Whether the issue seems indulgent (with regard to, say, Syria), or all-important (with regard to, say, climate change), to meat or not to meat is a choice you make three times a day, and hence a system your lifestyle inevitably and directly affects.
Being clued up on the matter isn’t easy however, and the fact that not everybody is uniting behind one banner suggests the solutions not to be as black and white as some parties make out.
So for the curious person who wishes to be upped with clues, the following serves as an overview to what both sides have to say. I have split the debate into its key arguments, and, where possible, have attempted to stray away from giving my own opinion until the end.
So, let’s start with perhaps the most obvious ethical argument:
IS IT MORALLY OK TO KILL AN ANIMAL TO EAT IT?
- Animals raised in humane farms experience better existences than wild animals; to paraphrase a vet working on a cow ranch, “these cows have 250 great days, and one bad one.” To remove animal farms, and replace them with forestry and Darwinian wildlife, would hence increase overall animal suffering.
- Humans have higher intelligence than other animals, and so it is ok to eat them. My higher consciousness’s ability to acknowledge and revel in the pleasure of a steak, is worth more than that lower consciousness’s existence.
- It is natural to eat meat, we have always done it, other animals do it.
- Eating meat was necessary for our survival and still is for some people.
- It’s ok for us to not care about animal welfare.
- Many sustain it is necessary for maintaining a healthy diet.
- Vegetable farming is not harm-free anyway, it causes death to insects, and wildlife caught in tractors etc.
- It is better that we farm animals so that they at least live, even if we must kill them also.
- There is no such thing as humane farming, as the ultimate “humane slaughter” is an oxymoron. Additionally much meat is factory farmed, hence reared and slaughtered in abysmal conditions.
- Cows and pigs are sentient and emotional beings, so five minutes of human pleasure is not worth more than their life and the suffering they are put through.
- Human values should not be guided by the concept of nature only when it suits our desires. Most animal behaviour we don’t condone, so using them as an example is flawed.
- It is unnecessary for most of us to eat meat since healthy, vegetarian/vegan food is abundant. This is the group to whom the argument is addressed.
- Many people say they don’t care about animal welfare, yet are horrified by the killing of a cat, dog, horse, elephant, dolphin etc.
- Many sustain a plant-based diet is healthier.
- Giving up meat is about reducing human-caused suffering, not denying that you cause any at all.
- Once a life is born, for whatever reason, its desire to stay alive should be respected.
The above argument may seem bias, but I think that’s simply because the argument has by nature a bias; in the lack of any necessity, it is much easier to ethically defend not killing other beings than killing them.
Indeed, while there are many papers written against eating meat by academics, activists, philosophers, and ethicists, there is still not one written to endorse it (bar an essay contest winner in the New York Times).
I think a lot of why we think meat eating is ok is probably because we don’t have to justify it, as we are surrounded by meat-eaters. In fact it is often vegetarians being asked to justify themselves to meat-eaters. An interesting thought experiment is to imagine the world the other way round.
I don’t think the above arguments can be truly reflected upon without experiencing (not first-hand of course…) the slaughter. In order to know that you’re ok with it, you need to see if you’re ok with it.
These are two types of slaughter; systematic and inhumane, small-scale traditional, systematic and certified humane. You don’t have to watch the links, but if you want to understand your stance, it’s advisable.
Inhumane pig slaughter in France
Certified humane slaughter of a cow
A quick youtube search of animal slaughter can give you a full understanding of the industry.
However, animal welfare doesn’t really matter for many in this issue, so let’s get onto what actually may be the real meat of the matter:
Arguments against animal farming:
- Feeding grain to feed animals to feed us is horribly inefficient. To pick only one statistic; if all the land given over to growing farm animal food for the USA were given over to growing food for people, it would sustain 800 million people.
- There is already human overpopulation… Supporting an additional 56 billion animals per year to be slaughtered and eaten, is a huge drain on resources (particularly water).
- Factory farming creates huge amounts of manure and pollution issues. Grassland farming of sheep and cattle is also thought to be hugely destructive,
- In 2013 Livestock farming took up 30% of the surface of the Earth, and produces 20% of our Greenhouse gas emissions. As meat consumption per capita is rapidly outpacing population growth, this figure will be even higher now.
- Animals, like humans, have additional requirements beyond food and water, which leads to scandals in supplying those too. Eg. 450 tons of the UK’s antibiotics are used by livestock yearly, causing disease-resistant bugs to develop and plague hospitals, or the recently exposed pregnant-horse blood farms, creating hormones for UK pork production.
