Friday, February 25, 2011

Flexitarianism - just a red herring?


 When I first heard the term "flexitarian", I laughed. Another word to describe another way not to eat meat? How unnecessary. Silly, even. Little did I know that, one day, I would become one.

There doesn't seem to be an exact definition for flexitarianism out there, but the ones that exist are variations on the same theme. Flexitarian was voted by the American Dialect Society in 2003 as the year's most useful word, and defined as "a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat." A 2008 Newsweek article called it "being a vegetarian of convenience...cutting back on meat, rather than abstaining completely". As TIME magazine described last year in the article Weekday Vegetarians, "Part-time-vegetarians, a.k.a. flexitarians, choose what to eat and when." Okay, I get it now. I think.

Flexitarian is joining an already disginguished list of words that are slightly different versions of the same thing. Vegetarian. Vegan. Pescetarian.  Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian. Part-time vegetarian. All of them describe various levels of eliminating flesh from your diet. Just want to eliminate red meat? Be a pollotarian, and you can still enjoy your Chicken Divan. Do you not want to eat anything that has been exposed to tempuratures above 115 F? Go raw. Don't want to eat any animal products at all, even ones that don't require said animal to be killed, like honey or dairy? Vegan, baby. But be careful... those naughty animal products can hide in the unlikeliest of places, just like the Commies.* 

AND she eats meat! The horror!
Maybe that's part of why being a flexitarian is so attractive. They're not asking you to make a full time commitment. You can start off small, just one night a week, as advocated by the Meatless Monday movement. Even by doing this small amount, the non-profit says, "we can improve our health, reduce our carbon footprint and lead the world in the race to reduce climate change." And if you like your Meatless Monday, maybe you'll consider a Meatless Wednesday. Or Meatless Weekends. Or Daily Meatless Snack Time. Think of it as the gateway drug for vegetarianism.

There are all kinds of reasons that people choose to embrace vegetarianism in one of its many forms. Health, weight loss, a tight budget, they saw it on Oprah,  "I can't eat anything with a face", and so on. I didn't start down the flexitarian path until a little over a year ago, but I didn't do it to lose weight or because some dude from Glee said it was cool. I did it because I felt like being socially responsible.

Let me backtrack. When I was a kid, my cousin became vegetarian (although he was later caught sneaking leftover turkey from the fridge after Thanksgiving), and I was treated to a series of lectures/rants on how the animal industry exploits and mistreats our gentle bovine and porcine friends. My twelve-year-old self questioned this. Why, I wondered, would you boycott all meat and eggs in order to take a stand against the industry, when you could (and should, I figured indignantly) instead buy free-range, farm-raised, organic versions that promote the values you claim to uphold? You vote with your dollar, after all. Then I got distracted by something that twelve-year-old's get distracted by (probably Jonathan Taylor Thomas or something), and I forgot about it for the next decade.

For most of my life I was vehemently against even the idea of becoming a vegetarian, being a self-proclaimed "meatetarian". It wasn't until I came to AmeriCorps NCCC and found myself more or less in charge of my entire team's $4.50 per person, per day food budget that I felt responsible for spending our money wisely, and began questioning my food choices. But  I didn't really start thinking about cutting meat from my diet intentionally until reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

The book chronicles Kingsolver's year-long attempt to become a full-blown locovore with her family. (Locovore... another crazy word, this time meaning people who only eat locally produced food.) At one point in the book, Kingsolver discusses her family's decision, made years earlier, to only eat meat that is ethically, organically, and sustainably raised. This really struck me. As early as twelve, I had thought of this, if not in those exact terms. After some deliberation, I decided to try it out, starting January of last year. The way I defined my own personal version of flexitarianism is as follows:
I solemnly swear to only eat meat that has been ethically, organically and sustainably produced. I will only eat meat products that have been fed on their natural diets, that are not treated inhumanely, and that are given space to roam and graze to their little heart's content.
There are, of course, a couple exceptions. If someone fixes me a meal with meat in it, of course I will eat it. They took the time and the effort, it's my own fault if I didn't tell them about my diet, and I'm not about to be wasteful. Alternatively, if I'm at my parents' or grandparents' house, I'm not going to demand that everyone else change their eating style to accomodate me. I could - and sometimes I do - fix something seperately for myself, but that's unusual. My family always dines together. It's an important part of our dynamic, and when I'm home, I don't mind cooking and eating something I wouldn't normally eat, in the interest of being a family and all that warm fuzzy stuff. Plus.... well.... it's tasty.

One way in which I absolutely do not waver, however, is eating out. I will not buy a meat dish if it is not explicitly stated that the meat came from a local organic farm that treats its livestock ethically. And although I'm less strident about it, I try only to eat fish and seafood that is sustainably farmed and/or harvested, although I'm not as good with that.

That being said,  it's going to be interesting to see how my semi-vegitarian leanings will pan out this year, when I'll be fixing and eating food alongside the other workers at the farm. Susan and Dean, who run the farm, are definitely not vegetarians.

Last comment: if you're one of those militant and unbending people who is thinking right now, "You can't be a little bit vegetarian. That's like being a little bit pregnant! Who on earth do you think you are?" all I can say is go bite yourself. Except I guess you can't, since you're probably a vegetarian. Too bad. You're probably delicious.

*Speaking of communism...the dye Natural Red 40 is made from cochineal insects, making it a big no-no for vegans. When crushed, the cochineal makes a beautiful red dye known as carmine, which has been used as a clothing dye since the 1400's and became an important export to Europe in the 16th century. I wrote a paper on it in college. Well, I thought it was interesting.

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