Last night I had the strangest dream, I never dreamed before. Strange because it was so serious. So reasoned. So not like other dreams where I panic because I didn’t study for the test or because I find my boyfriend romancing my best friend.
No, this dream was a discussion with vegan friends about why I eat meat. I think it’s because some of my most respected mentors promote a “plant-strong” diet – meaning little if any meat. While Blessing the Hands the Feed Us doesn’t take a “meat-strong” diet stance, I am sure in the sizzling debate about “to meat or not to meat” I’ll be called on to explain myself. So my dreams were helping me.
I’m a considered meat-eater. A mindful carnivore (title of a wonderful book). Most carnivores don’t feel called to explain themselves but I think we should. Vegans certainly have to. Here’s my mantra: Meat as a treat, not as a meal... and the rest of this post explains why.
Legions of vegans and vegetarians have come to a different conclusion: that eating meat dishonors the animal, degrades the land, leads to diseases of opulence (like corpulence), is cruel and inhuman, especially in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), weighs down those who want to rise spiritually, environmentally costly and unnecessary given we could in fact feed everyone on earth if we’d exclude animals from our diet.
Yes, yes, yes and yes. Yet I don’t think these points cover every point that could be made.
Here’s what I said to the vegans in my dream, now sorted for clarity into three categories: personal, cultural and environmental. Read in one full meal, or three courses. It’s long. A slow meal.
Integrity: I’ve come by my meat eating with integrity. In my community, we raised a few animals, killed them in the Fall and ate them in the winter. We also harvested several deer that feasted on our vegetable garden all summer. We had very little money. 6 days a week we ate beans and pasta and peanut butter. Tuna was a treat. But on Sunday we’d go to the neighbor’s freezer where we’d stored pieces of Sue (Piggy Sue, the pig), Dr. Bucke (after an author who’d inspired us all) and Stu (for the steer we helped a farmer butcher). We’d traipse home with a piece of meat and make Sunday dinner. As we ate, we’d thank Sue and the rest for their generosity and praise their meat. Later, living in the desert, almost daily we shot rabbits that multiplied there… well, like rabbits. We’d read an article, long gone now, about a conscious hunter who asked the prey if it was ready to sacrifice so his people might live. He swore that some animals, upon that prayer, would turn their heads, offering the perfect shot. We hunted that way. Only the apparent volunteers. So I’ve butchers hundreds of rabbits. I doubt anyone with love in his heart likes killing for eating. Or butchering. But it can be done with respect and great gratitude for another day of human life.
My body craves it: I dropped eating red meat after reading John Robbins’ book, Diet for a New America in the early 1990s. But a persistent health condition only cleared up when I started eating meat again. One influence was the book, Eat Right for your Type that claimed our blood types were indicators of our ancestors’ diets. I am “O.” “O”s thrive on meat. And have trouble with kidney beans, lentils, wheat, corn and barley. Me to a Tee. So red meat returned. To this day, if I haven’t had red meat for a while, I almost have goosebumps when I have the first juicy bite. I imagine other blood types may not have such a strong response. And plenty of vegan “O”s might argue. So be it. I just learned as well that even the Dalai Lama waffles between a diet that causes least harm (vegan) and a diet that suits Tibetan climate as well as his constitution. When his doc prescribed meat to address his jaundice, he went back to it. One website says he encourages us to kill the largest animal possible for our meat as it is only one life sacrificed. On another, the vegans go after him like sharks.
Health and Illness: On to diet related diseases and meat. In my dream I pointed out that commodity crops pump sugar and starch into our diets and junk food is loaded with oils and salts. Sugar, salt and fat are the big three of junk food. Think greasy French fries. Think ice cream cones. Not that there isn’t also evidence that eating a lot of meat contributes to heart disease, but as one cardiologist says, “I treat as many vegans as omnivores.” Okay, that’s not solid data, and we could do data dueling, but that’s not my point. My point is that diet related diseases are not exclusively or perhaps even mostly from eating meat. See above re His Holiness – his doctor prescribed a return to meat to treat jaundice.
Indigenous diets: Onto animal cruelty. Are indigenous, place-based cultures cruel and inhuman because they hunt and eat the animals of their region? The Plains Indians were Buffalo People until the sod-busters came, breaking up the native prairie in order to farm. Where I live, Salmon fed the coastal peoples. At I write this the biggest run of pink salmon in years is going on. Fisher-people are on the beaches on the East side of the island, reeling in meat. People of the tundra wove their lives around the reindeer. The Eskimos around whales. Even the Pima and Papago of the Southwest ate meat once a week. When I visited the Achuar peoples of the Ecuadorian rainforest I learned that they hunt monkeys. What does asserting that a plant-based diet is the right way to eat say about these people? Should they change? Who says? And why? Vegans reading this, enlighten me. I now wonder: given we are 7.2 billion humans (3 times the number at my birth), consuming far beyond the earth’s ecological limits, we need a new “ancestral” tradition, one that equalizes calories among the people, reduces our numbers in some way and promotes sustainable food production. Of course this won’t come through laws. It will come with new customs. Perhaps meat as a rare treat will be part of it?
