The Koan of Ethical Eating
[This article was originally published on Medium in March, 2019]
Why veganism isn’t always the answer, and embracing a more nuanced view of eating and ethics
In Zen Buddhism, there is a method of imparting the direct experience of spontaneous enlightenment (Satori) onto disciples which involves a special type of riddle. The master will offer their student a koan — a riddle or story with a hidden moral which at first glance appears to be solved simply, but once the nuance of the koan is investigated, it appears to be insoluble. In the utter frustration of trying to solve the unsolvable koan, the disciple’s ego collapses in exhausted surrender, and in that moment of inner silence and humility, the student’s true nature is discovered.
The most common example is when Gautama Buddha said that “desire is the root of all suffering”. After sending his disciples away to ponder this and extinguish desire within themselves, they soon after realized that they were desiring not to desire.
No matter which way they slice it, it became the issue of ‘trying to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps’. The deeper they got into this problem, the closer they get to the revelation that there is nothing that they can do, as the egoic personality, to absolve themselves of desire, because that in itself is a product of desire. When they finally surrender to the truth of that, they have rendered their personality useless, their minds are emptied, and their true nature is glimpsed.
My satori moment came in the form of trying to adhere to the yogic principle of ahimsa (sanskrit for non-violence) through my diet, which became my own ‘Koan of Ethical Eating’.
If told to me by a monk, it would sound something like this:
“In order to be nonviolent, you must not harm animals, plants, or the environment. Yet to continue to live you must eat. As a human being in North America, your food comes from agriculture which displaces and kills animals, insects, and other organisms, and even eating only plants destroys soil which the plants rely on to live. You cannot abstain from food and neglect your own health altogether, for that is violence against your own body. How then are you meant to eat?”
Like most people I know who eat a plant-based diet, I was exposed to a few startling documentaries that presented facts that shocked me into abstaining from animal products altogether. Since I’d already settled on choosing nonviolence in my lifestyle, it seemed like a no-brainer to not support animal agriculture, and I became what I endearingly refer to as a ‘Netflix Vegan’.
As far as I knew, eating animals and their bi-products was a cruel, unreasonable act that was the cause of every environmental crisis that we could conceive of. It was black and white to me, as it is to most vegans I’ve met: plant-based is good, omnivorism is bad.
Of course, I never get to rest in the realm of black and white without inevitably being unceremoniously propelled into the valleys of grey. I soon realized that eating a plant based diet wasn’t enough if I was going to truly adhere to ahimsa — I needed to make sure that the plant foods that I was choosing weren’t inflicting secondhand violence with their production. This opened up a whole can of worms that became the koan of ethical eating.
An aversion to investigating nuance is the enemy of understanding. As human beings, we like to think in terms of black and white, and speaking in absolutes ignores the depth of nuance that often isn’t visible at first glance. “The root of suffering is desire” seems like a perfectly reasonable statement until you dig deeper into the nuance of the proposition.
“Veganism is healthy and more ethical than omnivorism” is another example of this black and white thinking . The confirmation bias (where we selectively filter out information that contradicts our existing beliefs and subconscious seek information that confirms it) is alive and well in all human beings — myself included. Be aware of your own prejudice and preferences for information as you read the rest of this article, which is going to explore the nuances of our food choices, and how we are producing what we eat.
Ethics exists on a spectrum, and there are points on that spectrum of better and worse for all parties involved. Consider the following two options for eating — which one seems more ethically integral?
You eat a plant based (“vegan”) diet that is sourced from around the world. Mangoes, coconuts, cashews, and rice from Thailand, quinoa from peru, soybeans and tofu from the United States, avocados from Mexico, apples from New Zealand, wheat products from Canada. Less than 5% of your food is from your own country, and the bulk of your nutrition is shipped to you over weeks via planes, and boats, then hauled on trucks to get to your grocery store on time.
The production methods of the food (including the ones labeled ‘organic’) are mostly monoculture crops, that use a combination of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, tilling, and heavy machinery, all which are linked to a degradation in soil integrity and destruction of fertility long-term. The fields used for these monoculture are from clear-cut forests which are the natural habitats for thousands of native species of flora and fauna, killing and displacing innumerable animals and eradicating many plant species. Harvesting equipment used in this production kills thousands of unseen mice, snakes, moles, and deer, being the equivalent of throwing these animals into a wood-chipper.
