on the modernity of vegetarianism

I am often asked whether I am a vegetarian, in large part because I usually resort to the vegetarian options whenever I have to eat out, due to my adherence to the dietary teachings of Islam

(given that a lot of those people have seen me eat fish, they should be asking me whether I am a pescetarian, but I am too lazy to explain the nuance, and the answer would still be no…). Although I am not a vegetarian, I do respect the choice of vegetarians (and vegans) to abstain from consuming the flesh of other animals (or any foods of animal origin in the case of vegans). I have reservations with regards to parents restricting their children’s diet to their own vegetarian (or even worse, vegan) one, but that is a topic for another entry…

Possible reasons for being vegetarian vary widely (and you could find numerous sites, books and documentaries for each of these in case it is of any interest to you):

  • for discipline, self-purification, asceticism, and detachment from material pleasures: by limiting one’s diet to the minimum required, without indulging in the expensive luxury of meat consumption. This has existed for as far back as we have documented history, including ancient India and Ancient Greece, and is practiced until today by various religious groups, including some sufis
  • out of concern for the animal, be it its physical pain, or its moral and natural right. Again, this has existed for millennia (referred to as ahimsa, or non-violence, towards animals):
  • for financial reasons at the individual level of one’s own expenses (called economic vegetarianism). Depending on what you want to eat, meat is not cheap, and you can certainly get your fill on vegetables by spending less. I have seen some studies suggesting that you would save on average about $4K annually be eliminating meat from your diet…
  • for health1 reasons, by highlighting the tremendous benefits of consuming vegetables and other non-animal foods (nuts, legumes, fruits…), which, when combined with an overall healthy lifestyle, can reduce heart disease, obesity, and other infections, while it can prolong one’s life by keeping the body lean, disease-free, with stronger bones, with better hormonal balance, more regular bowel movements, and well-functioning without creating an acidic environment in the body’s organs for instance;
  • out of civility:as the killing of other animal and the entire process of preparing their flesh for human consumption is considered too barbaric and primitive for civilized or advanced human beings
  • for religious or ideological reasons, as one’s adherence to a system of beliefs may prohibit them from consuming meat or at least certain types of it
  • for ecological sustainability reasons; as people realize the pollution caused by the meat industry, which is frankly quite considerable and devastating, they simply do not want to be part of the problem2:
    • Each year the livestock sector globally produces 586 million tons of milk, 124 million tons of poultry, 91 million tons of pork, 59 million tons of cattle and buffalo meat, and 11 million tons of meat from sheep and goats. That 285 million tons of meat altogether — or about 36 kg (80 lb.) per person, if it were all divided evenly. It’s not — Americans eat 122 kg (270 lb.) of meat a year on average, while Bangladeshis eat 1.8 kg (4 lb).
    • Of the 95 million tons of beef produced in the world in 2000, the vast majority came from cattle in Latin America, Europe and North America. All of sub-Saharan Africa — a region with nearly three times as many people as the entire U.S. — produced just 3 million tons of beef.
    • 1.3 billion tons of grain are consumed by farm animals each year — and nearly all of it is fed to livestock, mostly pork and poultry, in the developed world and in China and Latin America. All of the livestock in sub-Saharan Africa eat just 50 million tons of grain a year, otherwise subsisting on grasses and on crop residue.
    • The poor feed quality in impoverished regions like sub-Saharan Africa means that a cow there may consume as much as 10 times more feed — mostly grasses — to produce a kilogram of protein than a cow raised in richer regions. That lack of efficiency also means that cattle in countries like Ethiopia and Somalia account for as much as 1,000 kg of carbon for every kg of protein they produce — in the form of methane from manure as well as from the reduced carbon absorption that results when forests are converted to pastureland. That’s 10 times higher than the amount of carbon released per kg of protein in many parts of the U.S. and Europe, where livestock production is much more intensive.
    • About that: in North America or Europe, a cow consumes about 75 kg to 300 kg of dry matter — grass or grain — to produce a kg of protein. In sub-Saharan Africa, a cow might need 500 kg to 2,000 kg of dry matter to produce a kg of protein, because of the poor feed quality in arid countries and because of the high mortality rates in herds of often undernourished and sick animals.
    • The highest total of livestock-related greenhouse-gas emissions comes from the developing world, which accounts for 75% of the global emissions from cattle and other ruminants and 56% of the global emissions from poultry and pigs.
    • The most climate-friendly meats comes from pigs and poultry, which account for only 10% of total livestock greenhouse-gas emissions while contributing more than three times as much meat globally as cattle. Pork and poultry are also more efficient for feed, requiring up to five times less feed to produce a kg of protein than a cow, a sheep or a goat.
  • for humanitarian reasons, including world economy, and this is a much more contemporary idea. Going vegetarian will reduce famine and feed many more people in the world. Consider the following3:
    • If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million
    • if those grains were exported, it would boost the U.S. trade balance by $80 billion a year
    • Each year an estimated 41 million tons of plant protein is fed to U.S. livestock to produce an estimated 7 million tons of animal protein for human consumption. About 26 million tons of the livestock feed comes from grains and 15 million tons from forage crops. For every kilogram of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed nearly 6 kg of plant protein.
    • With only grass-fed livestock, individual Americans would still get more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of meat and dairy protein
    • Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein
    • Grain-fed beef production takes 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food. Raising broiler chickens takes 3,500 liters of water to make a kilogram of meat. In comparison, soybean production uses 2,000 liters for kilogram of food produced; rice, 1,912; wheat, 900; and potatoes, 500 liters. “Water shortages already are severe in the Western and Southern United States and the situation is quickly becoming worse because of a rapidly growing U.S. population that requires more water for all of its needs, especially agriculture,”
    • More than half the U.S. grain and nearly 40 percent of world grain is being fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans […] Although grain production is increasing in total, the per capita supply has been decreasing for more than a decade. Clearly, there is reason for concern in the future.

