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Should You or Should You Not Become a Vegetarian?

Susan M. Mumm, MA

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A few decades ago, I thought the answer to that question was “Yes, everybody should become a vegetarian. Forty years after I first became a vegetarian, I have a much less black or white answer to that question. In order to explain how I have come to believe that vegetarianism is not the automatic right choice for everybody, I need to talk a little about my personal experiences with vegetarianism over the last forty years. I think the personal information I share in this article will help you decide whether becoming a vegetarian is the right choice for you, and help clear up some misconceptions about vegetarianism.

I became a vegetarian at the age of nineteen, way back in 1973. I was inspired to do so by the book by Frances Moore Lappe’ entitled Diet For a Small Planet. I became what was known as a “political vegetarian.” A lot of what Lappe discusses, in that ground breaking book about vegetarianism, is how much energy and resources can be saved by a vegetarian diet, and how the saved resources could then be used to alleviate world hunger.

As Ms. Lappe explained in her book, most cows and pigs raised in the United States are not grazed on prairie grasses, nor are most chickens scratching in the barnyard for insects. Cows, pigs and chickens are raised in livestock yards or cages and fed foods that are edible for human consumption: soybeans, wheat, rye, barley, corn, etc. When you feed foods such as these to livestock, a large percentage of that food is lost in the conversion process of the animals; that is for every pound of soy, corn, wheat, barley and rye that you feed livestock animals, you do NOT get back a pound of beef, pork or chicken or eggs. For beef, the conversion loss of grains / beans fed, to meat produced, is 16 to 1, for dairy cows it is 6 to 1, for pork it is 6 to 1, turkey 4 to 1, chicken meat 3 to 1, and eggs 3 to 1. A meat centered diet is therefore a very inefficient use of food resources, which is why countries that are poor i.e. Mexico or India, eat very little meat. In other words, you can feed way more people with the same amount of acres of land, water, fertilizers, and labor when the grains and legumes are eaten directly, than fed to animals and then eating the meat. [However, in the US, the dairy and beef industries have powerful political lobbies and procure a lot of government subsidies that do artificially decrease the cost of a meat centered verses a vegetarian diet.] Another “political” reason for a vegetarian diet is that livestock feedlots are a major source of water pollution. In addition, if I remember correctly, McDonalds encroaches on rain forest land to raise beef in South America.

So as a very idealistic young person with a “Save the World” orientation, I aspired to become a vegan; a vegetarian who ate no beef, chicken or eggs, pork, or dairy products, because I felt it was the moral thing to do so more food would be available to feed starving people in Third World countries. There were plenty of other young folks with similar aspirations. This interest in vegetarianism spawned vegetarian food co-ops in many cities in the United States in the 1970’s. Along with being vegetarian, the product line of most of the food co-ops were also “natural” foods.

I learned a lot about vegetarianism from my ten years of working at a food co-op in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of the first things I learned, was that there was more than one kind of vegetarian. There were the “political” vegetarians as I have described above. There were also health motivated vegetarians who believed a vegetarian diet was much healthier than a meat diet for a variety of reasons including lower cholesterol and fat intake, and eating lower on the food chain meant you consumed less of the pesticide residue found in meats. There were also vegetarians whose prime motivation for not eating meat was a belief that it was morally wrong for humans to unnecessarily kill animals for food, and they also had issues with how livestock animals are treated, both during their lifetime, and at the time of slaughter.

The food co-ops therefore attracted many different kinds of vegetarians. As the food co-ops grew, they also began attracting non-vegetarians who were interested in the natural foods product line (stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes were not yet in existence). Food co-ops are democratic organizations so there began to be power struggles about what should, and should not, be carried in the stores. Some members wanted the stores to remain vegetarian, and some thought the focus should just be natural foods, and that the co-ops should carry organic meat.

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