*Please Note* This is as yet unmoderated, and un-proof-read document. Feel free to point out omissions. Thank you. It continues from Vegetarianism, Part 1: History.
The main motivations (or justifications) for switching to a vegetarian diet can be classified as follows:
- Religious grounds
- Non-religious grounds
I shall now discuss each of these categories separately, attempting to draw on real evidence, and to present arguments, counter-arguments and so on, as to the viability and tenability of the associated positions where there is any dispute.
The two main practical issues with meat-eating relate to cost and availability. These are both highly geographically and temporally dependant factors. Both of these seem likely to have contributed significantly to the sharp rise in Western meat consumption over the past five to six centuries. The capitalist model has ensured a continuingly growing supply of meat at falling prices (giving rise to a large subset of animal-rights ethical objections, as welfare cutbacks to improve efficiency are clearly necessary without major scientific breakthroughs). It is clear that this rise was driven by the association of meat with positive aspects of life (wealth, health and so on), so it is possible that, had there not been the initial lack of availability of meat except to the upper classes, contemporary meat consumption might have been greater.
Many fairly irrelevant associations can be seen today influencing the younger generation’s choice of food, and may be justifiably attributed to medieval attitudes regarding meat’s importance as a symbol of authority, wealth and ‘manliness’ (watch some burger adverts if you don’t believe me), and the naïve assumption that meat ‘is’ food. (Etymologically speaking, this is actually correct – the Old English mete meant food, as opposed to drink, and derives from the Proto-Indo-European mat or met, meaning measure – hence ‘meter’.)
This latter prejudice, derived partly from the practical issue of availability of a suitably varied vegetarian diet in the West – the shortage of nutrients, minerals and protein now recognised as a serious issue with uneducated vegetarianism by all doctors – and partly from religious and cultural assumptions about the role of meat, and is still present today. Comparatively rarely do non-vegetarian customers in restaurants order ‘vegetarian options’, which are often separated, instead choosing a meal which is centred on the choice of meat (beef, lamb, chicken…) and which frequently has a large quantity of whatever meat it contains.
However, it is generally the case that vegetarian meals are cheaper and easier to prepare. This influences both the choice of people, and organizations which feed people (‘soup kitchens’ and similar organizations often serve soups and salads with no meat, for instance.)
Also, it is evident that restaurant prices can influence people eating out – even if the vegetarian submenu is limited, the meals are often at least a third cheaper.
The issue of limited availability of vegetarian options is mentioned above. It is important to note the importance of fairly rare (regionally speaking) foodstuffs or vitamin supplements to vegetarian diets, if they are to have healthiness similar to omnivorous diets (which are generally less regionally dependent, since meat producing animals provide much of the required human intake of vitamins, minerals and so on, but can themselves live on a vast variety of landscapes – an issue particularly to poor and isolated communities in areas with large amounts of human-indigestible vegetation.) In the case of vitamin B12, including compounds like cyanocobalamin, scientific research has actually concluded that, based on current knowledge    , uncontaminated plant sources cannot reliably provide sufficient levels for full health, leading to supplements being taken by many vegetarians (intriguingly, the sources for other herbivorous animals are often, for example, plants which are infested with insects, whilst vegetarian humans in recent history have often got B12 by consuming contaminated plants – where faecal contamination is not uncommon.)
There are also practical objections to ‘unconditional’ vegetarianism. The two most serious issues cited pertain independently to the two different worlds of highly connected economies, and poor disconnected and isolated regions.
The more attractive of these arguments is the latter, due to its strong emotional appeal (as opposed to the former, which is of a type resented by most economical cynics). The central thesis is that many communities cannot, for geographical, financial and logistical reasons, subsist on a vegetarian diet. Obvious examples are many African communities living mainly off quite arid land surrounding their homes. In such locations, the human body is generally not sufficiently efficient to live on an herbivorous diet; grazing animals generally have to process the local, human-indigestible plant life first. Elsewhere around the world, we find a large portion of available plant life to be inappropriate for human consumption, and people with little access to other crops or supplements therefore generally find it difficult to avoid eating some flesh.
