We are not ideally suited to a vegetarian diet. We can live on it but it has its limitations. So why be a vegetarian?
The front-line argument of every vegetarian I meet is factory farming. Granted, an obscenity. So what’s the best way to get rid of factory farming? Buy all your meat from small, local farms where the farmers live hands-on with their animals every day? Or persuade everyone to change their fundamental nature, evolved over millions of years to make us supremely not only capable of eating everything, but thriving on an everything diet. We’re quite capable of vegetarianism, of course. But it is not what we’re built for.
Ohh, but the suffering of the poor animals, raised just to be turned into meat.
This is anthropomorphism at its purest. That argument supposes that because you wouldn’t like the idea a cow or sheep doesn’t. Its proponents project their consciousness and life experience on to an animal they know nothing about. I detect in this argument a transference of the individual’s anxiety about his own death.
It also begs the question: are they saying they shouldn’t be born? Would they rather not have been born, knowing they have to die? The gift of life is a gift to all creatures, surely? How can they know a cow doesn’t feel exactly the same way?
But it doesn’t. A cow’s brain is almost entirely devoted to looking for grass, choosing the best grass and getting it down ASAP. And its natural end in the wild is grim and painful and often slow, either taken down by a predator because they have grown weak or slowly starving because their teeth are worn away by all that coarse fodder. A good life eating grass and a sudden unexpected death is far preferable.
Then there is the argument that they suffer while being transported to the works. I worked at a freezing works when I left school. I didn’t see much distress, probably because the herbivores we raise for slaughter are herd animals. The most calming thing for them is to be close to other animals. Look at a truck full of cows or sheep on the way to the works. They don’t seem that uncomfortable, although killing on the farm is obviously preferable. I have a share in a farm that raises some animals, and when we kill our own the animal goes through no suffering at all. A shotgun to the forehead and they’re dead.
But if we can do without it, why not? It’s a good question, and it goes to who we are. We coevolved with the animals and plants we depend on. As hunter gatherers we had a relationship with the natural world which in spite of all our civilisation we still have. We derive a deep, instinctive pleasure from seeing healthy, contented animals in a field. Imagine a world where we never saw that. How grim. Oh, but there’s the dairy industry. There would still be cows in the fields. And sheep and goats in some countries. The animal doesn’t suffer, eats its grass, gets milked, everyone’s happy. That’s the illusion, but cows give milk, bulls don’t. All the bobby calves get sent off to the works. Animals die for milk. I once taxed a lacto-vegetarian with this, one who abstained from meat on compassionate grounds. “Oh no,” he said, “cows will go on giving milk for as long as you milk them.” Perhaps it is possible to force a cow to do that but it’s not what they do naturally and not how dairy farming works. The cows dry off in autumn, get pregnant, deliver their offspring in spring. Then they suffer the misery of separation, something that has them bellowing in pain until the truck finally arrives to take away the calves. Both mother and calf bellow all day and all night, because the truck can’t wait around for the farmer to cut out the calves. They need to be penned and ready to load when it comes. It is far more compassionate on those grounds to eat meat and abstain from dairy.
In any case the compassion argument simply doesn’t hold water. All life competes for food sources. There is no agriculture without killing. Even turning the soil involves the death of the creatures living in it. Here in England that does not just mean insects. There is a little vole living in every patch of ground the size of a cricket pitch, along with field-mice and moles. Death. Just see the birds turn up when ploughing gets underway to feast off the carnage. And once the plants appear creatures we call pests turn up in numbers. Arable farming is largely the process of controlling, usually by killing, the host of other creatures who attempt to make a living off the farmer’s produce. Organic farmers have organic pesticides, or use mechanical and manual methods of beating off the pests. They shoot pigeons, pheasants and all the other seed- and fruit-eating birds, poison the snails and insects. Storing it leads to another protective war – traps for rodents, poison. There is far more killing involved in raising the diet of a vegetarian than that of a carnivore.
Then there is the carbon cost, high because vegetarians and especially vegans require such a varied diet. The average health foods store has food delivered from all over the world. A carnivore can live happily and successfully, in most countries, entirely on food raised close to where they live. If the world gave up meat the carbon cost would be staggering. Yes, I know the unconscionable carbon cost of raising soy and maize, trucking it to a remote factory farm, stuffing it down the throats of poor creatures who never see daylight, then trucking them to the works and shipping their parts all over the world. But that is driven by the tastes of the many non-vegetarians who eat far too much meat, and only eat the parts of the animal they prefer. Truck farming is not a necessity – it’s just more profitable. An organic farmer friend has proven to me that carefully raised organic animals can easily meet the needs of current humanity.
