Is It "Ethical" to Eat Meat?
The Modern Yogi’s Dilemma of Eating “Right”: How Can We Honor Both Ourselves And Our World?
In my quest to understand what we as human beings need to create health and harmony in body, mind, and spirit I researched far and wide, traversing the fields of nutritional science and biochemistry to environmental science, from politics to morality, from modern marketing techniques to the nature of consciousness.
The more I considered the dilemma, the deeper and wider its facets became, expanding like the Grand Canyon to the unfathomable stretches of the mind, where scientific “facts” begin to turn back on themselves. “What to eat”, and why, has perhaps never carried more weight in the history of humanity. And for a yogi, a person who has chosen a path of personal and spiritual development, the weight of one’s dietary decisions should, and often will, become of even greater significance as one’s awareness of themselves grows.
In exploring the implications of our food choices, we can begin to understand the ripple effect of other decisions we make, of every decision we make. With simple reflection and a quick internet query, we can clearly see that any given purchase that we make as members of a modern global economy (as trivial as what kind of paper to buy) brings us squarely face to face to the conclusion that we are all intimately interconnected, and that each and every action carries with it a complicated web of consequences, whether we like it or not. Not only does our inextricable interconnectedness become blatantly clear, but in our modern industrialized world, so does the multitude of ways that each and every one of us adversely affects each other, other living beings, and the world we live in. While becoming conscious of the global effects of our choices, especially as it pertains to how we nourish ourselves, is both noble and admirable, in our complicated world of endless interconnectedness it has become commonplace to make simplistic (and erroneous) assumptions about our own human dietary requirements in an effort to eliminate the adverse impact, and associated guilt, of our individual and collective actions.
According to the Bhagavad-Gita (2.48) “Yoga is called balance (samatva)”, and one on the path of yoga must seek to find that balance physically, emotionally, and mentally if there is any hope to find it spiritually. And that balance is perhaps best described through the Ayurvedic Concept of Health that has been translated from Sanskrit to its English translation of “Health is in balance when all three doshas (bioenergy) and agni (metabolic process) are in balance, and excretions are in proper order. When atman (soul), senses, manah (intellect) are in harmony with internal peace, the svastha (optimal health) is achieved.”1
What, and just as importantly, how, should we be eating so as to create such a divine state of balance on all levels? The ancient Ayurvedic texts laid out a dietary and lifestyle plan called the Sattva plan, which presents comprehensive moral and spiritual practices, lifestyle guidelines and nutrition developed over the millennia. Transliterated from Sanskrit, Sattva means the path of equilibrium and essence. Sattvic practices, which bring one to a state of balance, are an ultimate therapeutic approach; they are the foundation that can unify all other therapies. Building immunity and improving the healing response in general hinge on the strength of one’s spirit.2
Originally Sattvic food, like all foods at the time, were “organic”, meaning they were grown and prepared without pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, hormones, irradiation to prevent spoilage, nor were they subjected toxic effects microwave cooking. Sattvic foods were also whole foods, unrefined, except for the most minor of refinements as what was used in the production of ghee and other naturally extracted, unrefined oils. The Sattvic diet was lacto-vegetarian, of absolute quality, freshness and life force. It was this pureness and quality of food that created balance and harmony in the body, allowing the spirit to flourish.
