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If you are reading this article, you may be considering a transition to a vegan diet. There are many health benefits to a diet high in plants and low in animal products, which I’m sure any faithful vegan would be happy to tell you about. :)
But as more and more information comes out about the dire state of industrialized farming in the USA and abroad, the more educated consumers are feeling the pressure to stand up for their beliefs and become vegan in support of an animals’ right to a healthy and happy life, free of cruelty.
While veganism is undoubtedly the most effective way to ensure that your diet is cruelty-free, it can also be culturally and nutritionally restrictive. Depending on where you live, it can be difficult to find a wide variety of vegan products or businesses that accommodate a vegan lifestyle. Meanwhile, much of the developed world stills turns up their nose at veganism, continuing to eat their meat, cheese, and eggs while poor, well-meaning vegans champion their cause in solitude.
Veganism can be a rewarding lifestyle, but also isolating, and modern interpretations of veganism are often centered around guilt/shame rhetoric that can make non-vegans feel judged or threatened.
In my years looking for a way to mesh my love of food and my love of animals, I have come to a different conclusion, one I call Ethical Eating. It essentially boils down to this:
- I don’t consume any animal products from sources with cruel, questionable, or unclear animal welfare practices.
- I buy almost all of my meat and dairy from small, local farmers and producers.
- The majority of my diet still consists of plants and plant-based products.
It isn’t easy, but I’ve found it to be the clearest “win-win” of the dietary options out there.
Curious? Read on!
What does Ethical Eating look like, day to day?
As I mentioned before, most of my meals are plant-based. Occasionally I’ll treat myself to a fancy vegan treat, but mostly I stick to a routine of beans, vegan protein, fruits, and veggies.
When it comes to animal products, I do most of my shopping at my local farmers market. I’m lucky to live in a city that is close to a huge farming/ranching community, so I can ask vendors directly about the way their animals are treated, what they are fed, and how they are slaughtered. Over time, I’ve built relationships with these producers, and trust that, even though they are raising animals for their meat, milk, and eggs, they care deeply about their wellbeing, and respect the sanctity of the relationship between humans and livestock. The quality of these animals’ care is evident in their appearance and flavor, too: bright red meat from cows that had plenty of room to exercise, chickens that are smaller, but full of texture and flavor, eggs with dark ,orange yolks and firm whites, and bright, yellow cheese made with milk from grass-fed cows who have access to their calves and are not forced to produce milk year-round. In today’s agricultural climate, so few farmers and ranchers do things the “right” way, so it feels good to use my dollar to support those who do.
When I don’t have the opportunity to shop at the market, I occasionally purchase products from Whole Foods. Not all of their items meet my personal standards for animal welfare, but they have a very thorough labeling system that allows me to make informed purchasing decisions that align with my values.
Additionally, I spend a lot of time researching various food producers to find out more about their process and values. I stick pretty loyally to a few brands, because I trust them and believe that their animals are well-cared for, but I am always looking for new options.
What are the pros and cons?
I’ll start with the cons, since there are plenty:
- It’s often more expensive than veganism. High-quality, ethical animal products are more costly to produce, and thus often cost more money. The farmer’s market is often the only place I can find these items at a reasonable price.
- Not every place has access to these products. Depending on where you live, there may not be a decent farmer’s market in your area, much less a grocery store that maintains info about animal welfare. In this case, trying to live and eat like this could be prohibitively expensive and complicated, which defeats the purpose.
- Lots of research is required. There are some decent resources out there for people who want to support ethical farmers and producers, but generally I have to research these things on my own. Which means:
- I still have a hard time eating out. Most restaurants have no idea where their food comes from, so rather than take my chances, I typically cook my non-veg meals at home.
Now for the pros!
I wouldn’t have written this article if I didn’t think there were benefits to this kind of lifestyle! Here they are, in my opinion:
- I feel more connected to the agriculture in my region of the country. I am 100% a city girl, but getting a chance to meet farmers and ranchers in my area has given me a new perspective on my community, and allowed me to become more empathetic to the people who choose to farm or raise animals for a living. Also, the research I do in my spare time has given me a wealth of information I never learned in school: how to butcher a rabbit, the gestation cycle of a sheep, how a cow’s diet affects its milk, what it means to “cull” something... the list goes on.
- I feel like I am contributing to a solution to factory farming. CAFOs have tainted farming’s reputation, and rightfully so, but it’s easy to forget that humans have been farming and keeping animals for millennia. Before our society’s obsession with meat and dairy got so out of hand, humans saw these items as a rare, nutritious treat that sustained them through times of the year when produce was scarce. Nowadays, I feel a little closer to that lifestyle than I used to. My idea of a special-occasion meal is a beautiful roasted chicken or a frittata made with fresh eggs, veggies, and cheese. Now that I understand the work that goes into putting this food on the table, it means more to me, and tastes better than ever. I feel proud to spend my money supporting farmers that make the unpopular, expensive choice to treat their animals well, rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach.
- I get a chance to educate friends and family about animal welfare, without isolating them. I love to cook and share food with the people I love, so nothing makes me happier than when I get to share my values through a delicious medium. Nothing sells you on ethical food like a taste of prosciutto from acorn-fed, free range pigs from White Oak, or a taste of a magical cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy, where cows feed and frolic on fresh grass year-round. Rather than shaming my loved ones for enjoying foods I find unethical, I find I have a lot more success (and a lot more fun) selling them on the concept that food can—and should—taste better, feel better, and be better.
So what is right for you?
If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re absolutely right. I take my food choices very seriously, but not all ethics-minded people share my particular priorities. Some would rather take the simpler route and go 100% vegan. Others might be content to reduce their meat consumption, or limit it to certain types of animals or products that they feel more comfortable eating. I’m not in any position to judge which lifestyle is more helpful or “correct.” But if you are considering making a dietary change that will make you feel better about your global impact, consider that Ethical Eating not only condemns inhumane treatment of animals, but supports the brave farmers and producers who are committed to a better way of doing things. After all, this planet belongs to all of us, and if we want to create long-lasting change, we will need all the friends and allies we can get.