This objection is, of itself, of no direct consequence to individual dietary/lifestyle decisions in the West. However, these societies help firstly to illustrate the historical, and current, impracticability of ethics taking an immediate driving seat everywhere. It is clear that this argument is in no way an attempt to dissuade people from adopting a vegetarian diet, or from attempting to dissuade others from eating meat – rather, it is a way of putting into perspective our current conception of meat consumption.
The other concern, more relevant in modern societies, but less appealing to people arguing in revolutionary and ideological terms, is based on the fact that the large amount of industry relying directly and indirectly on meat consumption supports a substantial portion of the economy. Concerns about unemployment are sometimes cited as a serious problem with a world lacking a meat production sub-economy. Farmers in area with poor soil or inappropriate environment for crop growth – including insufficiently large areas of fertile land to make crop growth profitable – are of immediate concern, whilst the whole butchery industry, and a large chunk of the food preparation industries, would cease to exist.
Obviously, there is no suggestion (from any educated, thoughtful omnivore) that since an instant removal of all meat industries would create an almighty employment vacuum, the gradual change of dietary habits is unacceptable. The argument is that the interconnectedness of the economy surrounding food production means that any shrinkage, even gradual, would bring about a loss of confidence in quite a large sector. Also, the vast swathes of agricultural economy which currently rely on meat production could feasibly fail, in the worst case scenario (which can fairly readily be argued to be highly unlikely).
A common, and immediately obvious, refutation of this argument is that the loss of meat farming and processing industries would be compensated for by growth in industries in synthetic ‘meat’ synthesis, and other supplementary techniques. However, in response to this, it is relatively easy to see that this new industry would not be so reliant on large agricultural economic systems, but rather on small-scale, high-tech farming systems. For example, the well known British meat ‘analogue’ ‘Quorn’ is a mycoprotein, meaning it is a processed version of an edible fungus that is high in protein content. Specifically, the soil mould Fusarium venenatum is grown in massive fermentation tanks, being fed on glucose sugar; non-essential minerals and vitamins are added to improve its nutritional value. Of course, other meat substitutes are derived more or less directly from plant products (seitan from wheat, tofu from soybeans and so on) – but omnivores can simply point out that this doesn’t necessarily help people in the meat industry living in places where they cannot start growing the appropriate crops (whether in rich, densely populated regions, or poor, arid regions). The surviving remnants of this objection are therefore mainly the justified claims that (many of) the jobs in processing would not be lost, but rather transferred to meat substitute management. It is, however, difficult to see the role of what are traditionally, and (currently) by necessity and choice, meat farming and exporting cultures, in the absence of interest in their products. Without what seem currently to be radical changes in the support of poor communities and possibly irrigation of land and similar initiatives, it seems likely that many areas would suffer.
Another important objection attacks the economic soundness of the argument, and the assumptions leading to the summary at the end of the previous paragraph. Historically, shifts in emphasis within industries have been commonplace, and cultures and societies have ‘moved with the times’. This has never been without casualties – the specialists, and the skilled manual labourers (and the unskilled, in the case of mechanization) – but it is widely, if reluctantly, perceived as part of the natural journey of industry. Mostly, of course, these decisions have been highly beneficial to the industry, and society at large because of this – however, it is also clear that these decisions have mainly been made precisely because they were expected to be beneficial (whether to avoid a systemic problem, or to massively improve efficiency or quality). It is questionable whether a much more controversial and more ethically motivated shift or reform in industry would necessarily be of any gain. Nonetheless, though, this argument definitely holds water. Industries die out regularly, and unemployment figures tend to stabilise at a point of equilibrium which is not particularly harmful. If such a shift is considered worthwhile, then it seems likely that our economy, at least, would recover even with the meat industry forced to gradually shed workers due to levels of demand falling out of the operational parameters of the natural supply and demand model of economics.
