Why I am a vegetarian
In August 2017, Samtiden magazine arranged a vegan dinner in the offices of Aschehoug Publishing with 80 specially selected guests. I was asked to speak: Why did I become a vegetarian 23 years ago? Here's my speech. Of course, I respect that others make different choices than me. I hope you respect my choice ;)
WHY I AM VEGETARIAN by Margreth Olin
Samtiden magazine has asked me to tell you why I became a vegetarian. To me, it's a story that touches on culture, traditions, values, family, realtionships and what it means to be a human being.
The average Sunnmøring (a person from Sunnmøre in Norway) eats 75 kilos of meat per year. I come from the little town Stranda in Sunnmøre, where they produce the wildly popular pizza Grandiosa as well as Strandaskinke (a whole range of cured meats). The town hall is even nicknamed Skinkerådhuset, which means City Hall of Ham. Based on this, one could assume that this meat consumption generalization suited all of us. But I have not eaten meat in 23 years. What happened?
All weekends and vacations were spent with my father's family at their farm in Oldedalen in Nordfjord, or the farm in Hornindal, where my mother grew up. My uncle and aunt never went on holiday, they had animals to take care of. Animals that did not have numbered tags in their ears, but names, and who got to spend their summers roaming the fields. The farm workers got quieter than usual when the animals were picked up for slaughter in the fall. The first real farewell scenes I witnessed were between animals and humans. The animals' different personalities were talked about around the dinner table in the big kitchen. If animals were slaughtered on the farm, the meat was eaten, including the innards. The skin was used, the bones became broth, and the remains were buried by the apple trees in hope for a good apple harvest next year. Even though the calves were taken from their mothers just after birth and the animals were there solely because of the use we got out of them, the family farm was run on nature's terms.
The year I started school I got my first pet: Pus. I had Pus for 17 years. We shared my pillow and intimate secrets. Pus was a female cat, she never had kittens, I felt she got enough love at home, she did not have to "go to the village to get it" (which is what we said about people who were unfaithful). When I was ten years old, I got a horse. Fidel was male, just a foal at that time. A shining white arab between the Sunnmøre Alps. Fidel followed me for 29 years. I was at the stable every day. Once a week I fed silver foxes at the fur farm just outside the stable. Because of that, I know a few things about abnormal behavior and stress disorders in animals who live their lives in tight cages. I was an observant child and I saw what their cramped lives did to them. On my 16th birthday, all the sows at the farm suddenly got paralyzed in their backs and hind legs. One by one, they all fell down. A virus spread through the barn within hours. I spent the whole night massaging the pigs, refusing to give up hope that they would stand back up, but none did. The whole herd was slaughtered. When I got home to my birthday cake long past bedtime, everyone claimed that no one in the family had ever stunk so badly like a pig.
Parallel to this, my entire childhood, I suffered from severe, chronic stomach pains. Nerves, said the doctor. Nobody thought of what I ate and drank. Meat as a part of my most of my meals six days a week. Milk as a thirst quencher.
Fidel and I moved away from Stranda when I turned 19. I started media studies in Bergen. I sat in the reading room and longed for home. The homesickness brought me back to Stranda when it was time to make my exam film. It got the title "In the House of Love" ("I Kjærleikens Hus") and was filmed at Ringstad Farming, a destruction plant that received slaughterhouse waste: Sometimes, the last few days before the holidays, the workers would find dead cats and dogs left on the doorstep of the plant when they got to work in the morning. The enormous machines in the hall painstakingly crushed everything, making a gruesome sound and giving off a terrible stench of decay from all the dead things thrown into them. The employees boasted the machines were "proper solid". They were developed and produced by the German company Krupp after World War II. Innards and whole, rotted carcasses; seals, pets, various animals who had died of illness or injury up in the mountains - everything was crushed, ground and cooked. At the other end bone meal and fat came out, which was used to make feed for pigs for poultry. The employees at the plant told me the return of meat waste back into the food chain was the direct cause of the development of mad cow disease in England. Therefore, the feed was not given to cattle in Norway. Only to pigs and poultry. Today that waste is sorted. The fat is divided into two categories. The first category includes brains and spinal cords, and can not be used to make feed. This so-called risk waste is used, for example, in the production of cement or sold abroad, where it is used in bio diesel. The second category is veterinary approved and still used to make feed for pigs and poultry. The bone meal is an important ingredient in pet food.