In seeking the “balance”, svastha (optimal health), and spiritual liberation of the yogic path, today’s yogis have sought to replicate the ancient Sattvic diet through adherence to a strict modern vegetarian or vegan diet, without understanding a crucial underlying difference - that being that “the modern denaturing of foods through massive refining and chemical treatment deranges their pranic-qi life force, making them unable to foster Sattva equilibrium and essence.”3
Without seeking to understand one’s individual constitution and dietary needs, through Ayurveda or any other means, well-intended vegetarians and vegans the world over are suffering the consequences of adopting a what they think is a “healthy” diet because of their misplaced understanding of our human interconnection in the natural world, an oversimplified use of the yama ahimsa (non-violence), and clever marketing from multinational food corporations. Perhaps not at first, but within a few years many vegans often experience digestive and/or autoimmune disorders, allergies, iron and Vitamins B12, A, and D deficiencies, which can cause a variety of symptoms including pernicious anemia, depression, hair loss, and even heart palpitations.4
Ana Forrest, the founder of Forrest Yoga, like many yogis, began her exploration of the yogic diet by focusing on ahimsa. In an interview with Yoga Journal, Forrest explained "I was very attracted to vegetarianism and the philosophy of nonviolence for years, but the diet made me sick," she says. "I'm allergic to grains. I gain weight, my brain shuts down, and my bowels stop working. And my yoga practice does not improve." So with her body screaming for a different regimen, Forrest chose an omnivorous diet, one that consists mostly of meat, especially game, and vegetables. But, she says, this doesn't mean she can't practice ahimsa. "Since I do eat animals," she says, "I honor the elk, buffalo, or moose by not wasting its life force or mine. I use that force to heal myself and others, and to teach, inspire, and help people evolve. My ethics about what to eat came down to my personal truth. Eating in a way that impairs your health and thinking is immoral. And the truth is that an omnivorous diet physiologically works for me."
The premise is that a vegetarian or vegan diet will make you more “spiritual” at the expense of the balance of the physical body not only violates the original intent of a Sattvic practice, but also violates the first yama, ahimsa (non-violence) in how we treat ourselves, physically, emotionally and spiritually. According to Judith Lassiter “ahimsa refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions. Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love.” 5 To not listen to the wisdom of our own bodies over the pressure to emulate a Sattvic diet that is out of context in our modern society is a violation of ahimsa. A person who has not fully internalized an experience of the world as a nurturing place, a person who lacks inner nurturance, needs comfort food to support that state of being.6
Traditional Ayurveda and the Need to Respect Bio Individuality
Our modern world seems convinced that there is only one right diet for everybody that will maximize health and longevity, as well as all earthly and heavenly pursuits. Yet the science of Ayurveda, established over 5,000 years ago, acknowledges both our individual constitutions, our prakruti, and our individuality as we relate to Nature at any given moment in time, reflected in our vikruti. Yoga traditionally encouraged people to keep the world at an arm’s length, to live ascetically, and to eat a Sattvic diet, which unlike the modern vegan diet, included both ghee and raw dairy products. Today, the path of yoga is no longer one of asceticism, but one where modern yogis need to be fully present in the world. If we are to make our fullest contribution to life, we must be willing to really listen to and lovingly honor our individual needs, even if they are different from a mass marketed “spiritually correct” view of nutrition. In Prakriti, Your Ayurvedic Constitution, Dr. Robert E. Svoboda states, “Vatas truly need animal foods in their diet. They need the complete complete proteins these animal foods provide . . . many Vatas are able to fill their need for animal protein by judicious use of dairy products. Otherwise eggs, chicken, turkey, fresh fish and venison are all generally good for Vatas. Goat or lamb can help provide a temporary balance to the system. ”7 Ayurvedic practitioner Blossom also views the occasional red meat as medicine for his specific constitution. Though he still follows a largely vegetarian diet, when he does eat meat, he sources it with great care, choosing only organically and humanely produced meats.
Choosing Wisely: Eating To Support Our Health and Our Beliefs
For most of the 10,000 years of human existence, food choices were made based on survival. Period. By the Agrarian Age, choices were limited by weather, location, and the society one lived in. While modern times have brought us untold comforts, we have all but lost our connection to Nature, the cycles or the earth, our food culture and traditions, and are quickly losing our access to real, non-genetically modified, non-processed, non-refined foods. When we do find a manufacturer that appears to represent quality, we’re left wondering if the nutrient density is really what it should be. Unfortunately, most “organic” brands at the health food stores are actually owned by big multi-national corporations: Kellogg owns Kashi and Bear Naked, Coco-Cola owns Odwalla, M&M Mars owns Seeds of Change, and Heinz owns Celestial Seasonings. Most of the organic brands at Whole Foods and Earth Fare, that we spend our hard-earned dollars on, are owned and operated by companies like these, the “industrial organic” industry. (see chart below).
