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Meat you in the middle

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This past February marked my 25th anniversary as a vegetarian/almost vegan. This is also the first time I have ever written about my choice to go meatless in any professional sense, despite having a forum for the last 19 years.

I've never been preachy about it—it was a personal decision then and it remains a personal decision today even if the stakes are a lot higher when it comes to the planet. My wife is not a vegetarian and I haven't forced it on my daughter. Live and let live, I say, both to animals and the people who eat them.

I've also kept it quiet because it's one of those facts that seems to outrage people or immediately put them on the defensive. I really don't need to hear everyone's story about why they simply need to eat meat—I've heard it all, from the faulty scientific and anthropological justifications to simple but honest statements like "I know it's bad for the planet, but I like meat too much."

There's a lot of weird defensive posturing around meat. People will loudly proclaim their "meatitarian" status, even though there's nothing particularly manly about grilling up some red meat you bought at a grocery store. Eating bacon doesn't make you edgy or quirky, whatever the internet says.

While these may be fighting words, I swear that I'm not out to convert anybody—just to share a few thoughts on why people should at least consider cutting down.

In 1993, I took a road trip from Halifax to New Orleans, La. for Mardi Gras, breaking a few minor laws and rental car regulations in the process. It was insane—you have to drive north over 500 kilometres, around the Bay of Fundy, before you can even begin the long drive south. The total trip took 42 hours each way.

After a week of intense partying, watching the parades, and taking in the most incredible southern blues, jazz and rock musicians you can imagine, none of us were feeling all that great on the return journey. We ate too much fast food made of too much questionable meat: too many burgers, chicken sandwiches, bacon sandwiches, shrimp po'boys, and the 10 types of mystery meat in the gumbo served out of the trunks of cars off the main parade routes. By the time we reached the Canadian border, I had angry pimples growing out of both temples that looked like devil horns.

At this lowish point in my life, I was already thinking about going vegetarian for a variety of reasons, most of them environmental. I knew a few people that had already made the switch and I knew I would be fine.

My road trip, and all the disgusting things going on in my body, at last gave me a justification to switch to a plant-based diet. I skipped meat dishes, and instead loaded up on the good things behind my college's cafeteria counter. Almost overnight I felt better. The devil horns faded, and my extended hangover was cured. I was now part of the solution AND feeling like a million bucks.

I did slip up a little at first, but by the end of that summer I knew I would never eat meat again.

It wasn't easy. Most restaurants in the early '90s had no vegetarian options on the menu—even salads had chicken or bacon. There was no Yves, Gardein, Daiya, or any of the other vegetarian/vegan brands in the stores that make it so effortless today. Even tofu was hard to get.

But I stuck to my lack of guns, and over time a growing number of people made the same personal decision I made, creating a whole new market for meat alternatives and vegetarian options.

Only five per cent of Canadians currently identify as vegetarian, about 1.75 million people, but over 30 per cent—around 12 million—are now consciously eating less meat—which is all I'm asking people to do. (Apparently we can also save the world by eating bugs, but I'm guessing A&W's new "Beyond Meat" burger is probably an easier sell for most of us.)

Since 1993, the world's population has grown by 1.7 billion mostly meat eaters. The meat industry has also surpassed all the world's ships, cars, trains and planes for carbon production, and is a leading factor in climate change—the reason our glaciers are melting, our forests burning, and we're seeing so many record temperatures and freak weather events.

A lot of things need to change if humanity is going to survive the next 1.7 billion people. Meat consumption is one of them.

The good news is that it's both easy and economical to cut down. After 25 years spent justifying my decision, it's more socially acceptable as well.

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