Why We Don’t Eat Meat

By Gillian Murphy, G12 (with insights from The Grapevine team!)

In urban hubs around the world, vegan-friendly restaurants are sprouting up at an exponential rate; more and more often, menu items are accompanied by a capital “V,” indicating dietary diversity, and grocery stores are filled with dairy and meat alternatives. The vegetarian and vegan lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular, especially among youth, as humans grapple with the ethicality, climate effects, and health implications that come with eating meat.  A 2010 study by the Economic and Social Research Institution estimated that 75 million people worldwide have actively made the choice to be vegetarians (this number excludes 1,450 million that simply can’t afford meat).

Within the International School of Phnom Penh community, there is a robust population of vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, and flexitarians (semi-vegetarian). The school provides daily meat-free options in the cafeteria, and participates in Meatless Monday, where the majority of meal options are vegetarian. This thriving culture of alimentary awareness seemed far more prominent in ISPP than previous schools I’ve attended, so I decided to seek out some of ISPP’s vegetarians and discuss what drove them to change their diets. Here are their thoughts and journeys.


Meet the Interviewees

Ava: A 12th Grader at ISPP, and a vegetarian for six years.

Avery: An 11th Grader at ISPP, and a vegan for nearly two years.

Kat: A 12th Grader at ISPP, and a pescatarian for a year. (She would like to note, however, her flexibility, especially when a guest in someone’s home and when travelling to new countries; she personally finds it “important to try local dishes in order to experience the culture more intimately.”

Alessia: A 12th Grader at ISPP, and a pescatarian for ten months.


Why did you make the choice to change your dietary lifestyle?

Ava

One thing I think I’m characterized by is my compassion for animals. Since I’ve been able to, I have actively involved myself in animal welfare and rescue, volunteering, caring for, and fostering animals for the majority of my life. My passion for animals has simply translated into my diet; the switch to vegetarianism seemed a natural action for me to take at the time. The idea first came to me from my mom, who suggested it over a dinner conversation and followed it by a showing of the documentary film Vegucated. I then became vegan cold-turkey at 11 years old, switching to vegetarianism after experiencing some struggle finding the right nutritional resources overseas. Since then, I’ve noticed an increase in accessibility to the right products, as this is (excitedly!) becoming a more popularized lifestyle choice, and I’ve been slowly returning to my vegan diet as of late (so, if you are wanting to become vegan, don’t be discouraged!) Although it was a struggle at first, as I didn’t have much support outside of my family, my diet doesn’t even feel like anything out of the ordinary now. 

Avery

I decided to go vegan because I have a sensitive digestive system and I feel like I can’t complain about climate change if I’m contributing to the problem. 

Kat

I’d been thinking about it for a while, and I had already given up red meat for about a year. Then I watched “The Game Changers” a Documentary made in 2018 about Olympic Athletes who eat entirely plant-based diets. The next day, my parents and I became pescatarian, Ha! This experience was of course compounded by my personal knowledge of the environmental impacts of the meat eating industry. I am very aware that the fishing industry is terrible; however, I try my best to buy fish which I know aren’t endangered.

Alessia

It seems that eating meat – and knowing where it came from – never quite sat right with me. At the tender age of seven, I valiantly tried to convert myself to vegetarianism, for the animals of course, but failed upon realizing that I did not, in fact, like eating vegetables at the time. I tried again after watching Babe for the first time when I was ten but it seemed that meat was too much of an integral component in my family’s diet for me to get away from it. In retrospect, I think the role that meat played in my diet for the majority of my childhood was a result of my familial and cultural disposition; it always seemed to be at the centre of our meals, and no one ever really disputed that. 

Steadfast changes to my diet came a couple of years later; somehow I decided that cows were too innocent to serve as food and I cut beef (and all red meat) entirely out of my meals. This left me with only chicken and pork – foods that I never thought I would give up, but at the age of sixteen a culmination of revelations (about climate change and the meat production industry) led to my eventual break-up with meat on the whole. 


Do you think your choices are making a difference?

Ava

I do know that my choice is making a difference, even just on a minuscule scale. As we all know, this diet has proven environmental benefits individually, but personally, my lifestyle change has encouraged and even caused many of my friends and relatives to make the switch.

Avery
I know my choices are making a difference. My presence without any persuasion has turned someone vegan and others vegetarians. I also know that I am saving hundreds of gallons of water each day (according to sources like PETA), as well as trees and crops that could be used to feed people who don’t have access to food. 

Kat

Yes, definitely! Even if it isn’t to a huge extent. Every effort makes a difference and helps. Even just with the normalisation/representation of this kind of lifestyle/diet choice.

