If just about three years ago, you had let me choose between a schnitzel and some tofu sausage, I would have picked the schnitzel without thinking twice. The mere title of this post would have made me hungry and there were few things I would have considered more delicious than a juicy steak.
But times have changed.
Especially after reading "Eating Animals" and watching numerous documentaries about meat production, I have come to conclude that there are strong reasons to restrain the human desire for meat, as the impact of modern livestock farming on animal well-being, environment and society just isn't worth the cost.
Therefore, about two years ago, I decided to become a vegetarian and in this post, I will try to explain the reasons for making this decision and hope to inspire others to rethink their choice of food.
Albert Einstein said:
While I strongly agree with these words and feel an urge to "spread the word", it seems that challenging deep-rooted eating habits hits a special nerve. Therefore, the public image of a vegetarian is rather that of an annoying eco-fanatic, spoiling the fun of barbecuing and not an Edward Snowden alike whistleblower enlightening some social ill.
I respect that no one wants others to tell them how to live their life but what makes it especially difficult to keep my mouth shut in this matter is that few people ever really inform themselves about meat production. Rather, people tell me that they don't want to know because of the hard decisions this knowledge would impose on them. And indeed, of all the people I know to have read the book “Eating Animals”, not a single one has not greatly reduced or completely cut out meat consumption afterwards.
This is certainly not the happiest topic to indulge in, but if you've never really made a true effort to inform yourself about meat production, maybe now is a good time. Because what's going on in the meat industry is probably one of societies greatest failings of today and we all bear responsibility.
Pesonally, I have decided not to actively confront carnivores with my concerns but rather passively provide information and only engage in discussions when invited. This blogpost should be seen in this context as my invitation to engage in this controversy with me.
After this preamble, let's move to the various arguments.
Scandalous conditions that I thought to be horrible exceptions seem to be the norm in industrial livestock farming:
Animals get castrated without anaesthetization, spend their whole life standing in their own shit in tiny cells and get killed as soon as their output (of egg or milk) declines. Then, the economization of the killing process often results in animals still alive while skinned or cooked. Meanwhile, newborn male chicks get chopped right away because of their inability to lay eggs. Often animals are so intensively bred that they can’t carry their own weight and run around with broken bones and deformations, are so sick that they wouldn’t survive without the constant use of antibiotics, are getting so mad in their tiny cells, that newborn pigs have to be protected from their own mothers. You could seriously fill whole books describing the repugnant situation in state-of-the-art factory farms and there are books and movies that do just that. Can You Face the Reality of Factory Farming?
However, if you take into account that for huge stock companies nothing matters except maximising revenue, the status quo seems to be the logical result. Decent treatment of animals certainly can't provide meat for 2$/pound.
Of course not all farms are like that and there are bright exceptions of farmers caring for their livestock as for their own family but think of the output of one of these farms and relate that to the output of a 200.000 strong industrial livestock factory. Therefore it shouldn't be of surprise that currently about 98% of meat production in Germany comes from factory farms.
However, even if you lack my compassion and think that animal's suffering shouldn't concern us, there are still plenty of "rational" reasons to abstain from meat.
Industrial livestock farming causes extreme environmental damage in the form of deforestation, air pollution and extensive water and land usage (a good overview with lots of charts here).
- Greenhouse gas emissions linked to livestock farming are bigger than the whole transportation sector combined and a recent study even found that it makes up more than half of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. This means we can't stop global warming without rethinking our meat consumption.
- Water usage to produce one pound of beef amounts to approximately 2500 gallons of water (9500 liter), the equivalent of taking about 650 showers!
- Massive deforestation in South America occurs to a great deal to provide land for cattle ranching or to produce soy beans - and these beans are mostly not produced for tofu but to feed the livestock.
- Producing a calorie of meat takes approximately 10 times the land usage compared to producing one calorie of plant. We can feed every human on this planet - but not with meat.
- Currently, around 80% of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on livestock and poultry, not humans. This abuse of antibiotics has already lead to numerous resistant cultures and is a ticking bomb (source).
Maybe the same way as we look down on slavery today, some day our grandchildren will look back and wonder how we could abuse animals so cruelly, destroy our environments so recklessly and deplete our resources so foolishly.
Now, the arguments in favor of meat consumption. Usually, those concern health benefits, argue that eating meat is "natural" or relate to the good taste of meat dishes.
It is true that an unbalanced vegetarian and especially vegan diet CAN encompass certain nutritient deficiencies (mostly vitamin B12 and D). However, these problems can easily be cured by a well-balanced diet or by taking the corresponding vitamin supplements and hardly make a case for unrestrained meat-feasts. Further, there is good scientific evidence that a completely vegetarian diet is at least as healthy as one with meat.
One should also have in mind that there is a huge industry profiting from the sale of meat and dairy products in control of a gigantic media machinery to influence our worldview. For instance, most people think that milk is healthy as there is lots of suggestive advertisement supporting this view like "contains all the goodness of milk". However, the research on the health benefits of milk is at best unclear.
