Ethical Eating

Caitlin over at Healthy Tipping Point has a great post up about her definition of “ethical eating.” I enjoyed reading the post and its comments, because this topic has been one I have mulled over a great bit over the past 7 months. (Wow, has it really been 7 months since I went organic?!)

In order to eat ethically, one must have some sort of code of eating – some set of principles or ways of thinking about eating (such that to be unethical would be to break those rules). Defining my own personal “code of eating” has been a challenge, and not just due to the changes it has invoked in my lifestyle. That has been the easy part. The challenge has been in navigating the social labels, and in absorbing and responding to the reactions from the public, friends, and family to my choices.

Caitlin’s definition of ethical eating is this:

I believe that “ethical eating” means you strive to make educated decisions about your food choices and the impact such choices have on our community, animals, and our environment, and then you strive to reach the best conclusion for YOU.

Notice that nowhere in her code of ethical eating does it say, “eat this, but not that,” or, “you have to be a vegetarian,” or, “you have to be vegan.” I like her definition. Based on Caitlin’s definition, I am an ethical eater.

With that, each person’s set of principles for eating will be different – and the point is, that’s completely OK.

Another concept hit upon in Caitlin’s post is this notion that you have to be a “perfect” eater to make a difference. This is the part of the equation I have wrestled with, and this is where the labels come in. When people ask me how I eat, I respond that I am vegetarian. If it is somebody that is truly interested, I’ll go on to say I’m “vegan at home,” but that I do eat cheese 4-5 times a month when I eat out at restaurants. So, what am I? A 25-days-a-month vegan? An 83% vegan? I don’t like labels, personally, but they are helpful in explaining my choices to others with less knowledge on the subject.

I don’t eat meat, seafood, or eggs. I don’t drink cow’s milk. I infrequently eat dairy products (cheese, yogurt, or dairy used in baking). I choose organic foods whenever possible – and to make this possible, I go out of my way to do my grocery shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. This is my code of eating. These are my rules.

Knowing what I know about factory farming and how we come to get most of our cow’s milk, I’m equally inclined not to eat dairy as I am not to eat eggs or meat or seafood. When I do eat cheese, it’s not because I can’t live without it. (Don’t get me wrong – I love cheese, but I really don’t miss it). I eat it because it is easier to allow myself to eat cheese at restaurants – because picking through a menu to try to find vegan options and then get the servers to relay your message appropriately to the cook staff can be complicated. Is that a cop-out that allows me to break the vegan ethos and eat cheese? I don’t know. But I do feel “guilty” about it – that I eat cheese. That I’m not “vegan enough.”

Yogurt is another bone of contention with me. I stopped consuming dairy milk and yogurt because of my desire not to spend my hard earned money on an industry that does not operate in line with my sense of compassion toward animals. But, I’ve had a hard time reaching my daily vitamin D and calcium requirements without my daily cup of yogurt. I’ve tried many different brands of soy yogurt. I don’t like any of them (though I love soy milk). I have resorted to taking a calcium/D vitamin supplement. This goes against my preference of getting my nutrition from food when possible. But eating dairy yogurt would make me even less vegan.

Here’s the question: who said that 100% vegan is perfection? Why does perfection even enter the equation? Am I not helping a great number of animals by not eating them? Am I not helping our planet just the same?

Last year, I went on a little day trip with my family to a dairy farm in Indiana called Fair Oaks Farms. What I saw there did not disturb me. I did not feel like I was watching unhappy cows. Of course, I know there is a deeper truth, and that deeper truth is disturbing (like, the fates of all of the baby calves that are born that happen to be male). It’s not a perfect industry, and not all farms are as “happy” as Fair Oaks. But if I choose to eat yogurt or cheese, I am doing so having fully considered where my food comes from and what effects its processing and manufacturing have on the animals and the environment.

Does that make me an animal killer? No. Life is not black or white. There is a gray area between these extremes. We have to maintain some sense of perspective, especially on a topic as personal and broad in scope as what we put in our bodies. When I visit an animal shelter, I want to take every single abandoned puppy and kitten home. I want to help all of the critters in my back yard – the birds, the bees, the rabbits, even the baby minks. Can I save them all? Should I save them all? No.

I can and should do my best to find a balance between what I need in my life and what is best for them – my animal friends. I rescued 3 cats; that is enough. I could not have more than 3 cats in my house and care for them properly. When I feel the need to do more, I donate to animal welfare organizations and local no-kill shelters. I do my part, whenever I can, however I can.

It’s the same with food. I need to find the balance between what I need for my health and well-being and what’s best for the animals and the planet. And I need to be OK with the fact that there is no such thing as perfection. Eating is a lifelong practice. We rehearse our food choices 3 times per day or more, every day, in hopes of achieving improvement. I hope to improve to the point of balance – a sense of peace with my choices and their effects on the world around me.

I need to draw my lines in the sand, enact those principles as my code of eating, and allow myself the luxuries of reflection, revision, and flexibility.

What is “ethical eating” to you? Do you have to be vegetarian or vegan to be an ethical eater?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *