It’s something I get asked often enough. I’ve been travelling for nearly eight months now and it’s a daily question: if not from other people but for myself. Even in the USA, finding vegetarian food was not the easiest thing. Finding vegan food was harder again, and, yes, I quite often ate vegetarian instead of vegan simply in order to have some variety and to be able to participate in at least some of the culture. And after eleven years of being vegetarian, and ten years of being essentially vegan, I wanted to re-examine the reasons for my choice in the first place. Certainly now that I’ve arrived in Cuba I have a feeling that vegetarianism is going to become harder and harder as I travel down into Central and South America. I’ve only been here one night and already I’ve had three occasions where the words “Soy vegetariano” have been greeted with the same mix of incredulous surprise and pity. I’ve not had any scary experiences so far on my eight month travels, but then until yesterday in the Bahamas I’d been living with a vegetarian and a vegan. Looking ahead to Mexico I watched a YouTube video online that showed the making of a typical flour tortilla. The standard ingredients are flour, water and pork fat. And even if I was to ask for just some healthy steamed vegetables wrapped in a flour tortilla, apparently the done thing to do is to smear some more pork fat onto the tortilla to provide that all-important basting.

      It’s obvious that I will need to know very clearly why and how I am vegetarian if I am to have any hope of making clear food choices in Latin America that don’t stress me out on a daily basis. I had a great chance to re-examine my commitment to being vegetarian when a friend in New York City lent me the new book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer. Safran Foer is a youngish Jewish novelist, living in Brooklyn with his wife and young son. He says he began researching the book as a way to explore his own on-off dabbling with vegetarianism and to discover what would be the best way to raise his new baby. Safran Foer begins the book as a meat-eater, and a fairly committed one at that, listing many good reasons why everyday human connections contribute to us sharing a culture of meat eating. After all, what would Christmas be without a roast? Or an English breakfast be without sausages and bacon? Safran Foer’s initial concerns play into what is certainly a trendy new lifestyle choice in his home of Brooklyn, that of buying and eating organic meat, from animals that have been brought up well and slaughtered humanely. One outlet for such products is the Meat Hook butchery, part of the Brooklyn Kitchen store at the edge of hip Williamsburg. I was immediately excited by the Brooklyn Kitchen: gourmet food products, everything a cook could ever need, homebrew starter kits, intriguing tools and food you would find nowhere else, an array of stoves and cooking equipment upstairs for educational courses held for the local community…. and a beautiful tattooed Jewish baker. At the back of the store is the Meat Hook butchers. I soon realised that everyone who worked there, including the butchers, knew about and loved food. After spending a couple of evenings sharing excellent locally-baked bread dipped in organic oils that were beyond words, and drinking good bourbon and Brooklyn Beer with the store workers, I was in a position to interview the head butcher, Tom, about his work. Not only did he tell me all about his ethical approach to meat but he took me on an eerie and somewhat disturbing tour of the chilly meat locker. Tom genuinely loves food and cares about animals. He told me he had been a vegetarian for years out of humane concern for animals before discovering organic meat. The passion and sensitivity with which Tom describes animal husbandry is beyond reproach. He told me how he and his colleagues travel up to the local (for New York) farm and choose the animals personally. At the butchers, they are pioneering a new approach, using every bit of the animal, as if to honour its sacrifice. Every piece of meat that is not sold in good time gets turned into stock, stew or paté. And they are making an effort to re-educate their customers: “no, you can’t have chicken breast. Why not? Because a chicken only has one breast and we’ve sold that already because we only had one chicken. Can I interest you in another part of this fine animal?”.

      The organic meat sector is something that Jonathan Safran Foer investigates thoroughly, from his point of view of hoping to find meat that he and his family can eat in good conscience. In doing so he manages to explode certain myths about the farming industry in general. One is – to put straight any doubts for people who are unsure how ethical their supermarket meat is – that unless you deliberately seek out an alternative, you can be all but certain that your food was factory farmed, and therefore exceedingly un-ethical. That is, operations like the Meat Hook and its suppliers are an exception. A big exception. And you are not going to accidentally purchase or eat organic, compassionately-farmed meat. You will know when you do, because you will have sought it out, and it will taste better, be better for you and cost more. All farming used to be like this. Before 1923 there were precisely zero factory farmed birds. The transition from ‘sustainable’ and more compassionate family farm to mass-production factory started in America. Unfortunately the story of organic, ethical meat today is a short one. While factory farming in the 1920s comprised 1% of production, it now comprises over 99%. Exceptions like the suppliers of the Meat Hook do exist, but are extremely few and far between, and are under constant pressure. One of the strengths of Safran Foer’s book, and why it is not merely a collection of facts, is that as a novelist he writes in narratives – narratives about his family, about himself and his hopes for his child, and narratives about the people he encounters and interviews as part of his research. He gives the example of Niman Ranch, an American organic meat outfit that he decides has some of the best pig husbandry possible, although he finds their treatment of cattle to be still less than ideal (the cattle are fed unnaturally on corn rather than grass in their last few months, to accommodate skewed consumer tastes). Unfortunately by the time it came to publish the book Safran Foer hears that founder Bill Niman had been driven out of his namesake company because his own board wanted to do things more profitably and less ethically than he wanted them to.

