In Defence of Meat

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.

Back to the Land (and Vegetarianism) – The Great Hippy Blunders

In 1974 I and about 30 other young dreamers bought a magnificent 1200 acre farm in one of the most beautiful spots on earth. We were going back to the land, like thousands of earth-children throughout the western world. We were going to feel the earth between our fingers and toes again. And the sea – Sandy Bay was on our doorstep, the sea teeming with abundance. We would till the soil, make art and music, love each other and share.

Back to our roots.

Forty years later, it’s a pretty miserable scene. Not that much tilling, less art and even less sharing. A hell of a lot of bickering over insanely trivial issues. An underground river of venomous gossip and grudges lasting decades.

Just like thousands of its counterparts around the world. Why?

In a nutshell, because they were never our roots. They weren’t anyone’s roots. In fact they were, ironically, further from our roots than our urban lifestyle. Even that didn’t tie us down to a few people on a few acres.

Three events widely separated in time have provided me with the understanding why this enterprise was doomed to failure.

First, in 1967, I went to a film festival in Brisbane which ran a documentary I never have, never could, forget. Someone with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder spent weeks in the Australian bush moving along with an extended group of Aboriginal hunter gatherers. I recognised the most natural lifestyle I had ever encountered and the sanest, happiest people I had ever seen. Unfortunately, a few years later, swept up in the beauty of Moehau and the energy of making a new community, I forgot.

Earlier this year I walked the Camino de Santiago, hefting my pack on my back every morning and walking fifteen to twenty miles.

And this week I heard an extract from a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.

For 200 millennia, more or less, we lived like pilgrims on the Camino. We had no fixed abode but did have a sense of a larger sphere in which we moved. Every morning we rose, gathered our few belongings and walked. It is no accident that a human child learns to walk around about the time that it gets too heavy to be carried any distance.

By and large the females gathered and the men hunted, but there was a fair amount of cross-over in response to what was available. No rigid plan; rigidity came with farming. When the fish were running everyone fished. When we came across an abundant vegetable resource everyone gathered and feasted. At night, we lit fires and ate.

Becoming farmers cursed us well and truly. We had to defend what we invested months, years, accumulating. Warfare and violent death became normal. As farmers, it wasn’t enough to simply create food. We had to build storage and then build defences for the storage. Powerful parasites called priests and their soldiers descended on us and demanded tribute. We farmed the land and they farmed us. Groovy. Soon populations grew so large that the door to a return to hunting and gathering was closed forever. We were trapped in a miserable, everlasting lifestyle. Little wonder that religions still make a virtue of large families and call birth control sinful.

By comparison, when a hunter-gathering clan ran into a superior competitor it moved out of the way, instead of fighting tooth and claw to defend … what? We didn’t have anything to defend. There was always more space because hunter-gathering prevented over-population. You simply could not have six children, it wasn’t viable. I have no idea how they prevented large families, but they did.

These are our true roots, and the real reason, I believe, why almost everyone who sets out to do the Camino finishes it, no matter how unlikely that may seem at the outset. It’s in our bones, our blood, our genes. Pushing on, keeping going – we’ve been doing it literally forever. And of course it is the reason why we feel wrong, unsatisfied, down, in the days after we stop. We have just spent a few weeks doing what we were designed to do since the dawn of our species.

One of Harari’s many theses is that mankind didn’t domesticate cereals 10,000 years ago – cereals domesticated mankind, very much to our disadvantage. We got a grossly inferior diet and a host of diseases – arthritis, digestive disorders, bad teeth, under-nutrition due to mineral and protein deficiencies and more. We lost, the cereals won, becoming the most widespread and successful plant group in history. The life and diet of the hunter-gatherer is constantly diverse. We had hundreds of different foods, changing with the locale and the seasons. As farmers, we inherited a miserable and insufficient handful. Vegetarianism, from an evolutionary perspective, is dietary self-flagellation. Enjoy.

It started with the dog, 10,000 years ago. In all likelihood someone found a wolf pup and raised it, discovering that the creature grew up identifying the human as its pack leader, driven to obey him or her. Then pastoral animals, then cereals. The wheat snuck up on us behind a bunch of cute animals. Fiendishly clever!

The biggest loss was that we became not only sicker but sadder, because we no longer spent our days doing what we had evolved to do – move constantly, see new things, deal with a constantly changing environment, walk, walk, walk. Homo sapiens, as you discover on the Camino if you’re paying attention, is a walking machine. People become utterly, stupidly happy walking the Camino. It’s now being said that the cure for almost everything is to walk two miles a day. Close but not enough – it’s more like three or four miles. And I do. If I don’t my happiness declines quickly.

The other big hit we took was over-work. We are absolutely not designed to work eight, ten hours a day, and doubly-absolutely-not designed to do the same work every day. (Walking isn’t work. It’s more like breathing with your legs.)

Eat meat, fish, and everything else that nourishes you. Consume all the parts of the animals you eat. Walk everywhere and (this is what I learnt from the aboriginal film) look around constantly, observing, thinking. Those aboriginals saw from two hundred yards away a goanna sitting on a rock that I couldn’t see from twenty. Take lots of rest, and share what you have. Accumulate as little as possible.

