The Problem With Vegetarianism

Why I stopped being vegetarian

I became vegetarian because I didn’t want to kill anymore. I hadn’t read any animal rights philosophy, and I didn’t see any factory farm footage. I was just sick of killing. It’s a long story — longer than it should have been — but here’s a summary: I slaughtered a pig with my friends late in high school, tried to justify it to myself for months, failed, and then swore off meat as soon as I moved out of my childhood home.

The pig we killed was more “free-range” and “organic” than any you can buy in America. He still screamed as he died. The other pigs watching screamed right along with him. They sounded like children. I cut his arm off with a machete. I heard that his body would taste better since we killed him ourselves, but his flesh tasted like that of any other dead animal. I tried to pet the other pigs afterward, but they ran to the opposite corner of their pen, climbing atop one another to get as far from the monster as possible.

I realized, slowly, that I murdered every single pig I ate. Most of the time, I just hired a hitman to do the work for me. Some days, I’d try to talk to others about what we’d done. They’d say, between bites of their BLT: “I could never do that to an animal.” Some nights, I stared up at the ceiling, wondering: “Could I have done that to a human?”

Giving up meat felt purifying. For all my life, I had thoughtlessly consumed flesh multiple times a day. Skin, ligaments, fat, muscles, tendons, tumors, shrink-wrapped and labeled “meat” for my consumption. I paid for a monthly subscription box of beef jerky. I ordered my steaks blue because I loved the taste of blood. Some afternoons, I’d come home after boxing and eat an entire rotisserie chicken solo — another soul consumed. Once I started seeing animals on my plate where meat had once been, giving up these habits didn’t feel like a sacrifice. I hadn’t sacrificed meat; I’d stopped sacrificing animals.

When you buy milk and eggs, you’re buying from a farmer who raises their animals with an expiration date; they aren’t his friends, they’re his machines, and if they stop working, they get disassembled and thrown away.

Unfortunately, though, I was still a killer. Every morning, I’d start my day with some scrambled eggs on toast, washed down with a glass of chocolate milk. This seemed like a harmless breakfast. Of course, I knew that there were bad farmers who mistreated their cows and hens — but I also knew that the dairy and eggs I ate came with a bunch of labels promising that these farmers were really nice guys. The cows strolled across rolling plains with their families to their heart’s content and produced enough milk that they felt grateful whenever the farmer milked them. The chickens lived outdoors frolicking and foraging in the grass, laying eggs wherever they pleased, as their gentle farmer followed them around picking up the eggs to put in a carton and mail to me. In my delusions, my milk came from a bucolic paradise, and my eggs came from the Portlandia chickens.

In all likelihood, every animal that produced my dairy and eggs back then is now rotting in a landfill. There’s no retirement home for farm animals. The farmer drags a cold knife across their neck when their productivity wanes below profitability. Dairy cows get stabbed to death at six years old; they naturally live to be 20. Laying hens are slaughtered at two years old; they naturally live to be eight. To quote the CEO of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, a company considered by many to be the most “humane” available, they “gas them with CO₂, and asphyxiate them. Then they put them into trucks or dumpsters and they’re landfilled.” (Animals killed with CO₂ struggle to escape, often screaming before succumbing to the fumes.) When you buy milk and eggs, you’re buying from a farmer who raises their animals with an expiration date; they aren’t his friends, they’re his machines, and if they stop working, they get disassembled and thrown away.

I regularly speak to vegetarians who would rather eat dirt than eat veal, but the baby cow doesn’t care whether they are getting shot in the face for steak or cheese, and their mother will cry just as loudly either way.

Similarly, faulty products get disposed of. One of the faults a product can have in the dairy and egg industries is being male. Male chickens can’t lay eggs, and male cows can’t produce milk; this means they are mere byproducts in the industry’s efforts to make more females. For this reason, farmers murder them the moment they are born: Male chicks are ground up alive in a blender, male cows are either sold for veal or killed within hours of birth. Mother cows will cry for their missing babies, sometimes so loudly that their vocal cords tear. I regularly speak to vegetarians who would rather eat dirt than eat veal, but the baby cow doesn’t care whether they are getting shot in the face for steak or cheese, and their mother will cry just as loudly either way. And these atrocities happen at every farm: If you think your farmer is different, ask them where all the male chickens are, or why there are more cows than bulls.

As a reluctant utilitarian, I think the numbers here are important, even if it feels ugly to talk about them. The pork industry produces about 140 pounds of meat per dead animal, and the beef industry gets approximately 470 pounds of flesh per head; the egg industry, meanwhile, makes a mere 35 pounds of food per animal lifespan. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this means that eating eggs actually kills more animals than eating beef or pork. I felt virtuous swapping out bacon for eggs; in reality, I was raising my kill count.

Dairy and eggs torture and kill animals just as surely and deliberately as the meat industry, often in greater quantities and worse ways.

Then, there is the less quantifiable matter of cruelty. If I woke up tomorrow in the body of a cow, after I finished cursing the heavens, I would start praying I was destined to become beef. Life in the beef industry is abysmal, but the alternative is among the worst our planet has to offer. Dairy cows spend their lives trapped in a revolving door of forced insemination, pregnancy, and child separation. Imagine going through all the physical pain of pregnancy and birth, followed by the emotional agony of losing one’s offspring, and going through all this again and again until they shoot you. Their bodies are the most cruelly contorted of any being: We have used drugs and artificial selection to balloon their udders to such obscene sizes that they can barely walk, and the repeated pregnancy and birthing of enormous calves adds to this strain on their lower body, often rendering them unable to stand. (The industry “solves” this problem by shackling their ankles together.) To quote Gary Francione, one of the most prominent animal rights theorists in history: “There is probably more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak.”

When I found out these uncomfortable truths, I realized that vegetarianism wasn’t good enough; in fact, it might not even be better than eating meat. Dairy and eggs torture and kill animals just as surely and deliberately as the meat industry, often in greater quantities and worse ways. So, sponsoring such products is no better. When a close friend of mine (ironically, a vegetarian) forced me to reckon with my hypocrisy, I knew veganism was my only option.

Veganism is a simple practice: If you don’t have to torture and kill an animal, don’t do it. Any product that comes from the abuse of animals is not to be funded. Cheese tastes nice; that does not justify stabbing a baby cow in the throat. It’s inconvenient to check for eggs on the ingredients list; that does not justify grinding up baby chicks alive. Vegetarians often tell me that veganism holds us to too high a standard, but when we talk about any moral issue, we apply this same form of absolutism. How many people should I assault? How much money should I steal? How many animals should I torture and kill? These are stupid questions, with the same answer: As little as possible, ideally none.

Vegetarianism is at best a philosophy of the unknowing, and at worst one of the unwilling. The vegetarian is either ignorant of the brutality inherent to their dairy and eggs, or they lack the moral strength to act on their knowledge. One who reads this article is a vegetarian no longer, or they have consigned themself to the second group.

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