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The Health and Morality of Meals

This post addresses the universal human need to eat something rather than nothing. I will just have to assume you know what I’m talking about and that you, too, have had this experience.

I’m focusing, in this post, on my personal choices (such as being vegan) and reflections on those choices. I want to voice how I think about food—which includes how nutritious and enjoyable it is from a human perspective, and how ethical it is from a planetary perspective.

I have accidentally eaten a bite of meat on one or two occasions. Other than that, I’ve been vegetarian my whole life, and vegan for the last twenty years. It has long been a part of who I am, and an expression of empathy for the plethora of valuable animal lives which are too often discarded without care.

I still believe there is merit in removing meat from your diet, either entirely or in degrees. But my view of being vegan has changed a lot in twenty years, as has the world—in awareness of plant-based diets and in availability/quality of vegan products, specifically.

Just in the last few years, products like the Beyond or Impossible plant-based burgers have closed an important gap in their relative indistinguishability from animal-based burgers. Plant-based alternatives, like non-dairy milks or JustEgg’s vegan egg are here to satisfy the same essential demands, so less meat will be consumed, which will be better for the animals, the planet, and us, right?

I certainly thought so as a tween vegan in 2002. There are now a few serious concerns I have which I want to address in this post: (1) The health of diets from a human perspective; (2) The ethics of diets from an animal/planet perspective; (3) The way forward for vegans.

Human diets

It’s 2022, and it’s possible for a vegan to go to a grocery store and leave with the following items: Almond milk, rice, beans, burgers made from pea protein, loaf of bread, coffee, cookies… The almond milk is enriched with things like B12 which are scarce in vegan diets. Rice and beans form a complete source of protein. Burgers satiate a certain craving and add variety to your sources of protein. Even snacks like Oreos are vegan. It’s rare to feel like a vegan diet is missing anything anymore—it seems like I can get the nutrition I need without eating animals, and there are plenty of ways to indulge in processed foods and snacks if I so desire.

Early on, I certainly thought I had a leg-up just by cutting meat and dairy out of my diet. Whatever I was eating was bound to be healthier and more ethical than those things—so I thought. But now I see that there are many complicating factors, and a label of plant-based does not certify a food as healthy. Although I still don’t want to eat meat, it would be hard to argue that a bit of fish in my diet would be worse for me than a vegan corndog or other highly processed foods (HPFs).

So part of my current inquiry is: How can I be healthy? And I think the answer is more complicated than “be vegan”. I think there is a healthy vegan diet, but only with supplementation of things like B12.

What I’ve grown to believe is even more important is the difference between whole foods and HPFs—a greater dietary concern than plant vs. animal. So it has become a personal goal of mine to consume more whole grains, vegetables, and unprocessed foods. I think every diet hinges on this difference.

This means that in 2022, my biggest dietary challenge is shortening the supply chain of the food I eat. I want more of it to be grown locally and have fewer stops along the way to my stomach. The longer the supply chain, speaking generally, the more negative externalities (such as pollution) build up, and the more nutrition is lost in transit. But am I stuck with buying things like grains, beans, and nuts at the store? To have a nutritionally complete vegan diet, it’s highly likely that I’ll need to rely on some larger food systems even if I have my own greenhouse.

Conclusion: It’s possible to have a healthy diet as a vegan. And across all diets, an increase in fresh, whole foods is likely to be beneficial. This means that processed vegan meat-alternatives can be worse for you than meat, and potentially worse for the environment than animal agriculture—but only in certain cases. So let’s turn to the next question and consider the relationship of our diets to the health and beauty of the planet and all of its inhabitants.

Planetary concerns

As a vegan, it seems that foods like rice and beans are an economical, healthy choice. From a personal, dietary perspective, I can stay in good shape without meat or dairy. But for as long as I can remember, being vegan was not just a diet for me. This is a moral choice—or intends to be. I believe that animal life is meaningful and valuable, and should receive our compassion and consideration. If you give me a Trolley Problem, I’ll favor human life, but animals are not disposable. My primary motivation for remaining vegan is the unbearableness of regarding non-human animals as objects. Humans are decidedly unique in our consciousness, but it is impossible to dismiss the rich inner experiences of dogs, cows, pigs, birds, octopuses, and many of our other fellow Earthlings.

Early in my life, I regarded this issue in a more stark dichotomy of choices: Harm animals or Don’t. So animal testing, for example, was unacceptable to me. Such a view also says it’s better to buy new non-leather shoes instead of second-hand leather shoes. The life-loving vegan in me still wants to stand by this, but it’s just not that simple. I think it’s possible, and probable, that the medical advances from testing on mice outweighs the harm that would come from the decision to only do testing on willing human participants (or not doing it at all). You can still draw relative distinctions—such as the difference between testing cosmetic products on animals and testing the latest treatment for cancer.

