Lately there has been some discussion (and some elevated emotions) over the OI (Order of Interbeing) listserve about vegetarianism, veganism, and the impacts of eating meat on the environment. While it’s true that Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) has asked his students to reduce their meat consumption by half and to consider cutting out meat entirely because of the damaging effects the livestock industry has on global warming and it’s also true that our tradition’s monasteries have switched to a vegan diet I’m not so sure the most pressing question involved here is whether or not to eat meat or to become vegan. For me, the question here is what can I do to potentially help support an environmentally sustainable food system?
For those of us not who are not familiar with the terms: A vegetarian is someone who does not eat beef, chicken, seafood or fish and a vegan is someone who, in addition to not eating meat, also does not eat dairy, eggs, or other animal byproducts, such as honey.
Let’s face it, becoming a vegetarian or a vegan is a choice of luxury and privilege. There are many people who cannot afford the choice to not eat meat and who do not have access to fresh produce and healthy foods. There are many people working multiple jobs only to live paycheck to paycheck and rely on food stamps, local food banks, and free meal assistance programs for their children in public schools. These hard working meat-eating folks aren’t any less concerned about the environment then us veggies and vegans out there – they’re simply too busy trying to put food on the table for their kids and keep a roof over their head.
There are also many sustainable ways to eat both meat and dairy that don’t involve animal cruelty or massive environmental degradation. There are local farms and ranches, we can hunt and fish, and there are organic and free-range options for dairy and meat. And certainly the mere act of giving up meat and dairy does not automatically equate to an ecological success.
This is all not to say that we shouldn’t evaluate how our food choices impact our planet and its inhabitants but more to say that we shouldn’t be too sure we know what’s best for others. It’s easy to go off on a diatribe about the ill effects of eating meat and how awful it is to kill animals and highlight the deplorable conditions they are under while fattening up for slaughter. It’s also easy to simply say war is bad and criminals should be locked up for good without having any ability or openness for true dialog or an understanding of the causes, conditions and people involved.
Sometimes when we’re overly impassioned, raising our voices and fighting for what we think is just and good, we forget that there is always more to the story that we aren’t aware of. Again, this is not to say we shouldn’t strive for change but to encourage us to look more deeply in order to see how our words and actions are rippling outwards and to understand the seeds that we are watering in ourselves and in others. Anger fuels more anger no matter how right we think we are.