Is Vegetarianism a Peace Issue?

By Anna Jarvis | 1996-09-01 12:00:00

This article comes out of an experience I had recently while attending a conference on women and peace. I am vegetarian, and not only was there often not much I could eat at meals, although I had paid for them with my conference registration, I also sensed that this was not seen as a problem by many of the participants. I wondered if eating choices were considered peripheral to, perhaps even a distraction from, the important peace issues we were discussing. I began to ask myself: What is the link between vegetarianism and peace?

In 1981 I attended a talk at the University of Ottawa by Frances Moore Lappé, the author of Diet for a Small Planet. I was 18, and had been interested in vegetarianism for some time; her book, detailing the enormous waste built into the American agricultural system through the feeding of over half the total harvested acreage to livestock, had many strong arguments for becoming vegetarian. In person she was inspiring: To this day I remember her intelligence and her sincerity.

I became a vegetarian for several years, but after some time I began to eat meat again, since I felt I wasn't eating well as a vegetarian.1 Then in 1991 I became vegetarian once again and have been ever since.

My road to becoming a peace activist was equally circuitous. In 1983 I protested the testing of the cruise missile in Canada and remained active in the peace movement for several years. After a hiatus spent studying and working, which included a few anti-Gulf War demonstrations in 1991, I became active again through taking part in the non-violent protest against logging in Clayoquot Sound in 1993 and becoming a volunteer for Peace Brigades International.

There are many reasons I am vegetarian. For me it is an active, positive choice, not some grim sacrifice based on a rigid ideology. My diet consists of fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds; I eat minimal amounts of dairy products which I eventually hope to cut out altogether. I hardly ever eat tofu, and I have a weakness for chocolate.

When I talk about vegetarianism people often think I am trying to tell them they should stop eating meat. But the issue for me is not so much whether people eat meat, it is how they make their food choices and the significance they give those choices.

Does what we eat matter? I believe so. Lappé puts it this way: "What we eat links us to every aspect of the economic order. Do we allow ourselves to be victimized by that structure, or do we choose a diet that the earth can sustain and that can best sustain our own bodies?"2 Her book describes how lack of economic democracy means that some starve while thousands of tonnes of grain is fed to animals, and how meat production affects the environment through pollution and depletion of water resources, fossil fuel consumption, loss of topsoil, production of greenhouse gases, and so on.

Food In The World Economy

Unless we grow our own food in our backyards, when we eat we enter into a worldwide economic system that is linked to political as well as military structures. Cynthia Enloe has demonstrated, for example, how banana plantations owned by the United Fruit Company in Central America are closely connected with United States military and political influence in the area.3 The growing of food, the control of land, and the use of resources have, throughout history, been linked with war.

But it is the Western meat-based diet and the agricultural practices and economic structures that have evolved to sustain it that have had the farthest-reaching effects on the planet:

A culture's food procurement systems were once relatively limited in their long-range effect on other groups. But now such systems can rock the entire world. That a few rich nations are addicted to intensive meat production and consumption causes the poor to be literally robbed to overfeed the wealthy. Adequate food, water, air, energy and land are all at a premium. Large-scale meat production not only uses too many precious resources, but it also fouls and abuses them in the process.4

I believe that we can no more say that we are not implicated in world systems, whether economic systems or ecosystems, than we can say that the world arms trade has nothing to do with us.

As peace activists, we question the world economic order that supports the arms trade at the expense of human needs. Are we willing, with equal zeal, to question an economic model that puts meat production ahead of food for all, that feeds so much grain to animals while millions starve every year? Are we then willing to change our habits, as we expect the arms manufacturers to change theirs?

Or, after actively and imaginatively challenging militarism, despite the powerful forces that encourage us to believe in it and support it, do we then lay down our critical mind before entering the supermarket? After accepting responsibility for the impact of Canadian military exports on other countries, do we then remain indifferent to the effects of our dietary choices?

For me peace means working towards the kind of world I want. It is not just about the absence of war, as Ursula Franklin has said so many times, but about the presence of justice. In the peace movement, we often talk about a culture of peace - the kind of world we want to create. To those who talk about creating this alternative culture I ask: Is a meat-centred diet compatible with your vision?

The Right To Use Animals

Is the inequitable distribution of food resources necessitated by the production of meat compatible with a just, peaceful world? What about the widespread environmental destruction caused by its production? (I speak not only of the direct effects mentioned above, but also of effects such as the extinction of species owing to habitat loss and the killing of wild animals such as wolves by farmers who consider them a threat to livestock. Also, vast tracts of forest are cleared each year worldwide to graze cattle or provide land to grow grain to feed to livestock.)

