I’ve always been one of those people who will eat anything. I love food. I love to try new things. I love discovering something new and delicious. I also love(d) meat. Steak was my favourite meal. Chicken wings and burgers were my vices. I held a certain level of disdain for people who were on any sort of “special” diet. The gluten-free-s and the paleo-s and the people freaking out about GMOs annoyed me. Yet here I am, imposing my own dietary restrictions on myself. My point is, going vegetarian was not, is not, an easy thing for me to do.
Despite this, my experience with animals and with the sheer visibility of the livestock sector in Burkina Faso was what tipped me over the edge. I saw live bulls on top of box-vans speeding down the highway, forced to sit beside 3-4 dead cows – an experience I can only imagine was at best, extremely stressful and at worst, absolutely terrifying. There were goats and sheep piled on top of these same type of vans, their legs lashed together and tied down on their backs, making unbelievably gut-wrenching crying noises. I saw chickens slaughtered in the streets, while people nearby laughed as they struggled in their last moments of life: throats slit but still desperately trying to run away.
Now, what you should understand is that I come from a family of farmers. My mother grew up on a farm, and my father and his family spent some time out west on his uncle’s cattle farm. They have a very different relationship to animals than I do. My mother remembers chickens being slaughtered as a child. She’s an animal lover, but she’s also a practical woman. While I am certain she would also be outraged at any mistreatment of animals, raising animals to be meat on our dinner table just makes sense for her. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – I do not share this practicality with my parents. Even as a child I was squeamish about raw meat, significantly aware of the fact that it was at one point a living and breathing being. At the end of the day, what I witnessed in Burkina made me uncomfortable. I wanted to help these creatures, not cook them up for dinner. In my mind, this didn’t give me the right to go back home and keep on being comfortable with it, simply because I was distanced from the process.
The last meat I ate intentionally was on the place home from Ouagadougou. In retrospect, airline food was probably a bad idea for a “last supper” of sorts, but I was strong in my conviction and didn’t want another cow to die just so I could enjoy steak one last time.
Little did I know, however, that my time with meat was not quite over. It turns out that I actually have a hard time remembering my vegetarianism. The first weekend, I ate nacho dip with beef in it without even thinking. Okay, you might say, but any normal person would have a few of these moments in the first week or two of their transition. But no. Just yesterday, I likely had beef-based gravy on my poutine, because I forgot to ask if they had vegetarian gravy. I’ve come to accept these momentary lapses and go with the notion that hey, at least I’m doing something. But it hasn’t been easy going, that’s for sure. You don’t notice how much of a meat-obsessed society we live in until you’re trying not to eat it. All of a sudden, meat is everywhere, and you’re always that pain-in-the-ass person asking for vegetarian options and getting annoyed when there aren’t any available.
But while it certainly has been challenging, and while I’m still trying to find the right balance of vegetables, carbs, protein and iron, I think I made the right decision, and it extends beyond my compassion for animals. A 2014 article in The Guardian argues that in order to make real environmental change, we should encourage as many people as possible to stop eating meat; so environmentally destructive is the meat industry. Apparently, “quitting meat can reduce your carbon footprint significantly more than quitting driving,” as raising cows produces harmful-for-the-atmosphere methane by the boatload.
Currently, my question is whether or not, or likely, how, vegetarianism is affecting my health. My energy levels since I started going meatless have been quite low, however that also coincided quite closely with the beginning of a new and stressful year of school, so I’m not quite sure what’s to blame. And even if it was a result of my meatless diet, I’m likely simply lacking in some mineral – perhaps iron. But for the time being, until I figure that out, I’m working hard every day to suppress those meat cravings and to eat a balanced and healthy diet. I hope I can figure it out soon.
Ultimately, I want to leave you with a question: In a day and age when it is completely feasible to live a healthy life on a diet without meat, why must we insist on the existence of the meat industry – something that includes the mistreatment of animals, factory farms, and is all-in-all incredibly taxing on the environment – just for the enjoyment of it?