Part of being vegan is animal advocacy—it is no small thing that mice cannot advocate for themselves in human society. The preceding moral calculation came from a human perspective, and that’s the only place it can (currently) come from. Therefore it is relevant to consider what animals want and what they’d have to say about being either medical test subjects or your next meal; it is relevant to consider a tree as an end-in-itself; and it is relevant to take a Gaia-centric perspective of Earth as a harmonious living system. Moral philosophy must be omni-perspectival—including and transcending anthropocentrism.

Part of my veganism is being an advocate for Earth as a whole—to relate to our planet as I would a person (through love and regard for their wholeness as an individual) and thus to de-objectify the relationship. It’s because I believe that a society which views much of the world outside their own body as static, lifeless material will never fully coax the latent beauty of existence from possibility to actuality. The ontological question of “What is?” precedes the ethical question of “What ought to be?” If we believe that there is Man and Nature, and that one is ensouled and one is not, then there can only exist an “environmentalism” which objectifies anything non-human. And in that world, love is tragically limited, because love desires to be realized in relationships in which all parties are whole, individual, and ends-in-themselves.

Am I making good choices if I’m vegan, but also complicit in the slave labor which delivers household favorites like coffee and chocolate? What about the effect on the environment from my dietary staples of rice and beans compared with a serving of meat sourced locally? Again, to be a friend to mice, we must consider things like the shocking number rodents killed during the process of grain production. Am I really saving lives by eating rice if the production and supply chains involved in my consumption of it can create such heavy externalities both for animals and the whole planet?

If there is a least-harm principle contained in the motivation to be vegan, but consuming certain animal products reduces harm to animals/environment overall, then I would feel ethically obligated to follow the path of greater empathy, vegan or not.

The way forward

It seems convincing that local, whole (minimally processed) foods are the way to go—both from personal and planetary perspectives.

I imagine myself with a home that includes a large garden and a number of animals. I believe something like aqua/vermiponics is probably as good as it gets both ethically and dietarily. Such a system is a fairly complete microcosm of a larger environment, where a combination of hydroponic plants, fish, and worms supply each other with essential nutrients. And the combination of vegetables, fish, and worms is something humans can certainly survive and thrive on. It’s a hard sell, I know. What do you think will be easier: convincing vegans or omnivores to rely more on fish and worms?

Anyway, I truly believe the widespread adoption of aqua/vermiponics would be a huge ethical victory. And yes, this does entail the (possibly wrong) ethical calculation that killing worms and fish is less bad than killing (non-human) mammals, which is less bad than killing humans. Value is always hierarchical, and my goal is not to escape that, but to do the best I can within it.

Speaking personally (and candidly), I think it would be hard (gross?) to transition to eating some of the foods I’m pretty sure I should be eating from both dietary and ethical perspectives. Since I have never eaten meat, and cut out other animal products 20 years ago, I’m seriously unsure how my body would react to this new diet. I’m kind of repulsed (in this case physically more than ethically) by the thought of eating meat.

But you know what else is disgusting? Moral inconsistency. Can I stomach the hypocrisy??

Part of me would like to be guided by the easy-to-follow rules of being vegan. But the other part realizes that my underlying motivation for originally making this choice leads to the conclusion that vegan diets can be (but aren’t always) less ethical than diets which include some meat and/or dairy. The point is, it’s possible to be a healthy vegan who simultaneously is minimizing harm to life and environment. But it’s difficult, and currently out-of-reach for most city-dwellers of the world (which is over 70% of humans) who have to rely on long, dirty supply-chains.

My hope is that I can continue to eat food that is fresher and more local—maybe grown in my own garden. But that does leave some open questions for my long-term nutritional needs and the relationship of that question to broader ethical questions. I guess the dream is to have products like grains and nondairy milk which are produced in ethical, regenerative conditions—such that what is good for me and good for the planet is closely aligned.

Or maybe we will use gene-editing technology to make all foods nutritionally complete. We can likely grow meat in labs economically within the coming decade or two—it would be “real” meat, but not from an animal who must be regarded/loved as an individual. Such lab grown meat might also become commonplace enough that even small towns or individuals will produce their own. That would a step in the right direction for making supply chains shorter, cleaner, and more resilient. But further speculations like these will have to be left for another time. Until then, I will be looking for other ways to be a healthy human on a happy planet.

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