Musings On My Recent Road Trip by Esther Nelson

I love a road trip.  It’s exciting to get behind the wheel of a car, get out on the highway (or bi-way), and just go.  The road seems to stretch out forever in front of me, full of possibilities, adventure, and fun.  Again, this summer I drove two thirds of the way across the United States from Virginia to New Mexico and back again.  I varied my route because why not?  The country is vast and diverse.  I want to see as much of it as I can.  The broad, open, colorful skies of Texas and New Mexico.  The wheat fields in Kansas.  The green, rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee.  On this particular trip back to Virginia, though, one of the sights disturbed me deeply.

The second day of my journey eastward, I drove from Amarillo, Texas, to Springfield, Missouri.  All along the panhandle of Texas and into Oklahoma, I encountered feedlots.  These are places where cattle live for several months in order to fatten up before slaughter.  The animals are fed grain (mainly corn), growth hormones, and antibiotics.  They live in crowded spaces and in the feedlots I saw, the cattle had difficulty walking due to the layers of muck, mire, and manure all over the ground.  I could smell a feedlot long before I saw one.  The stench nauseated me.

My first response to seeing these places was grief.  Sentient beings in these places are needlessly tortured and exploited for profit.  Why is it that, for the most part, we turn a blind eye to the suffering of animals raised exclusively to become food on our dinner plate?  In the U.S., most of us don’t tolerate the torture and killing of dogs, cats, and other animals we consider to be pets.   We even have organizations in place to protect these creatures from cruel and inhumane treatment.  Yet, what we call farm animals—cows, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, and chickens—these beings are cruelly treated day in and day out, month after month, year after year before being killed.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it seems wasteful to use tons and tons of grain to fatten up cattle.  With far less negative impact to our fragile environment, that grain could go far to feed the world’s population.  Rather than feed grain to cattle in feedlots—a practice that pollutes the air we breathe, the land we live on, and the water we drink—we could put a huge dent in eradicating hunger.  After all, it takes a lot less grain to feed a hungry person than a hungry cow.  In addition, contrary to what many people believe, animal protein is not essential for human growth and well-being.  One can easily obtain all the essential amino acids needed to sustain health from grains and vegetables.

The growth hormones and antibiotics given to farm animals, of course, find their way into our own bodies when we eat meat.  For years we’ve had to battle what the medical establishment calls super-bugs—bacteria that have become antibiotic-resistant due to our overuse of these drugs.  Most antibiotics are consumed by farm animals prophylactically to keep them disease-free in preparation for their slaughter.

I grew up consuming animals and their products, believing for a long time what I had been taught.  Eating meat was all within God’s “perfect plan” for human beings.  The Biblical story (Genesis 4) telling about God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering (animals or “firstlings of his flock”) and not Cain’s (plants or “fruit of the ground”) somehow made meat-eating seem like a holy act.  In my experience, eating meat translated into doing God’s will on earth.  I’ve heard people say, “It’s just un-American NOT to eat meat” and “Even Jesus ate fish” within the context of their striving to live a righteous, Biblical, and godly life.

Almost all meat in our markets today is factory-farmed.  Animals live in tortuous, squalid conditions, awaiting death—something that often happens slowly and painfully.  (There are many videos filmed undercover available to see on You Tube showing these atrocities.)  I realize that not all animals raised for food are factory-farmed.  Some animals, especially in rural areas, are raised on family farms and are not subject to the cruelty of feedlots.  For me, though, the unnecessary death of sentient beings outweighs any argument in favor of consuming them.

My argument, I realize, is not water-tight.  After all, don’t plants have consciousness?  Are they not sentient?  Do they not also enjoy life and want to prolong their own existence?  What right do I have to kill plants in order to sustain my own?  All good questions.  When people raise such questions, I’ve found it’s often because they want to continue eating their hamburgers without being “harassed” as they sometimes complain.  My question as response is: Why would I continue to eat meat knowing the suffering cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, goats, and sheep endure on their way to my plate just because I am unsure about the nature of plant consciousness?

I don’t have crystal-clear answers.  Is “plant consciousness” the same thing as “animal consciousness?”  What difference, if any, does that make?  What I DO know is that those factory-farmed sentient beings we call animals live out their lives in horrible conditions and die painful deaths in order to satisfy our palates.  Since I do not need to consume animals in order to sustain my own life, why would I eat them knowing full well that they suffer cruel lives and deaths?

In this time of political upheaval, many of us have vowed to live kinder, gentler lives.  Why not start making an impact in places where we know suffering happens instead of speculating about whether or not suffering happens in other places?  Exercising compassion right here, right now on our dinner plates.  As culture moves forward and we evolve, we may see more clearly.  When we see better, we can then do better.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

18 thoughts on “Musings On My Recent Road Trip by Esther Nelson”

  1. I live in the Panhandle of Texas. Cattle raised on grass on ranches are much healthier. A quarter of the beef consumed in the US comes from within a 100 mile radius of Amarillo, mostly fed out in feedlots. At the age of 8 my grandson decided to be a vegetarian for the exact reasons you articulate.


  2. Well said! I have been a vegetarian for 20 years, and am vegan at home. In my rural area, it’s hard to eat out with friends or at their houses as a vegan, so I do consume eggs or cheese on those occasions. But once I understood factory farming, I felt like a hypocrite continuing to eat meat. And discussions of combating climate change need to incorporate the role of meat consumption.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Leanne. There are so many ramifications (and you’ve noted a huge one–climate change) to the practice of meat production and consumption. Everything we do interconnects and, therefore, all of our actions have wide-ranging effects. Mindfulness is so important.


