The lies `vegetarians' tell themselves

Sophie Morris
by Sophie Morris  |  11 March 2011  |   39 comments

Can you be a meat-eater and still a moral 'vegetarian'? Sophie Morris finds out.

The lies `vegetarians' tell themselves

Vegetarianism has come a long way. Through religious conviction, healthy eating and animal welfare, it now finds itself in a place where it says many different things about a non-meat eater’s view of the world. 

Reasons people become vegetarians nowadays range from saving the environment to improving our ailing food system to getting a better welfare deal for livestock. And, of course, then there are the vegetarians who are simply worried about (or are disgusted by) the meat they put into their mouths. 

Personally, I am too greedy to put my meat-eating morals where my mouth is. I don’t find it easy to admit that - because I don’t think it is ok to kill animals to feed myself. 

Yet I still eat meat. 

I know – spot the utter lack of integrity. The shame of it. But if you’re a meat-eater, or a cook, or both, you’ll know how damn tasty the stuff is, and the pleasure you get from cooking with meat and feeding others with it. 

If you’re a vegetarian, your stomach will be churning at the thought of it, and your mind fuming at my fickle inconsistency. 

Veggie failure

I know, because I was a vegetarian. An ardent one, who gave up eating meat and fish because of the profound cruelty of intensive farming methods and the devastating impact rearing enough animals to keep us in cheeseburgers has on the environment. 

Through that I came to the decision that eating animals was just, well, wrong (yes, yes…in an Armageddon situation of course there’s nothing wrong with trapping the squirrel or shooting the pigeon). 

Then, for health reasons, I was persuaded back to meat eating. I am hugely fussy about where my meat comes from – you won’t catch me in Nando’s - but I still eat it. 

Sometimes not for a whole week; then sometimes every day for a week.

So how do I justify it? How I can eat meat – and still sleep at night?

I stick to my principles 

It’s not easy, but I justify it to myself by remembering that I gave meat up for environmental and animal welfare reasons. 

I think eating only decent meat, and not every day, still broadly sticks to these principles. 

You might disagree - but at least I’m not lying to myself about the ethics of my decision. I’m not saying I am still a vegetarian, nor am I saying I have found the answer and that all vegetarians should follow my lead and eat meat! 

Yet the more I look into it, the more I find ‘moral vegetarians’ who eat meat and then try pretty desperately not only to justify it to themselves, but to the world as well. 

Type 1: The pick ‘n’ mix moral vegetarian 

First of all there are the types who say they are a vegetarian for moral reasons and that everyone should be. 

But then it turns out they do eat fish. And sometimes chicken. And then they say: “Also bacon sandwiches and Big Macs, obviously. But otherwise I’m a veggie.” 

Groan. 

Type 2: The ‘I’ll make a difference’ moral vegetarian

The other type are the former veggies who believe they can actually help animals by returning to meat eating. 

Say what? 

The theory is that going veggie is opting out of the grotesque industrial farming system. Returning to steaks and chops, bought from a local and sustainable source, is one in the eye for the bad food giants. 

“Your fork is your ballot, and when you vote to eat a steak or leg of lamb purchased from a small farmer you are showing the industrial system you are actively opting out,” writes Jenna Woginrich, a veggie-turned-meat-eating-farmer, in The Guardian

Sure, if you already eat meat. Jenna hadn’t been for some time. So she wasn’t taking a little chick sitting in its own urine out of its 1/17th of a sq metre of cage space. She was adding one more meat eater to the planet’s rapidly increasing toll. 

She says that being a vegetarian is opting out of the battle to provide a choice of healthy and sustainable produce, where a few food giants control almost the entire food system (the situation is much worse in the US than it is here, with five major companies dominating the whole market). 

Could she not buy vegetarian items from farmer’s markets and independent shops? 

Steak activism

Woginrich isn’t the only one calling eating sustainable meat “a new form of activism”. In the US, it seems to be something of a new trend in eating.

If they’re spreading the word about eating decent meat, great. But it sounds to me like these so-called ‘vegetarians’ are finding justification for eating meat in much the same way as I try to. The only difference is, I don’t lie to myself and others about how much good I am doing for animals. 

But do I tell myself other lies instead? Jeffrey Masson, a proselytizing vegan, says we are only able to eat meat because we pretend to ourselves that it isn’t what it really is, while we’re eating. If we thought about the full gamut of suffering that has brought that burger to our plate, we wouldn’t be able to stomach it. 

Quite. 

These different arguments make one thing clear – that improving our food system and our environment is not as simple as just giving up meat. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it. What’s yours? 

Also worth your attention: 

I was wrong about veganism, George Monbiot 

Meat – a benign extravagance, Simon Fairlie

Levi Roots' vegetable patties 

Annabel Karmel's vegetable burgers