The dumbest argument of all: I often hear vegetarians presupposing that if all the land currently used to raised animals were used for growing plant foods, then … Most land is put to the use it is best suited to. A sizeable portion of the land currently in pastoral farming would simply not support crops. It would not become covered with good, moral, nutritious vegetables, the harvest of death. It would revert to forest, and what was left wouldn’t feed us.
Finally there is the supposed health issue. Too much meat is bad for us. Yes, it is. Too much. Or at least, that’s the current view, which has changed so many times in my lifetime I have quite lost track. Remember the butter scare? Turns out it was all a cynical hoax perpetrated by the manufacturers of edible oil products. Butter, in small quantities, turns out to be good for us. Whether or not it is bad for us, however, does not change the fact that the average English meat meal contains enough protein to sustain the person eating it for at least three days. Meatless days were common in the life of a hunter gatherer.
That’s why you can afford to support the local farmer. Buy, and eat, 40% less. Don’t buy a chicken, roast it and gorge. Buy half a chicken, or share a whole one.
What is unquestionably good for us is variety, because we’re omnivores, equipped with a variety of cutting and grinding teeth and neither the short, fierce digestive system of the carnivore nor the long, complex and often multi-staged one of the herbivore, but one of medium length, the best of both worlds.
Over millions of years we evolved to eat the diet of a hunter gatherer, a richly varied one of animal products including the fresh or dried meat, blood and organs of foraging animals, birds and their eggs, fish and other seafood, fruit, nuts, roots, leaves, and seeds. And a little honey and even the occasional insect. No refined sugars or starches, nor any milk products. Little salt. That continues to be the healthiest diet a human can consume. Provided the animals are given plenty of grazing and fresh air and water, there is simply no reason this should not continue to be our diet for the foreseeable future, and provide us with the most pleasing environment to live in.
POST SCRIPT: Culture Changing Perception
I was a vegetarian for about eighteen months. I used to tell people the thought of eating meat made me ill, I found it revolting, etc. etc. Of course I was lying, to myself more than anyone. One night I was walking past a takeaway and the smell of meat on the grill prompted an undeniable flood of saliva. Who are you kidding, I thought, and bought and ate a hamburger. It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. That was the end of my flirtation with vegetarianism. I often meet vegetarians who say “I just don’t like it.” My natural inclination is to doubt them, recognising the same lie I told myself. But I have come to doubt this. I have friends who affirm with consistency and apparent honesty that they don’t like the taste, even the smell of meat cooking. How can this be? We are designed to eat and like what best sustains us. We can see how cultures such as the Pacific Island people, who had very little meat in their largely fish-based diet, react to the abundance of fatty meat and sweet food. They have such a highly conditioned drive to eat as much of it as they can on the rare occasions when it was available that in a modern Western setting they have huge difficulty avoiding obesity. Our wiring drives our tastes.
But is that changing? It may well be that enough social reinforcement can over-ride our instincts to the extent that our tastes actually change. I find evidence for this in the case of cigar and pipe smoke. In my childhood, constantly exposed to tobacco smoke, everyone – yes, everyone – loved the smell of the pipe and the cigar. In my infancy it was the fashion at medical school to take up pipe smoking. The pipe was the smell of a doctor, associated with care and nurturing. I, like everyone, loved it. I suppose the cigar was the smell of luxury and again everyone loved it. But there was none of today’s social opprobrium around these things, indeed my mother used to gather cigar ash and give it to us to clean our teeth because it was known to be a an excellent dentifrice.
Now, people genuinely find these smells unpleasant, something I have difficulty imagining.
So yes, perhaps today’s vegetarians have been so influenced by self-indoctrination and social reinforcement they really do dislike meat.
Is humanity experiencing a new pliability in the face of a bombardment of social programming at every level? Can this be influencing the apparent explosion in child sexual abuse? Surely one of our greatest instincts is to protect and treasure children. Psychologists have identified that the features we find beautiful are child-like in essence – very clear skin, big round eyes. Is this another example of culture causing is to get our wires crossed?
I find this disturbing. To be a member of a species that can be so easily alienated from its instincts worries me. My personal inclination is to keep my perceptions and my behaviour as closely attuned to my instincts as I can.