Leaving the "Twilight Zone" and Embracing Ethical Eating

05/26/2015 04:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

"And after all this, no one ever mentions vegetarianism," said my mom, after we finished watching the 2006 dramedy Fast Food Nation.

I stumbled to come up with a response. "At least Avril Lavigne's a vegetarian," I said finally, referring to one of the film's stars.

But mom had a good point. Why make a 2-hour flick tearing apart the fast food business--its cruelty, its lack of workplace safety, its environmental effects--and never once use the word "vegetarian"? The movie makes its point that modern food production involves questionable ethics, but does not follow up with a call to action. Ditto for the documentaries Super Size Me and Food, Inc. Al Gore told us we were entering an environmental danger zone in An Inconvenient Truth, but never explicitly said what we could do about it.

The conversation between mom and me happened years ago, but it remained relevant into my college days. Despite aiming for a neutral tone throughout (including when covering mad cow and other diseases caused by prion proteins--feeding meat to animals or humans that aren't meant to eat it), writers of my university biology textbook still inserted a short plug warning against the hazards of a vegetarian diet (make sure you get those essential amino acids!) yet included nothing about the numerous side effects of meat consumption.

Even more recently, when conducting research for an upcoming cookbook, I came across a fun, informative book called That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles by Dr. Joe Schwarcz. In one part of the book, he discussed the most toxic substance humans have ever produced and the most potent carcinogen tested on animals: dioxin. Exposure to this harmful substance is unavoidable; however, Schwarcz concludes, "Since about ninety-five percent of our exposure comes from animal fat, switching to a low-fat diet helps."

I couldn't believe what I was reading. This was written by an intelligent, articulate professor at one of the most prestigious universities in Canada. Schwarcz's book was great, but that sentence was completely illogical. If animal fat is the culprit, a high-fat diet rich in nuts and olive oil won't do anything to my dioxin levels, but even so-called lean cuts will. Fat is not the problem here.

As I touch on in a satire I wrote for my business blog just a few months ago during yet another mad cow scare, whenever there's an outbreak of mad cow, E. coli contamination, or salmonella poisoning, news reports never question the "food" product altogether. Instead, they shame the brand that issued the recall. Media outlets seem almost afraid to directly address the main culprit, sending the subliminal message to viewers that meat must be consumed at all costs. There is just no other way to eat.

It really hit home for me when Kip Anderson said that he felt like he was stuck in some sort of "Cowspiracy Twilight Zone." The problem was right in front of us, and no one wanted to name it. The concept of simply not eating meat and thus refusing to partake in this brutal, exploitative system, escaped people. This is because agribusiness has invested billions of dollars in keeping us complacent through using their influence in the media, government, educational institutions, and environmental organizations. Even our language was affected. There was nowhere their hand couldn't reach.

But slowly, maybe even within the last year or so, I started to notice a public shift in consciousness. Maybe it was because of documentaries that addressed animal rights more directly, like Cowspiracy (2014) and Black Fish (2013). As people lose interest in fast food, Colonel Sanders tries to revamp his image. Freelee the Banana Girl converts thousands of people to veganism with a diet that would have once been considered extreme. The March Against Monsanto now includes around 400 cities worldwide. People are searching for a different way to eat.

Maybe we're finally ready to wake up. Or maybe I'm just an optimist.

(Note: this post also appears on my personal blog.)

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