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A Case for the Ethical Vegetarian

  • Teaser: A lot of people have likely been vegetarian for some period in their life. Often it first starts in the idealism of early adulthood when along with questioning other forms of social structures, the food that we put into our bodies becomes another area to question.

A lot of people have likely been vegetarian for some period in their life. Often it first starts in the idealism of early adulthood when along with questioning other forms of social structures, the food that we put into our bodies becomes another area to question. However, perhaps the majority of people slowly but surely resort to eating some forms of meat or fish, either from a simple aesthetic choice, the enjoyment of eating flesh, or from a perceived need to eat fish or meat for nutritional purposes and often from the simple convenience of eating what is available and what is affordable. Most eating in most cultures is, in the end, a functional choice. Philosophies that seek to justify dietary regimes and habits often forget that humans tend to eat whatever they can to maintain life and they will choose the easiest way to do so.

Eating meat has been part of most cultures for most of history, this being one argument used by meat eaters to question the choices made by vegetarians. And it is true that eating meat has been intrinsic to most societies and as its functional necessity became mythologized (myth being mostly the glorification of function), the access to meat always represented wealth, stability and an insurance for survival. However, in many meat eating cultures – aside from early hunter/gatherers and some nomads, meat was always just one part of a diet and often a privileged one. Having meat was not taken for granted and was appreciated as a treat. This is still the case today for many subsistence cultures around the world. The true value of meat is recognized and also reflected in its cost to people.

However, in developed societies, we now take for granted that we can have meat as often as we want it and at prices that do not reflect the true cost of its production. Most meat is highly subsidized and is the result of government policies and corporate influence that encourages the production of vast amounts of meat. The industrialization of the meat industry has also led to the production of ‘dangerous meat’, meat that is full of hormones and drugs and that is produced in the most barbaric way imaginable, full of pain, suffering and torment for the animals and also degrading and dehumanizing for the workers forced to work in the industry. The meat industry has never been so sick. Eating commercially produced meat, whether beef, pork, poultry or fish is simply bad for you, bad for the animals and bad for the planet. Books and movies have been made to reveal these facts including the movie, Food Inc, and the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Saffron Foer.

Many other books have explored these issues, either from a health point of view, advocating dietary theories to address health challenges or from a more philosophical point of view, to question how we can eat well in today’s complex society, in which choice is endless but which recognizes the need to take responsibility for what we put into our bodies and the political and social consequences of these decisions. The author Michael Pollan and his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is one well-known example, but there are many others.

Advocates on both sides of the meat eating argument will argue that either eating meat is bad for you or not eating meat is bad for you. Some vegetarians and vegans believe that our physiology is really designed for us to be herbivores in spite of our history. The latest rage in diets - the Paleo diet – advocates giving up grains entirely, attributing them as one of the main causes in chronic degenerative health in humanity for the last 50,000 years. Like many theories, it is when they are taken as doctrinal truths that they lose their perspective and become rigid orthodoxies of belief, in spite of the evidence to the contrary.

Most people, most of the time, will eat meat when given a choice. This is because humans have always done so. If meat is generally available, people eat it and a fear of hunger has never been far away for most people on the planet, so you eat whatever you can. Food abundance is a relatively modern phenomenon and therefore the luxury of choice was never a reality for more than a privileged few at any time in history. Also, meat is a productive form of nutrition. It gives protein and other nutrients in a fairly comprehensive way. “Meat and two veg” and you stay alive.

However, just because we have always eaten meat doesn’t mean we have to continue to do so. Our habit of eating meat to survive doesn’t make it ‘natural’ in the sense that it is ‘necessary’, any more than any other form of social behavior is justified because of historical habit. And just to preempt the argument that it is biologically imperative to eat meat, it is obviously proven that many people can be just as healthy by not eating meat as by doing so. A healthy vegetarian diet has been clearly shown to be a good and totally nutritious way to eat. The body can get all it needs from a vegetable diet just as it can from a meat diet. It is amazing therefore, how seriously advocates of meat take their argument to justify meat eating based on biological necessity. It is simply not the case. Having said that, it is also clear that for some people, their bodies absorb protein from meat much more easily than they do from other forms. For whatever reason, their metabolisms do not digest grains, pulses and vegetables so well. Perhaps with some dietary adjustments it could happen, but some people’s bodies seem to thrive on animal protein. However, for many, perhaps most, a well balanced vegetarian diet (with minimum dairy) is a healthy and sustainable way to eat. Many people however would find that unappealing as much of our attitude toward food is historical and habitual and seems to evoke religious levels of fervor. How many times have we heard or seen people simply continuing to eat as they have always done, even though it will literally kill them? It is not easy to get people to change how they eat.

