I know people who went vegetarian at the tender ages of 14, 15 or 16. And for those teenagers and others who decide to relinquish an entire food group for whatever their reasons may be, I have much admiration. It’s no easy feat. The degree of will power, determination and mental strength it takes to make any such drastic change is formidable. In comparison, my vegetarian lifestyle seems quite effortless because…well…I’ve always been vegetarian. Brought up in the Hindu tradition, like many Hindus, my family doesn’t eat meat. Thus, I’ve never eaten meat (except by accident a few times) and haven’t gone through the struggle many face in their transition to vegetarianism. So the answer to why I’m a vegetarian is relatively simple: because I’ve always been one. But, people ask me—especially former vegetarians—why do I remain vegetarian? That has taken some learning, some thinking.

In my early teens, I first began wondering what vegetarianism meant to me. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I wanted to try meat and if I liked it, eat it once in a while. How much harm could that do? But over the years, through discussions with family and friends and increasing exposure to the debate over animal rights, I’ve changed my view.

I’ve come to see that one of the most burning realities of modern society that’s changed the dynamics of meat and other food production is industrial farming. The evidence of animal cruelty and domination is abundant in factory farms raising livestock. Animals are crammed by the thousands into filthy, windowless sheds and confined to wire cages, gestation crates, barren dirt lots, and other cruel confinement systems. Healthy animals are injected with growth hormones and given high amounts of antibiotics to prevent potential infections caused by their strenuous situations. The negative impact of all the hormones and antibiotics on human health is inevitable. Also high in saturated fat and animal protein, meat consumption is linked to cancers, cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.

Nearly fifty percent of the world’s cultivated grain is fed to livestock for meat production while hunger and lack of access to nutritious food for millions of people are a constant. Yet meat consumption all over the world continues to increase. Many studies expose the repercussions of factory farming on animal and human health, the environment and smaller agricultural businesses. 101 Reasons Why I’m A Vegetarian contains many such studies, statistics and other details for interested readers.

Meat is produced on a large scale, consumed on a large scale and wasted, like all food, on a large scale. And that thought is plain disturbing. Because it’s cheaper to buy and isn’t hunted by the consumer, it tends to be taken for granted. Mass production and consumption that is the nature of industrial society has rendered livestock animals as invaluable food commodities. I find this repulsive.

But this doesn’t encompass all meat production.  Do I think that the entire human race needs to convert to vegetarianism to remedy these ills? I’m not really sure. Traditionally, regions with scarce vegetation had to rely on hunting their food for survival. But today, the question of whether we really need meat now for survival cannot be avoided. Yet I think meat can be produced and consumed ethically. People who raise their own livestock are more likely to be mindful about how their food is grown because they’re going to eat it themselves. They’re witnesses to the entire process, allowing better understanding of it. But in an age where growing one’s food isn’t commonplace, it’s necessary that the consumer be aware of the far-reaching impacts of factory farming, and make conscious efforts to know the source of his or her meat—just as anyone else should be aware of how and where any of their food is grown, meat or otherwise.

Meat eating in itself isn’t a choice that disturbs me. It’s the cycle of excessive production and excessive consumption that continues without heed that’s most threatening.

And where protein and other nutrients are concerned, a vegetarian diet doesn’t lack these. We don’t have to be dependent on tofu alone for protein. I don’t even like tofu. Our planet has a wonderfully wide variety of vegetation. There’s so much to explore and experiment with; so many delicious combinations and methods to prepare a meal. A balanced intake of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, lentils and dairy provides enough richness. But of course, the balance has to be maintained. Just as meat eaters must ensure their diet isn’t deficient of fibre, vitamins and minerals found in vegetarian sources.

I don’t think the religious reasons for vegetarianism need much reflection; as is the truth in all spiritual teachings, respect for life is a principle that’s fundamentally embedded in us anyway. And I can’t believe that eating meat with awareness and in moderation goes against that value. This mindfulness must be practiced in eating anything and that’s what shows respect for the life that becomes our food. Taking livestock animals for granted, manipulating them to suit our interests and indulging in their meat as if the animal had no other purpose besides being tasty food for humans and making a large meat industry even richer—that’s a different story.

So I’ve come to a simple conclusion for my personal case: I don’t eat meat because I don’t need to. I could, in the name of adventure, adapt a non-vegetarian diet, and I think I would even like meat. But what seemed to me a harmless urge to try new things is now a much broader matter.

There are many more issues I’m not thoroughly educated about, but what I do know has helped me give meaning to my vegetarian lifestyle. What I do know helps me to see that I choose to stay vegetarian because it makes sense to me. There’s no need to consume something my body doesn’t need. If I can stay healthy without meat, why increase the number of meat consumers in the world?

Watch Earthlings, a feature-length film about humanity’s use of animals as pets, food, clothing, entertainment and for scientific research. Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix, music by Moby:

image: Steve F (Creative Commons BY-SA)