My first movie was about the food the animals ate, and thus what people consumed. After making this movie I watched documentary films and read up on the industrialization of animal husbandry. I stopped eating meat and my stomach ache disappeared.
My near, dear ones and distant acquaintances all agreed : Having a veggie in their circle was annoying! What would they serve me if I came to visit? Could I take responsibility for my own food? Of course I could. I became the unrealistic idealist.
What's the reality here? And who does it relate to? In order to be able to eat cheap meat and cheaper burgers, people actively choose to ignore animal suffering, they ignore fact that modern animal husbandry causes diseases and that it destroys the environment. In many countries, the family farm has been exchanged with factory farms, where live animals are deprived of movement, deprived of their natural environment in such a way that they become diseased and/or injured, and therefore they are subjected to extensive use of antibiotics and genetic engineering.
The meat industry is one of the top two environmental challenges in the world today. Is it still possible to eat meat and at the same time call yourself an environmentalist?
Due to the desire for the as much short-term profit as possible, industrialized agriculture has to work against the laws of nature. Global consequences are climate change, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity. The animals have to grow as quickly as possible so that they can be slaughtered and converted into money. In meeting the absence of animal welfare in the factory facilities, I had to ask myself: How much suffering am I willing to accept for food to cost so little? My answer was clear: None!
I've been around enough animals to know who they are. We know when animals suffer, it can be seen, it can be heard and it can be felt. I see animals as individuals. To me, animals have rights according to their needs, regardless of species, race, gender, age and status in our human lives.
During my life I have written quite a few lists. I like lists. My boyfriends have received postcards from my travels, letters for birthdays and Christmas. With lists. Some lists have been about them, in an effort to say who they are, to me. Here is one such list:
wild and beautiful
brave on your best days
You are my best friend!
This is not a list about Roy, Thomas or Per. It's a list describing Fidel, my constant companion since I was 10 until I became 39. It's still the longest lasting relationship I've had.
I am a vegetarian. Maria, my oldest daughter, is vegan. When I was asked to give a speech at this dinner, she said: Mom, out of all the stories you've told me, it's the story of when you went to the butcher that left the biggest impression. Here it is:
He was black. One of the wisest beings I have met. He moved with dignity, even though his legs were worn out. One of the real big sprinters. He had won races in many countries, traveled in several continents. He had earned big money for his owners. A racing machine, some may say. But he was no machine. He was a dazzlingly beautiful stallion, caring in his encounter with the mares he was to impregnate. He could never let them go after, he really loved them. He was never dangerous to us stable workers. He had experienced and traveled more than most people who were in that stable. The day he was no longer fruitful, had no utility for the owners, it was my task to bring him to the slaughterhouse. He trusted me. And I him. Therefore I was not afraid when I took him out of the horse trailer in front of Ole Ringdal Butchers at Hellesylt. I was brokenhearted. I was 17 years old. I did not have enough money to buy him and give him a the decent old age that he deserved. I held the rope and put my hand on his mane, I thought it would be better that I was leading him rather than someone he did not know. The pigs were stowed together. Sheep. The stench of blood in wide-open nostrils. The animals' warm breath rising in the cold air.
We walked next to each other into the building on the hard concrete floor. They came with chains but I shook my head. It's not necessary, I said. Throughout the aisle I whispered to you; This is not necessary. Your legs were stiffer than usual. And you held my gaze. King of Troy. That day I gave myself a promise. Animals that are under my care will never die that way.
"Don't you eat meat? Why not?" People ask me on a regular basis. "For health reasons," I usually answer. But if you're now asking me seriously and perhaps will even listen to my answer: To me it's about giving meaning to what it is to be a human being.