How I became a vegetarian overnight?

An (ex)-non-vegetarian’s plea for vegetarianism.

The realization

It all happened one evening, during the height of the Coronavirus pandemic in Europe. By then, I had really started missing the nice yet economical lunches in the Mensa (i.e., cafeteria) at IST. Because as a student, my meals other than that mostly comprised of sandwiches, salads, and other ready to prepare foods. Hence, I decided that in these home-office days, I should cook a proper meal from scratch.

As a born-bred non-vegetarian, I was particularly yearning for some freshly prepared, tender, and delicious meat. I imagined the different kinds of marinades I would make and the different ways I would prepare, and I was rather excited. After all, I come from the Northern part of India, which is renowned for its world-famous dishes such as Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, and more. In fact, my (former) liking for meat was not just restricted to chicken, but other meats as well, like fish, pork, etc. And, in my travels abroad, I had essentially tasted it all, with the octopus that I had in Japan being one of the weirdest.

Anyways, going back to the cooking (lest this article has the opposite effect on you), I had purchased a large portion of raw chicken from the nearby store, Billa, which looked like this. The particular choice for the chicken, having both skin and bones, was obtained after performing ample calculations to optimize for the price-quality tradeoff across the wide array of options. Plus, chicken skin tasted good, I said to myself. So that evening, after having finished work, I started with the preparation of what I thought would be a Michelin level chicken dish :P

While I was washing the raw pieces of meat, it occurred to me that I can further improve the intended recipe in the following two ways. First, I can remove the skin, which has a significant fat content and thus make the dish more healthy. Second, I should break the whole leg pieces into thighs and drumsticks, so that spices from the marinade can infuse better and enhance the taste.

Equipped with a normal kitchen knife, I began the process of what would dramatically turn out to be a fortunate realization. This whole undertaking was, in a single word, gross. I made the cuts, divided the whole pieces with some effort, then pulled off the skin and finally washed away some of the blood that had come out of it. It actually took me a few minutes of convincing myself that I shouldn’t let the chicken get wasted (which had already been killed and purchased), before I started cleaning it under water. Despite that, I still could not come to terms with the horrid act I had just committed. I didn’t feel my hands being any different from a murderer and I felt extremely terrible.

It fell upon me that, we as a community, have essentially outsourced the pain to others.

In particular, we have hired people to do this awful job, who had no choice but to take up such occupations of slaughtering and butchering, to feed their family. Today, we find in our supermarkets, meat which is the furthest in its form, in comparison to how it was originally obtained, e.g., through products such as sausages, fillets, nuggets, etc. In this way, we have removed ourselves, as much as possible, from the actual act of slaughtering animals, and have cunningly swept the truth under the rug.

Even though this revelation had struck me, my natural defence mechanisms still kicked in, like it would for anybody else. Again for a moment, I argued with myself, that instead of throwing these pieces of chicken in the bin, which had been procured at an immense environmental cost, I should start from a clean slate the next day. But, I certainly knew this was nothing but a plain denial of reality. I could not ignore the fact that nobody but people like me were the ones who had sponsored this hunt. I realised it was enough of hiding from my side. I could feel the outsourced pain first-hand now. I could feel the suffering of those poor animals murdered mercilessly to satisfy our whims and desires.

How can we call ourselves civilized or claim to possess higher mental faculties, when we still endorse this shameless act at such a massive scale?

This was the symbolic moment. I recognized that it was the time to say, “No”. I, there and then, swore never to consume meat. Thus, I became a vegetarian overnight.

This was my story which I thought I should share. Personally, for me, there was no other reason that I needed to stop eating meat, besides how pained and unethical I felt on realizing its underlying workings. As I was winding up the kitchen, after eventually tossing the meat into the bin, I could not even bear to keep the other utensils near the ones which I had just used for this atrocious process. Ironically, at that moment, I finally understood the grief of my vegetarian friends in college, who would not eat in the plates of people that contained meat.

So, TLDR: We have outsourced the pain to others, but the pain and cries although hidden are still there.

The idea of Vegetarianism

Time and again in our history, many civilizations and cultures have realised the significance of abstaining from meat and have advocated others to follow a similar path. In India, for example, the roots of vegetarianism can be dated back to the ancient Vedic period (1500 - 500 BCE), strongly influenced by Hinduism, and then further promoted by other Indian religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.

