Vegetarianism is an increasingly common topic of discussion these days, along with its stricter sibling, veganism (no use of animal products at all), and more lenient cousins like pescetarianism (fish permitted). But although these may seem like new trends, the underlying ideas have been with us for quite some time.
Many of our ancestors were actually what we might call vegetarians by default: they would happily consume meat if they got the chance, but that chance came only rarely. Livestock were kept primarily for their byproducts, like eggs, milk, and wool; slaughtering an animal for food was reserved for special occasions, like celebrations or hospitality for a guest. Only the rich got to eat meat regularly. To use precise modern terminology, the rest were generally ovo-lacto vegetarians (consuming eggs and milk) or flexitarians (abstaining from meat much of the time, but having it on occasion).
Apart from practicality, one of the reasons to abstain from consuming meat is compassion. Historically, this is most commonly associated with Hinduism and Buddhism, and less famously with Jainism, i.e. with the Indian subcontinent. Religious trends there promote non-violence not only toward one’s fellow humans, but toward all living creatures — though, as is always the case with cultural traditions, how much any individual strives to uphold that precept is highly variable. The flexible will say that carnivorism all right for people who aren’t monks, while the truly strict will refuse to eat even root vegetables, since the consumption of those entails killing the plant.
Compassion certainly plays a role these days, especially with the rise of the animal rights movement, but quite a lot of modern vegetarians are also or primarily concerned with the effect livestock have on the environment. Even if you’re not mistreating the animals by keeping them in factory pens or causing other ecological problems, animal husbandry is far less efficient in its land use than agriculture, measured by the number of calories produced per acre.
If that sounds like a purely modern concern, though, it’s not: when Japan shifted to the closed-country policy that ended almost all overseas trade, they found themselves having to be particularly thrifty with their resources. Since much of the archipelago is mountainous and unsuitable for agriculture and herding alike, they had to make the most efficient use possible of the land they had, and that meant raising crops instead of cows. Buddhism provided ideological support for a shift toward a more plant-based diet, but there was a practical component in play as well. As our global population clears the eight billion mark and keeps heading upward, we find ourselves having to keep that lesson in mind.
When it comes to health reasons, history sets less precedent — if only because quite frankly, “a balanced diet” for most people was whatever food they could get. They were far more concerned with the risks of starvation than with making sure they got the right mix of nutrients in the right proportions. But as a species, we appear to be remarkably adaptable on that front; for all the hand-wringing about too much of this or that in our diet — which can make it sound like we’re incredibly fragile creatures who will die if the inputs aren’t exactly right — human populations have survived and even thrived on all manner of diets, including some that are almost purely carnivorous (seen among the Nunamiut of Alaska).
Yet it’s true that we do better if we get an ideal balance . . . assuming we can figure out what that ideal balance is, which we might generously say is still a work in progress. And it’s probably true that for most people who aren’t Nunamiut hunters, the amount of animal protein consumed on average in the modern U.S. is unnecessarily and detrimentally high. Even historically, when nutrition was even worse understood than it is now, physicians might recommend that their wealthy, gout-ridden patients reduce their consumption of meat in favor of a vegetable every now and again.
New technology is changing this field in fascinating ways. We’ve had plant-based meat substitutes for a long time, but lately they’re being engineered to approximate the taste and texture of meat much more closely. And there have been recent successes in creating meat without animals: vat-grown muscle tissue that potentially removes the ethical questions around carnivorism. I’ve even seen discussions among Jewish friends about the implications this has for the kosher status of the resulting food.
Because although I’ve been talking about vegetarianism so far, the larger underlying topic here is food prohibitions more generally. What we eat is not merely a question of availability and taste; we also make this decision on the basis of a variety of cultural factors.
Take the prohibition of pork or beef in otherwise omnivorous societies. Why not eat those things? Much ink has been spilled on that question, with answers ranging from the spiritual (instruction from the divine) to the medical (avoidance of parasites found in pork) to the political (a means of differentiating one group from its neighbors). Where an individual or a population has a relationship with a particular tutelary animal or animal-associated deity, they often have a prohibition against killing and eating that creature — and myths about what happens when that prohibition is violated. (Spoiler: nothing good.)
Sometimes, though, avoiding a given food seems purely arbitrary . . . and yet, just because it’s arbitrary doesn’t mean the impulse isn’t powerful. There are many parts of the world where people readily eat the meat of horses, dogs, or cats, yet knowing that doesn’t prevent me from instinctively recoiling at the thought. Meanwhile, other people feel the same way about meats I am willing to eat.
This matters in part because of those above questions about things like health and the environment. I recently watched a brief documentary on worms and insects as food: a perfectly common thing in some countries, and honestly a really good idea if we want to feed a growing population efficiently. But so deeply ingrained is western distaste at the thought that even when the documentarians sent their interview subjects to restaurants run by elite chefs to try exquisitely prepared insect-based meals, you could see those subjects cringing as they bit down. The successful dishes were the ones that ground the main ingredient up so thoroughly that the diners could forget they were eating bugs.
So in the end, although we can list a wide variety of reasons why we might choose not to eat certain things, sometimes the answer is simply “because we . . . just don’t.” Once your upbringing has fixed in your mind that something is not fit for human consumption, it can be very difficult to make yourself enjoy it — or to remove from your diet something you love to eat.
Difficult, but not impossible. After all, we can see people doing it even today.