Is Eating a Personal Choice?: Hardly


A version of this piece ran in the Washington Post in 2009.

I gave a talk in South Texas recently on the virtues of a meatless diet. As you might imagine, the reception was chilly. In fact, the only applause came during the Q&A period when a member of the audience said that my lecture made him want to go out and eat even more meat. “Plus,” he added, “what I eat is my business — it’s personal.”

I’ve been writing about food and agriculture for more than a decade. Until that evening, however, I’d never actively thought about this most basic culinary question: Is eating personal?

We know more than we’ve ever known about the innards of the global food system. We understand that food can both nourish and kill. We know that its production can both destroy and enhance our environment. We know that farming touches every aspect of our lives — the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil we need.

So it’s hard to avoid concluding that eating cannot be personal. What I eat influences you. What you eat influences me. Our diets are deeply, intimately and necessarily political.

This realization changes everything for those who choose not to eat animals. As a vegan I’ve occasionally felt the perverse need to apologize for my dietary choice. It inconveniences people. It smacks of self-righteousness. It makes us pariahs at dinner parties. But the more I learn about the negative impact of meat production, the more I feel that it’s the consumers of meat who should be making apologies.

Here’s just one reason why: The livestock industry as a result of its reliance on corn and soy-based feed accounts for over half the synthetic fertilizer used in the United States, contributing more than any other sector to marine dead zones. It consumes 70 percent of the water in the American West — water so heavily subsidized that if irrigation supports were removed, ground beef would cost $35 a pound. Livestock accounts for at least 21 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions globally — more than all forms of transportation combined. Domestic animals — most of them healthy — consume about 70 percent of all the antibiotics produced. Undigested antibiotics leach from manure into freshwater systems and impair the sex organs of fish.

It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of conventional beef. If all the grain fed to animals went to people, you could feed China and India. That’s just a start.

Meat that’s raised according to “alternative” standards (about 1 percent of meat in the United States) might be a better choice but not nearly as much so as its privileged consumers would have us believe. “Free-range chickens” theoretically have access to the outdoors. But many “free-range” chickens never see the light of day because they cannot make it through the crowded shed to the aperture leading to a patch of cement.

Grass-fed beef produces four times the methane — a greenhouse gas 21 times as powerful as carbon dioxide — of grain-fed cows, and many grass-fed cows are raised on heavily fertilized and irrigated grass. Pastured pigs are still typically mutilated, fed commercial feed and prevented from rooting — their most basic instinct besides sex.

Issues of animal welfare are equally implicated in all forms of meat production. Domestic animals suffer immensely, feel pain and may even be cognizant of the fate that awaits them. In an egg factory, male chicks (economically worthless) are summarily run through a grinder. Pigs are castrated without anesthesia, crated, tail-docked and nose-ringed. Milk cows are repeatedly impregnated through artificial insemination, confined to milking stalls and milked to yield 15 times the amount of milk they would produce under normal conditions. When calves are removed from their mothers at birth, the mothers mourn their loss with heart-rending moans.

Then comes the slaughterhouse, an operation that’s left with millions of pounds of carcasses — deadstock — that are incinerated or dumped in landfills. (Rendering plants have taken a nose dive since mad cow disease.)

Now, if someone told you that a particular corporation was trashing the air, water and soil; causing more global warming than the transportation industry; consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel; unleashing the cruelest sort of suffering on innocent and sentient beings; failing to recycle its waste; and clogging our arteries in the process, how would you react? Would you say, “Hey, that’s personal?” Probably not. It’s more likely that you’d frame the matter as a dire issue in need of a dire response.

Veganism is not only the most powerful political response we can make to industrialized food. It’s a necessary prerequisite to reforming it. To quit eating animals is to dismantle the global food apparatus at its foundation.

Agribusiness has been vilified of late by muckraking journalists, activist filmmakers and sustainable-food advocates. We know that something has to be done to save our food from corporate interests. But I wonder — are we ready to do what must be done? Sure, we’ve been inundated with ideas: eat local, vote with your fork, buy organic, support fair trade, etc. But these proposals all lack something that every successful environmental movement has always placed at its core: genuine activism.

Until we make that leap, until we create a culinary culture in which those who eat animals must do the apologizing, the current proposals will be nothing more than gestures that turn the fork into an empty symbol rather than a real tool for environmental change.



About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

13 Responses to Is Eating a Personal Choice?: Hardly

  1. CQ says:

    I said those exact words to friends while driving home from a vegan potluck dinner tonight. We were talking about how members of a culturally-and-politically progressive group in our city had recently invited a well-known organic/sustainable/local-foods chef to speak to them. We agreed it’s a crying shame that most progressives don’t want to “get” the message about food and animals. “They call eating a personal choice,” I bemoaned.

    Yes, Mr. Progressive, it’s a personal choice to remain in the dark, addicted to violence, in denial, cognitively dissonant, and all the other applicable buzz words. But your personal choice comes at a very steep price for your neighbors, Mr. Progressive. You call it freedom to choose, Mr. Progressive, but I call it a license to kill the earth and its inhabitants, physically, morally, spiritually — one knife-across-the-throat and fork-to-the-mouth and bite-of-the-teeth and gulp-down-the-gullet at a time.