Finally, proteins can be found in great numbers in beans, corn or oats.
Eating meat is "natural":
Personally, I haven't come to a conclusion regarding the question if it is generally wrong to kill animals for food. If an ancient human tribe hunts a deer for survival, it seems to be the course of nature. However, first we don't need meat for survival anymore but rather eat meat for pleasure. Second, there is a huge difference between this image and the way we get our meat today as animals don't live in their natural surroundings but in extremely overcrowded factories and often even need constant antibiotic treatment to survive at all. Further, the human population has increased massively and by now the business as usual is not an option on our limited planet. Under these circumstances, washing away all the desastrous side effects on the environment with an argument of "naturality" would certainly be naive. What is left to be natural in todays industrialized high-tech world, anyway?
Tradition and social conformism
Changing a traditional christmas dish or rejecting societies food norms can be a tough decision. I can tell that there is considerable social pressure to conform to the norms and to eat meat but this can hardly be an ethical argument rather than an explanation for most people's behavior. Norms can and should change if there is good reason to do so and they already do as more and more people nowadays become vegetarians. Recently I've been attending an event where the majority were vegetarians and it was highly interesting to experience how the eating norm was upside down and it was rather on the carnivores to explain their decision to eat meat.
The good taste of meat:
Yes, meat tastes good - I can't deny that.
And this leaves us with the ultimate decision between eating meat to enjoy the good taste versus restraining this desire to protect the welfare of animals, our environment and society. Or in other words:
This is the sad truth we are left with today and maybe from this perspective, it gets easier to feel some empathy with the vegan eco-freaks terrorising McDonalds.
Because our choices as consumers directly affect what is produced and how it is produced, there are two approaches to make a difference.
The status quo is not only the result of some farmers greed but evolved because of our everyday decisions at the grocery store. If we buy the meat that is cheapest, we force the producers to solely focus on the most efficient production methods, neglecting everything else. Making sure that the meat one consumes comes from farms that treat their animals right, is definitely a step in the right direction to stop animal abuse.
Unfortunately, the negative impact on environment remains the same or might even increase the more space, food and care is provided for animals. Therefore, the logical step is reduction.
The average German consumes about 1000 animals in his life (a nice illustration here) and about 120 pound of meat every year. That means, every individuals decision to reduce meat consumption makes quite a difference!
Personally, I started with a limit of 500 gram of meat per week and slowly reduced this allowance. Rather than having a cold cut, this allowed me to adapt gradually while finding more and more substitutes. Overall, I found that with a strong motivation, becoming a vegetarian was much easier than I had expected. The adoption period is a bit painful but eventually when I got used to it, surprisingly I didn't miss meat at all and currently am as happy with my vegetarian dishes as before.
I am not vegan (yet), but feel a strong sympathy with the cause. While veganism is usually considered as a hopelessly extreme form of activism, by now I feel that the vegan way of life is actually the most coherent and consistent decision given most peoples typical value judgements. I agree that the step from vegetarian to vegan greatly increases the difficulty to find appropriate dishes and has a smaller impact than the step from carnivore to vegetarian but pretty much the exact same arguments against meat apply to the production of eggs, leather or milk.
Changing the industry:
While rethinking and reducing individual meat consumption is an important step forward, it is only a drop in the ocean to change the livestock industry. To make a difference in this domain, it needs lots of political pressure to form new and better regulations. This though, can't arise without citizen's concerted action and participation. This is why I decided to join the German vegetarian association (VEBU), that has lobbying quite successfully for implementing some positive changes in Germany. Likewise, there are countless initiatives around the world fighting to change the livestock industry. So even if one lacks the willpower to resist the temptation of eating meat, one should consider to support this cause at least financially to transform our society (find an effective charity here).
If I lived in the medievals, I probably wouldn't be a vegetarian because there was no climate change, the earth was not that overcrowded, land and resources were not as scarce and animals lived in much more appropriate circumstances.
But times have changed.
Eating Animals (book) - On the eve of becoming a father, the author Jonathan Sebastian Foer examined all the arguments for and against vegetarianism, to decide how to feed his coming baby. Non-judgemental, fact filled and extremely thought provoking.
If you want to read it, I will buy and send you a copy - just send me an email, seriously.
Earthlings (documentary) - Emotionally powerful documentary depicting humanity's worst abuses of animals, rather with an in-your-face approach. Highly motivating for becoming or staying vegetarian.
Cowspiracy (documentary) - The film explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, and investigates the neglectant policies of environmental organizations on this issue.
A Vegetarian Philosophy (essay) - Philosopher Peter Singers famous essay on vegetarianism.
McLibel Case - A highly interesting lawsuit between McDonalds and two activists that made a number of allegations against McDonald's.
Without Saying a Word - 7 min silent shortfilm displaying consumism and meat production
Speciesism - interesting concept analogous to racism or sexism in the way that different values, rights, or special consideration is assigned solely on the basis of the species membership.