Devouring the world

A former vegan who now hunts deer is troubled by what it takes to put food on our plates

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A roe deer appears at the edge of the forest beside a green field

Photo by Roland Gerth/Corbis

Tovar Cerulli is the author of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. He lives in Vermont in the northeastern US.

Once upon a time, I believed in the tidy taxonomy of the grocery store.

In the meat coolers, near the back of the store, I could find Animalia: beef steaks, pork chops, chicken legs, and fish fillets. In other coolers, along a side wall, I could find gentler products from that same kingdom: eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese. In other sections, I could find all things Plantae: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains.

The realms seemed clear and separate, each kind of food carrying a distinct meaning. When I ate meat, that meant animal death. When I ate dairy products, that meant animal confinement. When, inspired by the compassionate teachings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I turned to veganism — that meant harm to nothing but plants. My conscience seemed clear.

Eight years later, this fairy tale began to unravel. In the garden my wife and I tended, for instance, I began to see that squash and green beans were not just the fruit of plants. They were also the fruit of animals.

Like all living things, our garden plants had to eat. As their hungry roots drew sustenance from the ground, nutrients had to be replaced. So each year I drove our pickup truck a few miles down the road and brought home a cubic yard or two of compost: rich, dark, dense material made from the manure of cows and other animals, and from their bodies as well, as farmers sometimes compost carcasses.

Squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals

I could have insisted on supplementing our own kitchen-scrap compost with fertilisers made from nothing but plants. Such products were certainly available. Most, though, were imported from out of state in bright plastic bags. Depending on them to feed our soil would, I reflected, be like subsisting on grocery-store tofu made from soybeans grown a thousand miles away, instead of eating chicken from a neighbour’s backyard or venison from nearby woods. These choices would keep animal products away from our garden and plates, but they made no ecological sense.

And even if I found a local source of animal-free fertiliser, would it make a difference? Though crops can be grown without manure, such approaches typically require more acreage than do integrated plant-animal systems. Why till more land, and perhaps displace more wildlife habitat, for the sake of excluding domesticated creatures from the agricultural landscape? Though this might help shore up my own conceptual categories, would it serve any other purpose, any greater good?

Plant-animal integration is, I realised, the norm in nature. It is how prairies and savannahs and all manner of ecosystems have been sustained for countless millennia. It is the most natural, ancient, and sustainable of systems — flora and fauna feeding one another in endless cycles. But our participation blurred boundaries I had taken for granted. If the squash and beans we grew were fed by local dairy farms, were we really eating just plants?

In his book Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to attend to interconnections, to look deeply into the origins of the materials of everyday life, including food. The more I looked, the more complex things became.

In our own garden, I saw the earthworms we accidentally cut in two with our shovels whenever we turned the soil. I saw the beetles I crushed to protect tender young plants. I saw, too, that the compost we imported linked our garden not only to dairy products but also to meat: to give milk, cows must be impregnated. Pregnant cows give birth to calves. And virtually all male calves end up as veal.

In larger-scale crop production, I saw prairie and forest habitats disrupted across North America. I saw birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects maimed and killed by machinery and pesticides. Even in produce from small-scale organic farms, I saw rodent burrows cleared by deadly smoke bombs and deer populations kept in check by hunters and farmers alike.

When I visit the grocery store these days, I realise we have a choice, but it is not simply the choice I once made between the purity of veganism and its alternatives, based on suffering. Walking down the aisles, we can let the orderly bins and shiny packages cultivate our forgetfulness. We can let ourselves believe in all the tidy separations: plants and animals divided into neatly compartmentalised kingdoms, food severed from earth, our shopping disconnected from others’ farming. We can let ourselves be comforted by our own ignorance, by everything we neither see nor want to see.

Or we can remind ourselves of just how intertwined everything really is. Uncomfortable though it might be, we can remind ourselves that lettuce is not as innocent as it appears, that squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals. We can remind ourselves that pastoral landscapes are not just backdrops for recreational hikes or idyllic rides through the countryside. They are not an ‘environment’ that exists around us. They are the places that feed us, the soil in which we are rooted. They are us.

