Vegetarianism is not merely a philosophy or a casual way of life; it is a political movement. The hysteria over the subject is rife with terms like “murder” and “slaughter” and “genocide”, and its accompanying activities are often in the same league as terrorism, certainly of social violence. All sense of rationality and level-headedness are out the window as each side adopts a posture tantamount to that of the abortion debate. Despite the fact that it is vegetarians who will accuse meat-eaters of being violent (because of their meat-eating), it is the vegetarian who will react with everything from snubbing a person who has confessed to eating meat, to hysteria that some food-store employee has made a sandwich with the same hands, even if gloved, that they earlier used to make a meat sandwich, to serious physical violence against meat-eaters.
The philosophies will be dealt with shortly. We start with a simple statement of fact: the human animal is biologically evolved to eat meat and vegetables. The combination of incisors, canines and molars in the mouth are indicative of an omnivore, not exclusively a herbivore or a carnivore. The chemicals, and indeed the very make-up of the digestive system are evolved to digest meat as much as vegetables. In our study of the evolution of the species, there has been no identifiable moment at which we changed from being a carnivore to an omnivore, nor a herbivore to an omnivore. Indeed, many of our supposed ‘relatives’ in the primate sector are omnivores.
The health motive
The most frequent argument in favour of vegetarianism starts with the supposition that vegetables are simply healthier for us, and that meat is unhealthy. Unfortunately, no scientific evidence exists to support this theory in its absolute and uncompromising sense. We assume an exclusion argument: that if vegetables are healthy for us, their alternative, meat, must by that very fact be unhealthy for us. This is poor logic. We know that the absence of vegetables causes all sorts of health problems, but this only indicates that the inclusion of an amount of vegetables is a positive contribution to our diet: it is not an all-or-nothing solution. It does not mean that a glut of vegetables is going to be in anyway therapeutic. Similarly, too much meat, especially red meat, can be problematic; but this again does not imply that the solution is a complete absence of meat. Too much of anything, or too little of it, is, by definition, a problem (or we would not call it ‘too much’ or ‘too little’).
We are told that we can in fact replace the protein in meat with proteins available in vegetables and grains. However, to obtain the same amount of protein as meat, one has to eat nearly eight times as much vegetables. On the other hand, the protein does get absorbed more quickly. But back on the counter-argument, what protein is absorbed from vegetables is used up more easily, and does not get dedicated to muscular development. For this reason, according to research done by the German, M.J. Lentze, vegetarianism caused impaired growth in children under the age of six. On top of this, vegetarian diets lack calcium, zinc, and vitamins B-12 and D. Of course, these are all available as dietary supplements; but when we are talking about the benefits versus the detriments of vegetables and meats, we are really examining them in their own right, without the need for artificial additives.
It must be pointed out, however, that vegetarians suffer from obesity far less than meat-eaters, partly because of the meat’s fat content, partly because vegetables do not have an excess of nutrients, and partly because vegetables help to shrink the stomach and thereby we tend to feel full more quickly and eat less.
Health research for the last 50 years has shown that vegetarians fall sick from mundane ailments such as colds, the flu and topical infections nine times as frequently as meat-eaters. They suffer from hair loss at three times the rate of meat-eaters. They suffer a lower sperm-count than moderate meat-eaters, but higher than fatty-meat eaters. Likewise with poor eyesight. Vegetarians also suffer from arthritis more often than meat-eaters. While some of them can be as physically fit as the average meat-eater, it is a lot harder to build up the larger amounts of muscle needed to excel at fitness. But because they do not excel at the peak of the strength ladder, they do however endure for longer at the lower level which they do attain: in other words, their stamina is greater as long as they are not required to be too strenuous.
