Why I Still Don’t Eat Meat (A Reply)

Dear reader. A good friend of mine who I lived with in South Korea wrote a response to my blog post called Why Do You Eat Meat? If you’re going to take the time to read this post then I highly recommend reading Nathanael’s blog “Why I Eat Meat” first. It’s a fantastic read.

Dear Nathanael,

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful response to my previous blog. It was refreshing to read something that made me question the fundamentals of some of my beliefs about the vegan lifestyle and it’s given me much food for thought. You too have thrown a lot into one post and in order to adequately respond I also found it necessary to write another complete blog post.

I want to start my response by touching on factory farming and moving forwards to briefly discuss free range farming. From the reading I’ve done about animal awareness such as The Question of Animal Awareness by Donal Griffin, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and the more recent Beyond Animals: What Animals Think and Feel it seems blindingly obvious from the evidence we currently hold that animals have the ability to feel as we do and suffer as we do. Crows use tools, whales have culture, and pigs and cows are fascinatingly social creatures. The difference between us and our furry friends seems to be one of degree rather than of type. We are clever monkeys. Apes. Whatever. Once this is taken on board, factory farming seems pretty abhorrent. It’s unquestionably disgusting and there’s no need to go into too much detail because the videos of animals getting tortured in these factories are freely available on YouTube and such. It seems like a logical conclusion to say that the only way that a person can eat factory farmed meat is either to not think about it (to compartmentalise it somehow and pretend it doesn’t exist) or to truly not care. The latter falls into another ethical debate and I don’t want to go there just yet.

So, what has this got to do with your response? You mentioned that because you don’t live on a homestead at the moment you currently live by mimicking that lifestyle however you can, firstly by buying from farms that raise their livestock in a way that improves the environment. Secondly by going hunting yourself (I’m going to return to this later as well) and lastly by not monetarily supporting factory farming by not buying meat products (and I assume dairy products as well?) that have been factory farmed. As a caveat you noted that you may consume factory farmed meat and dairy if it has been acquired through freegan means – dumpster diving or whatever (which I fully-support – food waste is awful). Therefore, it appears that you agree that factory farming is pretty terrible and that it shouldn’t be supported. I can’t really see how anybody having done just a little research can’t also reach that conclusion – that factory farmed meat and dairy is terrible for the environment. Great – thus far we are preaching from the same hymn book. 

So, that leaves me with the more difficult point that you made in relation to animal products that have been farmed in a way that improves the environment. I’ll call it the cool, organic, high-welfare get out of jail free card. I’m not going to argue that it’s not better – of course it is, but I still have problems with it. Essentially you’re still keeping thinking and feeling creatures in captivity for the sake of nuggets and burgers. This is still unnatural. If being at one with nature is the end goal of a prosperous and ethical society then captivity by its very design is definitely in the “we are wiser than nature” camp – thinking that we can control it for our own selfish ends. In the end free range is no real solution to the problems with meat consumption and sustainability. From an environmental perspective free range might actually be considered worse than factory farming. Whilst I get the argument that many upland areas of the world are only suitable for free range grazing, so they either produce meat or nothing, like our Scottish farmer in the Lidl advert. (He can’t grow corn on that land). Were we to make everything free range like our friendly farmers Scottish cows, then there simply wouldn’t be enough room in the world. Add to this the fact that nearly half of the world’s wild animals have disappeared over the last 40 years and it starts to become pretty clear that having herds of free-range cows roaming around will never be able to feed our growing population. It isn’t good for the environment. There just isn’t enough space. It can’t work for everyone.

But what does work for everyone is not eating meat at all. If factory-farming is unethical and terrible for the environment and if there isn’t enough space for free-range production then what are we left with? Hunting! I have no ethical issue with hunting. As you mentioned in your post – despite all of this ranting and raving about treating animals with respect I can’t deny that we are part of nature and death is a part of nature. I have no problem with Joe Bloggs going hunting – being at one with nature and killing his dinner – as long as there is no waste. The trouble with this is that it still isn’t a solution to the sustainability problem. If all mass-production of meat stopped: No more factory farms. No more slaughterhouses. We still have to feed everybody. If everyone went hunting as a means of curing the itch for some venison steak – we would very quickly destroy the balance. Again, there’s too many of us and hunting takes a long time, so it’s unrealistic to think that we can feed the world in this way. 

So we’ll do the maths based on the statistics that are available. 7 kilos of grain to 1 kilo of beef. Pigs 4:1. Chickens 2:1. Water consumption is roughly 15,000 litres for 1 kilo of beef – some of which goes into the growing of the feed. CO2 emissions is what: 27kg per kilo of beef. So if the humans were to just eat the kilo of grain – job done. A kilo of lentils creates less than 1kg of CO2 emissions. Surly, along with not driving a car – going vegan is one of the best things that one person can do to help the environment. Based purely on those statistics.