We can remind ourselves, too, of all the people who work the land for a living. Day in and day out, they draw sustenance, theirs and ours, directly from the earth. They know the nature of the places where they live and work — the soils and waters and climates and non-human inhabitants — more intimately than most of us do. They know the nature of living and eating more deeply, too. They know it’s a messy business.

We can remind ourselves that our lives are not separate from theirs. As a teenage omnivore, I never thought seriously about the connections between my living and eating and the gritty realities of agriculture. Nor did I think about those connections as a twentysomething vegan, up on my ethical high horse, wanting nothing to do with the confinement, let alone the deaths, of fellow creatures. I assumed I could remain aloof from all of that. Only later did I begin to see more clearly.

Those connections are, in the literal sense of the word, vital. They keep us alive. The teacher and the student, the artist and the office worker, the doctor and the attorney, are all utterly dependent on the farmer. Whatever romantic notions we might have about ourselves and our ethically or environmentally motivated food choices, the boundaries between vegans, vegetarians and veal eaters are somewhat ambiguous. We are all part of the same food systems.

We can — and should — advocate changes in those systems, promoting both animal welfare and ecological health. Our efforts, however, will be most effective if people of all dietary persuasions can collaborate, remembering that we, like the foods we eat, inhabit an integrated whole, not isolated kingdoms. My wife and I, for instance, don’t buy beef or veal, yet we applaud the local farmers who produce those meats in humane, ecologically sound ways. And we recognise that the yogurt we eat is linked to the lives and deaths of cows, just as our garden is.

It is easy to forget, of course. I know I do. In the bustle of everyday life, the interconnections slip my mind. I eat a bowl of salad and see nothing but greens.

Then the phone rings. It’s a neighbour calling. Woodchucks have begun to obliterate her garden, in spite of the electric fence. I’m one of the few hunters she knows. Would I be willing to lend a hand?

Ah, yes, I think. Hidden costs.

Taking a deep breath, I fetch my .22 rifle.

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Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/marjorie.h.moss Marjorie Hise Moss

    Fantastic! I love your writing and your thinking. Thanks for sharing this.

  • John

    Splendid! You address well some points I've pondered as an ex-vegan/vegetarian omnivorous urban farmer in Tampa. The planet's ecology has been based on predator-prey relationships for at least 3 billion years, in spite of our sentiments.

  • hendor

    great insights here. the connections are always more intertwined than we know. all eaters need these thoughts in their minds.

  • Nick Hart

    Ah yes. Amazing, isn't it, how self interest – individual, collective – over-rides principle? Just like real life, in fact. Who'd have thought it?

  • NBMaggie

    Life is messy, indeed. We yearn for clear boundaries to define moral choices. Veganism, according to this author, does seem to be bound up with animal life when the issue is examine more closely. But if we wait for the perfection of objective truth we will all be left at the starting line. We have to make choices, no matter how flawed. Best case scenario for me with regard to personal health, environmental health, and the ethical treatment of animals is still a plant-based way of eating as it has been for many years.

  • drokhole

    Brilliant! That life feeds on life to sustain life is one of nature's most sacred truths, and should be regarded and honored as such. So, too, is the deeply integrated web-of-life in which nature depends and thrives. Thanks for putting it so well, I've been looking for something exactly like this!

    Biological farmer Joel Salatin covers the same sentiment, among many others, in his most recent book "Folks, This Ain't Normal." I'd also recommend this fantastic article, which covers the intensely interconnected aspect of nature, and how to provide the best conditions (with animal and plant inputs/recycling) for it to thrive:

    Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology
    http://grist.org/sustainable-farming/2011-04-20-eliot-coleman-essay-organic/

    Further, I've got a thread on another message board that deals with how management-intensive grazing of cows is one of the best methods to restart and build soils, something we drastically need to do in this country (and the world over) given its depletion/erosion rate (thanks largely to our industrial farming methods and urban sprawl):

    To Kick Climate Change, Replace Corn With Pastured Beef
    http://www.democraticunderground.com/112713328

    I've got extra videos/articles buried in subsequent posts in that thread, please be sure to check them out.

