I last ate meat on Thanksgiving Day, 1968. I'd been looking into vegetarianism, but at not quite 19, I wanted to practice adulting and make a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner in my tiny apartment.
Baking a turkey seemed intimidating so I opted for Rock Cornish game hens. Expecting to look proudly at my decorated table, I could instead see only six tiny corpses. I was done with meat. Eventually, fish, eggs and dairy products fell away, too.
Meat - hardly essential
How much being vegan contributes to my being healthy and medication-free at 70 is open to debate, but when it was announced in late April that U.S. meat-processing workers would have to report for duty despite the obvious danger of COVID-19, I was taken aback.
Slaughterhouses were deemed 'critical infrastructure'. Providing 'protein' to Americans was crucial, even if it meant that many more workers were likely to contract the disease and some would die. As one who hasn't eaten beef, pork, or poultry in over half a century, I realize that eating meat is conventional, but hardly essential.
Protein is in every plant food: beans, peanuts, whole grains, leafy greens - even the humble spud. This macronutrient is so easy to get that a person eating a standard Western diet typically consumes twice the recommended amount, which can lead to problems from kidney and liver disorders to increased cancer risk. Even vegans, eating no animal products, easily meet their protein needs by consuming adequate calories from whole plant foods.
A substantial body of science attests to the benefits of this way of eating, and this dates back to a groundbreaking study led by Dean Ornish, MD, published in 1990. It was first to show that a low-fat, plant-based diet, moderate exercise, stress management, and group support could not simply prevent but actually reverse coronary heart disease.
Later work by Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., MD, at the Cleveland Clinic produced the same results using diet alone. It is important to note that heart disease was then, and is now if you exclude COVID-19, the number one cause of death in the U.S. and the UK.
More recent studies have shown that a diet based on whole plant foods can control and in some cases reverse not only heart disease but also hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, among the underlying medical conditions that make COVID-19 more serious.
A diet that eliminates animal food and most 'junk food' has also been shown to be protective against conditions as diverse as Alzheimer's, erectile dysfunction, and certain autoimmune conditions. Knowing this, it is deeply troubling when an industry, and a government, require workers to risk their lives in the short term to provide a product that is risking consumer lives, and quality of life, in the long term.
The impact of raising animals for food
There has never been a better time to look at our food choices and their myriad ramifications. Raising animals for food on the scale it's done today is an environmental disaster, consuming one-third of the world's water, ravaging rainforests for grazing land and to grow feed crops for livestock, and turning the American plains not into amber waves of grain for people to eat, but to feed to doomed cows, pigs, and chickens.
We also know that the novel coronavirus is almost certainly zoonotic in origin. This is also true of MERS, SARS, swine flu, the ominous avian flu - even the 1918 flu epidemic was believed to have originated on a farm in Kansas. Modern agriculture, with animals confined indoors, ups the odds for infections, viral and bacterial.
While these arguments might be compelling, so is the lure of meat. It's good news, then, that mouthwatering offerings from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and the like are meat. Plant meat. They grill and sizzle and satisfy our taste for that umami flavor. While certainly not 'health foods', these do provide as much protein as a beef or turkey burger, and they're cholesterol-free.
The right thing
But even before turning from meat was easy or convenient, it was the right thing to do. Our predecessors from Pythagoras to da Vinci to Gandhi showed us that. It's been known for centuries that meat is not necessary and even schoolchildren can define 'vegetarian' and 'vegan'.
But as long as meat is seen as essential for the rest of us, we're still asking people to make a sacrifice, even as they tear into an Impossible Whopper. I believe we combat this most effectively with our ordinariness, e.g., "I'm vegan. My husband is 'vegan at home' and the kids are vegan and doing fine. I hold down a job, travel for work twice a month, and love country music."
This kind of real-life resume, with the specifics differing for each of us, says: "Meat is not essential - not for health, and not for living a normal, happy life."
Changing the message
The more we can dissipate the "essential" message, the closer we come to a vegan world, one in which today's threatened slaughterhouse workers have good jobs in the new plant meat industry, or elsewhere in healthy economies that are part of healthy societies.
It's a world in which people who find the thought of killing an animal unpleasant, find it unacceptable to expect someone else to do it for them. In this world, you don't have to be 'outdoorsy' to know that we depend on Mother Earth for everything and anger her at our peril.
While a largely vegan world might not be heaven on earth, it's our best shot at life on earth, and that is really enough.