As you probably already know, vegetarianism and veganism go hand-in-hand with feminism. As feminists, we fight for many rights and ideas, so don't forget to include animals and other living creatures on that list. If you are new to the concept, a good source is Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory.
In this country, where meat-eating is extremely common and constantly encouraged, vegetarianism and veganism, also referred to as cruelty-free eating, is not nearly as common as it is in places like India, where it is part of the people's religion, and therefore dictates their diet.
People are vegetarians or vegans for a variety of reasons. Generally speaking, in the United States, about 90% of farm animals are birthed, raised, used and slaughtered for food. Only a small percentage of them are used for the purpose of clothing, entertainment and so on, not that the latter reasons are any more...well, fair.
Here are some reasons people choose to stop eating meat and other animal by-products, such as dairy and eggs. They're accompanied by relevant statistics. Please keep in mind, these statistics were gathered several years back, so the numbers may have changed slightly, but the concept is there.
~The ethical argument (perhaps the most prevalent reason people switch from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one): Massive animal farms across this country mistreat animals in ways most people cannot imagine. From birth until death, the sole reason these animals exist is to satisfy human urge for the taste of animal meat and animal by-products. Any studies that show otherwise tend to be conducted by the dairy industry.
For instance: you need 3 glasses of low-fat milk per day to remain healthy, and meat is the most effective source of protein: neither of these ideas are true, but we are taught to think this from a very early age. Yet people eat cruelty-free all around the world, even in this country, and they live long and fulfilling lives.
~The hunger argument:
Number of people in America: 243 million (at the time this data was collected)
Number of people worldwide who will die of starvation this year: 60 million
Number of people who could be fed with grain and soybeans now being eaten by US livestock: 1.3 billion
The idea here is that we are feeding 80% of corn grown in the US and 95% of our oats to our livestock. If Americans would reduce their meat intake by just 10%, those 60 million people who starve each year could be fed. A bit of a doozy, isn't it?
There are a variety of other arguments, such as the environmental argument, the natural resources argument (gallons of water needed to produce a pound of wheat= 25...gallons of water needed to produce a pound of meat= 2,500), the cholesterol argument (heart disease, anyone?), the antibiotic argument (pesticides do more harm than good) and the cancer argument (women who eat meat more than 4 times/week vs. fewer than 1 time/week are at 4 times more risk of breast cancer).
Then there is, of course, the survival argument. By that, I mean people believe that we could not be at our healthiest without meat as part of our diet. They argue that the reason our brains developed to such advanced thought processes was because meat became a part of our diet. But people have eaten cruelty-free for decades at a time, even from birth, and there have been no signs of lesser brain development among them. Moreover, as far as physical fitness goes, talk to Dave Scott, the 6-time winner of the Ironman Triathlon. He's a vegetarian. Go figure.
Obviously, no matter how much data is thrown at us, we can't be expected to become vegetarians overnight. It's a gradual transition, perhaps in the same way we transitioned from buggies to automobiles. And just think: if you wouldn't eat your pet dog or cat, why would you eat a cow or a pig? Is there much difference?
If you would like to learn more, here are some useful websites:
http://www.meatout.org/ (a grassroots organization focusing on dieting education)
http://www.farmusa.org/ (this group fights specifically for farmed animals' rights, taking the ethical standpoint)
http://www.tryveg.com/cfi/toc/ (a website that gives you eating tips, since vegetarian food is not all bland, as many might claim)
As a final thought, a quote from Peter Cheeke, PhD, from his 2004 textbook, Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture: "Do we, as humans, having an ability to reason and to communicate abstract ideas verbally and in writing, and to form ethical and moral judgements using the accumulated knowledge of the ages, have the right to take the lives of other sentient organisms, particularly when we are not forced to do so by hunger or dietary need, but rather do so for the somewhat frivolous reason that we like the taste of meat? In essence, do we know better?"
Photo credit: mooshee85, Flickr