    Finally, philosopher Alan Watts tackled this subject beautifully in his essay "Murder in the Kitchen", which can be found in his book/anthology "Does It Matter?" You can also here him talk on the same subject/theme in this clip from one of his lectures (starts speaking on it directly at 7:23...but the entire clip is worth listening to):

    Alan Watts - World as Play
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDkF8XTJhek

    "The necessary thing about any species you live on is that you must love it."
    - Alan Watts

    Thanks again!

  • Vegan with a vengeance

    I tend to think a 'has been' is a 'never was'. You were a wannabe who never quite made it.

    There is a big jump between realizing the scale and complexity of life, and the limitations to vegan philosophy, to going back to killing or endorsing animal exploitation.

    Sadly, a lot of simply lazy people will just use it as an excuse not to bother making any change in their lives.

    It's funny but, as a vegan of more than 25 years, I felt the same things about killing in my garden and it moved to discover that 'no till' farming is not just possible but good science and less effort than orthodox organic farming.

    Although I, personally, am perfectly aware of the limitations of vegan philosophy, underlining it is good ecology science. We need to reduce our footprint and for metropolitan human beings it is the primary ethical and environmental responsibility. A city dweller really has no need for animal products and live perfectly well, even better, without them.

    As someone who has lived on a farm, I also agree that the further out into the wilderness one lives, the more that balance changes and that there is less of an environmental impact by reverting to becoming more of an animal. At that point, there is less of an obvious reason to being vegan, it might even come down to a question of faith (the belief in the spiritual benefit of not killing). Although for the sake of the environment and its energy balance, one should still find one's self remaining 'primarily vegan'.

    I would accept that it is human to live in the wilderness, or even the borders of the wilderness, following a primarily vegan diet supplemented by local sea/river food or game. In a truly natural environment, what would be your limitation would not be abstract ethics so much as energy requirements, i.e. how much you get back for how much you put out.

    I am sorry but folks cannot con yourself they're being "natural" if your depending on guns and trucks and refrigerators.

    Many people have take Steven L. Davis's essay on "the least harm principle" as a defence for meat consumption as you hint at here but it is a faulted essay. One of the more obvious faults is that it equate each and every life as equal, therefore the death of a rat is equal to the life of an ox. That is obvious not true.

    It also ignores or rather exploits the question of intentionality which does matter. Vegans are not intentionally killing fields of dormice. Indeed, most were entirely unaware of the issue. Rest assured now we are, come the revolution, we'll have you walking in front of the combine harvesters with a little bell scaring them all away before the corn is cut. Actually, they had no right to be there in the first place. Thieving grain and living off us, their populations were artificially high in the first place.

    We are a long way from a bucolic, vegan utopia but in our hearts that is where we will humanity to be. A land of abundance for all where lions will lie with lambs, each contributing according to their own abilities and living according to their needs ... not wants or indulgences. Unrealistically idealistic? Of course. But a lot more sustainable than the current ugly nightmare.

    In the meanwhile, let's be fair, when's the open season for hunting hunters and slaughter men?

    • whofanz591jp

      connard

    • nipkilla59259299

      hope you end up dismembered and decapitated

  • p1970

    Well written article. I think farmers and hunters live more honestly and with a deeper understanding of nature than most. But I still disagree.

    It seems very unlikely to me that every food choice involves an equal number of sentient animal deaths. All costs are not equal, hidden or not. There is no law of the conservation of energy when it comes to animal deaths that removes my free will to minimize the type and amount of harm.

    We also live in a world in which most humans are not trying to avoid behavior that harms animals. Interacting with them often means, unavoidably, ratifying their harmful choices. But what would I find if I traced every dollar I spent in a world in which all people were trying to live in a way that didn't harm animals?

