Plants are magical. They perform a remarkable kind of natural alchemy. They take the raw ingredients of earth, water, air and sunlight and they create something new. Photosynthesis takes sunlight energy and changes it into chemical energy – the food that nourishes their own plant bodies, but they create such abundance that they also feed every animal on the planet. No animal has this ability to create food. All animals, including human animals, are dependent on this plant magic.
We take in the plant’s leaves, stems, seeds, and roots and we use their energy to build our bodies and fuel our lives. Different plants have a huge range of different qualities and can create vast varieties of food. The tastes, smells, textures and nutritional qualities have seemingly endless variety.
Many animals have adapted to the specific plants in their usual habitat. Some animals have adapted to eating other animals, which is essentially a second-hand use of the plant energy. In environments where plants are scarce or only available during certain seasons, the plant-eating animals store the plant energy within their own body, and the carnivore exploits that storage capability. Some species are omnivores, like humans, dogs, rats and raccoons and they are remarkably flexible at getting nutrition from a wide variety of sources. Omnivores are often adaptable to an incredible variety of habitats.
In human history, our species has often lived in extreme conditions where plant-based food is very scarce, or only available in seasons. We have developed ways of preserving and preparing foods for later use. We have developed agriculture to cultivate supplies of plants that may not grow naturally in an area for our use. We have also created an elaborate system of keeping animals for use as food.
As a person in a modern industrialized country in an urban area, I have access to a huge variety of foods that would have been mind-boggling to people even just a few generations ago. Shipping, canning and freezing technologies have made foods easily available to me from different seasons and climates. I sit in a position of incredible privilege when it comes to food choices.
When we realize that we sit in privilege, the question becomes – how do we use that privilege? Necessity does not force my choices. I have decided to choose food that aligns with my ethical positions and still provides me with proper nutrition. I choose plant-based food and not animal-based food.
There are two main reasons that animal-based food is not compatible with an ethical choice for me.
First, animals who are kept for food production suffer unnecessarily. For anyone curious to find out about the practices that are carried out on thinking, feeling beings like chickens, cows, and pigs on a massive scale, take a look at the Mercy For Animals website. Modern factory farming techniques are more cruel to animals, but even traditional techniques are cruel and end in the unnecessary death of so many beings.
Second, keeping animals for food is environmentally destructive. Factory farming is again the most egregious, with horrendous pollution of waterways and large amounts of methane production. But even in traditional and organic methods, it takes 6 to 10 times the amount of plant feed to produce an equivalent amount of nutrition from animal flesh. So for every acre of corn and soybean that we may use to feed a human eating those plants directly, it takes 6 to 10 acres of corn or soybeans to feed the chickens, cows or pigs who will be slaughtered to feed the same human. As someone who values natural places, that’s 5 to 9 acres of farmland that could be restored to forest preserve or wild prairie. That’s 5 to 9 acres of rain forest that don’t get chopped down. If you want more information about this, please see the United Nations study.
So how does this connect to my path into Paganism? As I have brought up in an earlier blog post, the preservation of natural places is directly connected to my spirituality. The connection to the environmental impact is clear
For the first ethical point about animal suffering and death, it’s certainly not true that all pagans, past or present, are with me on that. Many ancient religious traditions (including monotheistic ones) demanded blood sacrifices as part of their practice. But I do not believe that the gods and goddesses demand the blood of sacrificed animals. Some current Pagans embrace a thought inspired by Native American spirituality that if we connect with the spirit of the animal that we kill and eat, and thank the spirit for their sacrifice, we participate in a circle of life. I don’t mean to denigrate the Native American tradition, but I can’t imagine how I, coming from a modern urban American setting, can adopt that without being disingenuous and self-serving. I know that animal does not have to die for my dinner, how can I thank that spirit for an unwilling and unnecessary sacrifice in good conscience?
There are the roots of ethical vegetarianism in many ancient cultures. Ancient Greeks like Porphyry and Pythagoras argued vigorously against eating animals from within their pagan context. Hinduism and Buddhism also have a long tradition of vegetarianism for spiritual reasons. Ultimately, I think that I feel an ethical urgency that no ancient thinker could have felt about this issue due to both the privilege of choice and the peril to our environment caused by exploding human population and current industrial practices and farming practices.