    By the way, at our potluck were two young women brand-new to veganism. They had been devouring every Netflix documentary they could get their hands on and had become zealous, but respectful, missionaries for the cause. Their enthusiasm, I’ve decided, is much more contagious than progressives’ selfish stolidity is. Maybe these two women will initiate ideas that will result in the genuine political and social activism for which you plead, James. Their hearts are full and their forks are poised to become tools for big-time, worldwide environmental and culinary changes.

  2. Great points. I think it’s also worth mentioning that free-range meat, while (questionably) better for welfare is not really sustainable. But I agree. Why should I apologize for being compassionate?

  3. I agree. I would also add that a vegan lifestyle takes it a step further, by not using animal products of any kind or the exploitation of animals. Agribusiness is entangled in all most every area of our lives. About 50% of the animal is used for it’s “meat” and the other 50% is used for other food and household products.
    I think all the other movements regarding our food system leave a gray area. Veganism is black and white, don’t use animals. That simple.

  4. Jean Blanquart says:

    i’ve finally rached the stage beyond apologies; why shoudl we apologize for being compassionated indeed ? of course, once you stop apologizing and once you stop justifying your vegan habits, other people start to picture you as ‘elitist’ and ‘vain’. That’s the next hurdle to take as elitism and vanity has nothing to do whatsoever with veganism.

  5. Jim says:

    All good points, but you failed to include the immense burden that meat, egg and dairy eaters put on our healthcare system. Not only do we foot the bill for knee replacements, open heart surgeries, electric scooters, and massive amounts of meds for people on Medicare and Medicaid, but we each also pay higher insurance premiums to subsidize the care for treating compleley preventable and treatable diseases, simply by cutting out animal products. Personal choice? Maybe when they start paying their own way on medical expenses.

  6. calico says:

    A great article. I am troubled to see so many “environmentalists” in denial about what their food choices do to the environment they say they love so much. People are fighting back and forth about if windmills kill too many birds or if paper is made from a ‘green’ enough process… but nobody wants to change what they order for dinner tonight. Why?

  7. Diana says:

    Not even smoking is a personal choice – smokers always affect the beings around them, when they smoke – so why should eating animal products be a personal choice ???

    I’ve been vegan for more than 4 years now, I eat all the dishes I used to eat when I was not vegan AND MORE, because I experiment a lot more – and being contantly reminded of how selfish most people still are is very painful.

    They wouldn’t lose anything. They would gain so much !

    I think of the animals everyday, I think of the humans we could feed with all the grain and soy we feed instead to poor animals – and I can not comprehend how people can be so shamelessly selfish, so terribly afraid of a change for the better.

  8. karmaquinta says:

    Well put old bean!

  9. Diana says:

    First of all-I commend your bravery for giving a vegan talk in Texas! Second, the more we get in meat eaters faces-the more they have to hear at least some of what we are saying, and better yet-retain it in some area of their brain. Even though they do not want to.

    They may not admit it and they will deny it to other meat eaters, but in the quiet of their homes, as they take a big bite of steak or some other meat-a tiny, niggling feeling of guilt will appear. A remnant of what some vegan said will appear out of nowhere.

    So even though we think they are not hearing us, our words are in their heads, all the same. That is why every, single vegan counts and all of us are having an impact-even though we don’t actually see it happening.

  10. Alesandra says:

    I feel it’s important to share my particular predicament. After years of struggling with digestive problems, alternating between vegetarianism, veganism, and raw foodist, I had my blood tested for allergies. The results were shocking. I am allergic to not gluten but wheat and oats, all nuts and seeds, soy, and most fruits and vegetables (these I can have if cooked). I tried for ten years to soothe my stomach with a healthy and conscientious diet. I looked everywhere except livestock for sources of protein. It was a huge shock to find my pain was alleviated once I put down vegetable sources and began eating meat again. I share this because I never would have guessed eating so “healthy” was the source of years of physical and emotional havoc. I’m not anti-veg nor am I pro-meat. I very much support the concept that — it is personal. It has to be to take back my health.

    • Sunya says:

      allergic to friuts ,vegtables,nut,seeds,soy and wheat? So after being a vegan/vegetarian, you now live on meat? Ive never heard of this, wow, weird

  11. dz333 says:

    Alesandra, there are a lot of people with leaky, damaged guts (typically starting with undiagnosed celiac) who become allergic to all sorts of other foods as a result of that.

    I would suggest celiac testing to see if you have problems from that which are actually causing most or all of your allergies.

    Myself, I was vegetarian for 13 years and have been vegan for over three years. I went gluten free just after I went vegan because of digestive issues I had been experiencing since childhood (I’m over 50 now).

    That did the trick for me. No gluten at all and a healthy vegan diet make me feel great. I try to eat very little corn and potato just because they make me feel bloated and uncomfortable.

    Good luck!

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