    My parents have kept a vegetable garden for 40 years. They've had groundhogs, too. They've never had to shoot them. They make sure the fencing is secure. If one digs a tunnel under the fence, my parents live trap it and take it to a large area of woods several miles away. Surely, in the production of the wire fence, or the metal trap--through mining for the metal used to make the fence and the trap, through factory pollution, through air pollution created by the transport of the trap to the retail outlet where it was purchased--harm came to animals. But I still fail to see how they've made a less harmful choice than someone who chooses to shoot them.

  • Guest

    Well written article. I think farmers and hunters live more honestly and with a deeper understanding of nature than most. But I still disagree.

    It seems very unlikely to me that every food choice involves an equal number of sentient animal deaths. All costs are not equal, hidden or not. There is no law of the conservation of energy when it comes to animal deaths that removes my free will to minimize the type and amount of harm.

    We also live in a world in which most humans are not trying to avoid behavior that harms animals. Interacting with them often means, unavoidably, ratifying their harmful choices. But what would I find if I traced every dollar I spent in a world in which all people were trying to live in a way that didn't harm animals?

    My parents have kept a vegetable garden for 40 years. They've had groundhogs, too. They've never had to shoot them. They make sure the fencing is secure. If one digs a tunnel under the fence, my parents live trap it and take it to a large area of woods several miles away. Surely, in the production of the wire fence, or the metal trap--through mining for the metal used to make the fence and the trap, through factory pollution, through air pollution created by the transport of the trap to the retail outlet where it was purchased--harm came to animals. But I still fail to see how they've made a less harmful choice than someone who chooses to shoot them.

  • mijnheer

    Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories

    http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc/

  • jukk

    The fact that at this moment it´s not possible - due to the way we are organized - to have a just green meal does not mean is not possible and thus that we have to give up veganism. I found lots of fallacies in this article.

  • Gail Payne

    Beware of rationalizing to avoid examine your own eating habits!

    An email from a wise Californian to a Sierra Club Board member as the Board considers advocating a plant-based diet:

    Dear Steve,
    I
    was born and raised in California -- water-starved California. During
    this current frightful drought, which will be so devastating to
    thousands of plant and animal species, I and my associates have been
    focusing our attention on the water-efficiency of animal-based vs.
    plant-based food. It is clear that, on the basis of water
    considerations alone, our society needs to wean ourselves from
    meat-eating. To say nothing of the other, very profoundly destructive,
    environmental impacts of animal agriculture.

    Society must move in the direction of vegetarian/vegan diet, and Sierra Club must lead.

    In general, vegan
    foods have a much smaller water footprint than animal products. In
    other words, their production requires far fewer gallons of water per
    pound of food. The following figures exemplify this fact:

    Water required to produce one pound (1 lb.) of:

    Beef = 2000 gallons of water
    Pork = 576 gallons of water
    Chicken = 468 gallons of water
    Soybeans = 206 gallons of water
    Wheat = 138 gallons of water
    Corn = 108 gallons of water

    (source: http://www.gracelinks.org/blog/1143/beef-the-king-of-the-big-water-footprints)

    Why is it that animal products require so much more water? There are several reasons:

    (1)
    The water that the animal drinks constitutes only 1% of the water
    footprint of the meat that will come from that animal. (Why? Read on.)

    (2)
    Farm animals eat plants for their entire lives; it takes an enormous
    amount of water to grow all of the food that the animals eat.

    (3)
    Most of the food that the animals eat is not used to build body mass;
    rather, it is used to fuel bodily activity and to maintain bodily
    functions (heartbeat, breathing, eating, digestion, the functioning of
    all organs and the support of chemical reactions that proceed throughout
    the body).