Whether poor areas would be able to cope with the bottom falling out of the meat (and associated product) export market is a different matter, but perhaps also an irrelevant one. Vegetarians could feasibly argue for a system whereby it is encouraged that meat producing regions feed poorer areas – maybe even are subsidized to do so – whilst financial and scientific aid is given to the former to help them convert to a more ethical/sustainable/suitable system, if that is even necessary. Places which rely on producing food for animals being grown for meat would have to be treated similarly. It seems likely, however, that richer countries would have to compensate somehow for the reduction in cash flow which would inevitably ensue, but that this would prevent any serious repercussions for these vulnerable and economically sensitive groups.
Some statistics which it is interesting to know are that the livestock industry as a whole (these statistics are from a piece on grazing generally, not just for meat production, but they may be of some interest anyway) accounts for 40% of all agricultural produce, and employs around 1.3bn people, very nearly 20% of the world population. This clearly includes many animals not grown for meat, but it is nonetheless a very impressive statistic. The livestock sector is also the fastest growing agricultural sector.
Finding ways to increasing meat prices is occasionally suggested by meat eaters (and less hard-line vegetarians) as a practical compromise, or as an intermediate first step, to trying to eliminate meat from diets. One idea is that by finding areas such as animal treatment and welfare, and forcing all companies – especially large corporations – in meat farming to meet substantially increased standards of animal welfare (see the section on ethics) far beyond the simple exclusion of what are currently termed battery animals etc., and all companies importing meat to demonstrate that it meets some equivalent standards. Apart from obviously improving the treatment of the creatures, the hope is that increased costs would encourage people to eat less meat, helping to deal with the other issues associated with meat consumption such as carbon dioxide emissions. Clearly, such an approach would have opposition from many people used to low meat costs, but many people consider the current situation unsustainable, for reasons outlined below.
The association of vegetarianism with ‘green’ environmental causes stems partly, as seen in the first half of this two-part blog, from historical associations of personality and moral views.
However, the environmental issues behind vegetarianism provide some of the clearest and most readily documentable arguments for its adoption. There are many ways in which (capitalist, mass-production-scale) meat production and consumption affect the environment detrimentally. The diversity of issues in fact warrants the subdivision of environmental concerns into subcategories:
- Land use and degradation (leading to loss of habitat, biodiversity, forestry – causing climate change – and resources)
- Water use
- Air, water and land pollution
It is important to note, before we begin disseminating information on these topics, that vegetarianism can also have significant problems with relation to some of the above issues, and that meat production can benefit the environment in certain situations.
There are two main reasons for meat production claiming large areas of land, corresponding roughly to the division between factory and free-range animal farming.
The first issue is that of the land required to provide food for meat-bearing animals, especially those in factory farms, since they do not graze on the land they occupy. It is well known (even historically) that the consumption of mass-produced meat gives a very poor efficiency ratio, in the sense that only a low percentage of the energy the animals take in from their diets is passed on to the human ‘predator’.
This is generally true for the phenomenon of ‘secondary’ energy absorption from plants – for poultry and beef, the ratio of energy input to protein output varies from 4:1 to 54:1 (poultry is generally the most efficiently produced meat, followed by turkey, whilst lamb and beef are the least). 1996 China, according to one report working in the ‘grain equivalent’ of a diet, showed that a vegetarian diet ‘costs’ 3 times less grain than a typical affluent diet, although the food energy intake of the affluent diet is only 15% greater than the vegetarian’s, who get over twice the plant protein. The US Department of Agriculture reports that growing crops for farm animals occupies 80% of the country’s agricultural land – animals raised for food there consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn and 70% of its grain. 33% of the world’s arable land is used to produce feed for livestock. There is a clear argument for the view that this land – and/or crop – could be put to better use.
David Pimentel, a scientist from Cornell University said, over 11 years ago, that
If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.
According to his report, Americans provided for by only grass-fed livestock would continue to exceed the RDA of both meat and dairy protein
Land set aside as grazing for creatures, for any reason, is also recognized as being in some ways irresponsible, as it contributes noticeably to desertification and also corresponds to lower biodiversity in most cases – areas devoted to animal agriculture overall represent 30% of the world’s surface, and 70% of arable land.
