Friday, July 23, 2010

Should we be eating meat?

Andrew D Atkin:

We can make a decisive argument for at least cutting back. In the western world we could cut back to about 20% of the meat that we eat today, and only achieve considerably better health for it.

Environmental argument:

By far the most inefficient way for humans to get their protein is through meat, or at least meat that comes from living animals. You can get about 10x the protein from vegetable matter (directly) out of a given land area farmed, as compared to meat. So meat is terribly expensive in environmental terms. It dictates a great deal of otherwise unnecessary deforestation, and possibly soil degradation.

Health argument:

The human digestive system is capable of digesting meat (and has evolved that way) but it is still overwhelmingly vegetarian in its structure. Our digestive system is virtually the same as that of comparable herbivores.

A carnivores digestive tract is about 3x shorter than that of a vegetarians, and a carnivores stomach acids are many more times as strong as that of a vegetarians. The difference is not discrete. Meat is very different to vegetable matter, and our digestive make-up recognises this.

So why this difference? Though meat is highly nutritious in itself, it needs to be processed quickly because it goes bad quickly. Rotting meat gives off all kinds of nasty toxins. When humans eat more meat than their body's can process and consume (and we don't use about 4/5th's of it, if you're an average westerner) then it literally rots in your vegetarian-type slow food-processing bowels, and likewise gives off toxins that hammer your digestive tract.

It is no accident that (typical) excessive meat eaters have higher incidents of bowel cancer than vegetarians. The toxins from meat must also, surely, affect other organs as they escape into the bloodstream as well.

The idea that most of us should cut back on meat by about 80% is beyond argument from a health perspective. Most of the meat we eat really does just sit in our bowels and rots - working against us, not for us.

We are quite able to go full vegetarian without any negative health impact, though as most of us know the move (if taken) needs to be done conscientiously. There have been champion bodybuilders, for example, who have been vegan (vegan = no animals products at all). That is testimony to the fact that we do not actually need meat to get the nutrients that our bodies require. Bodybuilding is one of if not the most nutritionally demanding activities that we can ever assign to our bodies.

Moral argument:

People often argue that it's ok to kill animals for food because that is what other animals do. This is an argument that claims: "If it's good enough for nature, then it should be good enough for us".

Well, Chimpanzees engage in periodic cannibalism, and so do humans when they are desperate enough for food. But obviously we do not consider cannibalism among humans to be moral, at least not if we don't have to do it to survive. And indeed, if you associate "law of the jungle" with moral acceptability by default, then you can ultimately justify (morally) absolutely anything you want.

My point is that the law-of-the-jungle argument should not be considered acceptable as the moral ideological base for a humanity that is neither desperate nor mindlessly enslaved to ancient instincts (like lower animals are).

The other key idea is that other animals are lower than us, and therefore we have a right to eat them because we are better than them.

Take this scenario: A super clever alien species comes down to earth and starts eating us because we taste a little better that their alternatives, and we don't matter to them because we are lower in terms of the evolutionary hierarchy. I am sure the reader would have a problem with that [hypothetical] alien morality, as I would. My point? Being an evolutionary notch above another species should not give us the right to use and abuse that other species as though their existence is worth nothing compared to our own.

Hence, finally, I do not believe it is moral to eat more meat than we need to eat for our survival and good health. How much meat is that? Usually none, though you could accept an individual substituting a small amount of red meat and fish into their diet for if they are concerned about their nutrition.


Asking the world to go vegetarian is not realistic. Even if I'm completely right with respect to my moral argument, it's still just not going to happen. But what we can encourage is getting people to cut right back on the amount of meat they eat - this would be a big winner for both the individuals health and the environment as well.

I also think it is best to eat large, mature animals (not lamb) because they have been able to experience most of their lives, and you only need to farm and kill less of them because you get more meat out of each animal (less life taken and compromised).

