Vegetarian to Vermin?

Like any diet or lifestyle with a name, vegetarianism is a choice that sparks debate, passion, and challenge. Some people choose vegetarianism for environmental reasons, some political, and some in pursuit of animal rights. Some people laugh at the idea as they chomp down on their beloved burgers. But at the end of the day, it is a personal choice, and its not a very popular one.

Being vegetarian is something that came to me rather naturally. Up until my teens, I hardly ate meat at all, and the little that I did eat was pretty much limited to my dad’s famous chicken fingers and bacon with my Sunday Scottish breakfast.

In my second year of university, I gave up meat completely (with the exception of local fish), with very little challenge. My studies in community development, the environment, food, and agriculture revealed some of the major issues in our food system with drastic implications on the political and environmental spheres. Between my natural indifference to meat and my newly forming socio-political ideals, the transition to becoming vegetarian was simple, easy, and natural.

By the time I entered my fourth and final year of school, my knowledge, and consequently my ideals, about the food system shifted. I did my thesis research with a fantastic organization called the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI), which is dedicated to shifting Northern food towards local, sustainable, and just food systems.

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The cows at NFTI.

NFTI showed me that through holistic animal management, we can actually promote a much healthier food system than giving up animal consumption all together. Animals like pigs, goats, sheep, chickens–even caribou are fantastic resources for creating healthy soil, natural regrowth, and even have the potential to restore water to drought areas. Allan Savoury explains this process in his Ted Talk “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change.”

It’s a pretty hefty claim, that many like to dispute, but I’ve seen with my own eyes how proper management of livestock can promote both the health of the environment, and the health of ourselves.

So this justifies giving up vegetarianism, right? Well, not for me. It creates a precedent for accepting that vegetarianism isn’t the only way to eat responsibly. In fact, many vegetarians have just as much of an impact on the environment as our fellow omnivores do. The chemicals used in the process of growing vegetables, the intensive monocultures, and incredible shipping distances of the average vegetable is just as problematic as the meat industry. So unless you’re eating local, organic produce, you’ve got some improvements to make before you get on the case of meat-eaters.

This doesn’t mean that the steak you pick up from the supermarket, or your rotisserie chicken from Costco is suddenly environmentally friendly. Rather, it means that localized, small-scale, holistic farms have the ability to produce a variety of sustainable foods that range from vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs, and yes, meat.

What my journey from unconsciously-almost vegetarian child, to political-environmental-vegetarian university student, to what I like to call “flexitarian” in the present reveals, is that we need to constantly reflect on the foods we eat, the industries we support, and the changes that need to be made for a more sustainable and just food system.

Each time I’ve found all the answers and felt justified in my food choices, I’ve discovered there are even more answers that reveal more paths to responsible consumption. There is no single diet or lifestyle choice that benefits the environment and our bodies more than every other choice. There are certainly better and worse food choices, but no single way of eating that’s best.

For now, I’m sticking with being a flexitarian. When I’m on my own, I cook almost exclusively vegetarian. I try to stick with local products whenever possible, opting for local markets over the supermarket. When I’m out with friends or co-workers, meat is often the only option. Even when other options are available (typically a bowl of instant ramyeon), it’s difficult to fully participate in the culture in Korea without eating meat. Not to mention the fact that even the side dishes that seem vegetarian often contain meat or fish products, like fish oil, beef broth, or anchovies. Even kimchi!

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Luckily, Korea has a very strong localized food system. Most of the chicken and pork is produced locally. If you hit up the traditional market, you can buy a chicken from the person who raised and butchered it. I’ve written about this balance between food choices and experiencing culture in more detail here.

I don’t doubt that in another year’s time, my food consumption practices will look different again. As the food industry continues to change, and we learn more about sustainable consumption practices, I will be on the lookout for ways to improve my impact on the environment, socio-political food systems, my health, and of course my sheer enjoyment for my favourite thing in the world, food!

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