05 January 2015

why we became vegetarian.

No, this is not a New Year's resolution. I don't do those.

For those who know me and my meat-loving past, prepare to have your freakin' mind blown: I am now a vegetarian*. And Ashley too.

I know what you're thinking: the world must be ending and we're all about to die at the hands of the Cylons. Similar thoughts ran through my mind. At the very least this blog post will send a shockwave of destruction through our prior home state of Texas - the land of the never-ending meat fest at Salt Lick BBQ outside Austin, dinosaur-size meat bones at Smoke in Dallas, and room after room of barbecue sauce at Rustlin' Rob's in Fredericksburg.

But bear with me and we just might get out of this mess alive, in one piece and heck maybe even craving cottage cheese mixed with spinach in an Indian curry.


The conversation started fifteen months ago when we sold or donated most everything we owned, packed up the little we had left, and started our orientation program in New York with Maryknoll Lay Missioners. And then a few months ago that conversation turned into a decision: Ashley and I became vegetarians.

Here are some of the actual questions we fielded:

Okay so you don't eat meat, but you eat chicken, right? Um...is chicken not meat?

Fine, but do you at least eat fish? Nope, otherwise we'd be pescetarian, which is cool.

Was living in Tanzania getting too easy that you had to find your next challenge? Definitely not.

So if you don't eat meat, and you don't eat fish, what do you eat? Vegetarian options are limited in Mwanza compared to the United States, so traditional vegetarian sources of protein like tofu, green peas, quinoa, buckwheat, hempseed, chia, soy, ready-made hummus, and greek yogurt are non-existent here. We also cannot easily come by common vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, squash or pea pods. And there are no berries here of any kind. So what do we eat? Most every meal we eat includes some combination of tomatoes, onions, ginger, carrots, eggplant, potatoes, beans, chickpeas, rice, granola, milk, peanut butter, cucumber, spinach, bananas, mangos, pineapple, watermelon, eggs, rice and pasta. We snack on peanuts that we roast ourselves, and occasionally on almonds and cashews but the latter two, while delicious and available in Mwanza, are quite expensive. Same goes for apples.

But of course the most common question we are asked is: Why did you decide to become vegetarian? 

We became vegetarian to better align our everyday choices with the values we wish to espouse. Within that lie three main reasons.

1. Solidarity with the world's poor

Meat consumption is expensive. Consequently, much of the world does not have the option to eat meat on a regular basis. Choosing to abstain from meat is an act of solidarity with the world's poor. And to be honest, it's a lot easier on our wallet which is more limited these days.

Here in Tanzania, meat is a privilege. It is served at special events or when you really want to show the utmost hospitality to your guests. For most Tanzanians, including our immediate neighbors, meat is a rare luxury in their life.

There are plenty of shocking facts about global poverty, but the fact is when 1.2 billion people in the world live on $1.25 per day or less, and the poor in developing countries are already spending 60-80% of their income on food, the added cost of meat is often just too much.

2. Reducing our environmental impact

Meat production negatively impacts the global environment, contributing to global warming, land degradation, and an overuse of water and food resources.

Global Warming

Meat has a much larger carbon footprint than vegetables, because far more resources are used to "grow" meat than a vegetable.

  • 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are contributed by livestock (future meat) production. 
  • 1/3 of all raw materials and fossil fuels used in the United States are devoted to raising animals for food. 
  • 1 gallon of gasoline is required to produce 1 pound of grain-fed beef.
  • 1 calorie from animal protein requires 11 times as much fossil fuel as 1 calorie from plant protein.

Land

  • 30% of the world's land mass is used to raise animals (that's about the size of Asia).
  • 87% of the agricultural land in the United States is used to raise animals for food, which is equal to 45% of the total land mass in the United States.
  • 2/3 of all agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for livestock, while only 8% is used to grow food for human consumption.
  • The equivalent of 7 football fields of land are bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals. 

Water

  • 50% of the water consumed in the United States is used to grow grain for cattle feed. 
  • It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, compared to 25 gallons for 1 pound of wheat. 
  • You'd save more water by not eating 1 pound of meat than by not showering for 6 months.

Food

  • 70% of grain produced in the United States is fed to livestock. 
  • The world's cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people, which is more than the entire human population.
  • 16 pounds of grain are used to produce 1 pound of meat.

3. Bettering our health

Research has supposedly shown that vegetarians are at lower risk for developing heart disease, colorectal, ovarian and breast cancers, diabetes, obesity and hypertension (high blood pressure). Why? Because a healthy vegetarian diet is typically low in fat and high in fiber. But like any other diet, if it is not balanced it can become unhealthy (i.e. high cholesterol if you eat too many eggs, vitamin deficiency if you're not eating the right stuff, etc.).

But to be honest, I don't really care so much about "research." There is a research paper supporting any angle you want. For me, it comes down to how I feel. And for some reason, I just feel healthier.

One curious finding is that, by cutting out meat, we at times need to eat more in order to feel full. That means we eat even more vegetables and fruit, which helps ensure we have enough protein.


So those are the reasons, but how strict are you about this no meat business? As of this post, Ashley and I eat vegetarian whenever we are in control of food preparation (e.g. when eating at home) or food selection (e.g. when dining out).

If we are invited to a Tanzanian's home and they prepare us a meal consisting of rice and meat, we eat the meat. Our presence in their humble home is our act of solidarity with the poor, and they have purchased this meat (or slaughtered their own animal) from their poverty (not their surplus). Culturally, hospitality is one of the most prized values so to refuse the food would be a great offense. And the environmental impact of this meat is lower since the animal was most likely raised on the same land that we consume it (e.g. the Tanzanian's home), and quite frankly is an underfed imitation compared to the enormous livestock we would see in the United States.

And honestly, if we are invited to anyone's home and they prepare us a meat-based meal, we generally eat it and appreciate the hospitality given to us.

Let's be real though. We are still learning our way through this. I wouldn't look to us as a model for how to become vegetarian or what to eat or how to live a healthy life. We are still figuring out what to cook and how to obtain a balanced vegetarian diet given what is available to us in Mwanza, Tanzania.


*This is where nomenclature is fun. Technically we are lacto-ovovegetarians, meaning our diet excludes meat, poultry, and fish but can include dairy products and eggs. 


Sources
Being a Vegetarian
Culinary Schools
FAO
Global Issues
PETA
Stanford Woods Institute for the Enviornment

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