      With market pressures like these, “ethical meat” is something very close to a mirage; existing but not quite. And even humanely-raised meat does not remove concerns about the method of slaughter (better but still a violent death), the whole issue of animal rights (e.g. the right not to be kept in a pen your whole life in order to be used in someone’s meal), and environmental concerns such as land/water use, waste products and transportation impacts. But if there are still problems with organic farming, they are nothing compared to the problems created by the far far larger mainstream animal-eating industry. Safran Foer’s research covers areas that are less well known as vegetarian issues, for example the fact that animal exploitation is almost wholly responsible for flu pandemics: we all know that overuse of antibiotics leads to increased resilience by viruses, creating new more virulent strains. Well, in the USA 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but a whopping 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock. And that’s for non-therapeutic use. Where the humans are of course only taking antibiotics for therapeutic use, the animals are fed them as a matter of routine. This is because animal exploitation is a nasty and disgusting dirty business. In the US, definitions of Free Range can include a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch – and the door is closed all but occasionally. American chickens are fed antibiotics just to stop them sickening from their environment.

      The same goes for all farm animals, and disease, filth and waste are a major issue. Individual pig farms can each generate more raw waste than the populations of some US cities. Just think of it. As Safran Foer writes: “farmed animals in the US generate 130 times as much waste as the human population – roughly 87 000 pound of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. And yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals… (whereas of course there is for humans)… and almost no federal guidelines regulating what happens to it”.

      In one year, Smithfield – the USA’s largest hog producer – was “penalized for a mind-blowing seven thousand violations of the Clean Water Act – that’s about twenty violations a day”. “In just one incident, Smithfield spilled more than twenty million gallons of lagoon waste into the New River in North Carolina. The spill remains the largest environmental disaster of its kind and is twice as big as the iconic Exxon Valdez spill”. Yet the easy solution for these companies, due to insufficient regulation, is to pay the fines and just keep on polluting.

      And if what the animals are doing to us and to the environment wasn’t bad enough, that’s nothing compared to what we’re doing to them. Safran Foer reports that piglets that don’t grow fast enough are “thumped” – a common and normal practice – that involves picking the baby pigs up by their hind legs and bashing their heads against the concrete floor until dead, a dozen in one session. 180 million chickens in the US are improperly slaughtered each year, and that’s by the industry’s own (ultra conservative) reckoning. It’s common on a normal day for farm workers to be found stomping on chickens to watch them “pop”, hitting baby turkeys with poles, beating lame pigs with metal pipes, scalding chickens alive, and knowingly dismembering fully-conscious cattle. The traumatised workers themselves endure what Human Rights Watch calls “systematic human rights violations”. And American farmers are four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

      And rather than the world moving towards eating less but better quality meat raised in a humane way, like from the Meat Hook at the Brooklyn Kitchen, the world is moving far faster to expand factory farming, with all its disastrous environmental and inhumane consequences: more than 10 billion land animals are now killed each year in the USA, and on average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime. Each. Globally, over 6 billion chickens are raised in factory farms in the EU, 9 billion in America, and more than 7 billion in China. A worldwide total of 50 billion chickens. Every year.

      If we’re concerned about world development then meat-eating should be a top-level priority: by 2050 the world’s livestock will consume as much food as four billion people do. Farmed animals already account for nearly 50 percent of China’s water consumption, and demand for meat is still rapidly growing.

      In short, meat-eating is laying waste to the world. And the carnage of factory farming is not contained to the land either. Consider shrimp: 26 pounds of other sea animals are killed and tossed back into the ocean for every 1 pound of shrimp caught. Or tuna: among the other 145 species regularly killed are sharks, rays, marlins, dolphins, even humpback whales. Safran Foer has a striking image: “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the other animals [needlessly] killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.”

      I won’t be eating meat or fish anytime soon. In fact, reading Safran Foer’s book has cemented my commitment to vegetarianism for perhaps another ten years. And as much as I would like to believe that organic meat could be an ethical alternative for some people, there are still too many issues for me that even humanely-raised dead animals cannot solve. I still have the question: do I avoid all food cooked for me in foreign countries (on the off-chance that they’ve used lard) in favour of shop-bought items where I can see the exact ingredients? For me the answer is that only eating cold food from shops while travelling for months on end is undesirable as well as unrealistic. Even if I could separate myself from the rest of human culture, would, as Safran Foer asks, I want to?

      Instead, the reason why I slip too often into vegetarianism rather than veganism is the same reason that will keep me vegetarian: I am not doing it to follow a strict ‘rule’. I am not a vegetarian because I am dogmatic, stubborn, weird or proud. I’m not vegetarian because I can’t stand the idea of eating meat (although as it happens, I can’t stand the idea of eating meat). I am not vegetarian because it is cool, or even for my health. I am vegetarian because I want to minimise suffering and harm to animals and to our environment. And there is an awful lot of harm and suffering to be minimised.