UU World Article on Ethical Eating: A Disappointment

The cover story for this month’s UU World is titled “Eating Ethically.” As someone for whom eating ethically and compassionately is important, I was excited about the article. While I applaud the UU World and the author Amy Hassinger for taking on this issue, I was very disappointed by the tone of the article and Hassinger’s conclusions.

To summarize, Hassinger begins by noting that she, like many, has tended to like to buy the cheapest food, not the most ethically or sustainably grown food. But she says that this is changing and she has begun to reflect on the way her food choices impact the environment. She eloquently notes that “[Eating] may be the most powerful way we Unitarian Universalists have of experiencing our Seventh Principle, of participating in the ‘interdependent web of all existence.'”

She goes on to outline the “disaster of industrial agriculture,” and, in her section on “the seventh principle response,” she encourages us to consider our food choices and how they are related to the way that we live out our seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She writes,

Eating, of course, is an essential element of our everyday experience. If we can approach our daily meals with a sense of reverence, if we can recall each time we slip a forkful of food into our mouths the many miracles it took to cultivate, harvest, and prepare that bite, we will be moving toward truly living this radical principle.

She discusses steps that we can take toward eating more sustainably – both on an individual level, and at a congregational level. And it is as this point that the article becomes problematic. While Hassinger mentions that becoming vegan seems like the best response to ethical eating, she dismisses this option by noting that “I admit that going vegan feels extreme to me: I have a hard time imagining a happy existence without the pleasure of a good cheese.” To her credit, she spends one paragraph touching on the option of vegetarianism and veganism as responses to the question of ethical eating:

Inevitably, thinking about ethical eating means thinking about the animals we eat. The Rev. Gary Kowalski, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington…believes that “the greatest and most effective thing we can do to befriend our own bodies and befriend the environment and other living creatures is to eliminate meat from our dinner table.” In my conversation with him, Kowalski ran down a list of highly persuasive reasons to take this step. He told me that eating a 16-ounce steak is equivalent to driving about 25 miles in your car. Each new vegetarian annually saves three acres of tropical trees. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat and 25,000 gallons to produce a pound of beef. Clearly, the choice to become a vegetarian—or, even better, a vegan—is an excellent way to diminish your ecological impact.

But rather than noting that she has decided to reduce the amount of meat or animal products in her diet, or encourage her readers to do so and explain how others have managed to find happiness without cheese, she goes on to present buying “sustainably raised” meat as a response to the challenges of “eating ethically.”

My first concern is the off-handedness with which she dismisses vegansim (“extreme”) and even vegetarianism. She notes simply that “My family and I are meat eaters—my husband is allergic to so many foods that meat is one of the few things that he can eat.” And, while I understand that her husband’s allergy to vegtables is a unique case and perhaps requires him to eat animals and animal “products” to survive, I am disappointed that this exception appears to form the basis for her guidance on ethical eating.

Vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream, and veganism is becoming increasingly more pleasant due to the proliferation of lots of products that expand one’s options. Veganism and vegetarianism should not be wild ideas to call Unitarian Universalists to. They should, at the very least, be the focus of an article on ethical eating – not marginal possibilities, as they are in Hassinger’s article.

Let me be clear: I understand that everyone will not become vegan or vegetarian – that we all pick our battles, our areas to make a difference. I have made the decision to do all that I can to reduce my consumption of animals and animal-based products such as milk and eggs. Yet, I drive too much and I fly too much for various reasons. I would hate for someone who rides his or her bike everywhere to judge me for how I transport myself. I know that my flying to visit my friend in DC is much less ethical than taking the train. Driving to the store is problematic when I could walk. I need to work on this, among lots of other things. But, and this is the key point, I am not writing articles on ethical transportation. And this is the problem I find with Hassinger’s article. If she and her family have made the decision to eat meat, that is certainly their decision to make. But, the problem is then writing an article about ethical eating explaining how people can buy “sustainable” meat and then every Unitarian Universalist household in the country getting a vision of Ethical Eating in their mailbox via the UU World that involves consumption of animal products.

I need people to encourage me to get tough, and make the hard decision to radically change my transportation habits. Because this is what our world needs. We need people be making radical decisions about sustainablity and love. Love for our planet, for the future of the world, and love for sentient beings that are able to suffer just like our cat or dog. I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, “Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.”

Likewise, we need people to encourage us to make radical decisions when it comes to the food we eat. People transition to veganism and vegetarianism all the time. It might start with meat reduction or cheese reduction. It takes time to adjust. It takes will. But the point is that it is do-able. And, if it is do-able, I want to be called to that.

There is more I want to comment on as it relates to the article, but I don’t want to overdo it here. I will write a follow-up post with some information about how serious the situation of our planet is and why I think that it takes hard, difficult decisions to respond ethically to the situation, and I also have some additional thoughts on living a compassionate life and if and how that can involve eating animals or animal products when it is not necessary for our survival.