The high demand of foreign food for your nutritional preferences cause the native lands that they are produced to experience unseen economic and sociological issues; for example, the increase of consumption of quinoa lowers the price of the grain for us in North America, but drives its the price up in Peru to the point that locals can’t afford their staple grain. In Thailand, there are fake drug rehabilitation centers that inhumanely force addicts to shell cashews for hours on hours — and beat and torture them if they don’t. But cashews make a great faux-cheese sauce, and are the ethical alternative to cow’s dairy. Our millennial obsession for avocados (gotta have that avo-toast) has driven up the price in Mexico to such an extent that workers are illegally clear-cutting protected forests to keep up with demand.
You have fruits and vegetables year-round, regardless of the season, because warm and tropical climate foods are delivered right to your doorstep, no matter the means it takes to get them there.
You eat an omnivorous diet of eggs, meat, dairy, vegetables, some fruit, nuts, and grains, all produced and sourced within less than 100 km of your own home. Less than 5% of your food is produced outside of your province/state — things like salt, and cooking oils, which are inconvenient or impossible to produce on small scales. You know all of the farmers who produce your food personally, and they all adhere to natural farming methods that integrate holistic systems management techniques that regenerate the soil.
When you visit their farm (because you’re close enough to and want to meet the farmer), you see acres and acres of animals grazing on pastures of native grasses, nitrogen fixing plants, and cover crops, which are all being rotated seasonally to maximize the carbon, nitrogen, fungi, and bacterial balance of the soil.
The vegetables and grains are grown without a single round of pesticides or herbicides, because the chickens and pigs on pasture are eating the insects and other invasive species, and the cover crops are preventing the growth of any weeds that would endanger crop production. The land doesn’t need to be plowed, because the combination of grazing animals’ trampling and manure, along with the specific combination of cover crops keeps the soil healthy and fertile year after year.
The animals are never given antibiotics or any other medication, because they are in an incredibly biodiverse natural environment, and carrying out their unique behaviours native to them, and this keeps them free from infectious disease. This kind of farm is producing yields comparable to conventional production farms, but is more profitable per acre because there is less labour and cost from not using heavy machinery, or expensive fertilizers, or antibiotics.
The biodiversity of this farm encourages a host of native animals to coexist and thrive in the forested areas, with the paddocks and livestock strategically protected by fencing.
You eat with the seasons — in the summer, there is more of an abundance of fruit, which you can turn into preserves for the colder seasons, meat and eggs are more plentiful and nutritious, some of which you can pack away into a freezer for later seasons. Certain vegetables are more abundant depending on the time of year, and with the use of zero-waste local greenhouses, you can enjoy certain plant-based foods year round.
All of your food is incredibly healthy and nutrient dense, because of soil health and a lack of pesticides. All the animals are fed their natural diets so their eggs and meat are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, both which are linked to brain and heart health.
The animals that you get these products from live a long, healthy life, and are slaughtered quickly — as Gabe Brown, farmer and author of the book ‘Dirt to Soil’ wrote, “they live a happy, healthy life, with one bad moment in the end”.
Many of your salads and herbal seasonings are made with your own food that you grew in a garden or your windowsill, with soil and manure acquired from your farmer.
The net result of your diet is a gain instead of a loss to environmental resources, because less fossil fuel is burned from the production, harvesting, and shipment of your foods, the soil is being regenerated by farming practices that mimic nature, and your entire community is benefited by the economic boost of a local farmer gaining your business and being able to expand their operations to serve more people.
This wasn’t a trap to serve a biased viewpoint.
Understand that these two examples are obviously biased to position an omnivorous diet as a superior choice ethically to veganism — but this isn’t objectively true either. You can be an omnivore and get all your plants from unethically sourced foreign countries, and all your meat from animal feedlots that are psychotically abusing animals and dumping metric tons of animal shit into water supplies.
The point behind these two examples is not to say that being vegan is worse for you and the planet than being an omnivore — it’s that there is SO MUCH nuance to food production and the ethics that are associated with it.
Making an ethical choice in what you eat requires you to educate yourself — no, biased Netflix documentaries that fuel your confirmation bias don’t count. But educating yourself is hard — people are busy living their lives and trying to keep up with the hustle and bustle of a busy and frantic world, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to read books written by farmers who are involved in regenerative agriculture.
It’s easier to be spoon-fed biased information from films and YouTube vlogs.
The thing is — my diet, and the diet of almost every other vegan I’ve met in Canada resembles the description of in the first example. I ate a plant-based diet for two years for ethical motivations, and relied heavily on bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruit/grains for the bulk of my nutrition. It was actually generous to guess that even 5% of my foods were produced locally — I bet I could’ve gone months without buying something from a local, or even Canadian farm.