The argument that vegetarianism lowers the risk of cancer by 50 percent and prevents heart disease is scientifically unsupportable, for the simple fact that there are always too many factors involved to attribute cancer to any one thing, whether it be smoking or eating meat or (according to the Catholic Church) premarital sex. Again, the best that can be ascertained is that an excess of red meat can cause a small increase in the rates of colon cancer (due to the lack of fibre and roughage) or of heart degeneration (due to the accompanying fat). Yet vegetarians fall prey to alternative cancers, and especially to illnesses derived from vitamin and mineral depletion, with no less frequency than their carnivorous counterparts.
The religious or spiritual motive
Christian vegetarianism is a strange one to deal with. Religious people in general go all warm and fuzzy over the ‘value of all life’ argument. There are two arguments which support this. One is that in the beginning, when we were in a ‘state of grace’ before the Great Sin, God told us to eat of all of the vegetation. The other is that after the Flood, God formed a covenant with humans and animals alike: even though this covenant was that God would never again destroy life in that fashion, it does seem to indicate some spiritual connection with the animals as well. The counterarguments are first that eating vegetation does not in itself exclude eating anything else. The Bible is of limited size and can not contain everything that we are allowed to do, only the things that God specifically wants us to do or not to do. For example, God wants us to set aside one day a week to worship him: does this mean that we are not allowed to set aside a second day as well, if we are able to? So much for monasteries! The second counterargument is Abel kept flocks and that he even offered God the “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock”. Killing animals was not only a habit, it was a religious duty! Indeed, priests in the Temple could eat any part of an animal that was not specifically used as part of the offering to God.
A third counterargument is that despite the covenant, after the Flood God tells us that we can eat the meat of the animals. Deuteronomy 12:15 states, “[Y]ou may slaughter your animals in any of your towns and eat as much of the meat as you want, as if it were gazelle or deer, according to the blessing the Lord your God gives you.” And verse 20: “When… you crave meat and say, ‘I would like some meat,’ then you may eat as much of it as you want.” (Even in the Communion, the wafer does not turn into the plant-matter of Christ, but into the body of Christ… and we eat it!)
The spiritual argument is that eating meat makes us an animal, rather than a human, and we thereby debase ourselves. But this only holds true if we have already subscribed to the notion that there is something wrong with being an animal, and that all animals that eat each other must be lower than us by that very fact. It is a presumptuous conclusion, and therefore illogical. It is also arrogant and paternalistic to harbour the thought that we are ‘above’ the animals, and must therefore generously grace them with the indulgence of our protection. There are only certain areas of our life in which we have obligations ‘to look graciously upon’ the lower beasts, and one might certainly be in the manner in which we raise animals and the manner in which we dispatch them. But this self-assumed elevation does not oblige the species to give up on what all Nature is: dog eat dog! The spiritual argument portrays this ‘dog-eat-dog’ world as being inferior and the meat-eater as a blood-lusting savage. Yet in the real world, all species need to defend themselves. We look to this aggressive streak when it serves us, for our own protection, yet we disdain it for the comfort of intellectual leisure.
The Animal Rights Movement is not religious or spiritual in the typical sense of these notions. It is based on an intellectual philosophy, that animals have rights. All rights are a process of argument: they exist because we argue that they are, and someone in a position to evaluate and to ratify that argument agrees with it. As such, no animal has rights of any sort. They are a human conceit. But in a form of animism or of anthropomorphising, we imbue them with what can only belong to us. When an okapi is about to be killed by a lion, what argument can it give to justify its ‘right to life’? Indeed, what argument can we give? Or does this apply only to an animal’s application to humans? ‘Meat is murder’ is a right-to-life argument which we remove from its natural environment: human intellectualism.
Where the Animal Rights Movement seems to have more of the moral high-ground is with the mass-production argument, for this offends people even outside of the movement. It deals with, as mentioned above, the obligation to amass and to dispatch animals in a way which reflects the humane rather than the purely human. If we must kill, we are not obliged to do so in the most gruesome manner. We have choice. If the ‘quality of death’ argument is worthy of examination from the pro-euthanasia lobby (irrespective of whether one believes it or not), then it is worthy of examination in many other arenas. We do so in war, we do so in hospice care, we even do so with criminals whom we put to death. The argument about the quality of an action is different from one about the existence of an action.