Spirituality: Place-based peoples, given the cycles of the seasons, the lean years and fat years, the thousands of years of intelligence about what is good for the people, have all developed rules about what to eat and avoid. These norms are woven into their spirituality and the spiritual explanations might also have something to do with the food of their ancestors. Mystics of East and West claim that a light, meat-free diet is necessary to enter the higher realms of consciousness. Shamanic traditions, to my knowledge, are not so clear about this. But is this more of a spiritual debate than a meat one? This point is more post-dream reasoned, but fits.
Affluence: Anywhere affluence has increased, meat eating has increased. Anywhere people have shifted allegiance from tribe to the dizzying-land of fast food, meat eating has increased. It seems people have a taste for this dense food. And it seems that in the 21st century, where food feeds profits first, the people second, all social control over personal choice has hit the dustbin of history. We can’t make people eat one thing or another. I think that “meat as a treat, not as a meal” – if it were a shared value and perhaps even dare-I-say woven into laws – might make meat eating more sustainable. But we all know what happened to Mayor Bloomberg when he tried to limit New Yorker’s access to Big Gulps. A post-dream reflection: when I had the privilege of being in a 4-day meeting with the Dalai Lama, I asked him what he the saw as biggest problem on the planet. He didn’t say war. Or injustice. Or overshoot. He said, “the loss of spirituality.” Is there a relationship with secularization of society and meat eating?
Farming: I get my best local food from nearby biodynamic farmers. Of their giant spinach I say, “If it had teeth it could bite your hand off.” Here’s what they said: Farm animals have a necessary role in building soil fertility and in a sustainable farming operation. The fact that they need to be part of a holistic farming system is an indicator that some of us should be eating meat, but a lot less. A big piece left out of the argument for world wide veganism, is–how do we build soils without farm animals? Cover cropping our now depleted soils can take 10 years to build back up. Farms evolved side by side with animals, in peasant cultures, the compost pile was the sign of wealth. We’ve replaced the animal compost with chemical fertilizer, taken the animals off the farm, concentrated them, and their fertility has in many ways now become toxic waste product. It’s said that a cow eats one acre & fertilizes two.
Environmental degradation: We have arrived at the question of sustainability. Lord protect me as I say this… I wonder if the scale and methods of industrial farming, not what is farmed, is the main culprit of environmental degradation. Industrial farming expends vitality of land – and commodity crops (wheat, corn, soy) are the main output of these mega-farms. Yes, a lot of these crops go to feed the animals we eat. Worldwatch, citing the FAO, says “People consume a little less than half (48 percent) of the world’s grain directly—as steamed rice, bread, tortillas, or millet cakes, for instance. Roughly one third (35 percent) becomes livestock feed. And a growing share, 17 percent, is used to make ethanol and other fuels.” And a lot of direct consumption of corn goes to high fructose corn syrup, which goes into so many foods that make us fat.
We are all food for something: Lord preserve me I’m heading out to thinner ice… In the cycles of life we are all food. We must get recycled to keep life going. Given my druthers, I’d be buried in a shroud and go more quickly to the soil critter. Or rolled off the railing of a ship. After a week or so of keeping my body intact so my soul can say good-bye, I see no purpose in preservation of my flesh. Could our distaste for meat eating come in part from our distaste for death? I’m not suggesting that humans eat humans. Social controls on eating one’s own species are almost universal for good reason.
Survival: Speaking of death, do we all really think that 9 billion people predicted for 2050 will make it through the wormhole of the next four decades of climate change, resource constraints, energy sources declining, genocidal wars, famine and other limits to our collective survival. This topic is nigh on to unspeakable, but in the context of which diets assure survival of our bloated population, I’m not sure that a plant-based diet side-steps this issue.
A dying way of life? Okay, now that we are on death, aren’t their signs that our way of life – jacked up by fossil fuels – is not going to survive? What then? Will we all be farmers again? And hunters? And ranchers? Glad for any food we can get.
In short, dietary choices are made in the context of complex local and global systems that are rife with injustice, distorted by the stranglehold money has over politics, influenced by our ancestral lands and traditions. This doesn’t get any of us off the hook of making considered, ethical choices and I believe, overall, vegans and vegetarians have thought a lot more about food choices than omnivores.
Perhaps, after all this, my dream’s message is simply about making conscious rather than conditioned choices. Once conscious, you may tip towards a plant-strong diet, but you might also tip towards a relational diet where you eat meat grown sustainably and in your neck of the woods. You might decide that whatever you eat, you need to encase food in rituals of gratitude and respect because all life sacrifices so that all life may continue.
There were no “sides” in the dream. I think ultimately both I and the vegans were quite interested in how the conversation progressed.
To sum up my current choices:
- Meat as a treat, not as a meal
- Sustainably produced – or hunted
- Relational – raised by my friends and neighbors if at all possible.
And for the rest, anyone want some giant zucchini? I have more per day than any girl could eat in a week.
What’s your choice. And why?