The end of my carnal affair

C.S. Lewis described his conversion to Christianity this way: “I was dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God.” Those are words that describe my reluctant conversion towards a vegetarian diet.

The simple truth is I love being a carnivore. BBQ ribs, chicken masala, grilled Alberta steak, souvlaki skewers, pulled pork sandwich, cedar-plank salmon, tri-tip, filet mignon, ossobuco, bratwurst, roasted lamb, the ordinary hamburger … you know I could go on and on. I love meat. Come on, I live in Alberta, home of beef ranches and beef lovers. And yet, as much as I hate to say it, I think my long, very carnal affair with meat may be drawing to a close.

So why consider such culinary madness? It’s not a health issue, definitely not a moral “animal cruelty” issue (as one restaurant says, there’s plenty of room for all God’s creatures, right beside the mashed potatoes). It’s the carnivore’s dilemma – how can the world sustain the consumption of meat at North American rates? Simply stated, you can’t.

Tomorrow, October 16, is is World Food Day (here’s a new acronym for the file, FAO-UN, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). I’m not a big fan of all these special days but this is an issue that needs not only our focused consideration in the west but our changed dietary practices.

Here’s the nub of the issue – increased standards of living and wealth means many people worldwide are wanting the lifestyles we, in the West, take for granted as normal. More and more people want to eat more and more meat and dairy products. This shift is driving up the demand for and the price of animal feed. All these grains, often the staple of most of the world’s diet for bread, pasta and other grain based food, are now gobbled up in meat production.

Track out the net effects of this and a number of compelling arguments for an increasingly vegetarian diet emerge. There’s the basic humanity argument – should we not be using grain to feed fellow human beings instead of raising protein? This is a no brainer – how can we fatten a cow to grace a dinner plate yet watch a fellow human wither from famine?

There’s the justice argument – how can I deny to other humans the lifestyle I expect to enjoy as a basic norm (accessible meat at pretty much any meal). If giving every family in the world a pig to eat breaks the limits of sustainability for earth’s resources, how dare I expect to enjoy meat every day?

There’s the energy argument – a 6 oz. steak requires 16 times more energy than a caloric equivalent (360 calories) of vegetables and rice. In the same comparison, growth of beef generates 24 more times of greenhouse gasses than the vegetables and rice (from NY Times – see here). A vegetarian diet simply has a much smaller carbon hoofprint.

There are a number of writers on the matter but I really like the approach of Mark Bittman (author of How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and Food Matters – my good, food-conscious friends Pam and John say this is the one to check out). I like Mark Bittman’s flexitarian approach (check out his website for articles on the matter and loads of recipes). He has some basic principles that make this conversion do-able. Here are a few:

  • Eat one pound of meat a week (two pounds at most). (Besides, going “cold turkey” is still carnivorous so this is a more attainable goal)
  • Rely on meat for flavour more than bulk.
  • Think of eggs and dairy as treats. (oh, but I can’t do without the cream in my coffee)
  • Go crazy on plants. (Ok, but teach me how to cook these in an interesting way instead of boiling the life out of them into a mushy, tasteless, greyish-green blob)
  • Eat legumes every day.
  • Vegan until six (p.m. that is. Again, this seems pretty do-able).

So I’m thinking flexitarian. I’m shooting to start out with a meatless meal a week. I could spiritualize it and call it a fast from meat … and maybe that wouldn’t be a bad way to frame it because I think this is a grace issue, a way to map out the meaning of the gospel for daily life. 2 Corinthians 8:8,9 says “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

I know that grace, so why can’t I become a little meat-poor so someone who shares God’s image can become life-rich. And because I know that grace there’s a little less kicking and screaming going on.

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  1. #1 by slapper7 on October 16, 2011 - 10:28 am

    I love your take on this Phil! I went vegan for 12 days this spring (for a fast, not a life long deicision) and after the first few days it really wasn’t that bad. By the end of it, I was feeling great!
    Still… after the fast was over I went back to my old ways. Growing up on a beef farm likely has something to do with that. I have thought about doing it again, and possibly making a bigger/longer commitment this time.
    I apprecaite your reasons for doing this – it’s convicting, eh? And I love the ‘flexitarian’ idea – along with making a gradual switch and not just going “cold turkey”. ;)

    • #2 by phil on October 16, 2011 - 1:04 pm

      Have any good vegan recipes to share?

  2. #3 by reubenkrabbe on October 16, 2011 - 11:21 am

    Phil, great to see this come up. Its an issue not often discussed, even though it carries significant weight as a human, and a Christian.
    I’m also a big fan of starting off flexitarian, as changing a diet, habits, and traditions (Christmas turkey?!) can be a big jump. A favorite flexitarian method, a step further than the 6pm cut off, is a weekday vegetarian diet, which can turn a meat meal into a mini celebration for weekends.
    A great way to start off, and bring friends along side is making vegetarian dishes that are so good, the lack of meat isn’t even called into question. Two recent favorites: http://chefmichaelsmith.com/Recipe/sweet-potato-chickpea-curry/ http://chefmichaelsmith.com/Recipe/southwestern-black-bean-corn-chili/

    Personally I’m not a strict vegetarian by any means, and don’t anticipate I’ll become one. Meat is such intrinsic part of the western diet, enforcing a dietary preference at shared meals can be very anti-social and counter-productive to sharing the ideas behind a flexitarian’s action.

