In India it’s not uncommon to share space with a cow. They wonder around unattended, poke their noses into shops and restaurants and lay down in the middle of the street. They pretty much do whatever they’d like and for the most part the people roll with it. They’re considered sacred to Hindus and Jains because they’re associated with the mother of all the gods in the ancient scriptures (Vedas). And they’re appreciated for all they offer — milk, butter, ghee and even their waste, which is used as fuel. There’s even an annual holiday in their honor known as Gopastami when they’re washed and dressed in garlands.
Recently I was at a Buddhist monastery outside DC and one of the monks gave a dharma talk on right mindfulness (one of the 8 steps of the 8-fold path of Buddhism). Afterward we were all chatting and somehow, I don’t know why, the monks began laughing about how they like to go to Five Guys for burgers when they’re away from the monastery.
These same monks chant the following before each meal at the monastery:
“One should cultivate for all the world
A heart of boundless loving friendliness…”
“A a mother would risk her own life
To protect her only child,
Even so towards all living beings
One should cultivate a boundless heart.”
They’re Five Guys admission struck me as an incongruence that I find impossible rationalize. So, I spoke up. I said, “the Buddha taught that the occupation of butcher is not aligned with the step of right livelihood, so how is it OK for you to enable a butcher?”. They didn’t like my question and skirted the issue and played it off like I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was extremely disappointing — and, well, annoying.
That night and the next morning in meditation I couldn’t get the discussion off my mind. This exchange with the monks caused me to reflect on how much of my life has revolved around food in such a way that has cultivated a rather unique understanding and direct experience of what ends up on our plates. In my 48 years, at one point or another, I’ve been directly involved in the planting, harvest, production, processing, distribution, supply chain analysis, science, chemistry, nutrition, safety, counterterrorism, policy, inspection, trade and finally consumption of food. (I’ve included a bulleted rundown at the end of this blog if you’re interested.)
Today, as I observe all that is happening in the world it can be easy to convince myself that this is something to just let go. Live and let live, so to speak. The last thing anyone needs is a yoga teacher harping on the laurels of a veg diet.
Or is it?
I believe it is because as yogis we are working to get to the root cause of suffering and minimize/eliminate it to the best of our ability. It’s especially useful when we can do something on a personal actionable level. I think it is quite probable that our blind eye toward the ills of animal agriculture are strongly related to that root for many of today’s sufferings (environmental, physical and spiritual). And here’s how (there is a lot of factual data-based information out there — I’m going to keep this short and to the point):
Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.
WHO has classified red meat as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans and processed meat was classified as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans. https://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/
Vegetarians are likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/becoming-a-vegetarian
Karma exists as a form of energy. It is created by action and there is a cause resulting in an effect. When it comes to what we eat we have control over the cause. When we buy meat it causes need for more meat (supply and demand) resulting in additional killing of helpless beings. Beings that feel, that want to be happy just as we do, beings that are sentient (with consciousness) and beings that would otherwise not exist in such high numbers (because there would be no need for mass production). When we eat them we are taking in that karma — karma of fear, pain and suffering. This is an obvious spiritual setback.
– The Bhagavad Gita says to “see God in all beings.”
– The Buddha proclaimed butcher amongst the jobs that constitute “wrong livelihood” and also instructed cultivation of love and compassion for all beings.
– Patanjali lists ahimsa as the root yama (ethical behavior toward others) to guide a yogi’s actions and development — non harming applied to all beings.
So, do I think it would serve us all to talk about this? Yes. Do I think it’s appropriate for a yoga teacher to generate the conversation, even if it’s a sensitive one? Yes. Part of being a yogi is confronting the challenges of life, learning about them, reflecting on them, and moving forward in the best way we can muster.
And here’s the thing, there is so much about our food system that is a huge unknown for most of us. I believe that if we knew, if we really sat with it, we’d make choices that cause less harm — to the earth, to other beings and to ourselves. Does this mean going vegan? Maybe. In some cases it may be that vegan just doesn’t give an individual what they need to be whole — or that the vegan food choices continue to cause harm (e.g., highly processed foods involving much production, distribution, etc). But it can also mean eating less meat, sourcing it with awareness from an informed position and cultivating more dignity around the food we’re taking into our bodies day in and day out….
I was raised in Southern Indiana farm country amongst large family farms (many of them members of my extended family). I knew animals as livestock from birth — mine and theirs — and was out in the fields amongst the crops from before my memory starts.
