Conscious consumerism: To eat meat, or not to eat meat?

As many of you will know, the physical practice of yoga – the poses or ‘asanas’ that most people are familiar with – is only one of eight limbs of yoga. Like many Western yogis I was initially attracted to the physical benefits of yoga. Who didn’t want a body like Madonna or Geri Halliwell in the late nineties? But I soon discovered the many ancillary benefits of the practice – generally feeling calmer, more centered and less stressed on a daily basis – and unlike step aerobics or my G-string leotard, yoga in its many forms has remained with me for nearly 20 years.

There is no denying that being a yogi is a lifelong ‘journey’, sometimes filled with the joy and wonder of exciting travels, often confusing and overwhelming like arriving at a third world airport where English is met with a blank face, or one that lights up at the prospect of scalping another tourist. But the further you travel, the more you discover, and the more your eyes are opened up to the world. Being present, mindful and conscious of our actions and behaviours is a central premise of living a yogic lifestyle. Another is practicing Ahimsa, or non-violence; treating all living creatures with kindness and compassion, and in many yoga traditions this extends to not eating meat.

Having been a meat eater for the best part of 46 years I’m not about to start spouting vegan propaganda. However I did make a decision this year to stop eating meat, not for any health reasons, but because I can no longer reconcile living ‘mindfully’ and ‘consciously’ with supporting the meat industry. In the past I’ve justified eating meat with the fact that pre-historic man was a hunter and meat eater, therefore it must be ‘natural’ and normal for us to be so. But let’s face it; pre-historic man didn’t have fresh produce markets on the doorstep. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t relish the prospect of leaving the warmth of his cave to hunt and slaughter another living creature in order to survive. In an age before cultivation of land and crops, man was simply desperate to eat anything that would sustain him.

Fast forward 10,000 years or more and we now live in a society rich and abundant with plant-based foods that can more than adequately sustain us. Yet how many of us ever made a conscious decision to eat meat? We’ve simply been raised on it over thousands of generations as mankind not only survived but thrived; and even as arable farming grew, continued to assert its dominance over other less ‘intelligent’ or powerful species. Very few of us I suspect have ever visited an abattoir and - in full knowledge of what takes place - decided with a clear conscious to continue to eat meat. Even fewer would have the stomach to carry out the kill and butcher the carcass ourselves. In fact we prefer to not only ignore, but to actively avoid the truth. After all it would only put us off our food.

Now imagine a scenario where aliens with weapons and technology far superior to ours landed on earth and proceeded to assert their dominance by capturing, breeding and systematically killing humans for food. I’m fairly sure this scenario would be met with outrage by the vast majority of the population; that is until Matt Damon managed to escape, foil our captors and rescue mankind from a life of torture and oppression. Yet it has become perfectly normal and acceptable for us to treat other sentient beings in the same way; and to purchase neatly carved and wrapped portions of body parts to be lovingly prepared as a meal for our families.

We are so dramatically removed from, and even mislead by the meat industry, that we rarely - if ever - consider how our food reaches our plate. Indeed, the now well-worn phrase ‘from paddock to plate’ conjures up pleasant images of cows and sheep roaming fields, or pigs rolling in mud, enjoying the good life before peacefully being put to sleep, so that we can enjoy a good steak, leg of roast lamb, or sausage sizzle. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, the reality of the meat industry is very different. Even if you buy your ethically raised, free range, grass fed meat from the local farmers market, all livestock ultimately meets a premature and inhumane end at the same abattoirs as factory farmed animals.

There is one other, little known fact that I’d like to alert you to: the global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. According to a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "curbing the world’s huge and increasing appetite for meat is essential to avoid devastating climate change". The report concludes that keeping meat eating to levels recommended by health authorities would not only lower emissions but also reduce heart disease and cancer. Yet in developed countries, where meat and dairy consumption is highest, awareness of the issue and willingness to make changes is extremely low. (For more info see link below).

I’ve never been a big meat eater and I’ve always enjoyed vegetarian food, so it hasn’t been a difficult transition for me to stop eating meat. However, having taken this step, the natural progression is to question the ethics and morality of the dairy industry, and even whether I can reconcile myself with wearing leather. Could I ever resist a good cheese platter? Or a pair of beautiful leather boots on sale? European holidays would never be the same again!

As I spoke of at the outset, following a yogic path is a journey of discovery, one that ultimately leads towards love, enlightenment and Samadhi, or bliss. Some sections of the path are full of potholes; others require a leap of faith. The directions are often unclear, or the signs suddenly point in the opposite direction (don’t you just hate it when that happens?). I’m steadily navigating my way through this particularly bumpy section, taking baby steps and making informed choices. They won’t always be the best choices, or the easiest decisions, but I am at least trying to make them mindfully and consciously, and I encourage you dear readers to do the same.