Vegetarianism seems to have existed throughout human history, and it is certainly not a new fad – although the motives can certainly be adapted for a lifestyle, post-modernism, fashion, new age, or whatever else the “in” thing happens to be that day. In any case, vegetarianism has been on the rise lately, with some stats4 from 2006 to 2008 were indicating that about 3.2% (vs. 2.3% in 2000) of Americans were vegetarians (0.5, included in there, are vegans) and another 5.2% were interested in vegetarianism in general. In Europe, 6% were vegetarians in 2006, and another 10% do not eat red meat. In 2013 India, about 500M of its 1.2 Billion population are vegetarians, mostly for class and religious reasons. In 2003, Canada had about 4% vegetarians.

Ovid Publius Ovidius Naso

In any case, I simply wanted to share here the poetry of Publius Ovidus Naso, or Ovid, the Roman poet (43 B.C. to 17/18 A.D.) on the topic of vegetarianism.

Ovid was a follower of Pythagoras and his religious and mystical teachings, and in many of his writings, what we read is actually pure Pythogorean thoughts, expressed in Ovid’s verses of poetry. The reason I share this specific passage is mainly to show how the sensitivity of the human mind has not really evolved much (a theme of interest to me in general). Also, I heard a couple of people on the bus talking about vegetarianism as though it is something very recent and modern, which gave me the idea for this entry…


In addition to its relevance to this topic, Dryden, the English translator of Ovid, considers this passage to be the finest of Ovid’s entire 15-book-long poem, entitled Metamorphoses:

He [Pythagoras], too, was the first to forbid animals to be served up at the table, and he was first to open his lips, indeed full of wisdom yet all unheeded, in the following words: “Forbear, O mortals ! to pollute your bodies with such abominable food. There are the farina cea (fruges), there are the fruits which bear down the branches with their weight, and there are the grapes swelling on the vines; there are the sweet herbs; there are those that may be softened by the flame and become tender. Nor is the milky juice denied you; nor honey, redolent of the flower of thyme. The lavish Earth heaps up her riches and her gentle foods, and offers you dainties without blood and without slaughter. The lower animals satisfy their ravenous hunger with flesh. And yet not all of them; for the horse, the sheep, the cows and oxen subsist on grass; while those whose disposition is cruel and fierce, the tigers of Armenia and the raging lions, and the wolves and panthers, revel in their bloody diet.

“Alas ! what a monstrous crime it is (scelus) that entrails should be entombed in entrails; that one ravening body should grow fat on others which it crams into it; that one living creature should live by the death of another living creature ! Amid so great an abundance which the Earth—that best of mothers—produces, does, indeed, nothing delight you but to gnaw with savage teeth the sad produce of the wounds you inflict, and to imitate the habits of the Cyclops ? Can you not appease the hunger of a voracious and ill-regulated stomach unless you first destroy another being ? Yet that age of old, to which we have given the name of golden, was blest in the produce of the trees and in the herbs which the earth brings forth, and the human mouth was not polluted with blood.

“Then the birds moved their wings secure in the air, and the hare, without fear, wandered in the open fields. Then the fish did not fall a victim to the hook and its own credulity. Every place was void of treachery; there was no dread of injury—all things were full of peace. In later ages some one—a mischievous innovator (non Wills auctor), whoever he was—set at naught and scorned this pure and simple food, and engulfed in his greedy paunch meats made from a carcase. It was he that opened the road to wickedness. I can believe that the steel, since stained with blood, was first dipped in the gore of savage wild beasts; and that was lawful enough. We hold that the bodies of animals that seek our destruction are put to death without any breach of the sacred laws of morality. But although they might be put to death they were not to be eaten as well. From this time the abomination advanced rapidly. The swine is believed to have been the first victim destined to slaughter, because it grubbed up the seeds with its broad snout, and so cut short the hopes of the year. For gnawing and injuring the vine the goat was led to slaughter at the altars of the avenging Bacchus. Its own fault was the ruin of each of these victims.

“But how have you deserved to die, you sheep, you harmless breed brought into existence for the service of men—who carry nectar in your full udders—who give your wool as soft coverings for us—who assist us more by your life than your death? Why have the oxen deserved this—beings without guile and without deceit—innocent, mild, born for the endurance of labour? Ungrateful, indeed, is man, and [Page 64] unworthy of the bounteous gifts of the harvest who, after unyoking him from the plough, can slaughter the tiller of his fields—who can strike with the axe that neck worn bare with labour, through which he had so often turned up the hard ground, and which had afforded so many a harvest.

“And it is not enough that such wickedness is committed by men. They have involved the gods themselves in this abomination, and they believe that a Deity in the heavens can rejoice in the slaughter of the laborious and useful ox. The spotless victim, excelling in the beauty of its form (for its very beauty is the cause of its destruction), decked out with garlands and with gold is placed before their altars, and, ignorant of the purport of the proceedings, it hears the prayers of the priest. It sees the fruits which it cultivated placed on its head between its horns, and, struck down, with its life-blood it dyes the sacrificial knife, which it had perhaps already seen in the clear water. Immediately they inspect the nerves and fibres torn from the yet living being, and scrutinise, forsooth, the will of deity in them.

“‘From whence such hunger in man after unnatural and unlawful foods? Do you dare, 0 mortal race, to continue to feed on flesh? Cease, I beseech you, and give heed to my admonitions. And when you present to your palaces the limbs of slaughtered oxen, know and feel that you are feeding on the tillers of the ground.'”—Metam. XV. 73-142.

…pretty tasteful for something written some 2000 years ago, no?


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