As omnivores, humans have always had to ask what’s for dinner. Meat, grain, dairy, alcohol, legumes, vegetables, fruits — our gastrointestinal tract can handle it all. This freedom to choose our diet can be a blessing and a curse, and society sometimes preys on our doubt. As we make choices about diets and carbs, the question often surfaces: should humans eat animals?
Today, I’m writing from experience rather than research. I did do the research, once, but food is so intimate and cell-building that I want to focus on my path.
At 14 I went vegetarian against my parents’ wishes. I was a strong athlete, my weight didn’t fluctuate and I felt good. Although I eat meat today, I stand by my seven years of vegetarianism. You’ve seen the videos. Crazed pigs rattling the sides of their pens; conveyor belts of chickens who’ve never seen the sky; hormones and antibiotics and corn-eating cows knee-deep in their own filth. I was rightfully appalled by factory farming when I took ninth-grade biology and didn’t look back.
Now, you might be the type of shopper who has seen the documentaries and buys only grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs. While I applaud your effort to keep your dollars out of factory farms, it’s still notable how much land grazing requires. Raising cattle goes hand in hoof with deforestation. It takes many more resources to produce a pound of beef than it does a pound of beans. So the vegetarians have a point — even the more humanely raised meat comes at a cost.
I was still vegetarian when I joined the Peace Corps at 22. On my first evening in Panama, out of respect to my host family, I ate the chicken leg on my plate. It absolutely wrecked me physically for a day. But grateful for the food and culture we shared, I continued to eat meat my entire service. Fish, pork, chicken, beef — and eventually wild boar, venison and even endangered iguana. As I swung my machete, hiking miles to reach the farms, I’ll admit that my body craved meat. It made me feel healthy, strong and full.
Unlike the U.S., where the reality of the slaughterhouse is kept far from the kitchen table, my life in rural Panama connected the live animal to the cut of meat. I helped butcher chickens, singeing their hairs off in open fires. I attended my first “matanza” and watched four men saw the hooves off of a cow to make soup.
You might think that seeing the animals die up close would make a person run back to the mental quiet of vegetarianism, but for me, it did the opposite. Being part of the process made me feel like I had played a role and earned the meal. It is an honest, raw process.
It’s those who can’t watch but continue to pick up frozen chicken breasts who have the greatest disconnect with the lives they take. And perhaps the most work to do.
Death itself is not cruel, it’s just a part of life. I deeply respect those who raise their own meat, hunt or fish. Especially those who manage not to waste any part of the animal. In Panama, I can’t tell you how many times I was served white rice with boiled chicken feet. Yet I have only ever seen chicken feet at the pet store in Minnesota. We cannot afford to be so proud as to turn up our noses at “undesirable” heart, liver, and yes, chicken feet. Hunger and environmental degradation abound; when creation gives us gifts, we can’t just accept some of them.
Before I moved to Minnesota, I had the wrong impression of orange-clad hunters who eagerly accept nature’s gifts. If it wasn’t for watching families hunt in Panama, I might never have given them a chance. My first misconception was that hunters enjoy killing, but not all hunters are lion-killing dentists.
Trophy hunting is one thing; stocking your freezer with local venison to feed your family is another. It’s strange to me that there are people who think hunting is wrong but will pull up to the McDonald’s drive-thru, or who won’t catch their own walleye yet have no shame in buying canned tuna. Hunters at least have consciences.
Those who follow DNR laws and licensing help maintain local ecosystems via population control, especially since humans have removed so many natural predators, like wolves. Most care about protecting wildlife habitats. While I still interrogate the hyper-masculine, make-the-fish-my-Tinder-profile culture of hunting, the act itself no longer troubles me. My partner hunts, but he is also willing to have plant-based meals with me most nights. It’s all about balance and eating meat we can stand behind.
As my Peace Corps service ended, I wondered if I would go back to vegetarianism. The observations of chef Dan Barber ran through my head. Nowhere in nature do we see the separation of plants and animals. The only sustainable future is integrated, where manure and nomadic movement of ruminants fertilizes the Earth, animals spread seeds and eat pests and ecological health is restored. For this reason, I still eat meat.
Our future, in my opinion, is omnivorous. But how we practice that omnivory ought to change, and we have much to learn from both the vegans and the rabbit trappers. I used to think they were on opposite sides of the spectrum, but they are really the most unlikely of allies in protecting our health and our environments.
The first step, I think, is just an open mind.
Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.