Live as much like a hunter gatherer as you can. You will flourish.

It really is that simple, because ten millennia is the blink of an evolutionary eye. It’s yesterday. We are still hunter gatherers where it counts.

And of course, don’t be so foolish as to voluntarily surrender to the tyranny of the cereal by putting roots down in the soil. Roots are for plants.

Hang on, I hear you say. I know happy farmers.

Really? I don’t. But I know farmers who are happier than their counterparts running the rat-race in the city, being carried around everywhere like shopping, heaving with 21st-Century insecurities. Farmers are outdoors a lot of the time, they have space, they don’t have a boss. Not bad, as modern lifestyles go. But their relative contentment isn’t in the same league as those Aboriginals wandering under the sky. They appeared to me to be transcendently happy, showing all the signs of a complete absence of inner conflict, living a Buddha-like existence in the permanent present.

We’re just not designed to spend our days walking 50 yards to the orchard and another 50 to the gardens, spending hours there doing back-breaking work, go back to the house for meals and sit around in the evenings on our bums talking and watching TV. And seeing the same handful of  people, the same set of scenery, year in year out. Thinking that would make us happy was a terrible mistake.

Not one I personally made for long, I’m pleased to say. A few months living in another community building a Buddhist temple was enough for me. I learned that living and eating communally, seeing the same faces everyday, was my particular hell. I had no idea I could come to hate someone because of the way they nibbled their rice.

Peace, man.

Might as well address the other common thesis, that we are ‘evolving to a higher state of consciousness’ which involves the peaceful, non-violent path of not eating animals.

For starters that is a gross and ignorant mis-use of the word ‘evolve.’ The only path of evolution, the only one, is adaptation by natural selection. So we won’t even start to do that until we start preferentially selecting mates on the basis of their vegetarianism and within those unions have more children who out-survive those of meat-eaters. Out-survive, in evolutionary language, has nothing to do with length of life. It means, technically, we will have more grandchildren who live to child-bearing age. One, it isn’t happening and two, if it was it would still take 50 millennia, minimum, to produce the slightest physical changes, the vital one being developing the herbivore’s ability to synthesise the essential amino acids from plant sources. Without complete (animal) protein we need to have all 9 essential amino acids in our system at the same time. Studies have shown various combinations of plant foods can provide these provided they are all consumed on the same day. To really thrive on this diet takes knowledge, effort and the availability of a wide variety of high-quality plant foods such as one finds in health food stores. I consider a lifestyle dependent on health-foods stores that bring together, year-round, food from all over the planet both unnatural and undesirable.

Evolving to become natural vegetarians has not even begun and is highly unlikely to. It would take an extended famine, during which one individual would strike luck thousands of times greater than that needed to win a national lottery and experience not just one but several gene mutations enabling that person to produce the necessary enzymes. It is theoretically likely that this person would thrive and have many healthy children when everyone else was starving. The gene would be rapidly dispersed through the population by preferential choice of mate and we would have evolved to become vegetarians.

Aint’ gonna happen.

To the mother who complained in the Times about people looking at her ‘special needs’ kid.

Your letter brought home to me, once again, what an awful specimen of humanity I am. Yes – I’m a starer. In my defence, I add the adjective ‘covert.’ But I’m still looking, attracted by all that is different or unusual. Human variation far outside the norm grabs me every time. Not only that, I am a tubby-peeper. The extremely obese I find mesmerizing, doubly so when they are tucking into a triple-decker hamburger with a large side of chips. And interesting handicaps, jet black skin with magnificent Africanoid features, the extremely tall and the very small, severe stutterers, people using sign language – all grist to my prurient mill.

My only consolation is that am I among the majority, which will remain so despite any quantity of preaching and condemnation because it’s the way we’re made.

I used to ride a recumbent bike, one of those lying-down and pedaling with your legs in front of you things. Friends were constantly urging me to fly a flag on a pole and to wear glow-in-the-dark costumes. I ignored them with impunity because I knew that man, like many other species but probably more so, is hard-wired to watch for the unusual. Nothing I could do would improve the very high visibility I already enjoyed – cars didn’t hit me, the drivers slowed down to look at my weird bike.

Millions of years of programming to notice and inspect that odd pattern in the bush, the atypical animal gait which may signal easy prey and especially people who look ‘other’ and may therefore be after your lunch are not going to go away in the evolutionary eye-blink of a century. For thousands of millennia the different has represented either danger, or opportunity, or both. And thus we look.

So I accept myself but employ good manners in restricting myself to a discreet, compulsive peek. Manners which also have their roots in safety – in big cities we still learn not to challenge with eye contact.

So I am sorry, all you who are physically unusual or care for such a one. You are going to go on attracting attention. But I applaud those parents in this day of amniocentosis and elective abortion for giving the treasure of life anyway. Most of you chose your cross – bear it with pride. And if you want a break, take a trip to Ireland, Spain or Italy – Catholic countries where abortion is still a regrettable last resort, and the unusual are not so unusual.