I have just spent the last week at a conference that had a vegetarian food policy. I was not aware of this before I arrived and it was really day three of the conference before the full impact of enforced vegetarianism dawned on me. The unfortunate fact was that the hotel in which the conference was being held was not, in fact, capable of producing three vegetarian meals every day for the week. The diet was bad, and by last night, I was hungry. My unfortunate experience aside, it does raise larger questions regarding enforced vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice. Some people choose to do it, other people do not. I choose not to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, primarily because I think that there is some wonderful meat out there, that is both tasty and healthy, so I do not see the point of denying this to myself. I acknowledge that there is poor quality meat out there, which I try not to eat. Unfortunately, however, the same can be said for vegetables; this week has taught me that there are some really poor quality vegetables out there too. The process of choosing what to eat involves a certain amount of critical analysis and common sense. Every day I try to figure out what food is best for me, but it is not dictated by slavish adherence to a dogmatic principle i.e. ‘I cannot eat meat’. For instance, I have no problem with a low meat diet, but I do not feel justified in the prohibition of meat.
If you raise a moral objection to eating meat, because you do not wish to kill an animal, that is fine. I, however, will justify my belief by pointing the biological fact that we are part of the animal kingdom and part of the food chain. Nature and evolution have biologically equipped us to be omnivorous. Other animals in the chain eat other, so why shouldn’t we? We have sharp teeth in order to eat meat; so the biological evidence would suggest that eating meat is not a problem. Meat is, after all, an important source of protein. But if you decide not to eat meat, good for you, on the condition that you keep that to yourself and you do not restrict my eating of meat. We each make our own choices.
However, choice did not come into the menu this week. When I filled in the form, asking me did I have any dietary requirements, at no point did it say that the food would be vegetarian. All it said was: ‘Have you any dietary requirements?’ This is generally accepted as an euphemism for ‘Are you a vegetarian?’ and ‘Have you any serious allergies?’ I have since been informed that elsewhere in the organisation’s policy documents, that their vegetarian policy is articulated. However, I was not aware of this. Now the argument stands that if I was was aware that I would be served food without meat for the week, that I then had the choice of whether or not to attend the conference. If I didn’t want vegetarian food, then I didn’t have to go. But for this argument to hold, the food at the conference would have to be given a higher value than the conference itself.
Now the organisation makes the case that it recongises and celebrates diversity and that there will be self-indentifying ‘vegetarians’ in attendance. In order to make them welcome, everyone will eat vegetarian food; thus the vegetarians are not highlighted or isolated. The problem with this argument is that whereas it respects the vegetarians, it penalises the meat-eaters. Remember both diets are choices, so by choosing to only provide vegetarian food, the organisation has decided to endorse and validate one choice, at the expense of the other. So instead of celebrating diversity, the organisation has actually discriminated against me and my fellow omnivores; inferring that my diet choice, (which is also the diet choice of the vast majority of people) is somehow of less value than that of the minority. Furthermore, the suggestion by the organisation that ‘I was not prohibited from eating meat should I wish to go to the shop and buy some’ was erroneous, as the organisation had not provided me with cooking facilities in which to prepare a meal. Therefore, I contend that the organisation has failed in its duty of care towards not only me, but majority of the attendees.
The solution is a vegetarian option and option is the crucial word here. Vegetarianism is a choice and must be viewed as such. Therefore vegetarian food must only be provided in the case where everyone is given the choice of something else to eat; failing to do so is oppressive and disrespectful. Worse than that again though, it makes you go hungry.