December 30, 2011
New Year’s Resolutions are often guilt-based. After a holiday season of over-eating, over-drinking and over-spending, it is not uncommon to seek recompense via some ritualistic promise structure. The Risk-Monger ate a lot of meat this holiday season. What are the risks of a carnivore-based diet and meat-centred lifestyle? Why is vegetarianism a rare New Year’s Resolution on my social media pages?
There is no single “killer argument” to justify vegetarianism (meaning that every argument can have a legitimate counter-argument). There just seem to be an awful lot of good common sense reasons to consider eating less meat to reduce health risks, environmental risks, economic risks …
Nature: Man evolved as an herbivore. We do not have the right type of teeth for ripping into flesh (but were clever enough to develop utensils). The shift in our diet, which further evolved from eating meat only at festive occasions to being the core of every meal, has also led to increased health problems our bodies had not anticipated from an herbivorous diet.
Health: The health risks from eating meat are enormous (meat is the new tobacco!). High meat consumption has led to increased cardio-vascular diseases, certain cancers, zoonotic diseases and bacterial infections. Vegetarians are not necessarily healthier or less obese as health is largely a lifestyle issue (cigarettes, junk food and vodka contain no meat), but with lower cholesterol intake and, more often, higher fibre in their diets, you would rarely find a doctor advising a patient to cut down on the veggies. The body has to work harder to digest a half kilo of beef and that comes with a cost by the time it gets to the colon. I am not getting into the question of growth hormones, vaccines, additives or stabilisers (the human digestive system is very efficient), but when we need to detox, we don’t pony up to the Korean BBQ.
Ethical: Certain religions promote vegetarianism as part of a holistic, ascetic lifestyle. As religion does not follow a rational logic, the Risk-Monger prefers to keep out of these discussions, but there are certain ethical issues that need to be considered. Do we really need to raise livestock (humanely or inhumanely, it really doesn’t matter) simply to lead them into a slaughterhouse? I recommend all carnivores spend some time at a slaughterhouse so they can appreciate the efficiency of the process. Proponents arguing to ban bull-fighting or cock-fighting, to be ethically consistent, should also ban meat eating. At least in a bull-fight, the bull has a chance to inflict some pain on humans before being gutted.
Economic: Livestock industries are highly subsidised in many western countries, with the real cost of meat production not fully passed on to the consumer. That being said, meat is still an expensive part of our weekly food basket. As our culinary choices have been limited by our concentration on meat, many of society’s less fortunate do not have adequate levels of protein in their diets (having an influence on their productivity and performance levels). Our agricultural stress-points are continuing to expand (especially as the growing Indian and Chinese middle classes are getting a taste for meat), so meat will become more expensive and hard decisions will need to be made (should we divert more grain into livestock, reserve more for humans … or for biofuels?). We don’t seem to be ready to genetically modify livestock or synthetically produce protein, so sacrifices will need to be made and the economic impact will continue to worsen.
Environmental: The environmental cost from meat production is significant. It takes an average of six kilos of grain to produce a kilo of beef. That pales when compared to the 15,000 litres of water needed for that same kilo. Other animals may be a bit less environmentally offensive, but needless to say, if people wish to live a sustainable life, then they will need to make a lot of other sacrifices to climb out of the footprint trench caused from eating meat. More than half of agricultural land in western countries is devoted to livestock, with environmental pollution issues like nitrates in the ground water becoming serious concerns.
One argument that has become a bit embarrassing is the ‘Save the planet from climate change, go vegan’ line. People like Paul McCartney or Rajendra Pachauri have disgraced vegetarianism by trying to link meat consumption to global warming. By cooking the numbers on the amount of greenhouse gas produced in cattle ranching, they show themselves as ambulance-chasing opportunists. And what happens if researchers find a means to control bovine emissions? Vegetarianism is a personal choice and we should not feel like we are being tricked by campaigners.
Counter-arguments: With these compelling reasons for vegetarianism, it should come as no surprise in our bi-polar world, that there should be some counter-arguments.
- Meat is delicious. Indeed, and roasted dog with a mango and kiwi sauce leaves a great after-taste. But so does pasta in an olive and garlic pesto sauce. Unless we are willing to eat dog and cat with the same gusto, then that argument seems inappropriate.
- We need protein and meat is the best source. Protein comes from many foods sources (especially grains and nuts) and supplements are available for those unable to research food contents.
- Meat is a central feature to western culture. So is homelessness and alcoholism but we seem to be good at ignoring those features.
- Vegetarianism is hard – most meals are based around a meat. Indeed, 25 years ago tofu was about the only thing vegetarians could find in a supermarket. Today there are a lot more options and most restaurant menus have vegetarian dishes.
- Job losses. Farming, meat packing and food processing would suffer should vegetarianism become widespread. Yes, I was once a lobbyist so I can recognise a siren call from an industry in panic. If you think you need to dig into that steak to save an industry, give me a call – I can sell you a few other good ones.
So with all of these good reasons to become vegetarian, why then am I not one? Why is most of western society still relatively “vegan free”?
Every vegetarian loves the line in the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding: What do you mean: He don’t eat no meat? The social inconvenience of being a vegetarian makes a strong impact on family members, on friends, on colleagues … Vegetarians make others defensive on what to prepare for their difficult guests, on how to defend their own lifestyle decisions against what is perceived as a moral judgement. This defensiveness can turn offensive (in both senses): vegetarians are attacked as they must think they are morally superior. For the record, Hitler was never a vegetarian, but Goebbels thought it might be an idea to spread that rumour to soften his image (too clever by half!).
People should not have to apologise about being vegetarian or feel they have to shove it into others’ faces. Rather than being defensive or offended, we should look at people with such dietary digressions as a societal good. Like public volunteers, their lifestyle is to our benefit (lower healthcare costs, less demand for meat).
What is missing is an engaging vegetarian public mentor to make it more socially acceptable (cool even). Most public proponents of plant-based diets are gaunt, pale and earth-motherish. They usually talk too much, rant too loudly and are too combative in their campaigning (the last people I would want to be stuck next to at a cocktail party!). Better a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney and common sense arguments than a Richard Gere and religious admonishment.
Maybe the Risk-Monger’s New Year’s Resolution should be for him to try to be more socially inconvenient. Happy New Year!David Zaruk