I also like the idea of developing a kind of black pudding, which would be a vegetable protein base saturated in animal blood. Maybe we could surgically bleed animals (like milking) instead of killing them? Far more efficient, and you can still obtain much of the nutrients (and flavour) otherwise provided by meat. (Much of the flavour in meat comes from the blood that is naturally saturated in it). Also there is the possibility of growing meat in a lab, which is a developing technology.

Addition: 07-04-14:

How is it that so many Germans, as normal as you and me, could kill a few million Jews production-line style, and with a pragmatic and indifferent attitude? Because they didn't see Jews as people - they just saw vermin. Why did they see vermin? Because they saw reality through social suggestions, and not reality as it really was. We are all guilty of this, including myself, and so the trick is to front up to the dynamic and not let it get the better of ourselves. It doesn't matter if everybody is doing something or believing in something - it can still be incredibly wrong.


  1. A very well-written post, Andrew. I was a vegan for five years and suffered no ill health effects. I didn't enjoy some of the DISGUSTING vegetarian products which are supposed to be 'meaty' in flavour and texture. I don't like cooking, but I was forced to be more creative because it's easy to get trapped into a boring shopping list when you go vegetarian or vegan. For many of us, meat tastes good and it's not so easy to let it go. When you discover all the ways to make food taste FULLY satisfying without meat (it can be done and I did learn eventually), and your body adjusts to the new diet, it can actually become difficult to eat meat in meat-eater quantities. The meat can make you feel quite nauseous if you eat more than a little.
    New vegetarians stink. They release a lot of gas from their stinky bowels when they first adjust to the new diet. It takes a while for their body to adjust to the increase in nuts and beans etc. Once they have adjusted, their bowels will be as clean as a whistle, and their gas will smell better than the gas that erupts from a bowel which has bits of green rotten meat stuck to it.
    However, meat tastes good....most of us can't deny that. I would like to see further development of artificially grown meat tissue (in laboratories). This would be a very economical, potentially healthy and humane way to produce meat.
    Also, I think the world needs better vegetarian products. Those clueless vegetarians don't seem to be very business-minded.

    Vegans often look very slim because they miss out on an enormous amount of saturated fat which is hidden in meat. Most western meat-eaters have a picture in their mind of a 'normal' weight. It is not normal, it is actually slightly chubby. Western vegetarians do not suffer from serious malnutrition. However, vegans and vegetarians need to make sure they eat enough iron. An excellent way to get iron: combine dark green leaves with tomatoes.
    A lot of vegetarians don't bother to cook or exercise, they don't get quite enough iron and they eat a lot of cheese and sugar. This is why many vegetarians are actually very unhealthy.
    But I agree with Andrew. Humans really do control animals far more than necessary. Humans are assholes. Vegetarians are assholes too....but if you decide to become vegetarian, I think you are making a good decision.

    Did you know that most meat is saturated with steroids (makes asian girls grow big boobs, so I am not complaining).....and your sausages are full of cow face (lips, eyelids, ears, nose...anything that can't be sold in it's visible form). Precooked meat products often contain mucus (sneezing and picking nose) and other contaminants which come from the low-paid people who make them, but none of this breaches health regulations because the products are cooked (to be fair, the same is true for cooked vegetarian products). Also, the average dead human body takes much longer to rot now that our meat is required to meet new standards of bacteria control (preservatives). Most vegetarian food cannot produce harmful bacteria even when it is completely rotten. The human body thrives on vegetarian bacteria. This is why veggie products don't contain as much preservative (unless they contain milk products).

    If you are brave, you might want to walk into one of those weird little health food stores. Don't talk to the hippy-freak who tries to sell you a cabbage full of crawling insects....just walk over to the fake sausages, buy them, eat one, and then you will know how bad it can be. Once you have tasted the worst, you will either feel a desperate motivation to eat proper vegetarian food, or you will be re-traumatised every time you smell a "veggie-snag" sizzling on the BBQ.

    (To be fair again, SOME 'tofu-meat' actually tastes very good and some TVP products are good too. Asian canned chicken substitute works well in stir fry and goes a long way towards reducing the size of chicken farms).