At age nine I began caring for my own lambs that I raised to exhibit (“show”) in competition at the county fair each summer until I was 20.
By age eleven I began to build my own flock with responsibility to care for them year round — including being with the ewes as they brought new life into the world.
Those first three years I was devastated at the end of the fair when my lambs were auctioned off, taken out of my hands and loaded onto trucks bound for slaughter.
The third year I had a black lamb to whom I had grown quite attached. After they took him, with tears rolling down my face, I resolved to “grow up” and never cry for them again. I didn’t.
Around that time, the farm crisis was ravaging my family and community. Each day someone we knew would lose their farm. The banks would call in the huge loans they had freely given in the years preceding knowing full well that the farmers couldn’t repay it. They’d send the auctioneers directly to the farms where they’d set up and auction off everything they could find. One day we saw the trucks coming down the road and my Mom panicked. I still don’t know how she knew — they were going to her father’s farm — the place where she grew up, the place we all called “home”, and where my grandparents would live together for 67 years. We flew down the road and as we rounded the corner toward home we found my Grandpa walking toward us along the side of the road. It was as if he didn’t know where he was. He was devastated.
My Uncle took to doing whatever he could to keep the farms alive. At 20-something years old, he’d never even considered doing anything other than farm. He signed on with a big company to raise veal calves. Literally baby cavles taken from their mothers and put into standing-room-only stalls where they eat milk from buckets and shit nonstop. It’s one of the most horrendous sites I’ve ever seen. They cried, shit, vomited and blew snot and many of them died. The sludge pit behind the barn was like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Since that time my family has moved on to turkeys raised in long “barns” that house thousands of birds driven insane by their conditions, trampling one another and pecking, sometimes to death. This is modern farming – unrecognizable to the untrained eye and often hidden from sight completely.
Eventually I went off to Purdue University and then the University of Massachusetts and ended up graduating with B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Food Science/Chemistry.
My first exposure to large scale food processing was on a job interview the summer after my B.S.. It was with Jimmy Dean in Memphis, TN. I arrived and they immediately took me on a tour of a massive pork processing center. The first thing I remember is looking up to see hogs coming through a portal in the wall way up high near the top of the 30 foot ceiling — hanging upside down, freshly killed. From there it was like Willy Wonka for blood and guts. Absolutely revolting. It was a 2 day interview and I knew in the first 5 minutes there was no way in hell I was taking the job.
After several more years in uni, I worked in the food industry for about 4 years at a flavor and fragrance company where the bulk of our efforts went toward finding ways to stimulate consumers to want, buy and eat more.
Recognizing that I didn’t give a hoot about the company making money I charted a course to DC to work in policy, for nonprofits, and eventually the FDA — all with the hope it would bring some meaning to my work.
During my tenure as a Food Safety professional — focused on international issues — I toured animal processing operations all over the world. Mind-boggling places of torture and suffering. Animal beings being moved at high rates of speed through death by throat slit or bolt to the head, boiling, scalping, and slaughter with speed and precision to end up in neat little packages with smiling animal faces on them. It’s like some Orwellian joke. And it’s happening all day, every day all over the world — in large part because of the gold star example set by the United States of America: success is eating meat, driving cars, and owning homes.
Initially at FDA I was hired to work on a team tasked with preventing the intentional contamination of our food supply. This was post 9/11 when the government was funneling money in every direction possible to counter terrorism.
The most meaningful work I did came through an assignment with FDA’s office in Beijing. It felt meaningful to me because, regardless of whether I agreed with the policy I was being tasked to implement, being part of developing a positive relationship with Chinese counterparts felt worthwhile and potentially helpful to what I hope will be the long peaceful life ahead for my nieces and nephews.
Toward the latter stages of my time at FDA I moved into the trade side of government working alongside colleagues from USDA, EPA, State Dept, Trade, Commerce, and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office (USTR). We worked at the WTO (World Trade Organization in Geneva) and at the negotiating table with Europe (TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — canned by Trump) and Asia (TPP – TransPacific Partnership). It was nasty business and I directly experienced the strong arm of the U.S. industry — especially dairy, meat, processed foods and seafood lobbies. If you think that they have any interest in your wellbeing you are fooling yourself. They represent one thing — the almighty U.S. dollar.
And now, well, I’m more immersed in Aryuveda sattvic vegetarian way of life with aspirations to soon have my own garden.