The Hot Potato Issue

By Soh Ying Qi (18A01C)

Prompt: Why is my classmate a vegan?

People like to espouse the virtue of persevering through hardship. “Nothing is impossible if you just believe.” “If there is a will, there is a way.” Repeat five hundred times while carrying out any difficult task.

But every one of those aphorisms must have deserted me at an inopportune moment, because after much deliberation, I have concluded that writing this op-ed is, indeed, impossible.

Writing an objective piece about vegetarianism while avoiding the pitfall of being condescending to and/or antagonising the vast majority of (omnivorous) readers? It’s a tall order. Throw in the fact that most people become incredibly defensive whenever the word “vegetarian” is even mentioned in passing, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

And I get it. I know it’s easy to feel like you’re being personally attacked when somebody says “Meat Is Murder”, or criticises the dietary choices you’ve lived with for years. I also know that that’s probably why vegetarianism is such a taboo—collectively, we’re uncomfortable. But that’s precisely why I’m writing this: because there’s nothing better than stepping out of our comfort zone once in a while.

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We were all broccoli-hating children once. (Source)

Strictly speaking, the prompt was about veganism, which is a specific type of vegetarianism. Vegetarians abstain from animal products to varying degrees and specifications, but the most basic criterion is avoiding all meat and seafood. (That rules out pescatarians, who eat fish.) Vegans, on the other hand, abstain from all animal products—that means no dairy, eggs, honey or anything that originated from a living, breathing animal. In other words, all vegans are vegetarians, but not all vegetarians are vegans.

My family is ovo-lacto, which, as you might be able to guess, means we consume eggs and dairy. In my time, I’ve fielded many questions from omnivores, who generally pick from one of these:

  • Can you eat fish, since it’s not technically “meat”? (No.)
  • Aren’t you killing chickens, since you eat eggs that could have been chicks? (No, because they were unfertilised and therefore always intended for consumption.)
  • Is it because of religion? (For some, yes, but this is a pretty personal question and we’re not obligated to answer.)
  • Cows are vegetarians, so you can eat them, right? (Still a meat!)
  • Don’t you ever wish you could try meat? (Self-control, my friend. Self-control will take you to the stars.)
  • Don’t you get nutrient deficiencies? (I’m still alive, plus I’ve passed all my NAPFAs. Checkmate.)

Are there benefits to my diet, besides educating people on semantics? Sure. Vegetarians tend to get a lot of vitamins, fibre, magnesium and other fancy scientific compounds I can’t name. We also have lower cholesterol levels and reduced risks of heart disease and cancer. (Plus, we live longer, but that’s just a bonus.)

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Honestly, the food alone would be a good enough reason. (Source)

As with any scientific claim, there’ll be opposing sides and refutations. Many have posited that vegetarianism causes a myriad of nutritional deficiencies and a host of other side effects. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t evaluate their claims, but I can tell you that I’m of average height, have a healthy BMI and can still run my 2.4km in under 18 minutes. (That last one is probably the most important—NAPFA is next year!)

There are many reasons each of us takes on the challenge. Religion does play a part, especially for many (but not all) Singaporean Hindus and Buddhists. Others do it out of compassion and opposition to animal cruelty. Some environmentalists do it for the benefits to the environment. Everybody’s rationale is different, and our experiences are unique to each individual.

Most people, when they ask me why I’m vegetarian, brace themselves for impact, as if they expect me to pounce on them and rip out their vital organs. The stereotype of the militant vegetarian who goes around screaming at meat-eaters about how they’re “killing the earth” is, at least in my experience, largely an urban myth. Rest assured I’m not here to be a fearmonger—I’m simply here to provide you with my side of the story.

Consider the common claim that “we’ve been eating meat since we developed as a species”. This provides a basis for the fad “paleo diet”, where just over half of all calories consumed in a day come from seafood and meat. Still, it’s been debunked—just look at your herbivorous teeth in the mirror, and it’s easy to see why many contemporary scientists claim we were never designed to eat meat.

“Still, you have to admit that we’ve been eating meat for a long time. You can’t just expect billions of people to suddenly change their diets.”

That’s true—it would be difficult. But think about it: just because you can kill a sentient animal for your own sensory pleasure doesn’t mean you should. Habitual consumption doesn’t absolve us of responsibility; the onus is still on us to change our ways. As society has matured, we’ve always altered our lifestyles based on critical evaluation of the morality of some of our most common institutions. Why should meat-eating be any different?

“But you’re killing plants,” you point out. “You’re just as morally culpable as we are.”