    Good on you, and good luck

    • #4 by phil on October 16, 2011 - 1:03 pm

      Great to hear from you Reuben – and thanks for the links to Michael Smith – any good recipes are welcome. If I can make good vegetarian food, the better my chances to make this a lasting change.

    • #5 by phil on October 16, 2011 - 1:04 pm

      And completely agree how the vegetarian option can become anti-social. That’s another reason I love the flexitarian approach.

  3. #6 by slapper7 on October 16, 2011 - 3:33 pm

    I’ve met some FB friends that are vegan – they say a good resource is “The Vegan Table”, by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. While I haven’t bought the book yet, they did share some recipes out of it. The Falafel apparantly is the BEST they’ve ever made. I was avoiding wheat as well, at the time, so I didn’t make that one (bread crumbs) and forgot about it, until I read your blog. It’s time to look it up again and give it a try.
    Here’s another website to check out for good vegan recipes. http://www.gardein.com/recipes.php
    ENJOY!!

  4. #7 by slapper7 on October 16, 2011 - 3:39 pm

    Sorry – that last one wasn’t what I thought it was – haha. That’s a meatless, soy based, product you can buy. :) They sent me a few different websites. I’ll have to go back and look again.

  5. #8 by JZ on October 18, 2011 - 11:32 am

    Phil – Mary and I started the same a couple of weeks ago. Feeling a little weird but seems like a very good thing.

    • #9 by phil on October 18, 2011 - 12:43 pm

      Jerry – thanks for stopping by. How goes it? Hope the vegetarian diet goes well.

  6. #10 by Grace Kreulen on November 3, 2011 - 10:10 am

    My understanding is that a large issue right now in terms of food security for the world is putting an end to using grains to produce bio-fuels–justice at the policy level. Going without meat–justice at the personal level.

  7. #11 by Mike VandeHaar on November 13, 2011 - 4:59 pm

    Hi Phil, Nice article to get people thinking. As you might know, I am in Animal Science. I do research on how to better feed and care for dairy cows. I teach nutrition for all species. I talk to students about stewardship. The reason I even got into this discipline is because I wanted to help figure out how we could feed 10 billion people in a sustainable way — I went to Dordt College when they were the only place talking about agricultural stewardship (now we do at MSU!).

    On the one hand, I completely agree with you–North Americans eat more animal protein than needed and it is not the most efficient way to eat nor is it good stewardship. Animal products are, for the most part, luxury foods. On the other hand, there are some things you should consider:
    1. If we use efficiency/sustainability as our mantra for living, there are a whole lot of things we should do away with, including coffee, wine, beer, and most fruit and veggies unless grown locally. We should all be eating mostly grains and legume seeds. And then we should also ban Nascar (be fine with me), professional and most college sports, Hollywood, rock concerts (even U2), and skiing. Curling might still be okay. :-) And we should ban large houses, driving to work, and gas-powered lawn mowers. Certainly flying is out–it is one the worst things we do.
    2. The problem with the NY Times article is they are not making a fair nutritional comparison–they even admit this but still chose to do it (which to me clearly shows the writer’s bias). The meat is not a balanced meal, and they do not include other nonanimal foods that might be pretty bad here too. Moreover, they overlook the fact that animals can, and often are, fed things people do not want to eat or use land on which we could not otherwise grow food. Still the meat will be less sustainable–no argument from me there.
    3. You lump milk and eggs in with meat. Milk synthesis is a much more efficient process than growing muscle. If you consider that dairy cows eat things people do not want (cottonseeds, corn distillers grains, brewers grains, citrus pulp, corn gluten feed—all byproducts of using crops for humans), and that they can use the fiber portion of crops grown for humans, they are actually pretty efficient. We can get almost as much nutrition from an acre of land if we grow crops to feed high-producing dairy cows and eat dairy products as if we grow corn and soybeans and eat the grains directly. Corn and soy are a high standard here, as most plant foods are not as efficient. (Watermelon, strawberries, and grapes, for examples, are not nearly as efficient.) Be happy to share references for this if you want.

    So I don’t entirely disagree with you. Many people should eat less animal foods. I agree with Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, mostly plants, and not too much” (although I disagree with him on several other points in his book In Defense of Food), but I don’t think we should hold vegetarianism as a more enlightened lifestyle than meat in moderation. I have no problem with the flexitarian thing. But, before you advocate the “vegan before 6 pm” ideal and feel guilty about an egg for breakfast or cheese for lunch, you better cut out the morning coffee and the 5:00 beer (which, by the way, are two of my favorite things in life–I would rather cut out the egg and the cheese).

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