These concerns are far from imaginary; Pimentel also says that, in 1997, 90% of US ‘cropland’ is losing soil at 13 times the sustainable rate; fertile Iowa loses topsoil at 30 times the rate of soil formation – it has used half its topsoil in around 150 years of farming, but this quantity of soil takes thousands of years to form.
These topics are concerning in a time of unstable climate, especially when a massive percentage of Amazonian forests have been converted for use as pasture and for growing feed crops – 70% of former forests there are now used for grazing.
Removing forests which are helping to reabsorb carbon is not necessarily the best of ideas, especially when we consider that the global livestock sector itself is responsible for around 18% of our CO2 equivalent emissions, more than transport (mainly because it produces such potent gases: only 9% of our carbon dioxide, but 65% of nitrous oxide – mostly from manure – and 37% of our methane).
This sort of scale of problem is only compounded when we look at projected figures for meat and animal product consumption. Global meat production was forecasted (2 years ago) to more than double between 2001 and 2050, from 228m to 465m tonnes. Similarly, milk output was expected to increase from 580m to 1043m tonnes.
It is hoped that these issues can be controlled by environmental tactics such as soil conservation, and silvopastoralism in the world of forestry, the more careful location of livestock et al, and further increases in efficiency of feeding and breeding systems, but this seems a sticking plaster on a bloated system.
However, obtaining meat is not necessarily always a problem for the environment. One small note is that small-scale hunting of wild animals helps keep populations in check in some circumstances; where natural predators and dangers do not limit a population, such practices can be necessary for the well-being of the wider ecosystem (should someone do this to us?!)
Also, it has been documented, particularly in studies of the rapidly developing China, that ‘integrated’ food production systems which feed unusable organic material from farm and restaurant waste to robust animals, such as pigs, can actually increase the energy efficiency of the system.
This backs up the suggestion that massively cutting down on meat consumption around the world (especially in high-intake countries such as the US, which has an average meat consumption around 40 times that of Bangladesh) and returning to grass-fed pastures, and waste-fed animals, at the expense of factory farming, would greatly improve the environmental footprint of meat consumption.
However, the capitalist market can be expected to continue to exploit the natural world until regulation, necessity or demand forces companies to stop.
Yet it remains important to check any enthusiasm for dropping local meat production in favour of importing cereals and other crops – it is notable that air transport, refrigeration and freezing, and various horticultural techniques and practices can drive up the fossil fuel cost of vegetarian diets in some cases, past the point of locally sourced organic meat.
Also, the global farming community’s reliance on fossil fuels means that plant- growers may also find it difficult to reach sustainable levels of production (even though they generally use 8 times less fossil fuels than for equivalent amounts of animal protein.)
Another concern is the prodigious rate at which one of our most valuable natural resources is used. The concept of ‘virtual water’ describes this, so that since 1kg of grain and hay requires around 1000 litres of water, based on the approximation that each kilo of beef takes 100kg of hay and 4kg grain to produce, around 100,000 litres of virtual water are required to produce a single kilogram of beef.
Comparison of water requirements for animal and plant protein show a factor of around 26 times more for meat in areas with sufficient rainfall not to need much irrigation, or around 4.4 where intensive irrigation is required.
Also, overgrazing tends to disturb the natural water cycle by reducing the replenishment of water resources, both surface and buried.
We have already discussed greenhouse emissions briefly, and so omit them here. Also, since most of the pollutant effects are due to the production of feed crops, they are not immediately relevant (except in so far as a feed crop is produced more cheaply and hence hazardously than crops intended directly for human consumption.)
The remaining serious pollutant agents are really consequences of animals’ waste and treatment. Animal waste itself will readily penetrate into the water system, but so will hormones and antibiotics from large herds. Chemicals from associated industries like tanneries have a lesser input.
The main consequences of these pollutants entering the water system, apart from the obvious problems of contaminated water, include eutrophication of water bodies and coral reef degeneration – both of these have a large impact on biodiversity. In the South China Sea, it is also estimated that livestock are the central source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination, which also impacts negatively on marine diversity. Generally, the presence of livestock and man-made environmental changes tend to affect habitats; the growth of feed crops has a similar effect.
(More to come...)