    (4) Digestion is inefficient, resulting in partially-digested food being excreted that still contains nutrients. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coprophagia)

    (5)
    Although much of the body is inedible (bone, cartilage, teeth, horns,
    hooves, hair, hide, eyeballs), water-fed plants were required to build
    and support all of those body parts.

    Thus,
    growing plants to be fed to billions of animals for humans to eat is
    vastly more wasteful of water (and other resources) than growing plants
    for people to eat directly.

    -- Mike Sage

  • Singh

    The higher the animal on the food chain hierarchy, the more guilty I am of killing. There is a difference in killing an earthworm and a cow, just like, there is a difference between losing a one dollar bill and a hundred dollar bill. It is so obvious. There are 4 to 6 pounds of friendly bacteria within our gut which help us digest food. Human faeces contain upto 70% of dead bacteria, by weight. Our one day of survival means death to others. Even plants are living beings, but lower on the hierarchy. Plants and animals support us in our survival. They are like stockholders in a company. If the company is doing good, the stock goes up. All those who support the company i.e. the stockholders are benefited. If we do good deeds/karma, all those who support us are benefited.

  • Jess

    So, uh... what does the natural life cycle have to do with someone no exploiting an animal? Pretty sure your beans aren't involved in any exploitation, so rest easy there.

  • Anim Argumen

    As Leo Tolstoy, the former hunter turned vegetarian said: "as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battle fields. " I dont believe these so-called former vegans were ever vegan--they just claim it for advertising. The basic moral problem with the meat supporter argument is that humans are not biologically suited to eat meat like real predators. They require tools--traps, knives, etc. Real natural born predator animals only require their bodies. Even the Kalahari bushman needs tools. Another problem is that that tool making ability is flexible-it is used for gardening and for killing other humans--lots and lots of em. Thus, if you claim hunting by humans is natural-sorry to burst your dream but then so is homicide. Cant have it both ways bubba. You never hear about real natural born predators accidentally falling on their claws or mistaking another lion for a gazelle. Human hunters kill an awful lot of humans annually though--to the point where they have to put on orange vests! I wonder how many get jail time for aiming their guns and arrows in the direction of houses and killing someone watching tv? It happens. Anyway enough with the hunter myth, opponents of animal rights have two unsolvable problems.

    The first is that human moral supremacy beliefs are personal opinion just like a belief in racial, gender, or religious supremacy. Any trait, criteria, or attribute cited to
    confirm this alleged superiority, whether mind, intelligence, soul, creativity,
    Divine specialness, Evolutionary specialness, survival of the fittest, moral
    reciprocity, or an unspecified faculty X, are as much subjective personal opinion
    as the importance given to skin colour or gender or a particular interpretation
    of scripture. Nature does not confirm this alleged superiority through natural
    phenomenon like weather, gravity, earthquakes etc and the constant routine
    natural exploitation of humans by other humans, which is the second problem.
    If you claim humans can justify the systemic exploitation of nonhumans based on biased personal opinion then someone can justify the systemic exploitation of humans using biased personal opinion. If you want human rights you must accept nonhuman rights to close this loophole..

    Only humans can be shown to use laws in an effort to control their behavior thus they are the only ones obligated to follow them, nonhumans benefit without needing to reciprocate out of fairness and consistency, since punishing them for being unable to follow human laws when you know they cannot would be like punishing a blind man for not reading warning signs or an armless man for not grabbing a drowning swimmer. And they already follow our codes by not putting us in zoos, farms or labs. They are far more moderate with violence than we are.

    Moral perfection is impossible; you only do the
    best you can in any given situation. The failure to stop homicide or child
    abuse does not justify concentration camps, thus the failure to stop the
    accidental death of microbes or plants etc. does not justify vivisection labs
    or farms.

    In other words, in principle, you can’t have human rights
    without nonhuman rights. It’s about fairness really. This is the most basic
    reason that farms, zoos, meat eating by humans .etc is unethical. It is simple. But humans have a lot of trouble with
    basic rational ideas like “unnecessary killing is wrong.” http://supremacymyth.wordpress.com/

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