It is the extremities of vegetarianism which identify the religious, spiritual or philosophical perspective of the eater. Some claim to be vegetarian, while still eating fish. Some eat shellfish. Some venture into chicken (a rather bizarre exemption considering the cruelty we inflict upon them). Others at the other extreme will not even consume dairy products, because they are an animal by-product, even without the loss of the animal’s life. Others will not eat yoghurt or cheese, because bacteria were involved, and bacteria is a life-form. For that reason beer is out, because yeast is a life-form. Yet is it not true that even plants are a life-form. True, they do not fit into the tidy description of animal life encapsulated in our high-school acronym of MRS GREN (movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion, nutrition), but that is a factitious and utilitarian description, created as a consensus rather than proving what animal life is, and certainly not proving that animal life is any more sacred than plant life.
The ecological motive
It takes far more space and labour to produce meat than vegetables. The counter-argument is that this is a means by which we get to evaluate the worth of animal life. There is also the argument that the same amount of vegetables which can be produced in the same space as an animal occupies does not produce the same amount of nutrition, unless the area is overrun with the vegetation.
According to The New Scientist (18 July, 2007; p. 15), “A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home… In other words, a kilogram of beef is responsible for the equivalent of the amount of CO2 emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometres, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.” But this again is fraudulent science. A substantial portion of these “emissions and other pollution” occur simply by the cows’ being alive. Are we to eliminate any animal which causes such problems by their very existence? Surely, the longer that they remain alive, the more the emissions and pollution occur! The only “emissions and other pollution” worthy of any consideration must be in the process of turning the cow into beef. But here we find that the growing, spraying, harvesting, transportation and processing of vegetable matter consumes virtually as much energy. A truck-load of vegetables and a truck-load of cows will both use the same amount of petrol. And very few vegetables these days are unprocessed in one way or another, adding to their energy ‘footprint’. Rice, the most popular grain on earth, has an appalling area-to-product ratio! And acres of padi fields are dedicated to nothing but rice!
The rational perspective
Our problem is not that we eat meat, but that we eat too much of it and too easily. Indeed, the fanatical perspective in favour of meat is little different from the fanaticism over vegetarianism. There are many people who seriously can not remember the last time that they ate a vegetable, other than incidentally on, say, a pizza. For many a meat-eater, their first meal of the day, breakfast, is bacon or sausages; their lunch is a meat pie or steak sandwich or ham roll or chicken kebab; their dinner is steak or lamb or fish or chicken. They think, Meat first and vegetables second… if at all. This obsession sacrifices their logical connection with health in exactly the same way that the vegetarian does. Both sides avoid rationality.
As John Cleese (a vegetarian) said, “If God did not intend us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?” Any animal which does nothing constructive for the natural world is a burden to Nature. The sole purpose of a cow is to be the prey of something. The vast majority of animals are food for other animals. Why are humans exempt from this universal truth? Merely being graced by being at the self-titled ‘top of the food-chain’ does not mean that we must exclude ourselves from all natural behaviour, though it does give us an obligation to indulge in natural behaviour with a little more considered thought.
We eat meat because that is how the species has evolved, and without it we would not have evolved. Vegetarianism is anti-natural because it attempts to send us back to a Garden of Eden which may never have existed in the first place. While vegetarians get all up in arms about not being ‘accepted’, nor do they accept the meat-eater, often condemning them with the vitriol against a child-killer. If food really is holistic, both sides are wrong!
Ultimately, vegetarianism is a lifestyle choice, but it is one which is divorced from sound argument. People proffer half-arguments as a means of dealing with the insecurity of (in their minds) having to argue a point, rather than using their one and only true trump-card: “This is simply how I choose to live my life!”