Beef: It's not just what's for dinner any more

There is one issue that I do not like to talk about, despite the fact that I feel strongly about it. I always fear that in explaining the reasons behind my actions, I will unwittingly turn people off by appearing to be too preachy. And so, for the most part, I have kept my mouth shut.

Despite my reluctance, over the years I have become more assertive. I find the issue relevant and yet so absent from our daily discussions. What is this taboo topic, the very mention of which I fear may incite an outpouring of angry responses? Animal rights, of course.

A dirty phrase for many, a perplexity for others, animal rights always seems to get a bad rap. Many arguments in support of it remain the same trite and overly emotional cliches such as, “”Don’t eat meat, you’re murdering innocent lives,”” or “”Animals are more important than humans,”” which usually turn people off instead of piquing their curiosity.

I support the struggle of these people, but not their methods. In my experience, this kind of language usually fails miserably and only makes the most fervent skeptics more skeptical.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest animal rights organization in the United States, defines animal rights as consideration for an animal’s best interests regardless of whether the animal is cute, useful to humans or an endangered species, and regardless of whether any human cares about it at all — just as a mentally challenged human has rights even if he is not cute, useful or universally liked.

While I acknowledge that everyone is entitled to his opinion and that imposing one’s beliefs on others is both rude and self-righteous, I also remember an insightful quote that challenges this notion. It says, “”Freedom of thought does not always imply freedom of action.””

In other words, “”You are free to believe whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt others. You may believe that animals should be killed, that black people should be enslaved, or that women should be beaten, but you don’t always have the right to put your beliefs into practice.””

Besides, is a person not doing the exact same thing when telling others they have no right to tell other people what to do?

I have friends who ask me, “”Why are you a vegetarian? What difference does it make?”” For a long time, I used to wonder the same myself. Only after researching the issue on my own did I realize how significant my actions are.

Whatever angle you take, be it global or personal, expanding one’s ethics to include the welfare of animals just makes sense.

According to PETA, the meat industry causes more water pollution in the United States than any other industry because the animals raised for food produce 130 times more excrement than the entire human population — 86,600 pounds per second.

Additionally, raising animals for food consumes more than half of all the water used in the United States — it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat, versus 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat.

One pamphlet reads, “”Think you can be a meat-eating environmentalist? Think again.”” Many who whine about rainforests being destroyed fail to realize that much of that land is destroyed to create space for animals to graze. In fact, 55 square feet of land are consumed for every quarter-pound fast food burger made of rainforest beef.

Many doctors and nutritionists agree that a vegetarian diet is healthier. For instance, Cornell University nutritional biochemist T. Colin Campbell supervised the largest, most in-depth nutritional epidemiological study of its kind ever performed. He concluded, “”We’re basically a vegetarian species and should be eating a wide variety of plant foods and minimizing our intake of animal foods.””

Carnivorous animals have curved fangs, claws and a short digestive tract. Humans have evolved without these traits. Our so-called “”canine”” teeth are minuscule in comparison. We have flat molars and a long digestive tract that are more suited for a diet of vegetables, fruits and grains.

Campbell has said also that in the next 10 years the public will begin to hear that animal protein is in fact a toxic compound. A connection between cholesterol from meat consumption and heart disease — does that sound familiar?

Getting enough protein is a concern for some, but according to Campbell’s study and those of other professionals in the field, excess animal protein has been linked to osteoporosis, kidney diseases and cancer. It has been shown that Americans typically have three to four times as much protein in their diet as is necessary.

Finally, there is the ethical argument against animal exploitation. Those who are religious may argue that God put animals on Earth for us to use. “”Dominion over animals”” is not the same as tyranny, however. Nothing in the Bible would justify our modern-day policies and practices of destroying the earth, eradicating entire species of wildlife and subjecting billions of animals each year to pain and suffering.

What kind of suffering? For starters, in the lucrative chicken industry, farmers slice off baby birds’ beaks with a hot blade, sometimes removing part of their tongues or faces.

At the slaughterhouse, some cows have their ears, udders and feet cut off while they are still fully conscious. Most dairy cows are confined their entire, brief lives in narrow concrete stalls.

To ensure continual lactation, most are constantly impregnated through artificial insemination and are immediately separated from their calves. After only six or seven years in the dairy industry — less than one-third of their possible life expectancy — most cows are spent and will be sold for low-grade beef.

The most alarming fact about the meat industry is its size. Nearly 9 billion animals per year are crammed into tiny cages on “”factory farms,”” where they never see the sun, breathe fresh air or feel grass beneath their feet, only to be slaughtered shortly after birth.

Expanding one’s ethics to include the welfare of animals has unique problems. Most frustrating is the question of where to draw the line. My favorite answer to this comes from the book “”We can’t stop all suffering, but that does not mean we shouldn’t stop any.””

Even Albert Schweitzer, the famous humanitarian, would take time to stoop down and move a worm scorching in the sun to cool earth. He had an apt response to this ethical dilemma as well.

“”[We must] live daily from judgment to judgment, deciding each case as it arises, as wisely and mercifully as we can,”” he said.

The argument that vegetarianism is a personal choice that should not be forced upon others seems to be valid. However, our society also argues that from a moral standpoint, actions that harm others are not matters of personal choice. Few would argue today that slavery or child labor is not immoral. However, history has taught us that society encouraged practices at one time that are now widely accepted as wrong.

I once heard that legality is no guarantee for morality. Animal rights is no different, and just because it is legal to abuse and exploit animals, usually with the public completely unaware of it, does not make it right.

All reform movements have initially encountered opposition from people who have wanted to maintain the status quo. However, the shady story behind the meat you ate last night will remain the same.

The meat industry is a business, after all, and like any other, its main objective is to make money. Deceiving the public through fancy ads and pro-meat propaganda to make normal what is so utterly abnormal is just business as usual.

For the sake of the animals themselves, the environment, personal health or just the ethics of it all, I encourage everyone, especially the skeptics, simply to look into the matter.

Research and discover the facts for yourself. Who knows — in the process, perhaps someone will prove me wrong. I doubt it.

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