What is even more alarming is that these “industrial organic” brands, many which use GMO soy, corn and wheat, are promoted as “healthy” to vegetarians and vegans through various publications. In pleasing their corporate sponsors, these publications use vegetarianism to actively promote a very expensive, nutritionally weak, and potentially dangerous diet. Modern unfermented soy foods, such as soy protein, soy protein isolate, soy milk, tofu and hydrolyzed vegetable protein, can cause serious health issues like digestive problems, hormone disruption and thyroid disease. Articles on cooking beans and grain say they are quick and easy, never mentioning that they require soaking for at least 8 hours to remove the anti-nutrients phytic acid and other saponins. 8 Phytic acid in grains, nuts, seeds and beans represents a serious problem in our diets. This problem exists because we have lost touch with our ancestral heritage of food preparation, such as the importance of lacto-fermentation, which both naturally removes the dangerous anti-nutrients in plant foods and dramatically increases their bioavailability. Instead we listen to food gurus and ivory tower theorists who promote the consumption of raw and unprocessed “whole foods;” or, we eat a lot of high phytate foods like commercial whole wheat bread and all-bran breakfast cereals. But raw is definitely not Nature’s way for grains, nuts, seeds and beans. . . ; nor are “quick cooking” or rapid heat processes like extrusion, which is used to produce breakfast cereals and other “whole grain” products.
As a result of eating a diet of manufactured “health foods” that have never before existed in the natural world and are not recognizable by the human body, many have experienced disharmony, imbalance and increasingly poor health. Gluten intolerance, wheat allergy and celiac disease are all related categories of digestive and immune system disorders that have become increasingly familiar to anyone following modern trends in human health. Barely a decade ago, gluten intolerance and celiac disease were considered uncommon genetic aberrations, occurring in perhaps 1 in 2500 persons worldwide.9 But even before these latest GMO changes, it appears that recent forced and accelerated hybridizations have changed wheat nutritionally in ways that no one seems to have considered, while research into the health effects of these transformations has barely begun.
Many vegetarians and vegan yogis believe that they have upheld the yama of ahimsa, non-violence, by not buying or eating meat or dairy products. Often times they believe that their choices are ethically sound, and that they are acting on the highest level and out of concern for all living beings and the planet we call home. But when we take a closer look, we can see that any financial support of the activities of the multi-national Agribusiness Food Industry, and that constitutes a different kind of harm, but it is just as real. Millions of acres of mono-crop GMO soy, corn, and wheat throughout the world are farmed by Agribusiness, as well as factory farms, use of chemicals and fertilizers, and the destruction of the environment is just part of the result. In our modern society we have all become unknowing consumers of our ideals, caught in the net of the very slick and convincing marketing machine that is the multinational corporations, and as such we are all responsible for the “violence”, all in part responsible for the existence of the current food crisis, and we all need to be willing to see ourselves as part of a larger picture.
So if we are all responsible in harming, can we all be responsible for more positive change, can we all be a part of the healing, the return to our relationship to the natural world, real food , and ourselves? If so, what kind of shopping and eating is least harmful to the world? I believe that we can make a difference by supporting local family farms through shopping at Farmer’s Markets and taking part in Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). By supporting local small farms that are better able to take care of the soil through crop rotation and allow the soil to regenerate, we cast our vote for better food and a cleaner environment free of pesticides and chemicals. When we directly support our neighbors and local economy, we can make a positive impact on all levels; our personal health, the health of our local environment, and the health of our communities.
Buying and eating locally grown and raised foods allow you to:
- Eat fresher, better tasting, and healthier food
- Help your farming neighbors stay in business
- Sustain our rural heritage
- Protect the natural beauty of the mountains by preserving farmland.
