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When it comes to sustainable consumption, how responsible can you realistically be?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

When it comes to sustainable consumption, how responsible can you realistically be?

By Tylah Silva, Emerson College


If you are what you eat, then what does that make you?

Meat eaters have asked themselves this question many a time when face to face with their vegan friends. Aside from the many myths of meat eating, including that meat rots in your colon, there are dozens of carnivore-related guilt-inducers that have meat eaters chewing nervously on their nails.

For one, the meat industry is detestable, just like most commodity industries. Many vegetarians and vegans cite stories of animal cruelty and environmental negligence as reasons why they shy away from meat. The amount of harmful GMOs make most people recoil as well; that’s not to say that all GMOs are bad, however. When I say harmful GMOs, I’m talking mad cow disease, harmful. The dairy industry also has similar ethical no-no’s, many of which have vegans looking down on vegetarians, such as the containment and treatment of dairy animals.

A cow with mad cow disease (Image via Swiftly)

The more subjective reason for going vegan is the idea that killing animals, in general, is bad. One of the biggest arguments that supports this is the comparison between people and animals. “Eat people, not animals,” is a rallying cry of the PETA crowd. And even cringier is the Holocaust metaphor that compares Jewish people to cattle, which violates the basic human courtesy of not comparing a marginalized people to animals.

As a matter of fact, it’s probably a good idea to never compare people to animals at all, mostly because human beings have a greater emotional and intelligence range than animals. While humans have profound love and aspirations for the future, chickens, on the other hand, think “Sex! Food! Peck! Food!” In other words, they run on instinct, much like insects, which are killed by pesticides so that we can eat veggies.

Which brings us to the biggest revelation about the “You are what you eat” argument: No matter what you put in your mouth, it’s probably problematic in one way or another. A huge problem is the use of pesticides that cause death, and not just to their intended targets. Human children and pregnant women are at the most risk of becoming sick due to pesticides. In fact, the World Health Organization recently recognized the herbicide RoundUp as a carcinogen that is linked to cancer.

But all these stats ignore the biggest victims of pesticides—migrant workers. This is a complex topic that is actually very simple in a moral sense; there are dozens of reasons that force children into underage labor, but none of them justify the practice. This video by Human Rights Watch, called “Fingers to the Bone: Child Farmworkers in the United States,” frames the topic next to perfectly. Many children not only miss out on educational opportunities, but are also exposed to harmful chemicals that cause illness and medical problems.

Child farming is a problem across the world with many foods that don’t include meat or dairy, including bananas, cocoa and coffee. And it’s not just children who suffer in the food industry. Many foods that we enjoy, like the ones mentioned above, come from outside the U.S. This exchange of products between countries depends on the neoliberal idea of free trade, which removes tariffs and makes business easier for private industries. Sounds cool, right?

Wrong. While free trade benefits businesses, it does unbelievable harm to people. Free trade does not guarantee fair wages or acceptable working conditions. It’s the reason why children can farm the beans in your coffee, and no one bats an eye.

So, when vegans say they live a cruelty-free lifestyle, one has to wonder if they research the commodity chain of every food product they eat. Even Starbucks, who likes to advertise that they are an ethically sound company, only guarantees that less than ten percent of their coffee is fair trade—an answer to free trade that focuses on the rights of the worker. Therefore, a lot of vegans, while they might maintain, like Starbucks, that they are “green,” may in reality may have a little more blood on their hands than they would expect.

So how can anybody eat ethically?

How Even Vegans Get Ethical Eating Wrong
A sign at a CA Starbucks (Image via CNW)

Well, the answer, of course, like most things in life, is complicated. The first step is to realize that when it comes to food, everyone has partaken in unethical eating. Unless there is a person who does not eat meat or dairy, and has researched every product that they’ve eaten, from the workers’ incomes to its environmental impact, then no one is perfect. And no one may ever be perfect. This is good and bad. The good part is that no one has to eat a spoonful of guilt for every meal, even if the food is not ethically sourced. Because the food industry is so complicated, room for mistakes can be made.

However, to become better eaters, people need to become more conscious of what they eat, even if the process to conscious eating is taken with tiny steps. Start with your daily cup of coffee. Research whether or not the company you buy your cup of joe from is free trade or fair trade. If the source is ambiguous of this fact, they’re probably not ethically sourcing their product.

From there, back legislation that makes the food industry fairer and healthier for people, animals and the environment. While making individual adjustments to eating behaviors is important to cultural change, the best way to make the largest impact is through structural change. You can buy fair-trade chocolate, but there are still big companies, like Hershey’s, who will use child labor unless they’re forced through legislation to stop.

The amount of meat and dairy you consume can still be limited despite aversions to becoming vegan. And even though there have been plenty of shots taken at vegans in this article, that’s not to say vegetarianism and veganism are not good lifestyle choices. In the end, it’s a personal choice, not free of fault, just like eating meat. Meat eaters take a lot of grief for their food choice, but it’s important that everyone sees their own flaws.

Ethical eating is tricky for everyone, and not everyone can do it well. It costs a lot of money to buy fair trade, organic foods and a lot of prep and research time. Ethical eating is a project that takes a lot of work for an activity you need to do multiple times a day. So, the journey to better eating is paved with conscious decisions, legislative change and the acknowledgment that no one is going to be a perfect eater.

So, drink the damn coffee. If you have the extra dollar for the fair-trade brand, even better. If you don’t, don’t torture yourself for it.

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