  2. Thank you Richard. Very informative.

  3. The only real problem i am concerned about within your post is the moral argument.

    You have used an hypothetical example of an alien moral agent, and in that case we would be moral patients, because we are also morally autonomous and so we have the *right* to live.

    Where this example falls down when applied to animals is the moral agent/patient interaction.

    I would suggest that in fact, animals could never be moral patients. Animals are not morally autonomous, there is no good or bad animal.

    So you see, using that model, animals could never have 'rights'. We can have obligations to them, but they could never demand anything. There is a strong distinction between our moral obligation and their 'rights'.

    if i havent explained this concept well enough, try carl cohen


  4. Ok anonymous - I don't get you but I'll look at the link.

    But the heart of my argument with the hypothetical alien thing was to validate the idea that being a notch above another animal on the evolutionary chain does not give us the right to freely use and abuse a given lower animal. To me that's just real.

  5. Autonomous: You also say: "because we are also morally autonomous and so we have the *right* to live"

    Personally I see no specific link between moral autonomy and the right to live. Any creature who can experience life as a conscious being has ultimate intrinsic value, irrespective of its capacity to intellectualise morality (or other). I don't see this as a cryptic question.

  6. I am approaching this one from sort of a Bible perspective. God, in Leviticus 27, listed the value of people from 1 month to over 60, to be redeemed from temple service. A child of 1 year of less was least valued and old people were next least valued.

    This value was based on the ability to do labor, primarily, since they served in a labor capacity in the temple. But value is also assigned to people by God according to wisdom, in which the elderly are seen to have much more and require much more respect from that point of view.

    Humans compared to other species, have abilities that animals do not possess nearly the same degree of. Humans develop great knowledge and were said to be created in the image of God, to carry on His ways, etc. Animals can not match these types of consciousness.

    So when a human dies, other humans, in the image of god, feel great loss and hurt. As well, an old person represents many accumulated years of wisdom which all disappear as soon as he is killed. So a lot dies when person dies. So God reserves exclusive rights to taking life. God allows eating meat. Some environments allow good growing. Some do not. In some regions, only animals can find adequate food and humans must rely on the animals for more processed food material.

    Now, I do not ask any to accept God. But if one can appreciate that a loss of a human life represents quite a bit of energy and labor to sustain that person, then one can appreciate the distinction between animal and man.

    But it is hard outside of the Bible to say something is definitive or not. This is one of those areas where each should do as they see right and not judge others too harshly. I do say that people should come before animals. But I am very concerned about any human who can mistreat animals who clearly feel pain and anguish, mental as well as physical suffering. If one can ignore the suffering of any animal, they can ignore the suffering of all animals and people. That is very dangerous.

  7. On the alien scenario:

    Well, actually, I wouldn't think of it as morally wrong, I just wouldn't like it. Morality is an abstract concept, and therefore realistically invalid. Of course, I don't find anything particularly repulsive about cannibalism either, so my total moral bankruptcy (which does not necessarily affect my choices in life) makes it impossible for me to consider anything morally wrong. If a higher evolved life form ingests me, or even bred me solely for the purpose of ingesting me, it doesn't mean it's wrong unless one can define a universal moral perspective, which, as I've said, doesn't exist. My point? I have no idea, but I thought I'd share my thoughts.

  8. Anonymous: All good to share your thoughts. But the curious question is, why did you think them? Maybe the subconscious purpose is to dismiss the principle of morality by default so as to make it emotionally easier to eat meat? Not meaning to be judgemental - just suggesting.

    Ultimately, yes, I think morality is abstract, and as I have always seen it it is a luxury-mode for societies which are not living in a state of real desperation. Life will always come down to law-of-the-jungle when people are starving.

    But morality is still ultimately as valid as any system of law. I feel it should be defended for the purpose of protecting and advancing what is best for everyone and everything. It has value and if we reject it everything will go to shit. So we might as well.

  9. Morality is not abstract. It's very simple:

    Thou shalt try to fulfill thy needs using methods that cast the least amount of darkness onto all souls.