5-1/2 reasons why I am a pescetarian

Cultured meat is coming to market: chicken cells grown in a bioreactor are going to be sold in Singapore. At some point I may have to consider whether or not to consume it.

As a child, I read every science-fiction anthology available in the public library of my small town and purchased every science-fiction magazine I could find in the local department store and newsstand. Somewhere and sometime, I read a couple of stories about artificial meat. I remember one included a detailed description of how the cultured cells were aggregated into sheets and mechanically stretched, in order to duplicate the texture achieved when real-life animal muscles are stressed and strained.

For more than fifteen years, I have not eaten meat. To be more precise, I have not knowingly consumed any products that required the death of any mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians. Here are my personal reasons, in order from least to most significant.

5. personal health

Dietary guidelines, whether based on scientific studies or fad diets, have changed over the years. I am far from assiduous about keeping track of the latest data. I do avoid saturated fats and, although I understand that some is necessary for our health, one easy way to avoid saturated fat is to eliminate beef and pork. Instead, the fat in my diet comes from consuming liberal amounts of extra virgin olive oil and nuts, eating full-fat dairy products (especially yogurt), splurging occasionally on butter and cheese, and — during this period of COVID home isolation — eating perhaps more frozen fried fish and French fries than I ought. 

As someone on a pescetarian diet, I also need to make sure that my diet has enough protein variety to include essential amino acids. But because I eat fish, milk products, and eggs, this is not too difficult.

Beyond thinking of the body as a mere biochemical vessel, I do sometimes miss certain esthetic aspects of meat. It’s not clear to me that it’s healthy to deny myself pleasures such as a prime steak well-prepared at a restaurant, a tender pot roast cooked at home, the crunch of lechon, the lusciousness of duck confit, the savor of my mother’s A-1 chicken, etc.. It’s also not at all clear that artificial meats like those from Morningstar Farms, Beyond Burger, and Impossible Foods are any better for our bodies than the real thing, and they don’t taste as good.

Before I became pescetarian, I did find that, as much as I enjoyed medium rare steaks, as well as partially cooked eggs, uncooked animal products could cause me indigestion, sometimes painfully so.

Considering all of the above, on balance, personal health is one reason that I am pescetarian, but it is certainly not the most important one.

4. environment

The evidence is much more clear that, as a global species, we humans can more efficiently produce the macronutrients that we need without resorting to the mass production of livestock. I can still remember driving cross-country for the first time: enjoying a delicious steak in Amarillo, yet enduring the smell of manure for miles. The production of beef, pork, and poultry strains our limited availability of fresh water, increases the amount of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide, and pollutes the environment with animal waste. The way we first-world humans consume animals — focused only on their muscle and fat to the neglect of the blood, bone, or internal organs — further exacerbates this wastefulness.

The environment is not the reason that I initially became pescetarian, and I recognize that one person alone does not make a significant difference on the environment. Still: I do vote in national elections, and I do not eat meat.

3. household economy

I had expensive tastes when it came to meat. I am much more satisfied with quality canned seafood, select frozen seafood, and smoked seafood than with their meat counterparts. Food spoilage is less of an issue, it’s easier to clean my plate, and leftovers are easier to store. So not only is a pescetarian diet more affordable, it leads to less household waste 

While it’s turned out to be easier on the household budget for me to eat as a pescetarian, we could certainly afford meat; the rest of the family does, on occasion. This is not the reason I became pescetarian, but it does make it easier to sustain this lifestyle.

2. personal ethics

I would like to reduce suffering in this world. There is little doubt in my mind that mammals and birds possess sentience and have the capacity to suffer. Perhaps I am being speciesist, but it is more difficult for me to recognize this in many fish — although, since becoming a scuba diver and observing octopodes in person and on film, I have begun avoiding eating cephalopods. 

I eat only those animals that I would have been willing to kill. I cooked lobster, with some moral difficulty, so I allow myself to eat lobster. I have caught fish and watched them gutted and cleaned. Unless I were in a survival situation, I would have much greater difficulty killing a deer.

This is a nuanced position. I do consume eggs and milk products, even though they are a product of industrial agriculture, which demands the confinement of living beings. Yet I avoid cheeses made with animal rennet and have only bought one leather product in the past fifteen years, even thought these are also byproducts of our 21st-century way of life.

I know others, including in my family, who have killed and do kill animals. I have no issues with anyone who is able to perform this act with mercy, or at least with clinical distance. The fact that I cannot is more of a reflection on the society where I was raised, where many of us are raised — where meat is packaged so that it does not resemble the animal from which it came, and sold in a manner so that we never have to consider the moral cost of another being’s death.

1-1/2. dream

More than twenty years ago, I was teaching on a college campus in a summer program where we faculty had access to complimentary meals in the dining hall. Every morning there was a vast steam table of unlimited food, including included stacks of bacon. I always asked for a full plate and happily enjoyed their crispy flavor.

One night that summer, I had a dream. It was an overhead view of two clean-bristled pigs, snuffling around, looking at each other in the eyes, snuffling and communicating in some fashion with each other. Then, as though I were watching a film, I heard a voiceover: This is how pigs were, before we domesticated them.

I awoke and looked at the dog next to me. I decided not to eat bacon that morning, and the next morning, and the morning after that. I have not eaten pork ever since.

1. memory

After the death of my best friend Mookie, who accompanied my life with unwavering loyalty for over sixteen years, I struggled with the difficulty of being the one who willed the death of my fellow mammal. I knew this was necessary and kind, because he himself had ceased eating. Yet I wanted not to eat ever again: because I had no appetite, because eating disgusted me, and in his memory.

Of course it was not possible for me to live and not eat.

So I touched his portrait every day. I kept a stone in my pocket. I had my hair cut short. I ceased drinking alcohol, which heightened my mood whether happy or sad. I stopped eating meat.

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