I recently saw a video shared on Facebook of a hyena disembowelling a wildebeest. The shocking part was that the wildebeest was fully conscious and sitting upright, it was simply immobilised due to injury or exhaustion. I was totally horrified and it made me angry at the hyena for a ‘silly’ second. I wanted the hyena to have compassion for the poor beast, or at least put it out of its misery before he started tucking in! This started me thinking; if this is just nature in action, it can’t be inherently ‘bad’ to take another’s life in the name of food or survival, can it? In other words, isn’t eating meat a natural instinct?
The only reason humans are ‘superior’ to animals is that we happened to be the species who knocked over the first domino on a run of fortunate evolutionary developments.
Now you could argue that the hyena was simply trying to survive and it doesn’t have a choice or the brain power to make ‘better’ decisions – this is totally true – but it still stands that as part of a natural eco-system it is perfectly right that animals consume each other; morals don’t come into it.
Wild omnivores are able to digest both animals and plants very effectively and so have the choice, but they know that in order to be healthy they need to have the flexibility to select foods when in season and to eat the full range of foods that will keep them well. Their craving for meat is not just a self-indulgent desire, it’s a genetic compulsion based on the hard wiring that helps them survive.
Are Humans Different to Wild Omnivores?
I don’t think so; we have the same genetic wiring and the same compulsions, it’s just that social conditioning leads us to believe that we should ‘know better.’
I find the notion that humans are superior to other animals, and somehow don’t need to be part of the world’s eco-system, both arrogant and naïve. The only reason humans are ‘superior’ to animals is that we happened to be the species who knocked over the first domino on a run of fortunate evolutionary developments.1
The development of tools to crack big animal bones allowed us to access nutrient-dense marrow effectively, and the development of tools for slicing meat allowed us to chew flesh more easily and quickly. These two significant breakthroughs accelerated the quality and density of nutrients we could digest in our food in a day.2
A further leap in human evolution was when we learned to control fire. Cooking food3 increases the bioavailability of nutrients and significantly increases the number of useful calories we can assimilate in a day.4
These seemingly simple advances allowed us to reduce the amount of bulky plant matter we had to find and eat to sustain us – apparently this takes up to 80% of a large primate’s daytime activity – and allowed our digestive tracts to shrink, turning us from big bellied creatures using hands and feet on the ground, to an upright ‘six pack’ sort of person who can run and hunt. After tucking into a fatty, meaty feast we had the energy to last a few hours without food and could now afford to take the time off endlessly foraging for relatively low-nutrient, low-calorie foods in order to hunt down the next nourishing high-calorie meal!5
But Should I Be a Vegan Now?
It’s not hard to see how this process made us into who we are today. Nowadays, of course, we are able to eat a vegetable-based diet; we no longer have to forage for our food – the grocery store has done it for us! Eating a vegan diet can certainly be healthy – and is giant leaps away from an unhealthy modern Westernised diet – but you need to work pretty hard, plan carefully, and supplement the diet in order to keep yourself well. This is really tough. You’re fighting with hundreds of thousands of years of genetic programming which is telling you you’re missing something important in your diet. This isn’t a ‘choice’ like deciding which colour shoes to buy. It’s a deep inherent yearning that often leads to many vegans filling the ‘hole’ with junk food. A less-than-perfect vegan diet is very likely going to make you sick!6
You may be one of the ‘elite’ modern humans that can resist scratching an itch that is more persistent than an infestation of fleas; I am in awe of people who have such self-control in the name of a cause. But for a huge portion of the world a ‘perfect’ vegan diet isn’t even available or affordable. Millions of people in this world live in environments so dry, wet, mountainous, inaccessible, or poor that their only reliable source of nourishment is meat, eggs, and milk, supplemented with whatever can be grown or foraged. Millions more have a seriously limited range of foods available to them, be it raising their children on milk yoghurt and butter from a backyard cow in India, eating meat and milk from a herd of goats in Afghanistan, or eating a diet of fish and seals in the Arctic regions of Canada. Are these people tragically forced into having to take immoral actions in order feed themselves? Or are we Westerners arrogant enough to consider ourselves ‘beyond’ the need to be part of a natural food web?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says ‘animals can offer several advantages over crops in developing parts of the world’ and goes on to note:
- Meat and milk can be produced year-round, being less seasonal than cereals, fruit, and vegetables.
- Animals, particularly small ones, can be slaughtered as the need arises, for food or income.
- Both milk and meat can be preserved – milk as clarified butter, curd, or cheese; meat by drying, curing, smoking, and salting.7
So maybe it’s reasonable to think; ‘OK, if you have the money and access to a full range of nutritious foods THEN it’s morally wrong to eat meat.’ With this in mind, we have to dig into why we think it’s wrong in the first place. I tackle the environmental arguments here, here, and here, so let’s not go there, or this article will never end! In this article, we’re talking specifically about cruelty.
