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Mind the Label

In recent years, there has been a strong and welcome movement towards improved labeling of foods. It is critical that we know what we are buying, certainly.  As anyone who has kept up with the food industry is aware, words on labels don’t always match our expectations. We should never simply assume that by reading a label we fully understand a food or a person.

For example, “veganism” is increasingly jelly-rolled, glisteningly inseparably, with mystic beliefs regarding the universe, spirituality, and karma. But for me, it makes for a very unappetizing confection.

Directory 666.
You’ll probably find me in here somewhere.

To me, the doctrine of karma—the idea that a person’s deeds can bring a better or worse condition in a future incarnation–allows its adherents to rationalize the state of the downtrodden, while simultaneously assuaging any pangs of guilt. Karmic justification can be applied to any situation: the Duplessis Orphans, laboratory test animals, layer hens, veal calves, Manhattan’s homeless, and victims of hurricane Katrina. It is non-partisan and heartless. Something that reinforces the status-quo by claiming that it is divinely-ordained is something that we should avoid.

But if indeed all beings are involved in karma’s machinations, and if indeed we follow things to their logical conclusions, then we must accept that the cow’s past-life karma led it to our dinner plate. We are a device employed by the gods to deliver karma on a platter.

We are fighting the universe when we try to intervene.

To me, karma is working at cross-purposes with my very rational choice. This is specifically why I do not like it being tossed in a salad with my diet. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.

I am not a plant-eater because I am working out karma. I am not a non-carnivore because I want to avoid racking up bad karma. My diet is not part of, nor in pursuit of, a chimerical enlightenment experience. It is, however, anchored in one core motivation: a desire to be free from cruelty.

It really is quite simple: A decent person would not inflict pain upon someone. Putting this in a mystical wrapper does nothing to increase its strength. In fact, it weakens it by dilution. Keeping it stripped down and “secular” works perfectly well.

Regarding pain and suffering, and the extreme cruelty associated with 99% of animal-based food products, I encourage you to read “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. See the short film “Meet Your Meat.” Go visit a livestock feedlot or slaughtering house. Investigate egg factories or dairy farms—or the production of foie gras.

Then read “The China Study,” and realize that not only is all of this suffering completely unnecessary, it is also harmful to your own self.

However, if you require a universal philosophical statement, consider Principle 14 from the Humanist Manifesto:

The world community must engage in cooperative planning concerning the use of rapidly depleting resourcesThe cultivation and conservation of nature is a moral value…We must free our world from needless pollution and waste…Exploitation of natural resources, uncurbed by social conscience, must end.

Again, this affects every living thing, not just humans. By adopting a plant-based diet, I am helping to improve living conditions for all—or at the very least, I am not contributing to the problems. Not sure? Consider these two simple facts concerning water:

  • Conservative estimates by the EPA indicate that chicken, hog, and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states (for reference, the circumference of the Earth is 25,000 miles). (Foer, “Eating Animals,” page 79)
  • 12,000 gallons of water are necessary to yield 1 pound of beef. By contrast, only 200 gallons of water are necessary to yield 1 pound of wheat. Likewise, it takes from 2 to 20 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat. (Composite numbers derived from “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials,” published by the United Nations, 2010; Lappe & Lappe, “Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet.;” Cornell University, )


These facts don’t even address problems associated with land, air, or other resource utilization. For me, no spiritual impetus is required. There is enough impetus presented in this readily-available information.

Regarding the subjection of animals to cruelty, I will confess that I do not believe that animals are our equals—and I can only evaluate this with such anthropocentric metrics as scientific and literary accomplishments, food production, and warfare. This inequality makes it all the more important that our relationship with them be based in fairness at the least, preferably with a measure of compassion. To exploit those less capable than us is to create a very ugly humanity.

Further, I firmly believe that animals feel pain, enjoy a wide variety of thoughts, express emotions, and communicate and interact with their own kind as well as we do with ours. Believing this only reinforces my desire to allow them to experience their lives as freely as I experience mine.

We can witness daily our species’ cruelty towards itself. This cruelty is not diminished in the least if the subject is non-human. In fact, due to a non-human’s relative defenselessness, the cruelty is greatly magnified. The pain and cruelty are in the here-and-now, as are the irresponsible resource use and the detrimental effects that animal products have on my own well-being. These are reasons enough for me to abstain.

What is the name for my particular plant-eating habit? I am not concerned that it carries a name. Labels and strict ideologies diminish, rather than enhance, my life. I see no reason to adopt a label for that towards which I’ve been moving for 15 years. I had no grand epiphany; I simply have continued to develop my humanity. I have chosen to disassociate myself, as much as is possible, from brutality. I am not fully absolved, certainly, but I am increasingly more fair and merciful.

Truly, are there any better reasons—or labels—than fairness and mercy?

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