The Impossibility of Eating Compassionately

You know what I really hated about Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? It wasn’t the elitist-hobby-farm-thing. It wasn’t even her daughter’s insufferable smugness (though there definitely moments when I put the book down in disgust). It was the chapter in which Kingsolver set about vegetarian-bashing. One of her key arguments against vegetarianism is that millions of insects, worms, lizards, and small animals die so that we can clear land, grow and harvest vegetables. So, even a vegan diet has been achieved at the cost of animal life and suffering. Omnivorism is really only the next logical step.

As an ethical vegetarian, I disagree. For me, there is a huge moral difference between killing animals incidentally (or preventing them from eating your crops) and actively raising and slaughtering them.  It’s important to me and most other vegetarians that we minimize, even if we can’t fully eradicate, the harm we do to other animals. Especially the cute, fuzzy, sentient ones.

Up until yesterday, I never fully realized that my diet, too, has a high cost. Kevin and I went to visit a real (if small) farm in the heart of Silicon Valley. Full Circle Farm is a non-profit organic farm that educates kids about where their food comes from and provides local, sustainably farmed produce and eggs. We walked around, looked at the very happy hens in their generous enclosure, decided that we would be willing to pay $3 for half a dozen very happy eggs, and marveled at what things like kale and squash look like when they’re in the ground.

And then we came to the squirrel traps. One was empty. The other held a half-eaten apricot and a trembling bundle of fur trying to burrow out of the cage. We felt really sorry for this terrified squirrel, so we alerted the farm manager. I naively assumed there was some sort of trap and release program in place. There isn’t. Apparently ground squirrels decimate crops and cannot be transported (or rehabilitated).  I left in tears, the image of that shivering heap of fur burned into my brain. I was torn between two impulses that I had, up to now, considered compatible: my desire to act compassionately towards animals, and my desire to support sustainable [vegetable] agriculture.

Eating is a violent act. I am shaken by my naivety and failure to see the ongoing, violent competition for resources. The compassionate diet I’ve been striving for seems as remote as it has ever been. Even though I’m vegetarian, even if I were vegan, animals will suffer and die so I can eat. It breaks my heart.

I still stand (and eat) by my belief that less harm is better than more. But some days, I really wish breatharianism were a more viable option.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Krys on 06/21/2010 at 10:33

    There is still a lot you can do to minimize the impact of your diet. For example, every egg-layer is female, and for every female that hatches, there’s a male. Those male chicks are sorted out and killed at one day of age. Dairy and eggs come at a high, high cost: the slaughter of the other half of the species. There are limits to what we can control, but veganism reduces the damage immensely, and it IS in our power to live vegan.


    • Posted by ailanna on 06/21/2010 at 13:43

      I’m constantly humbled by how much more I could be doing. I’d love for you to share your favorite vegan recipes with me!


  2. Wow….that made me shiver reading it. It’s so hard to be a better person sometimes. But I think you’re doing an amazing job!


  3. Posted by Emily on 06/21/2010 at 14:00

    The food chain is continual circle, not a pyramid, there is no hierarchy. To me, plants, fungi, animals, microorganisms, all living things are all equally important. Although a cow may have a brain and nerve cells and a carrot does not, I do not believe that the cow is somehow “better” or “greater” than the carrot. They both a sort-of spiritual essence to them and both are equal contributors to the food chain.

    I appreciate all food that I eat. I kill both plants and animals in order to stay alive, but I believe in ethical killing. When I die, I’ll return to the earth and be part of the chain.


  4. Posted by ailanna on 06/23/2010 at 10:02

    I don’t necessarily think a cow is more important than a carrot, but I do think it has a greater capacity for suffering, and that’s what I’m trying to minimize. Is it possible to eat animals without causing them to suffer? I don’t know. I was there when my cat was put down — supposedly the gentlest, kindest way to go — and there was still so much fear and pain. I can’t imagine that animals at slaughter (without the benefit of a barbituate) have it any easier, so I have serious doubts about ‘ethical killing.’ Maybe what I lack in empathy for humans I make up for in empathy for animals.


  5. […] wrote about my experiences visiting a local organic farm a while ago. I can’t get the memory of that trembling, wretched squirrel in the trap out of […]


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