Melbourne-based writer Cristy Clark has always been passionate about the ethics of her food. She shares her story of how she shifted from vegetarian to vegan to ecotarian – and why sometimes animal products can be the most ethical choice available.
I was five years old when I first became a vegetarian. I was sitting in my grandma’s kitchen eating chicken when suddenly it dawned on me that a real chicken had been killed for my dinner. I imagined that I could hear it speaking to me.
‘Why are you eating me?’ it asked. I had no reply.
At the age of 15, I became a vegan. My growing awareness of the practices of the meat and dairy industry made it hard to see an ethical distinction between supporting the breeding and killing animals for meat and clothing, and supporting the way that they were treated by the egg and dairy industries.
As a teenager I found the absolutism of veganism appealing. I even relished the austerity and sense of deprivation (this was before soy milk and vegan cupcakes flooded the cafe market). I was suffering for my cause and I felt that my ethical framework was clearly the superior approach to consumption. Species-ism seemed to be the last acceptable form of discrimination – and vegans were at the forefront of challenging it.
Fifteen years later, my moral clarity had begun to unravel. The ethical issues raised by the fair trade and organic farming movements, the corporatisation of the food chain and the impacts of intensive agricultural practices are not addressed by veganism in any straightforward way. For example, highly processed, heavily packaged ‘soy cheese,’ cold transported from the US and sold by our supermarket duopolies, is vegan. But its methods of production and distribution mean it is far from the most ethical choice. Even Coke is vegan.
It became clear to me that the mere absence of animal products was no guarantee of virtue.
For a while I was able to respond to these issues while remaining vegan. My partner and I bought locally grown produce; we avoided the supermarket and its heavily packaged and processed goods; we even made our own soy milk. We felt we were fairly successful at navigating the myriad ethical issues thrown up by the production, distribution and consumption of food in the capitalist system.
Then, one day, our neighbour offered my daughter an egg.
We were wandering through the veggie garden next door; our neighbour had just introduced us to her chickens. Their eggs were warm and freshly laid, and I couldn’t think of a single valid reason to refuse the offer to take them home. Here was a source of protein that had travelled almost nowhere to get to us and while it did come from an animal, I had no objection to the way these animals were treated. These eggs clearly had a lower environmental impact than any of our vegan sources of protein.
Accepting those eggs opened up a wave of unexpected emotions that shocked me with their intensity. I examined my reaction – and realised that my reluctance to accept that sometimes animal products can be a superior ethical choice was bound up with a personal attachment to the identity of being a vegan.
It wasn’t just that I enjoyed being part of the (mostly online) community of vegans, who both are inspiring and supportive. I was also reluctant to admit that I had lost faith in my previously steadfast ethical compass – even though it had, in reality, been shifting for years, from straightforward veganism to a more holistic environmental and rights-based approach to food. Those first eggs were really just one more step in this direction, but at the time it seemed a radical departure into the unknown.
Rigid guidelines are incredibly comforting when trying to navigate the ethics of consumption. It is far easier to reject all eggs, for example, than to have to figure out whether the eggs in a particular piece of cake are free range or factory-farmed. Including some animal products in my diet has opened a whole new dimension of complexity, but at the same time it has often enabled me to make more ethical and sustainable choices than strict veganism allowed.
Through this process I have learned to be more comfortable with accepting that there is no perfect approach to food. We cannot help but have an impact on the planet and on the lives of others, human and non-human. Trying to minimise these negative impacts, while making choices that are healthy for our bodies, our community and our planet will always be a balancing act. Facing up to this reality has been difficult, but it feels right to me.
I tend to avoid using labels these days, but when pushed I use ‘ecotarian’. Being ecotarian means that whenever I make a decision about consumption, I try to consider the full range of ethical issues that relate to the impact of our choice on people, animals and the environment.
It’s a far from infallible framework and a less-than-catchy label, but it is working for my family – and helps us remain connected to the food we eat and the ecosphere from which it comes.
Join us for our IQ2 debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, at Melbourne Town Hall next Tuesday 20 March at 6.30pm. Speakers will include ethicist Peter Singer, chef Adrian Richardson and the Age’s Veronica Ridge. Tickets are $20 or $12 concession. You can book online.
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