This is simply why becoming vegetarian is so hard and so alien. The force of habit, of cultural preference, of genetic memory is so deep. So much is woven into these habits. One’s sense of cultural identity is involved as well as one’s social position. Imagine trying to become President of the United States and saying “I am a vegetarian”. It would be perceived as a threat to the ‘natural order’. It would, by default, challenge the social mores of a large portion of society. ‘Why is he a vegetarian?’ would be the question, as in ‘Why is he different from us? What does it mean about us?’ People would vote accordingly, at least until enough people thought differently. It is fascinating to see people’s reactions to this one decision a person can make; how even after 20 years, it can still not be accepted by friends or family and how it is perceived as ‘alien’ to one’s culture. For most cultures – India excepted – most people eat meat and people do so as the concept of refusing any food would seem mad. You eat what you can get and meat has always been an option if one is lucky. Why would one refuse it? Therefore it is interesting when as a foreigner visiting other cultures, the fact of being a vegetarian seems bizarre and somewhat amusing. It is usually not seen as a threat and in some cases, when hospitality demands it, ideally even hardcore vegetarians may compromise to accommodate a guest’s generosity.

But for those of us with the privilege of choice and who have concern for the well-being of animals and the environment, for health issues involved and the broader political, social and cultural challenges of food production and the growing population challenges, then what we choose to eat can be one of the most direct political decisions we can make. It is an expression of how each of us who have the ability to make a preference based not just on survival but on larger issues, are able to do so and in our own way make a difference. If by choosing not to eat meat, I am helping prevent unnecessary cruelty to animals, to helping reduce carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, by reducing the energy consumption needed to produce meat (10-15lbs of grain for 1lb of meat), to protecting the environment by not encouraging the deforestation of the Amazon jungle (currently being cut down to plant soy to feed cows to go to McDonalds) and to helping to stop the human exploitation of those working in these industries (See Food Inc), then isn’t this a good thing? However, it is still strange how so many people who are actively concerned about the environment and may even work in areas of environmental and social concern will still happily sit down and tuck into commercial meat. When it comes to food, there is often a strange disconnect.

Many meat eaters who share these concerns will advocate eating locally produced, sustainable meat products, which support local communities, produce good quality meat, and offer an alternative to the barbarism of the industrial meat industry. The arguments of Michael Pollan, advocates of Weston Price and many socially and environmentally concerned people actively do this which offers a good alternative. After all, we have all these animals and environmentally sound animal husbandry is a crucial thing, for all the reasons mentioned. If people are going to eat meat and it doesn’t seem likely that the masses are suddenly going to forfeit meat, then it can be argued that this is the way to go. However, as the movie Cowspiracy revealed, the amount of land needed to produce organic, local meat is huge and not sustainable for large populations. It is a privilege of the elite.

This problem will likely remain. Even with shifting economies of scale, only a few people will be able to afford to make these choices, as meat produced this way is normally much more expensive than the industrially produced product. It is also can be questioned that if everybody wanted to eat organic meat products, we simply couldn’t do it. There wouldn’t be enough to go around. The consumer is used to eating cheap meat –albeit subsidized - and won’t give it up quickly. This is especially the case for the increasing number of poor people in developed countries, especially the United States, who already have some of the worst dietary habits on the planet, based not just on poverty but on the influence of the industrial food industry that has thrust all sorts of bad foods into the market place, leading to an epidemic of obesity. Mexico has just taken over from the United States as having the largest number of obese people as a percentage of its population. There, a combination of a history of poverty and relatively sudden access to cheap foods full of sugar and fat are enough to create a social problem that will have dire financial and social challenges for Mexican society. The explosion of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially diabetes, hypertension and obesity are threatening to overwhelm health systems worldwide.

