How Vegetarians Love Our Neighbors

When I was eight, we spent part of a year living across a country road from a cattle feedlot. This was a plot of land dedicated to feeding a few thousand cattle. The cattle’s owners, mostly investors, kept them there on consignment so they could spend their short lives mostly standing around and eating. They were fattened and shipped to slaughterhouses to become steaks, burgers, and sausages.

I didn’t enjoy the smell that drifted across the road when the wind came from that direction, but otherwise I didn’t think much about it. This was part of the landscape in the places where I grew up. Even the smell itself was part of the background. As I recently heard one woman describe her own childhood in farm and ranch country, “It was the smell of money.”

And money it is. The meat and poultry industry has an $864.2 billion impact on the U.S. economy each year. That’s about 6 percent of gross domestic product. Almost everyone I knew and loved in my childhood was making a living through agriculture, and most of them worked with livestock.

Even when we moved to the city when I was teenager, many of our neighbors made their living in the stockyards that still thrived then, before buying and selling livestock became a business conducted mostly over the Internet.

On the surface, there was nothing about my childhood that conditioned me to choose vegetarianism.

But below the surface was a very important reason: I was taught to love my neighbors.

People often ask me why I’m a vegetarian. Some ask respectfully, others not so much. In general, people are more respectful than they were when I made this choice almost 20 years ago, but a lot of Christians still think being a vegetarian is weird and assume it’s motivated by some kind of pagan earth-worshiping impulse. On the contrary, there are several Christ-honoring reasons to choose a vegetarian diet.

Here’s one: Vegetarian eating is a great way to love your neighbors–particularly those neighbors who are scattered around our globe in places where they don’t have the luxury of choosing how to eat.

Consider this:

  • Worldwide, 884 million people lack access to clean water.
  • The average person in a developing-country slum uses less water in an entire day than an American uses in a five-minute shower.
  • Women spend 200 million hours a day collecting water for their families, when they otherwise could be earning a living or getting an education and raising their families out of poverty.
  • Producing just one hamburger requires 634 gallons of water. In this country, the water used is mostly potable, safe drinking water.
  • To produce just one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water, plus 6.6 pounds of grain.
  • By contrast, producing. . .

. . . 1 pound of soybeans requires 216 gallons of water.

. . . 1 pound of wheat requires 132 gallons of water.

. . . 1 pound of potatoes requires 119 gallons of water.

  • Most Americans are eating more protein than they need.
  • In fact, most Americans are eating too much protein from animal sources and harming their health as a result. The average American consumes about twice as much protein as recommended.
  • In the United States, the animals raised for food outweigh the human population by about five times. We raise more than 9 billion livestock each year–in a country with just over 300 million people.
  • In the United States, livestock consume more than 7 times as much grain as the entire human population. The amount of grain we feed to our livestock is enough to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of the world lives on a plant-based diet because they have no other choice. While we complain about our bulging guts, many get barely enough to eat, and some are malnourished. We feed most of our grain to animals simply so we can consume more meat than we need. In my view, this is hard–maybe impossible–to justify.

We have the luxury of choosing what and how much to eat. Some vegetarians are motivated by a desire to honor God with that choice by intentionally consuming less of what we might take for granted but most of the world finds precious.

My point is not to condemn anyone for eating meat. After all, most people are simply eating the way they are conditioned to eat. And every day we all make complex choices that–knowingly or not–have a negative impact on other people. I just want to spread a little understanding where I often find suspicion.

Next time a downer vegetarian discreetly brings a veggie burger to the barbecue, please try not to assume the person is self-righteous, judgmental, or extreme. Go a little easy and remember he or she probably is just trying, like many of us, to do the right thing. And why not consider curbing your meat consumption and trying a veggie burger yourself? After all, giving up just one hamburger means instead of giving 634 gallons of water to an animal raised for slaughter, you have the potential to give 10,144 cups of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10:42) to someone who’s never known what it’s like to push away from the table with a full stomach.


  1. Kate says:

    Amy these numbers are great to see, and give a clarity on some of the benefits to others. It is funny too because I had just been thinking about a barbecue where I would arrive packing veggie burgers in my purse!

  2. Teresa Fiksen says:

    I am glad to see you living by your heart-felt convictions. We all need to live from our hearts, and what God places inside of us.

  3. Lunch today was potatoe salad on organic greens dressed with Italian and the biggest, juciest tomatoe I have ever eaten! I also eat meat, but on days like this, I thought, “Who needs it?” Eating simply is a wonderful way to love others. For the last couple years, my family has designated Wednesday nights for eating a little lighter and less so we can have more to share with others. For one year, our kids chose oatmeal every Wednesday! It also gave me a break from cooking!

  4. anonymous says:

    What I find amazing/impressive/probably hard is: you’re not mad at your husband for eating meat.

    • Amy says:

      That’s funny! Fortunately, he doesn’t eat it a lot. But sometimes he gets mad at me for not eating meat! I have to admit, I make his culinary life harder than he makes mine.

      • The Hubby says:

        More like frustrated, really. I’m not mad when we’re rediculously hungry and surrounded by steak houses and “nowhere” to eat. Frustrated, yes. Mad, no. However, I’d also say a good dose of thankful is in there somewhere, as I know I am a much healthier man due to your choices. I’m a passive carnivore.:)

  5. In April I made the switch to a plant-based diet. I had watched one too many documentaries and since I was blessed (or is it cursed?!) with a deep need to follow through on the things that stir me up… I decided to give it a go for just a month. Here we are months later & I have never felt better. For me, it became a choice of honoring what I know the Lord delights in: he called his creation good. I want to honor that. I cannot make sense of pigs cruelly beaten and corralled to the point of injury or the fact that in America so much food is thrown out when across the world children sleep starving.

    I’m not against the eating of meat, but I do believe we, the Church, can do better here. We could eat more locally, work to see that the animals {expressions of God’s creativity!} are treated fairly, and that our hunger for McDonald’s does not trump our hunger for justice in the poorest places of the world.

    Now, planning my first vegetarian Thanksgiving. Any tip? 🙂

    • Amy says:

      Kristen, I’m with you. I don’t believe it’s wrong to eat meat–but I can’t justify the process by which most meat finds its way to our plates.

      I’ve never planned a vegetarian Thanksgiving because I’ve always been with a group of family members and the traditional favorites. But my very favorite recipes are from the Moosewood cookbooks. They might have some that would work well for a Thanksgiving feast.

  6. Oh, yay, Amy, my kindred spirit! Love this post! I love the facts you cite here. So true. I read Matthew Scully’s Dominion and I’ve never been the same. He asked a single question that really nailed it home for me. “Do you agree that the way animals [intended for consumption] are inhumanely treated?” Most people know they are and willing admit it. Then he continues, “If you can agree with this and still eat meat, then you are allowing your appetite to dictate your morality.” Tough words.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.