You say, however, that veganism falls into the trap of trying to become “above nature” and trying to transcend our primitive reliance on meat and because nature is not obedient when we push it, it will push back. You say that this stems from the equation that “meat = death = bad”. I had a bit of trouble with this because it seems to me firstly that from my perspective death being bad isn’t the issue. I eat bivalves. Many vegans do. Oysters do not require additional feed inputs such as fish meal from wild-capture fisheries. Instead, they filter-feed on tiny particles, plankton, and organic matter found in the water column. Therefore, oysters are self-sustaining and can actually improve local water quality. Oysters can be farmed without adding chemicals or antibiotics that can be harmful to the surrounding environment. Farming oysters can also reduce fishing pressure on wild oyster populations that have suffered from overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction. And the best thing about them is that they are non-sentient, non-motile for the majority of their lives and they have rudimentary nervous systems that don’t use opiate receptors to inhibit pain. What am I getting at? I suppose I’m getting at the fact that by saying no to meat consumption, you’re not saying no to nature. I don’t think that I am transcending my primitive urges by not eating meat. Killing more mice being an inescapable fact of broadacre tilled farming isn’t really the point here. The point is the environment, right? What is better for the environment out of the available options? What is more sustainable in the long-term? Free range grazing livestock? Factory farmed livestock? Or plant based foods? Oysters and Mussels as well of course! We can’t go without those! I’ll even give you the occasional rabbit that you catch. Or fish that you have fished from a single-line. If you’re lucky. Insert winky emoji here.

When I wrote about hunting I said that whilst I didn’t think it was a sustainable form of mass-production, I can’t argue against it ethically. You discuss catching and eating fish that were able to participate in an ecosystem. I can get on board with this. If we didn’t mass-produce meat and dairy for consumption there would be more room because we wouldn’t be mass producing crops for livestock feed anymore. There would be more space for forests to thrive and for natural habitats to flourish. We could start living in a world that seems to me to be more in line with the values and ideals that you outlined in your blog post. Sustainable ecosystems that don’t destroy the planet. You mentioned in a comment that you agree that in many cases it’s “narcissistic to believe we control the fate of the planet or its ecosystems, but not narcissistic – in fact eminently realistic – to believe that we impact their fates.” This is exactly my point here – we impact on ecosystems and therefore have a responsibility not to destroy them. It seems to me that eating a vegan diet is the most environmentally friendly way of achieving this, or at the very least a very environmentally friendly way of living. As an aside, on the point of my poor book-keeping in regards to grass-raised cattle being raised in CAFOs after-all, this isn’t what I meant. I was trying to highlight a point about the honesty of advertising and the manipulation on the part of Lidl supermarkets on ignoring the role of the slaughterhouse as part of the cows journey to the plate. I’m sorry if this wasn’t very clear.

There is of course the giant debate surrounding health and the consumption of meat, but I only want to touch on this in relation to the ‘natural’ order of things that you mention. Again, you say that veganism tries to transcend our primitive reliance on meat. The question here is, do we really have a primitive reliance on meat? In Amanda Woodvines article Wheat Eaters or Meat Eaters she discusses our closest common ancestors fossilised jaws and how we know that they ate majoritively fruits, nuts and berries. She says that the first evidence of meat-eating humanoids was between 1.4 million and 2.3 million years ago. So it’s clear that human beings became omnivorous, but even back 300,000 years ago we weren’t really eating much meat. Hunting was obviously given a great boost in reaction to major climate change that destroyed many food sources in Northern climates. In a debate about our primitive nature we can’t ignore our vegetarian primate ancestors. In-fact one of the leading diet and health experts Colin Campbell believes that the closer we get to a completely plant-based diet the greater the benefit to our health. We aren’t meant to eat much meat. It isn’t good for us. It isn’t healthy. Most leading nutritionists (that I have come across so far) tend to agree. I would be interested in reading some alternatives to this opinion if you can recommend anything.

I hope I’ve touched on some of the points that you raised in your blog. To conclude, I’ll say that I hope that this response to your blog wasn’t too sanctimonious. I don’t intend to look down upon or belittle non-vegans. This is not my intention at all. This is merely a debate and I don’t claim for a minute to have all of the answers. I’ve only been vegan for about seven months now and I’m still learning and reading and researching. I haven’t taken the decision lightly and I found your blog post to be incredibly thought-provoking. For this, I thank you. All I can say for now is that over the past seven months I have felt much more awake, energised and healthy, much more so than I did on my previous diet which admittedly also included lots of processed foods something else I’ve cut down on considerably. I can’t ignore the benefits that this lifestyle has given me so far and I do hope that it continues to make me feel good. I also hope that in some way my being vegan has reduced my carbon footprint and helped the environment in a small, but hopefully meaningful way. Whether it actually has or not, I can’t honestly measure, but the more I read from both sides of this debate the more convinced I become that this is the way that I want to live. I too want to do more good than do less harm and you’re right that truly and authentically doing more good requires a great amount of work. I hope that by doing the little that I am – and it is a little – I’m in some way contributing to this good.