The accusation of elitism has been leveled at the ‘whole food’ movement from many quarters, whether vegetarian or not. Those who dismiss organic products will often say it is simply the indulgence of the privileged elite who can afford such items. However, that can change if enough people make the choice, which would include both organic vegetables and organic meats. However, one critic who wrote in the Atlantic Magazine in August 2013, criticized Michael Pollan and others of advocating eating meat products that the average person couldn’t afford, instead stating that we should be using the infrastructure and distribution methods of the fast food industry to give access to better food for more people. So, instead of condemning and ostracizing the fast food industry, we should be talking to them and working with them. Working with McDonalds and Coca Cola? An interesting idea. The article takes some unfair potshots at Pollan and is rather polemical but the point does remain. Eating good quality meat is not cheap and is not a solution to the increasing crisis of food security for the whole planet.

And this is where we come to perhaps the most essential argument, one that even subsumes the nuances of organic v. non organic, high fat v. low fat, grain v. no grain etc. As the world’s population continues to increase, now at 7 billion, how are we going to sustain food production and at the same time establish more equitable growth and distribution of food for the worlds’ population. Even though it is commonly thought that the world’s population will continue to climb inexorably, it has been estimated that the world’s population could peek at around 9 billion – still a lot of people. That is compounded by the fact that a significant number of people still do not get enough to eat every day. Perhaps 25% of sub Saharan Africa suffers significant malnourishment (about 250 million people) and another 25% are deficient in essential micro-nutrients, predisposing them to diseases such as malaria, T.B. and AIDS. Many millions in Africa and Asia live just one rain away from starvation and in many other parts of the world, it is not much better. For all of India’s advances agriculturally, about two hundred million people live on the edge of survival. The challenges here are not just agricultural but political but still, the fact remains that adequate food production and distribution has a way to go before the fear of hunger begins to dissipate.

Compounding this challenge is the increasing numbers of middle-class Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who as their incomes increase, begin to emulate the eating habits of the developed world, and this means a huge increase in food consumption, especially meat. This is simply not sustainable. The production of meat takes a lot of energy, including land, water, vegetable food and other infrastructure in order to work. If that was our only choice for survival, then OK, let’s do it but when there are clear alternatives to this model, one where the vast majority of one’s diet comes from vegetables, and which can offer all the nutritional requirements for most people and that also that can be produced in local regions and that does not have the devastating impact on the environment that the meat industry does, then does this not make sense?

The term ethical therefore incorporates the whole idea of not creating suffering unnecessarily to anybody, unless it can be avoided. No action in life can guarantee another won’t suffer, but when it comes to food production and consumption, we should not create any undue suffering to any other living thing if it can be avoided. This has not been in any way adhered to in the industrial meat industry. The extraordinary cruelty committed on a daily basis to billions of animals, just so we can eat them, is simply wrong. It should not be happening and by choosing not to eat any product that involves the undue suffering of another, a choice is being made.

Also, in the ongoing challenge for greater equality and greater opportunity in the world, and the basic rights of all people to have adequate access to food, indulging in wasteful food choices that perpetuate inequality and suffering also has significant ethical implications. In an ever-increasing interconnected global world, food issues are profoundly significant and simply observing the manipulation of prices of essential goods by multinational corporations and a market manipulated pricing system has revealed once again the callous, brutal nature of global politics of the ‘free market’ system and its economic manipulation.

The obsession in some circles of an ‘industrial’ fix to food challenges, with the ongoing dependency on fertilizers and the GMO movement that has promised miracles and the saving of the world through genetic engineering is another fallacy waiting to burst once again. For many years, most US administrations have been myopically focused on a ‘scientific’ revolution to answer the challenges to our food issues, GMO’s being a central part of this mantra, even when the rest of the world looks on from the safety of distance, when they can.

It is clear that the solution to so many challenges could be based on the philosophy of E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful. This book, written over 40 years ago, laid the foundation for the concept of appropriate levels of technology, one that reflects human values and needs. Ivan Illitch spoke on similar grounds in his book Tools for Conviviality, embracing the idea that ‘technology’ or tools as he called it, reflects true human needs and serves humanity, rather than the other way around.

This is why, when it comes to choosing what we eat, the food we put into our bodies should reflect these values as much as possible. It is never easy and without growing all one’s own food, compromises are always being made but at least one can try and given that those of us who live with the privilege of choice, by choosing a predominantly vegetarian diet, it is one way to minimize one’s personal footprint on the planet and do a small bit toward a more sustainable world for all.