These are questions I hear often, and I must admit that sometimes I get tired of answering them. But the vegetarian lifestyle so important to me that I've decided to dedicate a page of my site to just these questions.
The short answer is, I'm a vegetarian because I care.
I care about protecting the rainforests. I care about preventing the suffering of innocent creatures. I care about preventing topsoil depletion. I care about preventing world hunger. I care about reducing energy consumption. I care about the air we breathe, and the water that flows in rivers. And I care about my own health. I honestly believe that the most significant thing I, as an individual, can do for any one of these things I care about is to consume only vegetarian food.
Let's face it folks, agribusiness is trying to brainwash us all. And they've succeeded! Most women I know are convinced that the best way to prevent osteoporosis is to consume dairy products, but the well-documented fact is quite the opposite. The excess protein contained in meat and dairy products actually prevents calcium absorption by the body and is a significant risk factor for osteoporosis.
That's right, I said excess protein. Most Americans eat too much protein. Most American vegetarians eat 50% more protein than they need. So protein really is not an issue at all. Even Frances Moore Lappe, who popularized the concept of protein complementarity in 1971, has long since admitted that "getting enough protein" is simply not an issue.
So what are the issues? How about heart disease and strokes, which are responsible for a whopping 50% of U.S. deaths. Data from the China Health Project suggests that about 95% of these deaths could be cut by vegetarian diets. Likewise, 80% of breast cancer deaths among women could be prevented. Wanna lower your cholesterol? It's easy; just stop eating animal fat.
"Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." -- Albert Einstein
"I think in the next ten or twenty years, we'll have evidence [showing that a vegetarian diet is superior] that is as strong as the evidence that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. In my view, it's plenty strong now." --T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., director of the China Health Project
To continue the smoking analogy a bit further, I would like to submit that meat-based diets affect everyone in much the same way that second-hand smoke can affect the health of a nonsmoker. This is because of the disastrous effects that the meat industry has on the environment.
If Americans would reduce meat consumption by just 10%, enough grain would be saved to feed the 60,000,000 people who die of hunger each year. It's a damn shame that people in third-world countries are going hungry while their land is being used to feed meat to rich people in other countries.
The grain used for livestock feed puts a heavy burden on the land and is responsible for most topsoil depletion. Topsoil depletion is a serious problem in today's world, and it's also historically responsible for the demise of many great civilizations. Will we be next?
Hey (I hear you cry), if meat production uses so many resources, why isn't it more expensive? The answer lies in tax subsidies (including water supply) to the agriculture industry. You don't really pay for meat at the grocery store -- we all pay for it when we pay our taxes. (And we pay for it again in the form of medical care for heart disease patients.) It has been estimated that hamburger meat would cost $35 per pound without subsidies.
I could get on a similar soapbox regarding gasoline products, but perhaps it's all the same thing:
"American feed [for livestock] takes so much energy to grow -- counting fuel for farm machinery and for making fertilizers and pesticides -- that it might as well be a petroleum byproduct." --Alan Durning, Worldwatch Institute
I've got more to say on this subject, but I haven't finished writing it yet. (Hey, this is a web page. It's supposed to be under construction.)
Now, regarding the question of just what I personally choose to eat...
I am a strict vegetarian, which means that I eat no animal flesh of any kind, not even chicken or fish. As you may know, a vegan is even stricter than a vegetarian. Vegans avoid the use of all animal products, including eggs, cheese, leather, and so on. I consider myself to be a "quasi-vegan," meaning that I usually avoid these products, but I am not always perfect. Some time ago, I posted a little essay on this topic to the San Francisco bay area vegetarian mailing list, and since I got some positive responses to it I am reproducing it here:
What it [quasi-vegan] means for me is that vegan food is what I prefer and what I eat most of the time. Everything I prepare for myself (or for anyone else) is vegan, but I am known to eat muffins and the like which, more often than not, contain hidden ingredients such as milk or eggs. If I go to a restaurant I don't worry too much about hidden ingredients -- I'll ask them to hold the cheese, but if the sauce has a little bit of yogurt in it I don't worry about it. But I definitely won't eat an omelette or cheesecake, or anything with bits of Spam in it.
[The next sentence is a response to the question, "Is a quasi-vegan like a pollo-vegetarian?"]
When I think of a "pollo-vegetarian" I think of someone who probably eats chicken as a main course at least several times a week, so there is a distinction since I never eat any kind of animal food as a main course or even as a noticeable ingredient.
My personal choices make sense to me, because ten "quasi-vegans" would consume fewer animal products than one conventional ovo-lacto vegetarian, and because (let's face it) I'm somewhat lazy and being a quasi-vegan is much easier than being a pure vegan (as I was for a number of years). I also find that relaxing my standards a bit has made me feel much less confrontational when I go out, which is in keeping with my nonviolent philosophy.
By the way, I suppose one could define "quasi-vegetarian" in a similar manner to my quasi-vegan. In fact, that's how I started down the road to vegetarianism... preferring to eat very little meat, but not being completely vegetarian. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you look at it), what I found was that NO ONE respected my preference until I took the plunge and declared myself completely vegetarian. That was 13 years ago, so maybe it would be different now.
Anyway, I hope nothing I've said is construed as a put-down of anyone whose choices are different from my own. I think it's all a matter of degree -- IMHO, the fewer animal products of any kind we all eat, the better. And this is true regardless of one's motivation -- environment, reducing animal suffering, health, whatever. But for most people, there is a trade-off between ideals, preferences, and convenience, and it seems that everyone ends up drawing the line somewhere. And for some, the line is much fuzzier than for others.