Alessia

Understanding the impact of meat production on climate change was a large factor of my decision; given my own privilege and an awareness of my ability to effect change solely through my diet, giving up pork chops didn’t sound like a big ask. An extension of this, and likely the tipping point for me, was the dire ethical violations concealed within the animal production industry. The phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ became all too real upon learning about the maltreatment of animals that are used for dairy or meat – I have found that education is essential in understanding the greater undercurrents of simple, seemingly non-threatening decisions like choosing chicken over tofu in the lunch line. I believe that making changes to your dietary lifestyle is largely about perspective, and with food production, we rarely see what takes place before a meal lands on our plates. I urge you to read up on what your diet means for the world beyond what you can see – because, I assure you, it does have an impact. 


Do you consider yourself an advocate for vegetarianism?

Ava

At this point, I’d say I’m not a very heavy advocate for vegetarianism, as it’s a normal part of my life and most of the people around me already take up a meatless lifestyle — I’d never pass up an opportunity to educate or give a little encouragement to someone who’s thinking about it though! I have never once regretted this lifestyle, and it comforts me to know that it not only helps the environment, but the animals that I care so much about.

Avery

 I do consider myself an advocate for veganism and a plant based lifestyle but quiet since this is something that I don’t talk about with my peers often as it generally is not dinner table conversation. It’s something that is hard for people to come to terms with, I believe that by just existing as a vegan I am making people consider changing their eating habits. 

Kat

No, I do not. I know first hand how off-putting it is when someone is continually in your face how their lifestyle is better than yours, which almost makes you more determined to continue on the path you already are, even if you are very aware of the consequences. 

Alessia

I do (not too aggressively so I hope)! For those curious about adopting new diets, I’ll say this: it’s much easier than you think! Within a couple of weeks of cutting out meat, I stopped really craving it or feeling the need to eat it and eventually I developed an aversion to meat entirely. In most respects, humans are highly adaptive, and we can grow accustomed to new diets and new foods (like tofu or oat milk – I disliked them at first but they are now fully integrated into my diet) within a short period of time. Also, the labels formed and lines drawn when we talk about ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘veganism’ can be a little intense – being selective about what you do and do not cut out of your meals is allowed (and encouraged!) for your own health and personal taste. For instance, I don’t eat eggs and I substitute cow’s milk with oat or almond milk for the most part but I choose to keep fish in my diet (largely because of sushi). This is not entirely vegetarian or vegan of me, but that doesn’t mean my actions aren’t impactful. Lastly, make sure those around you support your dietary choices – social pressures can certainly push you either for or against vegetarianism, so make sure no one is pushing their lifestyle on you too harshly. All of this is to say, don’t be afraid to educate yourself on the implications of your diet and make decisions about your eating habits independently. 


Now back to the authorial perspective, if I may forgo some journalistic conventions: throughout my life, I’ve toyed with the concept and ethicality of my diet. I am an empathetic, animal-loving, environmentally-conscious, liberal individual, but for some reason, vegetarianism never seemed like a viable option. I lay blame upon the cultures in which I was raised, in part, for surrounding me with disparaging jokes against vegans and an aggressive attitude towards non-meat diets (they’re out to convert us all! It’s not natural!). I also hold myself accountable for my misperceptions, though, because the materials to educate oneself on these diets are ample. There’s documentaries like “Food, Inc.,” “Earthlings,” “The Game Changers,” and “Cowspiracy.” There’s websites and Instagram accounts dedicated to documenting how to live and dine sustainably. As mentioned, vegan and vegetarian options have experienced vast improvements in only the past few years, so being vegan doesn’t mean eternal condemnation to cold tofurkey and a plate of green beans.

 After arriving in Cambodia, and becoming friends with quite a few vegetarians, I saw how simple it was to make gradual changes. I am now pescatarian-plus-chicken, with plans to whittle this down further, and I find that I am driven to make these decisions from a standpoint of ethicality, environment, and health. I am also aware of the fallacies in the idea that these dietary changes are enough to feel unburdened by these issues; for those who desire environmental and ethical change, there lies a sea of problems to tackle beyond diet. Yet I do believe that every action can be impactful, no matter how small, especially when minor changes are made by the masses.

This is not a demand for veganism, nor a diss directed towards meat-eaters, nor an attempt to create feelings of guilt. As visible in the responses from this medley of vegetarians, pescatarians, and vegans, selecting a diet is not a black and white choice, and it can be motivated by a variety of factors. This is simply a window into certain outlooks, an opportunity to facilitate conversation, and hopefully a chance for self-reflection.

Image courtesy of Chuck Bennis

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