Is a Plant-Based Diet Kinder Than an Omnivore Diet?
If you have spent any time in well-managed pastures or meadows, you’ll know they’re teeming with life. The buzz of insects, the scuffling of small mammals, the wonderful bird song; if you lie down in the long grass you’ll soon be covered in inquisitive invertebrates. So if you think that dragging large metal blades deep into these areas and turning the ground upside down will be a bloodless pursuit, then you are deeply ignorant of the destructive nature of conventional arable farming for plant food.8
Once you get over the immediate ‘mini-mammal carnage’ and the tearing up of snakes, frogs, beetles, and other insects, you should perhaps consider the harm being done to the micro critters in the soil. Healthy soil – of the sort you would find in a pasture – has more micro-organisms in a cup than there are humans on the earth! Tilling the land is incredibly effective at damaging soil health and reducing the diversity and numbers of earthworms, fungi, nematodes, and bacteria. The underground microscopic army of healthy pasture takes carbon and methane from the atmosphere and locks it underground. If a pasture is grazed in a rotational pattern with rest periods, it will be even more effective at storing carbon and has been shown to have the capacity to store all the methane a grazing cow can produce.9
Adding inorganic fertiliser, spraying with herbicides and pesticides, and irrigating the land – all practices more likely to happen when growing crops – can compound this issue further, leaving the soil a lifeless desert unable to absorb our ever-increasing greenhouse gases.10
There is no food system in the world that can feed us without death – it’s impossible.
In a conventional arable system producing vegetables and cereals, a crop will receive multiple dressings of pesticides – sprays that kill small creatures or ‘pests’ including pollinators like bees who are essential for so many eco-system functions. The soils in these fields are often very poor at absorbing water and soil washing into streams and rivers is a huge environmental problem, not least as they carry the aforementioned pesticides with it, killing fish and leaving dead zones in our oceans.
It is true that currently many of the crops produced will end up being fed to animals intensively reared indoors; this system is energy hungry, carbon heavy, inefficient, and simply bonkers. BUT, if we were ALL to eat more plants instead of animals, we would need more grassland to be converted into arable land to meet our additional food needs. There is a limit to how much food can be produced from the world’s potentially cropable lands – intensification, monoculture, and overuse of chemicals are inevitable. Not to mention that on a vegan diet we need a broader range of foods, many of which are very inefficient to grow.
Can We Afford Not to Produce Food From Our Grasslands?
It is clear that by eating plants we are killing many life forms as a ‘by-product.’ The worst part is we are not even getting food from these dead creatures; they are essentially wasted.
When these creatures die, we have no control over how they die either – the nest of field voles starving to death because their decapitated mother is no longer around to feed them probably won’t bother you; after all ‘out of sight out of mind!’
You could argue that the number of lives lost overall will be fewer for each person fed, but that’s not necessarily true either. It’s pretty hard to count, but some studies suggest that there is ‘least harm’ in an omnivore diet.11 And anyway at what size does a creature’s life become valuable? Do we add in worms and micro-organisms or is it only fluffy animals that count?
Perhaps there’s actually a good moral case for eating the biggest animals possible – that way we feed more people from fewer lives. You can feed a whole lot of people from a beef steer, with the loss of a single life!
We tend to use the word ‘agriculture’ as a dirty word these days and associate it with intensively reared animals behind bars and farmers feeding grains to animals – there is no doubt that this is a huge problem and it needs to stop. But ‘agriculture’ feeds ALL modern humankind with ALL types of food – plant and animal; omnivores, raw vegans, vegetarians, and a few dedicated carnivores all require agriculture. There is no food system in the world that can feed us without death – it’s impossible. But does this mean we should just throw our hands in the air and accept anything? Definitely not, but we need to stop oversimplifying this argument and start taking some responsibility for sourcing our own food from agricultural systems you support, with a proper understanding of what’s involved. Blanket claims that one diet or another is ‘moral’ and the other ‘murder’ is simply a cop-out. If you are shunning meat in favour of an entirely plant-based diet, be careful before taking the moral high ground – you’ve simply swapped the killing of large animals in favour of a food system that kills small creatures.
With good abattoirs and careful practices, we can ensure a herbivore dies a clean and reasonably stress-free death by rendering them unconscious before slaughter. Some abattoirs have CCTV, staff trained in animal welfare, and specially designed pens to minimise stress and reduce what an animal can see – let’s campaign for more of these. An even more humane death is that of a wild deer killed by a skilled stalker. Grazing one minute; dead the next.
