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Why am I plant-based? – confessions of an ex-carnivore

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By Dominic Naidoo

I get asked this question a lot whenever someone learns about my dietary preferences and, admittedly, it does bother me slightly because I don’t go around asking people why they eat meat. So why is it acceptable to ask someone for reasons why they don’t?

Also, nine out of ten times, the person ends up feeling guilty for eating meat and then there ends up being an awkward lull in the conversation with me trying to laugh it off and change the subject and not join in on the existential crisis slowly forming on the receiving end of my response.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a former carnivore and I will not lie and say that I don’t miss meat, it’s delicious. But at what cost?

I’ve been a participant in the vegan lifestyle for four years. Before that, I was a vegetarian for 3 years and a full-fledged, card-carrying carnivore. Although I haven’t sampled every meat delicacy out there, I know that I had my fair share of meat growing up. And I loved it.

Weekend boerewors and chops on the braai with the mash and baked beans salad, roast chicken and gravy, chicken and mayo toasted sandwiches, my mum’s chicken curry and Makro Russian sausage rolls were among my favourites.

There are many religions which forbid or frown upon the consumption of animal flesh. Hinduism strictly forbids the consumption of beef but does not require a vegetarian diet.

Most Hindus avoid eating meat because it minimises hurting other life forms. Vegetarianism is considered sattvic, the belief that is purifying the body and mind lifestyle in some Hindu texts. Buddhists are vegetarian and Jains are strict vegan with some Jains not even consuming root vegetables because of the harm it does to the plant. Next level but I respect that.

This brings me to my first reason. I became a vegetarian after researching where exactly our food comes from. We know that almost all the food we consume is produced on commercial farms with a very small percentage, mainly seafood, being taken from the wild. Also, we can’t exactly go out hunting for a cow, sheep or chicken. If you do then I’m calling the police.

South Africans truly love our meat. The United States International Trade Administration 2021 South Africa – Country Commercial Guide found that In 2020, we forked out “approximately R250 billion on meat products, which represented 35% of total expenditure on food.”

Fair enough. Access to adequate nutrition is something I advocate for but, I still wanted to know why the chicken was so cheap. How is a monetary value placed on another living creature? Turns out, farm animals are given a value just like any other commodity which is the cost of production plus whatever profit margin is added to that.

Chicken represented over 60% of total meat consumption with the average person consuming around 40kg a year. “As poultry meat is relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous, it is the most important protein source in the diet of the majority of South Africans. This is especially true in low-income households, who constitute most consumers.”

Statistics South Africa’s agricultural stats for 2019 showed that livestock made up 48% of the country’s total agricultural output, of which, 16% was cattle production and 5% of chicken production. Weirdly enough, only 1% of that was actual beef meat, the highest was chicken at 10%.

We export a lot of beef to other countries but that’s another story.

Graphic: Source – Stats SA

The reason that chicken is so cheap is because of the industrial scale at which they are produced. The South African Poultry Association recommended guidelines state that hens that are 2 to 5 days old can be kept 12 per square metre. That equals 8.4 square centimetres per hen.

These birds live for around 56 days, spending their entire lives in a massive warehouse, scratching away on concrete floors, fighting for a place at feeding stalls or for a drink of water only to be hung upside alive, dipped in a vat of electrified water, de-feathered and chopped up.

Males were not bred to grow this fast and male chicks are macerated as soon as they hatch.

Macerated means minced. It is considered best practice to do this as gassing is expensive and time-consuming.

Although South Africa is blessed to have significant pasture to allow for cattle to roam free, the life of commercial dairy cows is not as happy as you might think. Cows are forcefully impregnated by hand once a year and have their calves taken away after 1 day. People are shocked when I tell them that cows don’t just produce milk for our benefit, like all mammals, cows need to have a baby to produce milk.

Imagine an advanced race of aliens suddenly invading Earth because they developed a liking toward human breast milk and do the same to women. They would do the same thing, how would that make you feel? Not great.

Then there’s the environmental impact of industrial-scale animal agriculture. Although often overlooked in conversations about climate change, animal agriculture is a major driver of global warming and biodiversity loss. The industry destroys ecosystems, releases huge quantities of greenhouse gases, wastes vast amounts of water, and is a major source of pollutants. The information is there, this is not a secret.

Another aspect of the industry is the trauma experienced by slaughterhouse workers. A 2021 study by Jessica Slade and Emma Alleyne, both from the School of Psychology at the University of Kent in the UK found that “staff with the job role involving the slaughtering process itself were found to exhibit higher rates of mental health problems with workers in the cutting sector having significantly higher prevalence rates of depression and anxiety compared with other roles in the slaughterhouse.”

They also found that a propensity for aggression was also related to job roles, with the highest scores of aggression being associated with working in the “loadouts” where staff have to handle the dead bodies of animals, followed by working on the kill floor, then the other roles. This daily exposure to such violence forces employees to develop immunity to it. This in turn perpetuates violence at home and in general society.

From a health perspective, I feel lighter after eating a meal. I have more energy, my digestive system is happy, my weight is easier to manage and my skin looks much better. Before you ask “but, where do you get your protein from?,” I eat a lot of legumes, nuts and seeds which are packed with protein. I’m not a bodybuilder so I don’t need 2kg of protein a day. Also, the largest land animals are all herbivores. The elephant, hippo, rhino, giraffe and gorilla are all plant-based, I don’t see anyone questioning their lifestyle choices.

Plant-based just makes sense to me. I loved meat, it’s delicious but I could not continue being a part of the problem just for 5 seconds of taste in my mouth. Once it’s past your tongue, your body doesn’t care what it is, it only cares whether it’s nutritious or not.

One day, my grandkids are going to ask about the rainforests and orangutans and dolphins they may only see in books and I am going to be able to say that I tried my best.

Naidoo is an environmental journalist and activist.

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.