7 objections to eating less meat

1. ‘One person won’t make a difference’

Yes, one individual alone won’t change a system. Your attitude towards meat most likely only determines your personal consumption. But this is what you have control over. This is your immediate responsibility. And whilst your individual effort and responsibility shouldn’t and doesn’t stop at your plate, it is the first — but I believe most immediate impactful, step you can take1.

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” ― Edward Everett Hale

Feeling powerless shouldn’t stop me or you from doing what we can. To expect some higher power (i.e. government) to take the initiative and fix the problem for you is much more idealistic and naïve. That’s not how this works.

Every individual principle you hold dear, every decision and action you take, can be reduced and rendered meaningless by such an argument. Fatalism is a slap in the face to all that has been achieved by social justice movements across the globe.

You take decisions and actions every day that don’t “move the world”. You take them all the same because you consider them to be ‘right’ or ‘just’. Eating drastically less meat and dairy can be one of these decisions.

If nothing else, do it out of principle. If you’re convinced by the (ethical, moral, environmental) facts but remain pessimistic about your impact, you can still cut meat and dairy out of principle. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.

2. “My Health” : Nutritional deficiencies

Like most controversial debates, what you search for (in Google) is what you get. A few points:

a) Any diet can be nutritionally deficient / unhealthy if you don’t know what you’re doing. A vegetarian diet consisting of potato fries and pasta won’t do you much good. A healthy diet consists of variety, balance and moderation. A healthy vegetarian diet is no different: it consists of a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

b) Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused only on potential nutritional deficiencies. Today, we’ve largely moved on. There is sufficient evidence to suggest a well-planned plant-based diet is not only nutritionally sufficient2, it can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

c) This debate distracts us from the more important issue at hand: cutting down drastically, not necessarily eliminating completely, the consumption of meat and dairy. There is little, if any, controversy surrounding guidelines set by WHO / USDA on meat consumption (much lower than current consumption levels).

So, by definition, striving towards a vegetarian diet can be considered a healthy decision.

3. “We are carnivores; we’ve always eaten meat. We’re part of nature, the food-chain, and the ‘circle of life’”.

Except we’re not. We destroyed the ‘circle of life’ a long time ago and replaced it with a conveyor belt of death. There is nothing ‘natural’ about industrialised farming. Please don’t compare yourself to a lion. You’ll never be as cool as a lion.

With regards to us being carnivores: this is an ugly debate I won’t get into. Why not, you ask? Because it’s completely irrelevant to cutting down on meat. Whether meat helped your ancestors develop and grow their brains a million years ago is irrelevant. I can assure you, your cheeseburger won’t today. Likewise, whether the length of our bowels, the shape of our teeth, and the movements of our jaws prove we’re actually herbivores is equally irrelevant. These debates only distract from more urgent pressing real matters: i.e. unsustainable industrialised factory farms literally destroying the planet.

I instead invite you to indulge in this beautiful quote by George Monbiot, taken from this great Podcast episode on Meat eating by Intelligence Squared.

“If there is a measure of human progress, it is not having to be what our ancestors were; it is not having to be governed by the choices they made… That is what makes us human. That’s what makes us who we are: the choice not to be what we were”

Another fantastic, balanced and very amusing podcast episode: Sam Harris’ The Dark Side: A conversation with Paul Bloom. Starting at 1:14:00, they talk about how factory farmed meat is ethically indefensible, starting with the bold assertion that “future generations will view us as analogous to slave owners”. What will be seen as monstrous in a hundred years from now?

4. “Meat-eating is part of my culture, history, and identity”

It may very well be. It is part of mine too. Meat eating is part of most cultures.

Bill the Butcher. A special kind of butcher, but you get the point.

A few points here though to keep in mind:

a) Cultures form, evolve, and shift over time to adapt to changing realities on the ground. I doubt many meat-eating cultures had industrial-scale factory farming in mind when meat came to form part of their identity.

b) The argument here isn’t to go full-on Vegan. Although I’d encourage you to aspire toward a Vegan lifestyle on most days of the year. Just drastically cut down on meat and dairy.

5. “Vegetarianism is more harmful to the environment”

No, it is not.

Did you read an article citing that “Lettuce is worse for the environment than meat”? The original Carnegie Melon study on which these claims have been based focused on energy, water use, and GHG emissions on a per calorie basis. On a calorie by calorie basis, you would indeed have to eat an entire head of lettuce to replace two and a half slices of bacon. But this is an absurd comparison, fine-picked from the study, to make media headlines.