- Encourage sustainable, environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.
- Strengthen the local economy
So, Then, Can It Be “Ethical” To Eat Meat?
Here again is that troublesome word, “ethical.” In common with so many words used in relation to the politics of food, it has undergone something of a transformation into a handy catch-all, bandied about by those who use it to justify personal food choices. It is not to be trusted. Words are indeed weapons, and can be dangerous in the hands of an increasingly solipsistic species. The formal concept of ethics enjoys an elevated status, yet is essentially little more than an intellectual distraction, almost an esoteric irrelevance in a society that has become dysfunctional, divided and disconnected from the natural order of the universe. An obsolete them-and-us attitude ensures that Homo arrogans still struts his puerile stuff, believing he can live outside natural laws.
I believe that it is time that we as a society grew up. We must abandon our ivory towers, climb down from our moralizing and look at the world around us. An absence of hubris will enable us to contemplate the damage we have done, much of it through the massively destructive application of chemically supported industrial agriculture that has laid waste to millions of acres of fertile soils across our planet. Contrition might also be appropriate, allowing a clearer view of our relationship with our food, defining the word ‘ethical’ and giving it a valid frame of reference.
In this materialistic world in which love itself has been commoditized, the politics of food is about fear, peddled by those who have lost touch with the spirituality of eating. Love opens the door to an understanding of how we move from rapacious exploitation to nursing our soils – and our souls – back to health. Domesticated farm animals will play a major part in this future, as a return to true pasture farming is an essential component of land regeneration, underpinning a localised system of permanent polyculture. Industrialised grain and cereal production is insane, and all the arguments for ‘more of the same’ collapse into farce in the face of the evidence provided by those small family farms engaged in the planet-friendly alternative.
Thus we come at last to the question of whether it is ethical to eat meat, and the answer is surely a qualified ‘yes’ – qualified by the understanding that there is no place in our future for feedlot cattle, pig factories, grain-fed Holstein milk monsters or battery hens. Love rejects such unmitigated cruelty but accepts the highest principles of good husbandry. All living things, including us and our farm animals, are part of the food cycle. We have domesticated plant and animal alike, and we have responsibility to both, but it is well nurtured animals on managed grassland that hold the key to a healthy future. We must value their ability to convert vegetation into essential manure to help us grow plant food, but we must also accept the clear understanding that farming is management and necessitates the control of animal numbers. The meat from those animals is too precious and nutrient-dense to be wasted, but love and respectful husbandry are an essential input. Then, and only then, is it ethical to eat meat.
"As soon as you as you trust yourself, you will know how to live." -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone." - Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth
1. Sam dosha, samagni, samdhatu malakriyah
Prasannatma, indriyas manah swath abhidayate.
– Sushruta stru 24/41 Sushruta Samhita by Sushruta (This surgical text, which dates back to approximately 700 BCE, contains seminal content such as the Ayurvedic definition of health, information on blood, and the description of five sub-doshas of Pitta and the marma points. This volume also includes pioneering techniques in skin grafting and reconstructive surgery.)
2. Pitchford, Paul. Healing With Whole Foods. (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1993), 600.
3. Pitchford, Paul. Healing With Whole Foods. (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1993), 601.
4. Rubin, Jordan S. The Maker’s Diet. (Lake Mary: Siloam, 2004), 100.
5. Lassiter, Judith. “Beginning the Journey” Yoga Journal Vol 68. Pg. 32
6. Eisenstein, Charles. The Yoga of Eating. (Washington:New Trends, 2003), 21.
7. Svoboda, Robert E, Dr. Prakriti, Your Ayurvdedic Constitution (Twin Lakes: Lotus Press, 2003), 58-59.
8. Yoga Journal. Go With The Grain. March 2012. 35-36.
9. The Weston A. Price Foundation for Wise Traditions. Principles of Healthy Diets.