- Factory farming is wrong, and we should not grow grain specifically for animal consumption. However animals make efficient recyclers of second rate crops, parts of grains that humans don’t eat, and waste, converting it into protein. With only the waste products of vegetable agriculture, we can create enough meat to sustain a population with a lowered meat diet.
- Cows and sheep convert barren pasture land into food, maximising our use of land.
- Just as cattle farming is hugely responsible for deforestation in Brazil, and this should be stopped, we should note that increased demand from vegetarians/vegans of plant protein alternatives (such as soy) that grow in exotic regions, will also lead to deforestation.
- Additionally, these exotic foods will have to be imported. A local vegan diet would not be possible in many places, and we must consider the food miles of importing these crops, and out of season foods from elsewhere.
- The problem is not animal farming, but industrial farming. Animal manure is a necessary part of sustainable small-scale farming systems, and allows us to grow plants.
- Stopping animal farming isn’t the only problem, and we should focus on all ways of reducing GHG emissions. Heating and electricity cause emissions, but we don’t say to turn off all heat and electricity, only to try to limit our consumption.
This debate is such a big and mind-boggling one, filled with so much misinformation, that I am actually going to have to do some counter-arguments to the counter-arguments before the conclusion:
- Feeding waste to animals is not efficient, feeding that waste directly to humans is better, as many charities do.
- Even grass-fed beef and lamb still release huge amounts of methane and carbon into the environment, and most grass-fed beef is fattened up with grain eventually, while sheep eat grain in the winter, so this rarely manages to circumvent the issue of inefficiency.
- 94% of US soy is currently grown to feed animals, this could be redirected to people (and still have plenty to spare), thus increased demand would not require further deforestation. Deforestation would be greatly reduced however by stopping eating Brazilian beef (which for all you know could be your Italian Bresaola).
- Food miles in reality count for very little. With regard to lamb products that arrive in the UK from New Zealand, 80% of the associated carbon emissions are accounted for before the sheep even leave the farm for slaughter.
- We should focus on all elements of reducing GHG emissions, and this is one of them. While we need heating and electricity, we don’t need to eat animal products.
What is clear is that an environmental argument for reduced meat intake, and the abolition of factory-farmed animals, is nigh-impossible to counter.
However should all animal husbandry be abandoned for the sake of the environment? The point about animal manure is a good one; even as a vegan, you are consuming vegetables dependent on bloodmeal and manure obtained from farmed animals.
It also seems a good idea that animals use up bits of food that we can’t. However, could modern science not find better use for these bits of food if we didn’t give them to animals (biofuels, compost)?
The water usage associated with animal farming is also particularly disturbing, for example, 1,800 gallons of water is required to make 1 pound of beef. Another thought experiment: if every time you had a bite of steak, you had to then go and turn the tap on for two days, would you keep eating steak?
Finally, the emissions data suggest that passing land used by livestock back to nature or agroforestry would have a dramatic effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and hence combatting climate change.
In response to this information, vegans naturally maintain we should give up animal products entirely, while ethically-minded omnivores will concede that they must aim for a reduced intake; neither party accepts a continuation of the current system.
Many see the environmental and ethical issues as separate, I’ve never understood this, and instead feel myself only witnessing a quickly growing list of wide-spanning reasons as to why we should be avoiding eating animal products.
The only viable argument put against it – to consistently consume animal products ethically – is extremely difficult in reality, and indeed, I have never seen an omnivore effectively put this into practice. Furthermore, “Ethical omnivorism” (so-dubbed in the moment by yours faithfully) I feel does not constitute a movement; it is a weakly binding moral code that will exclude many poorer people who can’t afford expensive, ethical meat. In this sense I feel this idea therefore does, and will do, nothing to combat what is currently a crisis in terms of both mass-scaled abuse of sentient beings, and unprecedented environmental damage.
Veganism and Vegetarianism on the other hand have a code, clear objectives, demonstrable positive effects, and an ever-growing legion of converts. A measurement made in May 2016 showed UK veganism had increased by 360% in the last ten years, and after the huge amount of public attention it has achieved this January, I can only imagine this number will have grown even higher, and be scaling up ever more rapidly.
For this reason my vote goes with the vegetarians, and more so, vegans,
Even if my fork every now and then goes into an egg…
Do you feel both sides’ points were painted? Please join the debate by commenting below, and provide more information for the hungry and curious people who have come to read.