There is also early history in the West albeit slightly later, with the Greek Pythagorean school (from the philosopher Pythagoras who is probably more famous for his mathematical theorem) popularizing the idea of a vegetarian diet.

But as is the case with many other things, over the course of generations, words tend to lose their meaning as we forget the underlying rationale behind the passed down wisdom and philosophy. Only from about the 19th century, this idea has seen a wider resurgence in the Western world, with the coining of the word ‘Vegetarian’ in the 1840s.

Many important figures in our recent history, have similarly encouraged the adoption of Vegetarianism. Mahatma Gandhi summarizes his readings of multiple authors on this subject, during his trip to England as,

“Ethically they had arrived at the conclusion,
that man’s supremacy over the lower animals meant not that the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two as between man and man.”

Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian author has said,

“A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.”.

Likewise, there is the following quote from Albert Einstein,

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”.

I don’t want to bore you with more quotes, but the whole point is that as human beings we should be more empathetic towards our fellow animals. Next, let us see what are the additional benefits brought about by a vegetarian diet

The added benefits to Vegetarianism

  • Health aspects: A vegetarian diet has a higher fibre content, which can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases [1]. On the other hand, red meat and processed meat are known to increase the risk of cancer. This evidence is strong enough that the World Health Organization (WHO) classified these meats as Group 1 carcinogen (i.e., known to cause cancer) [2,3]. Plus, a vegetarian meal is simply more fresh and colourful, making it aesthetically pleasing.

  • Environment friendly: Many of us do not realise how eating meat is a terribly inefficient way to meet our calorific needs. Instead of directly having a plant-based diet, we first spend a vast amount of resources raising livestock, and then we kill and eat those 70 Billion animals (which is ~ 9x our population). The livestock sector is one of the biggest factors causing Global Warming, and contributes to about 14.5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions, as noted in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization report [4]. This share of emissions is basically the same as that due to the fuel burnt by all the transport vehicles in the world [5]. Therefore, we can clearly see how the choice of our diet forms a vital aspect in our fight against climate change and global warming.

  • Preventing pandemics: If you think deeply for a moment, the roots of the current Coronavirus pandemic, essentially lie in the world’s meat-eating habits [6,7]. It is widely acknowledged that the Covid spread from the live animal market in Wuhan, China. And even after, several local outbreaks across the US and Europe [8], have started from slaughterhouses (places which if had glass walls, we would shun meat in an instant). Besides Covid-19, most past pandemics such as H1N1 swine flu, SARS-CoV, bird flu, Nipah virus, etc. have all originated from factory farms or poultry farms and animal markets [9, 10, 11]. Thus, given the current circumstances, it is high time we started contemplating about our food choices.

What might be holding us back then?

As a former non-vegetarian, I know pretty well the different reasons which people give to defend themselves. Let’s take a look at them:

  • Natural tendency: People say that eating meat comes naturally to us, and that’s how our ancestors lived. Well, if you abide by that argument, then you should realise that our ancestors also walked on foot instead of cars, wore leaves or fur instead of clothes, and used pigeons for distant communication instead of the Internet. Should we also switch to the otherwise?

  • What about plants? Yes, I know plants are living beings and to some extent, they too can sense pain. However, note that plants have naturally evolved to bear fruits, in order to attract other animals who after eating act as an agent in the dispersal of seeds.

  • Essential for nutrition: This is one of the oft-quoted reasons, that meat is an excellent source of proteins (which is factually correct), but is inaccurately extended to the claim/myth that a vegetarian diet can never provide proper nutrition. In particular, you will hear this from athletes and sportspersons as well as parents concerned about ensuring an adequate nutrition for their young kids. Well, the reality is that you can get the required protein content from pulses, soya beans, peas, nuts, milk, etc. Note, many of the leading sports stars today, like Virat Kohli, Lewis Hamilton, Venus Williams, Novak Djokovic, are vegetarian [12, 13, 14] or even vegan, which I will get to in a moment.

    Say in the worst case, it is proving hard for you to get similar levels of nutrition, I would like to then pose a question: if it is socially acceptable to take vitamin supplements and protein shakes (e.g., for those working on their muscles) then why not here for a morally upright cause?