Is cruelty a part of our vision of a peaceful world? Even the most avid meat eater cannot deny that factory farming does not promote the well-being of the animals involved, quite apart from the ethical issue of whether humans have the right to use animals solely for our own ends. As John Robbins, who has written about the cruelty in factory farming today, says:

Today, there is another issue to consider for those of us who wish our lives to be expressions of compassion. I am not talking now about the fact that the animals are killed. I am not even talking about the fact that the manner in which they are killed is inhumane. I am talking about the fact that we don't have barnyard chickens anymore, we have factory chickens. Virtually every chicken carcass sold in our markets and served in our restaurants is the outcome of a life that knew only deprivation and pain.5

If our work as pacifists is motivated by our compassion for those whose lives are destroyed by war, can we not extend that compassion to factory farm animals whose lives are one long sentence of suffering?

Automated Feedlots

Apart from the immediate effects on animals' lives, there are wider issues around the use of animals in factory farms. In Beyond Beef, Jeremy Rifkin identifies the ideological basis of present Western society with its meat-centred diet as one which:

...objectif[ies] nature, transforming it into a resource and commodity, even endowing it with machinelike attributes in order to justify ruthless technological manipulation and commercial expropriation.6

Feedlots today are so highly automated that even the daily allotment of food is often managed by computer, making the animal "a mere cipher, a unit of production, abstracted out of existence in the pursuit of higher yields."7 As peace activists, do we see a connection between considering animals as "units of production" and referring to human casualties of war as "collateral damage"?

Is unnecessary exploitation of living beings consistent with a "culture of peace"? Is factory farming consistent with this culture? Within our vision, what is our relationship to creation? As pacifists we work towards mutual respect between all nations: Do we respect, or even consider, the non-human inhabitants of the planet?

Vegetarianism acknowledges our connection to the world around us, and this is how it ties in with pacifism. When I talk about nonviolence in the context of my own life it means more than trying to minimize the violence done, directly or indirectly, by my own actions. It means taking responsibility for my choices and trying, as far as possible, to be aware of their implications for myself, for others, and for the planet.

Hitler The Vegetarian

To illustrate this, consider Adolph Hitler, vegetarianism's "skeleton in the closet."8 The fact that Hitler became a near vegetarian is enough to discredit the idea that refraining from eating meat per se equals a non-violent way of life. It is instead the connectedness we feel to others, and to the earth, that for me is the essence of nonviolence. Hitler, in fact, is said to have given up meat out of fear of developing cancer, a reason in keeping with his phobic and isolated character. In my belief, it is the motives behind our actions, as much as the actions themselves, that matter.

Vegetarianism is not some "perfect" state to be attained. My vegetarianism arose out of the context in which I live and of who I am at this moment; as these change or I am challenged with new information I reexamine and reevaluate my beliefs. In the same way, I believe, peace is not about achieving some state of bliss where people are not in conflict. It is, rather, about challenging ourselves to respond to conflict in new and creative ways, about expanding our awareness and our compassion towards others.

Both pacifism and vegetarianism are, for me, about making positive choices, rather than about blame or rigid rules. Both come from acknowledging, accepting, and finally celebrating the fact that we are interconnected to all others in our community and in the world, as well as to the natural world. Both have led me to make choices that, far from being a sacrifice, have enriched my life and well-being.

Let us continue to expand our definitions of peace and justice so that they encompass all the choices that we make in our day-to-day lives that affect others. In the words of Lappé, we must strive to make our personal choices consistent with our political vision: "Indeed, this is exactly where we have to begin."9

Anna Jarvis is a Toronto activist.


1 A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat or fish. A vegan eats no animal products at all.
2 Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet, 1991 edition (New York: Ballantine, 1971), p. 50.
3 Cynthia Enloe, "Carmen Miranda on My Mind: International Politics of the Banana," in Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (London:Pandora, 1989), pp. 124-44.
4 Vic Sussman, The Vegetarian Alternative (Emmaus, PA.: Rodale, 1978) p. 144.
5 John Robbins, May All Be Fed: Diet for a New World (New York: Avon, 1992), p. 102.
6 Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture (New York: Dutton, 1992), p. 278.
7 James Serpell, In the Company of Animals(New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988) p. 155, quoted in ibid.
8 Philip Kapleau, To Cherish All Life: A Buddhist Case for Becoming Vegetarian (Rochester, NY: The Zen Center, 1986), pp. 55-56.
9 Frances Moore Lappé, Diet, p. 50.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1996, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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