Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
In response to my recent post about whether we could feed more people if everyone were vegetarians (I say no), a poster named Marissa wrote a heartfelt paean to Veganism.
Vegans are a kind of fundamentalist sect of born-again vegetarians who eat exclusively vegetables, no eggs, no fish, no milk, no cheese, no insects. Merissa’s post starts off as follows:
Ok, I don’t think I have read one comment from a true vegan on this thread. Well I am Vegan and let me share with you the benefits that I have experienced …
Merissa follows with a list of the things s/he has gotten from following a Vegan diet. This stirred me to write again about why people eat meat.
Merissa, I think that it is great that you have found a way of eating that works for you. The problem is not that some people find that vegetarianism or Veganism works for them. That’s a good thing. I say more power to you. You should eat exactly what feels best for your life and your body. I ate vegetarian for three years myself.
Now perhaps it’s something in the vegetables that causes the problem, I don’t know. But all too often, recent initiates into the mysteries of some branch of Vegetableism then feel compelled to tell me how much better the world would be if every single person ate, not what works for them, but what works for the Vegetableist in question. And this is all too often accompanied by the claim that we could feed more people if humans only ate vegetables.
For the host of reasons I listed in the previous post, people around the planet have found it advantageous to domesticate and keep (and eat) animals. Perhaps some random Vegan knows more about how to scratch out a living in a hostile world than do all of the billions of poor farmers and householders around the planet, maybe they’re all wrong to keep chickens and pigs and such, maybe we might be able to feed more people if we were all vegetarians … but I doubt it very much. The farmers and the poor around the planet aren’t that stupid.
It has occasionally been my good fortune to work and spend time with very poor people, the dollar a day people, the people at the very opposite end of the economic spectrum from me, or you, or anyone rich enough to own a computer or a pair of nice shoes. There’s a lot to learn at that end of the economy, including about people’s diets. To understand the position of meat in the global diet, you need to remember that most people don’t eat the same as you and me and the folks who own computers and nice shoes. Most people on the planet are already vegetarians most of the time … only not by choice. For most people, meat is a delicacy. It is not on the menu very often.
Once when I was working in Liberia, in West Africa, they were burning a local sugar cane field. The whole village came out with clubs. They surrounded the fire in a long line. When the fire chased the cane rats out of the burning cane, they clubbed the rats and took them home and ate them. I found out that cane rat fried up in slightly over-the-hill orange colored oil palm oil (no refrigeration) tastes pretty good, although for a couple days afterwards I belched more rancid palm oil fumes than an out-of-tune biodiesel engine …
And of course cane rat is considered a good thing, meat for the family.
Here’s the reason why cane rat is a delicacy, why kids lined up to get some of the meat. The villagers that eat that meat are stronger and healthier and more resistant to disease and quicker to heal and faster growing than the villagers who don’t eat that meat. Simple as that. The chance to eat meat doesn’t come up often. When that chance comes up, those people that eat the meat improve their chances of living compared to those who don’t eat meat.
Our bodies know that and have known it since forever. You could see it in the kids’ eyes, they could smell it, they wanted it, their bodies responded without conscious thought. Meat makes you stronger, it provides a host of vitamins and minerals, it is powerful food. Which is why people eat meat, in Africa and around the planet. It increases their odds of survival in a harsh and unforgiving environment. So they ate cane rats.
Here’s another story from another time and place, with the same subject. One late afternoon, through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences, I found myself sitting in the welcome shade of some trees in a railroad yard in Mexico, waiting to hop a freight train. Two young boys came by, brothers the older one said, perhaps four and seven years old. Built on the usual blueprint of the poor, undersized and skinny. I struck up a conversation in Spanish with the seven year old. The younger boy never said a word. He just trailed a few feet behind his older brother, and watched everything with black shiny eyes.
The older boy had a slingshot made of a tree branch “Y” fork, with a dozen or more ordinary rubber bands of all sizes and colors attached to each fork of the “Y” and to the leather pouch.
I asked what they were doing. The boy said they came to the railroad lines because there were perfectly round stones for his slingshot in the railroad bed. He showed me how hard it was to pull his slingshot. Oh, I suppose you are the grán cazador, the mighty hunter, I jested.
Si, Señor, yo soy, he explained very soberly in Spanish, yes, Sir, I am.
My skepticism must have shown in my eyes. Mira, he said, watch.
He searched around, picked up and discarded a few stones, finally settling on exactly the right one. He put it in the pouch of the slingshot, and started walking around and gazing intently up into the tree branches above us. He stopped, pulled back and let fly.
There was a “poof” sound up in the tree, and a bird the size of a small robin, that I didn’t even know was in the tree, tumbled down at my feet. He and his tiny brother both jumped on it, and he twisted its neck in an economical, practised fashion.
With my mouth hanging open, I hastened to assure him that I was wrong to doubt his word. I said he was indeed a skilled hunter. I asked what he would do with the bird. Oh, para comer, señor, it’s for food, sir, he said. I said are you going to take it home to your mamá to cook it? Oh, no, Señor, somos siete, he said … oh no, Sir … there’s seven of us kids … I nodded my understanding.
He and his short confederate scurried off. They returned with some grass and twigs. He pulled out a tattered matchbook and lit a fire. In no time he had plucked that bird, gutted it, skewered it, and had it cooking over the fire. I watched in astonishment.
I walked to the corner where an old lady was frying tacos on a dished-top tin can stove. I bought a few potato tacos the size of silver dollars. She didn’t sell meat tacos, poor people don’t buy meat tacos. She made tacos with potatoes and tacos with beans. I brought them back, and gave most of them to the midget hunter and his mini-amigo. And God damn it, he wanted me to take half the bird, but I could see their eyes caressing it.
So I told them I could only eat a small bite on account of my liver. That being the common explanation there for any physical infirmity, the older boy nodded sagely. He agreed that a man has to take care of his liver, you can’t be too careful. He said his liver was fine, thanks, and they happily polished off that bird. I bought another round of potato tacos to celebrate, which had similarly short lifetimes.
And you know, as the two of them sat there content under the tree, sucking on the bird bones and watching the sun set, somehow I just didn’t have the heart to tell that small man and his smaller brother-in-arms just how much better off he and his little bitty buddy and the rest of the world would be if only they and everyone else became vegetarians …