  • Taste: I do feel you here, having been a hard-core non-vegetarian, in the past. Yes, there is some slight adjustment period after you switch, when you are seeking the alternatives. But to be honest, today in our supermarkets many plant-based alternatives such as pea-based minced meat, vegetarian burgers and many more, are easily available that can help make the transition smooth. Plus, now at almost every restaurant and food chain, healthy and delicious vegetarian salads, sandwiches, and main-course options are easily available.

    Besides, there is also an increasing push for lab-grown meat, and seeing the progress science has made in other areas, I am confident that in the coming years this will become commonplace [15, 16]. In fact, as more people, researchers, and funding agencies pay due attention to this area, the sooner it will be. So, I believe that taste is not a big problem. Or maybe the taste of blood would be lacking for you? ;)

    More seriously and importantly, I feel that it is rather a matter of principle and whether you value it more than satisfying your tastebuds.

  • What about the others: You might say billions of other people also have a meat-based diet, and how much can a single person change on his/her own. Well, this kind of argument, which is also given for other major problems like global warming, corruption, etc., just shifts the responsibility and does not solve the underlying issue. Nevertheless, to answer this argument, you should realize that after switching if your friends or family enquire you about your decision when eating together, you can express your concern and spread the awareness. Thus, by simply bringing this factor into their attention, it is possible to cause a ripple effect.

  • Our hypocrisy: Besides, it’s not that as humans we do not love animals, rather we do treat dogs, cats, and other pets just like our family members. Then, what’s this hypocrisy with other animals whom we denigrate as meat? How can we selectively choose some animals that are forced to live in harsh, closely-packed, and unsanitary conditions? In fact, we best understand this pain when it comes to us, and we all duly express our outrage at the thoughts of cannibalism.

    However, in all the cases we tear apart an animal and eat them, and at its core are no different. But, one is called meat and the other murder. In no way, I am arguing for the other side that we should have it all, instead, I merely want to point our gross indifference and neglect towards the pain of animals that we consume as meat. If our dispassionate behaviour towards them does not change, we should probably change our definition of the word, ‘humane’ which means “having or showing compassion or benevolence”, since it is quite at odds with our current non-vegetarian eating habits.

Why don’t we turn Vegan then?

It’s completely true that even if one turns vegetarian, we are still somewhat exploiting the animals for consumption in the form of milk, dairy products, honey, etc. Yes, being vegan is my the ultimate plan and I hope it will be for you too. But, should that prevent us from taking a step along this path of realization? Being a vegetarian will already contribute significantly to this end.

If you can become a vegan, then that’s the best thing ever. Though, if it seems too drastic as a dietary change in one go, either due to unavailability of vegan alternatives in your neighbourhood or their prices, at least you can be a vegetarian at this very moment! And over time, we should seek to eliminate the rest of the things from our diet that do not align with our beliefs and values and make our ecological footprint minimal.

A plea

In the end, you can of course shrug aside this article and laugh at me saying, “this guy has never seen raw meat being prepared before in life”. But, that is not true and in fact, at my home in India, we often cooked chicken and fish. Although, again we would outsource our pain and get it all processed from the meat shop. Or, you can say maybe if I had used a specialized meat knife or employed a better technique or purchased boneless chicken fillets, I would have reduced my ordeal. Yes, that is possible. But, please note that these are all ways of blindfolding ourselves to varying degrees so that we can keep the truth under the veil.

Like me, many of you have had an upbringing where it was perfectly fine to consume meat. The fact is that we have all been conditioned by our society, where meat has not only become accepted but is often regarded as a symbol of wealth. But I believe as a mature human being, it is time that we seriously asked ourselves:

“How can I be satisfied with my dinner if it comes at the expense of slaying innocent beings? Would I get malnourished if I did not have meat? And, ultimately, is eating meat morally and ethically correct?”

And, if these questions still do not prompt as much of a change, I invite you to a challenge where you do not outsource the pain as I talked before, where you do not attempt to put the veils, and thus prepare a meat dish from scratch! (Of course, I am excluding hunting here. But if you feel you have the guts for that, you are most welcome to include that too).

I know this article might have been provocative on some occasions, for which I sincerely apologize. I understand this is just one facet of life. Abstaining from meat does not make one superior, nor eating meat makes another inferior, and our respect for people should not hinge on this. The objective of my article is rather to make a humble plea to the reader. Because I am sure, that deep down there is a moral sense that lies within everybody, and that each and every one of us feel the pain of being killed and gorged upon.

So I ask you, I beg of you, to give this topic of consuming meat, a serious and an honest reconsideration.

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