The problem here is the assumption that a vegetarian diet consists of only low-calorie vegetables such as lettuce, celery, and cucumbers. The direct substitute of 400 calories of bacon is not 400 calories of lettuce. Vegetarians eat more than just leaves. The study didn’t look at a vegetarian diet. Instead, it highlighted interesting nuances in a complex debate, not inconsistent with the overwhelming consensus that emissions from plant-based foods are much lower. The media however, got what they came for.

The same goes for the soy debate. We’ve been flooded with claims of how ironic it is for vegetarians to turn to ‘climate-destroying’ soy-based alternatives to meat. It turns out however, rather bizarrely, that one of the best ways you can reduce the amount of soy you eat is by — in fact — eating more soy. That’s because over 80% of the crop feeds the animals we eat; only 2% is processed into soy flours and proteins for food use, and 6% is used directly as human food3. Eating less meat and more soy directly therefore ‘reduces’ your overall intake.

6. “I only eat locally-sourced meat, organic, grass-fed beef.”

This is where the argument gets a little more complex. Locally-sourced meat unfortunately isn’t the panacea to more environmentally-friendly meat eating. In fact, many studies point to the contrary4. Neither is organic nor grass-fed beef per se. They may be healthier for you but are not necessarily better for the environment. Whilst less pesticides are better for our soil, water systems and health, organic foods often use the same fossil-fuel burning distribution channels used by conventional products[5]. In the case of grass-fed beef, many studies point to it being more damaging (i.e. more land use) than Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO or modern factory farms).

7. “We need cattle” argument

In a nutshell, the argument here goes as follows:
Use a mixed livestock system that mimicks historic natural patterns of wild herbivores.

In such a system, cattle would have a role to play in soil carbon sequestriation → and thus fighting climate change. Here’s how:

  • Use an intensive rotational ‘mob grazing’ system. Think: many cows on a small patch of land, for a short period of time. Then rotate.
  • After the cows move: in come the chickens. They spread the natural fertiliser left by cows, and eat the bugs and parasites.
  • Next come the broilers and turkeys. They too have their role to play in restoring and maintaining the soil’s fertility.
  • Result: a system that is much more efficient, chemical fertiliser-free, with healthy soil that better stores and traps CO2.

But we are so, so, so far beyond such a system that this argument again misses the point of the context we find ourselves in today: mass industrial factory farms. Until we have effectively moved away from the current complete dominance of the latter (by cutting down on meat and dairy that keeps this system afloat) — the former on any mass scale — remains very much a utopian dream.

On their own merits, some of the above points have credence. Meat may have very well played a role in developing the early human brain. Yet what disturbs me most is how such arguments chisel away at a more fundamental, scary, and very real argument about the need to cut down on meat to combat the industrialization of farming.

Not one of the seven arguments is relevant or effective in combating this reality. Yet they are all too often used to discredit eating less meat and to justify a continuation of unsustainable levels of meat consumption.

I’ll leave you with a paraphrasing of a Jean-Paule Satre quote on anti-semitism… I’ve replaced “anti-Semitists” with “meat lovin’ trollers” here. Bear with me…

“Never believe that meat-lovin’ trollers are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. Meat lovin’ trollers have the right to ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past”

  1. There are then many other steps you can take (from combating big agribusiness subsidies to lobbying for food workers’ rights).

  2. Protein: Eating a wide variety of plant-based protein sources is sufficient.

  3. Vitamin B12: For those on a strictly vegan diet (no eggs & dairy whatsoever), the vitamin is found in certain soy and rice beverages and breakfast cereals. You can also take a B12 supplement. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada. Vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc 2003;103:748–65. Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. The Permanente Journal, 17(2), 61.
  4. Terrain, M. V. (2007). The Dark Side of Soy. Utne Reader. & www.soyatech.com

  5. Gerbens-Leenes, P. W., Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2013). The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems. Water Resources and Industry, 1, 25–36. & Julie Guthman (2004) The Trouble with ‘Organic Lite’ in California: a Rejoinder to the ‘Conventionalisation’ Debate http://plantbiology.rutgers.edu/faculty/robson/AGECOLNOV11-5.pdf

  6. See the ‘Conventionalisation debate’ surrounding the organic industry. See ‘Politics, Ideology and Practice of Organic Farming’ Journal of the European Society for Rural Sociology January 2001. Also see Campbell 1996, Clunies-ross 1990, Cox 1994, Tovey 1997 for Political economy-based evaluations of organic agriculture

Matteo De Vos

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