Can you have a locally produced, fully plant-based diet year-round in a cold climate location and meet all your nutritional needs? It’s possible, but extremely challenging — and beyond that, if you’re vegan and advocate against the use of animals in any agricultural operation, you’re missing out on how animals are integral to natural ecosystems, and are the natural fertilizers and pest-control of the environment. Higher density grazing animals are associated with greater soil fertility, and abstaining from any animal husbandry altogether is going to increase reliance on other farming practices that are simply unsustainable.
Let’s explore some even more nuanced issues of ethical eating — let’s say we all suddenly decided to go to even 50–60% of our food from local sources, and stopped eating as much imported foods. The farms that are established in foreign countries that have been working to meet the demands principally of North America would suddenly be unneeded, and would cause all kinds of unseen economic problems worldwide.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t attempt to eat locally and promote more nearby, natural agriculture? Hell no — but it means that our approach needs to be mindful of the consequences to our past and current karma (actions).
The Koan of Ethical Eating continues with the blaring fact that even eating 100% locally as an omnivore still requires the use and killing of animals. Even though I now eat eggs and meat, I concede to the fact that there is no such thing as ‘ethical slaughter’ — you are killing a living, sentient being that has the biological drive and desire to live, is capable of emotional experiences, and has the right to life like any beings.
But as human beings who have these same drives and desires, to feed ourselves, we need to take from nature, no matter what — on the relative scale of ethics, how are we going to accomplish this? We are still demolishing habitats and killing animals en masse in order to produce our plant-based foods. The spectrum is broad, complex, and yes, nuanced. Eating from the earth without disrupting or taking from the earth resembles a koan because it is, indeed, an insoluble problem.
I am by no means perfect in my quest to eat locally or ethically — living in a national park (Banff), it’s illegal for me to plant a garden that produces food, to compost my food scraps, to own chickens, or to do anything that encourages me to be self-reliant on food production.
I’ve not met any of the farmers that I get my produce, meat, and eggs from yet, and I’m leaning heavily on a farm-box delivery that is my ‘bare minimum attempt’ to source more than 75% of my food locally, even in the winter.
I’m still weaning myself off of avocados and coconut oil, and am looking for the best, most nutritious Canadian equivalents (what’s REALLY the equivalent of an avocado though?) This is so important to me, that I foresee myself moving from my mountain paradise just so that I can contribute to and patronize regenerative farmers in a more meaningful way.
I’m talking about all of this because I care deeply about the existential issues of the environment, and about humanity. I have many passions that I could pursue as a career — music, yoga, personal training, technology sales, and more — but beyond all of that, the echoing in my head sings songs of sowing new seeds for the future, so that the generations that follow me can have healthy, nutrient dense foods, grown in healthy fertile soil, so that they can have the energy and health to pursue their passions and dreams.
Our planet is in a state of affairs where we need to change our approach, or it will not continue to sustain human life, especially at the rate that the population is growing. I’m a city slicker who grew up in a privileged urban environment with no experience in rural farming situations, yet all I can think about day in and day out is soil, agriculture, and farming. One day I hope to start my own agricultural venture to contribute towards localized, regenerative farming techniques — however, the best I can do right now is educate myself and work to make the best possible choices for where I am sourcing my food, and share my perspectives I learn about with articles like this.
My hope is that in sharing this article, that you stop to consider the grey areas of ethical eating — that the blacks and whites of what you automatically consider ‘right and wrong’ are cracked open and that you are softening into the possibility of deeper understanding. I don’t want to convince you of a certain point of right vs wrong. I simply want to propose that there is a different way of looking at things, and it’s worthwhile to look for it.
If you want to educate yourself more and become more involved in making a meaningful change, start by educating yourself. Learn about what farms are close by, and make a sincere effort to see them, meet the farmers, and start patronizing them for your food if their production models meet the standards of your ethics. Learn about gardening and start growing your own food, rip out your lawns and replace them with cover-crops and edible foods that will promote soil health on your plot of land.
Start reading books by farmers involved in regenerative agriculture; some of my favourites that have changed the paradigm of how I see things are:
- Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown
- Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin
- Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka
- Cows Save the Plant by Judith D. Schwartz
By rejecting the realm of absolutes, we open to a world of information that offers an awareness of subtlety and detail. We become aware of new information because we are vigilant about not filtering truth through our confirmation bias.
When we commit to educating ourselves and facing the hard problems, we can get closer to understanding the problems that we have in this world — even if these problems seem insoluble. But remember — the Buddhists use insoluble koans as a direct path to enlightenment… so lighten up.
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