  3. Thank you for this post, Esther, and all the information you share. I have been happily vegetarian for over thirty years. I believe plants are also sentient in their plant-like way. The fruits of plants are intended to be eaten as that is one way the plant spreads, though humans with their flush toilets are of little use, unlike birds and other plant-eating mammals.

    The political, economic, moral, and health quandaries are not limited to the factory farming of meat. There are a host of new issues presented by genetically modified grains, Monsanto’s determination to control seed supply, pesticides that endanger pollinators and poison soil and ground water. All of the above also affect the health agricultural workers. Not eating factory-raised meat is a start, but all are food sources need to be considered.

    I am fortunate to live in an area where a lot of local food is grown organically–including in my back yard. I am a member of a food co-op that has been open for forty years. Even my local supermarket has a section where I can buy organic corn chips that from non-GMO corn. Affluent neighborhoods in the cities also have access to farmer’s markets. But many people do not have such access or if they did cannot afford the higher prices of organically grown food.

    Right now, the odds are against it, but I would like to envision a world where everyone can know the source of their food. Urban gardening has great potential. Community supported agricultural is a new model that is making small, local farms more possible. What can we do? Pay attention to what is going on with food production and politics (for example the proposed Bayer Monsanto merger). Speak out when we can. Get to know the local farms in our areas, if we are lucky enough to have them, support them in whatever way we can.

    I believe the whole planet is sentient, the soil, the water, the air. It is an edible planet. We all eat and are eaten to sustain life. We are what we eat. We are the earth.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, thanks Elizabeth, for broadening out the whole issue of food and food production. You are absolutely right. I do see more and more people becoming aware and caring about where our food is sourced. We’ve a long way to go, though, and you’ve presented some of those problems so articulately. Your last paragraph: “I believe the whole planet is sentient, the soil, the water, the air. It is an edible planet. We all eat and are eaten to sustain life. We are what we eat. We are the earth,” is stunningly beautiful and poetic!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I once lived downwind of a feed lot in central Illinois. It was pigs. And when I was in junior high, my class had a field trip to a slaughterhouse. It was awful. But I still eat meat. And I believe that plants also have consciousness, as does everything else. I think it’s Theosophy that teaches this.

    Yes, the questions you raise have extremely complex answers, if they have answers at all. Thanks for asking the questions and making us think.


    1. Thank you for commenting, Barbara. Have never heard of school field trips to slaughter-houses! What were the educational goals in mind back when you were in junior high? I imagine people today would be in an uproar about such a proposed trip. But perhaps if more people saw and understood the horror of such places, meat-consumption would wane. Just a thought! It happened to Juliana’s grandson (first comment on this post)!


  5. I agree. Eating animals is bad for the animals and for the environment . The only excuse for continuing to eat them is taste and convention, which to me don’t justify the huge amount of suffering.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The only being I see benefiting from eating is the “eat-er”, never the “eat-ee”, whether it is a bug, a cow, or a carrot, something living dies in becoming part of me and my dinner. I guess in the Wild this is a way of preserving the strongest and smartest of a species who learn how to avoid being food for another. When it comes to humans, so many things go off the rails.

    I am a “failed vegetarian”. I liked the idea, but my body didn’t – so as one who values being compassionate toward other beings, and healthy myself, those are the things I try to practice. Like the First Nations People here I eat with respect and thank the spirit of that which died for me. I buy from as close to home as possible, from local people. People sometimes think it is more expensive to buy local meat, but I find it is denser and leaner, so less is needed. And of course, carrots, beets, etc. sourced locally actually have taste and natural colour.

    Perhaps we need to go back to the idea of “grace before and after meals” and eat with reverence and awareness not only about where and how we source our food, but also the reality of hunger and waste, and what we can do to improve life for all.

    A very vast and important subject for thought. Thanks for starting it Esther.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Are you familiar with a nonprofit organization Farm Sanctuary?
    Excellent and effective…wonder if you can use your voice in union with their work? Thanks for your important piece.


    1. Yes, Karla, I am familiar with Farm Sanctuary and even visited their facility in California. I would like to get to their location in New York as well. It is an excellent organization. Thanks.


  8. This is such a beautiful, heart-rending piece. Thank you. As a long-time vegetarian who is vegan at home, I agree with your perspective. You said “Since I do not need to consume animals in order to sustain my own life, why would I eat them knowing full well that they suffer cruel lives and deaths?” and this is similar to part of how I reply to people’s inquiries, although I take it beyond that to the knowing that since I am an animal as well, I can easily relate to even “well treated” animals taken off to slaughter — so why would I participate in that *when I don’t need to to survive*. Then, going beyond their suffering, we also have the pollution of our waters, land and air from factory farming. As for plant consciousness, of course plants are conscious! When one speaks with shamans or the spiritual leaders of indigenous peoples, most will say this; however, many also say that in their conversations with the Plant Beings, the consciousness is more like a group one, rather than an individual one. This is not a modern perspective but an ancient one, so is not put forth as a rationalization in order to separate plants from animals, or pretend that plants have no feelings, but rather to acknowledge that their sentience is different. A complex topic, to be sure, and I’m grateful that you wrote about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It brings me joy to see more and more people seeing the absurdity in our current food system and cruelty to other beings. Thanks for speaking up for the animals and not staying quiet about these things..


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