There’s a strange bit of rhetoric that seems to circle around vegetarian restaurants and cliques that concern one specific bit of the lifestyle: sinless meals. On the most basic terminology, the meaning is that the food item in question is completely vegetarian or vegan in some cases, essentially going so far as claiming that “sinless” means “no animals were harmed.” But is that fair? Are sinless meals really sinless? I want to ask a very touchy question here, and it may deal with the vegetarian ego in general. Can there ever be a sinless meal?

So the situation where you’d see this mimicker added to a menu item is if you were at a burger joint and they offered something they referred to as a “sinless garden burger.” The point is to emphasize the enjoyment of eating vegetarian, but the truth is that while no cows were slaughtered to make your hamburger, you can’t actually apply the same grace to other animals of the smaller, cuddlier variety. And this is where things are going to get uncomfortable…

Vegetables are grown in fields. Grains are also grown in fields. The majority of farms these days harvest all their crops at once with massive threshers, tractors, and other monstrously terrifying machines of such raw power that they’re a bit frightening even to a human. Now you must ask yourself about the field habitat itself. In the 40-odd aches of wheat, how many rabbits, mice, moles, rats, shrews, squirrels, snakes, skunks, voles, and gophers live within it? The answer is quite a few, and even if they don’t live in the field, they live around the field and frequently come into the field during all hours of the day and night.

Here’s the sad truth: Every time a combine goes through a field of wheat and harvests it, the small animal population of that area is decimated. Not wiped out, not even close to it, but an exorbitant amount of critters are getting chewed up by these machines whenever it’s time to harvest grain. Animals that aren’t raised for slaughter or caged or mistreated or anything of that nature. These are just wild, innocent animals.

Okay, I realize in typing that last paragraph that there’s just no gentle way to put it other than the truth. Innocent animals are murdered in the thousands for supposedly “sinless” meals. What then is the difference between someone who eats a hamburger because they enjoy the taste and someone who refuses to eat a hamburger because they don’t want a cow killed intentionally but then go right into eating a vegetarian sandwich made with whole wheat bread? At what point does there have to be a serious gut check with the question “How far will you go to limit the suffering?”

As of now, the only way to be 100% sure that your food was harvested without a single unintentional death is to grow your own crops and never dine out at a restaurant again. It is a heavy request, and I’m not sure how deep someone’s conviction level needs to be to in order to stand by that and really reduce the suffering as far as it can possibly go rather than reducing the suffering until it becomes inconvenient.

Please do not misunderstand, this is NOT meant to be an attack on anyone at all, whether that be vegetarians, farmers, meat-eaters, or anyone in between. This is a serious question that I’m trying to think through. Is there a point where it becomes too much to think about? Obviously this isn’t so much an issue when you’re a vegetarian due to health or religious reasons, but it certainly has to be asked of those of us who are vegetarian or vegan specifically on the grounds of the ethical consequences of eating an animal. Are animal deaths still wrong if we didn’t intend them? Is it okay to eat a cow that died of natural causes? Let’s say a wolf inflicts a fatal wound on a steer and it dies, is it okay to eat that one so that its death doesn’t go to waste? I want to know your thoughts on the limit.

So then, that’s where you come in on the issue. Please, weigh in with your opinion. Where is the line? What is okay and what isn’t? Should we eliminate words like “sinless” and “guiltless” from our vocabulary? Is anyone ever really sinless?