We often lump all animal agriculture into one steaming pot. Factory farming and intensive farming practices make me sick to the stomach, and I have dedicated my life to fighting it, but the reality is that a relatively small portion of the world’s meat comes from these systems.
By opting out of eating meat you are opting out of influencing the way our meat industry grows. A supermarket selling cheap factory farmed meat will probably not miss your sale too much, but by consciously buying 100% grass-fed beef or lamb you can easily convert more farmers to organic by creating demand for that special product. I believe in ‘fighting’ causes with positive actions, not resistance. Couldn’t we focus on trying to eat animals from pastures and grassland that can’t be used to produce crops AND eating plants from organic systems that minimise killing and encourage soil health? This is what I do; this is what I promote. And yes, you can feed the world this way.12
I believe all things are interconnected and we are all part of a circle of life that depends on birth and death. A recent study intrigued me; it showed that, in a controlled setting, a plant knew it was being eaten by a caterpillar and the plant responded by excreting a poisonous defensive substance. It’s obvious that plants don’t have brains or cognitive problem-solving ability, but it seems they do – on some level – know when they are likely to die.13
We are only just beginning to understand on a scientific level how life and death works and, as always, empirical evidence is a long way behind what we know inherently to be true. I know it can’t be wrong to eat other living creatures for food, but some of the ways we are doing it nowadays I find deeply disturbing and morally unacceptable. We all need to eat, and we are living in a world where we can’t participate in the natural cycle of life easily, but we can make choices that will help bring our planet – our eco-system – back into balance.
How about we all focus on doing that?
Do you think it’s morally right or morally wrong to eat meat? Do you resist or fight with positive action? Let us know your thoughts on meat-eating in the comments below!
- Welsh, B.J. (2011, 22 August). Man Entered the Kitchen 1.9 Million Years Ago. In LiveScience. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/15688-man-cooking-homo-erectus.html
- Gupta, S. (2016). Brain Food: Clever Eating. In Nature, 531, S12–S13. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v531/n7592_supp/full/531S12a.html
- Wanjek, C. (2006, 4 July). The Raw Food Diet: A Raw Deal. In LiveScience. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/889-raw-food-diet-raw-deal.html
- Watson, C. (2016, 30 March). Healthy Eating Habits You Can Learn From Your Grandparents: Slow Cooking Meat. In Primal Eye. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://primaleye.uk/healthy-eating-habits-you-can-learn-from-your-grandparents-slow-cooking-meat/
- Wanjek, C. (2012, 26 November). Sorry, Vegans: Eating Meat and Cooking Food is How Humans Got their Big Brains. In The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sorry-vegans-eating-meat-and-cooking-food-is-how-humans-got-their-big-brains/2012/11/26/3d4d36de-326d-11e2-bb9b-288a310849ee_story.html
- Toro, B.R. (2011, 28 November). Vegetarians and Vegans (Infographic). In LiveScience. Retrieved 4 April 2016 from http://www.livescience.com/17200-vegetarians-vegans-infographic.html
- (Anonymous). (n.d.). Livestock and Food Security. In Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/x0262e/x0262e13.htm
- Davis, S.L. (2002). The Least Harm Principle May Require That Humans Consume a Diet Containing Large Herbivores, Not a Vegan Diet. In Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16, 387–394. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://fewd.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/inst_ethik_wiss_dialog/Davis__S._2003_The_least_Harm_-_Anti_Veg_in_J._Agric._Ethics.pdf
- (Anonymous). (2013). An Exploration of Methane and Properly Managed Livestock through Holistic Management. In Savory Institute. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://savory.global/assets/docs/evidence-papers/exploration-of-methane.pdf
- Philpott, T. (2010, 24 February). New Research: Synthetic Nitrogen Destroys Soil Carbon, Undermines Soil Health. In Grist. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://grist.org/article/2010-02-23-new-research-synthetic-nitrogen-destroys-soil-carbon-undermines/
- Archer, M. (2012, 15 Dcember). Ordering the Vegetarian Meal? There’s More Animal Blood on your Hands. In The Conversation. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://theconversation.com/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659
- (Anonymous) (2016, 3 February). Organic Agriculture Key to Feeding the World Sustainably: Study Analyzes 40 Years of Science Against 4 Areas of Sustainability. In ScienceDaily. Retrieved 4 Apri 2016 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160203085855.htm
- Bush, J. (2016, March 19). Study Claims Plants Can Feel When They Are Being Eaten and They Don’t Like It! In The Homestead Guru. Retrieved 4 April 2016, from http://thehomestead.guru/study-claims-plants-can-feel-when-they-are-being-eaten-and-they-dont-like-it/