Much peace,


11 Responses to UU World Article on Ethical Eating: A Disappointment

  1. Mike Schroeder says:

    Hi, Elizabeth
    You are such a lovely person, but the world, whose people all seem to equate eating as high on the food chain with wealth and success (just as they do with green lawns), has an extremely long way to go. Hassinger takes an important step! I agree she should have stressed more whole heartedly the value of cutting back on animal products. Still if more people felt reverence for their food and reflected on its origin and wide-reaching impact of its production, perhaps as a way of saying grace, as I can imagine Hassinger doing, what a boon it would be to organic agriculture and the environment and to the welfare of animals.

    My daughter and her family are not strictly vegetarians but do not buy meat or prepare it in their home unless it is by chance given to them. They do have 5 chickens, all named, whose night quarters are moved over the vegetable gardens to capture the quano and whose eggs the family eats. Her best friend has a herd of goats on her organic farm and makes organic cheese to sell. These two families work extremely hard to lead environmentally responsible lives. They are such a source of hope and inspiration to me that I can not begin to criticize them for consuming dairy products so sustainably and kindly raised and produced. And I hope you too would include them in your circle of good people.

  2. elizabeth199 says:

    Hi Mike. Thank you so much for your comments. I am not AT ALL opposed to any products that come from animals that do not harm the animals. If they are able to live happily and live out their whole lives (rather than being prematurely killed if they stop “producing”) then I see no problem with this, particularly since it cannot be done on a large scale, and will have a minimal impact on the environment (and maybe even less of an impact than spinach trucked in from California, for instance). In fact, W. and I have often thought of having some chickens (rescued from factory farms) but with the side benefit of having eggs in good conscience! I should have made this clear. Particularly when it comes to eggs, or milk, or products that do not necessarily harm animals, I have no moral objection to that.

    Thanks for YOUR thoughtful an exciting work in this area, Mike. It has been such a pleasure to work with you on the GS committee.

    Much peace, EG

  3. […] , animals  Philocrites mentions the article in UU World on ethical eating and refers to my response to the article in the following way: Elizabeth, however, thinks the magazine didn’t wag its […]

  4. Lillian Reid says:

    I agree with Elizabeth – I am a Vegan and I wish more people would be. But at this time
    they are not, even Unitarians are not. So I thought that article was good for relating
    to most people where they are at. There was a lot of interesting information in the
    article that confirmed my beliefs about the environmental advantages of being a Vegan. I
    was pleased to read it and I thought it was good for meat eaters to hear it from another
    meat eater and not from a Vegan. That made it more credible I think.

  5. Susan Cockrell says:

    This seems to be a thread that has petered out, but I, sitting here on a cold January 2008 morning, want to add to the discussion: I am an angry vegetarian! First, I’m very tired of defending my approach to a more humane world because I have somehow tapped into someone’s resevoir of guilt. I have made a choice to not eat animals, and I will not be made to feel guilty because I, by my choices, have made you feel guilty. I’m so tired of hearing someone offer ME a lame apology as they take a slice of turkey or order a steak. Why they apologize to me I do not know: apologize to the animal, to the air, to the soil, to the Earth itself–all who are profoundly harmed by your choice. Please do NOT apologize to me.

    I do not seek out meat-eating people so I can somehow remind them that I’m superior because I don’t eat meat. But here’s what I do: when I attend a function where the main topic of discussion is how to bring about a more just or humane world, or how to live more environmentally responsibly, I mention that there is nothing an individual can do that will have more impact than ceasing to eat animals. I attended a meeting last night at our local library held by a group calling themselves Planet Home. We watched a movie about the death of the electric car, and then afterwards, with heads shaking about the shame of an irresponsible, even criminal, series of events that removed the option of the totally electric car from ways to cut fuel consumption, we were invited by the leader to enjoy the delicious food being served–even some vegetarian! But the main dish contained meat. Huh? When I mentioned, in private so as not to embarrass the whole crowd, this contradiction to the leader, she became very defensive, embarrassed, and reminded me she wasn’t “getting paid for this.” Again I say huh? This is the dead cow in the living room that everyone steps around so as not to make anyone else feel bad. I’m not OUT to make anyone feel bad, but it’s kind of hard to ignore this major contradiction: the group asked us to bring our own utensils to the meeting (a great idea), so we didn’t have to use paper plates and plastic forks. But, then, to serve food that is grown and processed in such environmentally damaging and unsustainable ways is just to conveniently ignore reality. I’m not talking about what each of these people eat in their homes–I’m just aghast that they cannot come together to talk about these issues for one meeting a month without serving meat. Even committed carnivores don’t eat meat at every meal! It all just rings a bit phony.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for your comments, Susan. I feel your pain. It is a hard balance – how to stand strong for what you believe in and what has been shown to be effective to combat global warming and widespread suffering – yet at the same time not wanting to come across as righteous even if you don’t mean to. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your passion about this. It does make a difference! In peace and solidarity, Elizabeth

  7. […] favorite is my response to the UU World Article on Ethical Eating although somehow I feel like this is not going to be a […]

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