Not quite. Plants lack pain receptors, therefore they cannot feel pain—when I eat a plant, I’m not causing it undue suffering. The opposite is true for animals, who possess a central nervous system and can experience suffering (sometimes, in much the same way that we do).

“Well, I eat free-range eggs and humanely killed animals. That’s better, right?”

Nope. For starters, both of those situations still necessitate the exploitation of animals for our own personal gain. That includes the consumption of eggs. Sure, you can give an animal an anaesthetic so it doesn’t feel pain, or you can behead it in one swift motion to reduce suffering, but there’s no way around the fact that its right to life is being forcefully denied.

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Male chicks have it even worse—because they don’t lay eggs, most of them are culled immediately after hatching. This adds up to hundreds of millions of cullings worldwide per year. (Image source)

I recently read an article in The New York Times that claimed “I do not endorse inhumane treatment of farm animals or wanton pollution of the environment with animal wastes and misused antibiotics and pesticides.” One of the top-voted comments summed up my thoughts perfectly: “Unfortunately, by purchasing animal products produced in this way, you are endorsing these activities.”

And that’s the truth. You can argue till the cows come home (pun intended), but it’s a fact that by continuing to support the animal products industry with our dollar votes, we as a society support the exploitation of animals through often cruel means.

It’s not just them, either. If you claim that “I need to continue eating animal products to financially support workers”, the hard truth is that they aren’t much better off. Meat and poultry factory workers risk extremely high rates of injury due to the speed at which products are processed. Slaughterhouse workers in particular are also more likely to be violent and suffer from mental illnesses like PTSD, while slaughterhouses and abattoirs themselves may correlate to higher crime rates (warning: graphic image) in the communities in which they are situated.

In addition, many poultry farmers struggle to make a living wage, because the vast majority of your money goes to the companies that sell them the birds in the first place. Follow the money trail, and you’ll find that buying poultry products in particular perpetuates a cycle that lines the pockets of huge poultry companies—the farmers themselves aren’t benefitting from our consumption.

Sounds bad enough? Wait till you hear about the environmental impact.

Here’s the thing: the effects of animal agriculture on the planet are a lot worse than any of us realise. If you simply can’t live without your Filet-O-Fish burger, you’ll be stunned to hear that our oceans will be fishless by 2048. If you’re the person who’s been trying to take public transport more often and bring your own bag to the supermarket, there’s a much more effective method of reducing your carbon footprint: livestock and their byproducts account for half of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

Plus, here’s a fun fact: you probably consume many more vegetables than I do on a daily basis. It might seem paradoxical, but that’s because converting grain to meat requires incredible ratios: it can take anywhere from 2 to 20 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of meat, depending on the animal. What’s more, one kilogram of meat requires at least 5000 litres of water, but one kilogram of wheat requires just 10% of that amount.

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According to National Geographic, just 55% of all the crops we grow is eaten directly by humans; a staggering 36% goes to feeding livestock, which provide diminishing returns on calories. (Image source)

Again, my aim is not to shame you into changing your diet. But I think it’s important to understand that our choices have consequences. These are the facts: tried and tested, time and time again, yet time and time again simply ignored. But I know it’s much easier to pretend we don’t see something bad happening than it is to actually do something about it.

But I think we underestimate the good we can collectively achieve if we all commit ourselves to making a change. If we all went vegetarian, we could reduce food-related carbon emissions by 60%. Cutting down on plastic straws, reducing your shower time and recycling as much as possible is all well and good, but your most effective solution yet is still staring you in the face.

You hesitate. “But isn’t it super hard to be vegetarian?”

You’ve probably seen one of those articles with a title like “We Went Vegetarian For a Week So You Didn’t Have to”, and learned all about how inconvenient it is and how difficult it is to get enough vitamins and nutrients without taking supplements. The concluding statement was probably something like, “I don’t understand why some people choose to live like this every day.”

I agree: it is a choice. Every day, when I see an ad for a new Burger King offering, when I smell curry chicken while queueing in the canteen, when I agree to go out with my friends for lunch, I’m making a choice. So are the millions of other vegetarians who are faced, every minute of every day, with the same decision.

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This is my life—every minute of every hour of every day.

In all likelihood, nothing about this article is going to change your mind about eating meat. But it’s a start—and sometimes, that’s all we can hope for. Baby steps count: you can try out Meatless Mondays, or cut one meat from your diet, and even support some vegetarian restaurants once in a while.

Change is difficult, I agree. But the millions of vegetarians around the globe, alive and kicking, are living proof that we’ve been right all along.

Not so impossible after all.

 

(Cover image source: http://farmcareltd.com/services/potato-farming/)

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