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Sunday, 7 February 2016


I've been thinking about my relatively recent "conversion" to vegetarianism and why I stopped eating animals.

I think the second part of that opening sentence is more important than the first. My decision was NOT to become something, it was a realisation that meant me stopping something. Vegetarianism was a bi-product. Vegetarianism is the name given to the product of what I realised. I stopped eating animals and therefore my diet became almost entirely made up of vegetables, fruits, herbs. I think that is an important distinction to make. Labelling ourselves as a complete "ism," I feel, grinds education of ME to a halt. I label myself as a socialist, a feminist, a humanist NOT as ends; not as a font of knowledge on those isms, but as someone who has come to certain realisations and through these realisations, I explore thought processes, feelings and try to find roads towards solutions both communal and individually. Education should have no end. Our place in this world of people and other species is one that is still developing.

How the world looks in one hundred years time depends on what knowledge we pass on and some of this is scientific, empirical, "proven" theory. Some knowledge is passed on through dialogue and some through families and community. Learned by experience or by proof from a teacher. What I've learned as an individual can perhaps only be passed on by my living; being the change I want to see in the world. And one change I want to see in the world is peace- non-violent solutions to our problems and sometimes diametrically opposed beliefs and opinions.

So I am not going to write here to defend my ever expanding knowledge of my non-flesh diet; I want to try to explain WHY I stopped eating other conscious beings (regardless of what level of consciousness they enjoy). I can only try to explain where I am. It is a journey, and I personally haven't reached any destinations yet. I'm accumulating experiences and knowledge.

My stopping eating animals wasn't a sudden epiphany. It was very gradual. I enjoyed eating dead flesh.

I remember when I was at university, in first year, our corridor in our halls of residence came together and cooked together. Someone took responsibility for one meal a week. Boy did I pile on the pounds! Each meal was elaborate and delicious. I learned new things- some of those in the corridor were experts. We all came from different backgrounds. I could cook- I had a good wee repertoire of sauces and pasta/potato and rice dishes - but had rarely cooked for more than myself. Others in the group; A chef, an ex-soldier, and others of varying backgrounds and knowledge, all contributed and taught and reviewed, praised and cajoled.

And the food was great.

But one day, the usually harmonious group became discordant. Matt announced he might make a veggie salad. He was needing something less heavy. Less meaty.

I remember talking to another member of the group and saying, "if I am served a vegetarian bloody salad, I'll throw it at him. I want meat with my meat!"

I loved most meats. I was brought up in a meat eating family. There was always meat in the fridge and on occasions, game hanging in the garage. There was always a freezer full of trout or salmon or other freshly caught fish. And I loved it all. I loved trying different ways to cook it/season it/serve it. I loved how cooking could change its texture. I loved melt in the mouth steaks and lamb that fell off the bone. I loved meaty salmon. When I ate out, I loved seafoods, poultry of different shapes and sizes and cuts of different muscle tissue from animals large and small.

For a few years during my "mature student" college and University years, I worked in a chicken processing factory. I worked with others on a distribution computer programme. I saw the live animal, through to the fancy packaged and shipped, sauced, spiced and herbed limbs and carcasses. Though I didn't really. I saw green writing on a computer screen representing "product." I saw simple computer graphics (this was the early-mid nineties) representing product in, product at different stages of production (hatchery, kill, fresh, distribution etc) and rarely visited the actualities of what was happening. Though at times I did. Watching people hose blood from their waterproofs, scrape flesh from bloodied boots and the floor. A friend of mine, Ian, another student worker used to complain heavily about the smell and mess he worked in, hosing down trays and cleaning floors of dead guts and blood. I laughed it off. I only visited his section in which he was waterproofed and booted, in whites splashed in reds of varying deepness to show off my clipboard and tie. I was well apart from the process he was engaged in. I didn't get my hands covered in guts. I didn't witness or press buttons to kill, behead or gut the birds.

I never visited the hatchery, but tails of cruelty were laughed at and were just seen as part of the product chain. The recent video that emerged online of someone "stage diving" into a packed room of piglets on a factory farm isn't really that surprising - the only new part of that was the ability of onlookers to video it in order to bring the guy to justice. There are many people at large nowadays who took part in cruelties such as that who never were caught, some of whom, I hope, have thought long and hard about what their younger, less experienced selves did.

But none of what I saw or heard in the chicken processing factory changed my eating habits (except never again buying chicken nuggets unless they were whole chicken breast or trying to avoid chicken that had ready made sauces added).

Well, except for one conversation between managers I worked with. One of them, the same age as me, had left his managerial position and was doing theology to train as an Anglican minister. He was employed during university holidays to continue his work on the new Stock Distribution System. He and I worked very well together. I enjoyed his company- he made me think. We had theological/political/ ethical conversations daily over coffee in the canteen and in the office. He recommended reading to me, which I lapped up, but none of it "brought me to God." Rather, if anything all of what i read made me question what was around me and sold as "truth," much more.

The one line I remember of the conversation between managers on the ethics of working in the chicken processing plant was, "which point in the chain of production is the least or the most neutrally ethical operation?" The managers discussed and debated this question. None of them could agree which part of the chain of the production was the least ethical. The minister said he had difficulty with the hatchery, which set off the whole room. Without the hatchery, none of us would have jobs! There would be economic meltdown in Armagh and South Down. If ethics ruled our system, where would that end? All those jobs in farming, in government departments, in subsidiary manufacturing like vets, drugs, leathers, glue, butchery, canning plants, TV cookery, and rows and rows of aisles in our supermarkets full of dead animals, graveyard shelves as I think of them, would go.

Was everyone in that chain, from slaughterer, through to pen pusher as guilty as those making huge profits?

Ethics would stop war industry and injustices across the world. Building ships for murder, slaughter, mechanised death when we should be diving for pearls. An ethical world would be a peaceful one in which humanity would do as it needs to do- value life and ensure all of life is valued.

This conversation stayed with me through my most ravenous animal eating years. And slowly I changed my diet as I observed the world around me. And then one day, four years ago- one day after eating a delicious young lamb cooked beautifully in the Pot Belly restaurant in Tullylish, I stopped. Because I observed two things.

One was as we drove from the ferry  through Ayrshire, I watched as a calf leaped and jumped and enjoyed being alive as its mother passively watched over it. Like all mothers, animal and human do. That mother stood protectively as her little child enjoyed the space within the barbed wire enclosed jail. Her love and protection would mean nothing when the "cleverer" humans decided her offspring was to have its brain electrocuted and its throat cut; its guts torn out and most of its innards, skin and bone packaged in beautifully designed cartons and tins.

As we drove on and neared home, the sun was setting, beautifully orange- it was stunning. And another herd of cows in a field ran to as close as they could get to the beautiful sky; pushed, crowded against the wire and all of them stared towards the setting sun. Where they thinking it was beautiful? What thought process was going on in their heads as they stared at something I too thought was "beautiful?"

The next day I stopped eating meat.

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