each other on this issue), these authors contend, are inextricably linked and together resist the hierarchy of our patriarchal world that similarly oppresses women and animals. The argument that veganism protects mothers and motherhood particularly struck me. How could I, a woman who strongly believes in the rights of mothers and might be a mother someday myself, continue to participate in food systems that privilege maleness over the biologically predestined state of motherhood?

As this debate proves, what we eat is directly linked to our personal, moral, spiritual, and political convictions. I turned to one particular facet of the debate to resolve the issue (at least for now) in my own mind: eating meat is the consumption of death. Modern vegans, as well as the original feminist-vegetarians of the nineteenth century, employ this belief as reasoning for their lifestyles. To me, however, food is life – even if that food was once living itself. We are all part of a natural order in which species consume other species for sustenance. Moral judgment may lie in how these other species are consumed, but not in the consumption itself. Many people who chose to live as vegans and vegetarians have the ability to do so, and I have not met many (if any) vegans or vegetarians living in poverty. When I was in a small Andean village in northern Peru, I remember walking through town and passing a house with freshly butchered meat hanging outside. This meat was very important to the family – they most likely raised the animals, killed them, and would prepare and eat them. In the United States, many of us do not have a close and personal relationship with our food. But when you stand face to face with direct evidence of that relationship – a relationship that speaks to issues of class, wealth, education, and ethnicity – resisting the patriarchal order is not the first thing that comes to mind.

Veganism is gaining popularity in the United States. Many people are already familiar with vegetarianism and are learning from friends and relatives what it means to be vegan or trying it themselves. Articles, books, and websites (try these two for tips about being vegan) make it easier to get started and adapt a new lifestyle. In many places outside of the United States, however, a vegan diet is still very difficult to maintain. During my semester abroad, I did a class project on eating vegetarian and vegan in Madrid and Alcalá de Henares, where I was living. While we did find a few vegetarian restaurants, the response of one waiter exemplified the general attitude we found. After explaining what “vegan” meant (no animal products like meat, cheese, or eggs), we asked if he could bring us anything vegan. “Of course,” he replied in Spanish, “we have a sandwich vegetal [literally translated as a vegetable sandwich, a staple on most lunch menus in central Spain].” And what was in that, we asked? “Tomato, asparagus, ham, and cheese,” he replied. We had obviously encountered a cultural barrier in vegetarianism, never mind veganism.

It would be interesting to see a map of the United States, a map of the world even, showing the distribution of vegans and vegetarians. Would the areas of highest concentration correspond with blue states? Areas with many college graduates? Veganism and vegetarianism are responses to animal injustice in our food systems as well as larger ideologies concerning living beings, women, and patriarchy. When debating these larger ideologies, however, it is important to consider the socioeconomic positions that allow us to discuss them in the first place.

And for a lighter take on the prevalence of being vegan in pop culture, check out this SNL skit with Justin Timberlake.

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