I have been thinking about the ethics of eating meat for a long time. In the course of my new exploration of veganism, I have since discovered that it’s much deeper than just why we should or shouldn’t eat animal products. When I stumbled across Veganuary on Instagram just before New Year’s Eve I decided to jump on board for 30 days. As far back as 2009, while working in London, I had a realisation that animals deserve much more respect than we give them. My research went deeper and deeper, beyond ‘do not kill’, although there was always the opposing argument in favor of
eating meat that had to be taken into account. Among the topics I considered: raising of livestock and the implications for the environment; greenhouse gases; deforestation; loss of wild habitat; antibiotics in meat; animal welfare; feedlots; slaughtering methods; export conditions; sewage overflow; and more.
So while I don’t want to bore you with so many details, I will try my best to share with you my discoveries and encourage you to explore the topic yourself.
Animals Have Rights, too
In 2015, New Zealand made a change to their animal welfare laws stating that animals, like humans, are “sentient” beings. Australia soon followed in 2016. The result is that animals can no longer be treated as things or objects, meaning it should be far easier to prosecute cases of animal abuse or neglect. We’ve all seen the videos of animals in slaughterhouses, many of them quite graphic. Even quick and ‘humane’ slaughters can be shocking to those unaccustomed. Where does the line begin and end? Do we adopt an attitude of, “Well, they’re going to die anyway”? If people choose veganism for welfare reasons than a deeper look at the idea of animal rights may be necessary.
Consider that the black rhino was declared extinct, and there are declining numbers of orangutans. Have we applied the same attitude of superiority which has led to extinction or endangered classifications? Are animals just here for our use, entertainment or nourishment? In other words, are animals our slaves? Many industries involved in the production of everyday objects and materials affect animal welfare, as reported by OneGreenPlanet.org. These include clothing (wool, fur, leather), palm oil, paper, dairy, meat, soy, fishing, and cosmetics production, as well as oil drilling, zoos, and aquariums. These activities can result in habitat loss, deforestation, environmental damage, and outright physical harm to animals themselves, such as through product testing. If you’re vegan, you will know the minefield of choosing cruelty-free products, especially cosmetics and soaps. By-products of animals are used in these items, as well as pet food, confectionery (gelatin), and animal feed. So as you can see, no matter we eat, wear, or travel, we are contributing to harming animals in some shape or form.
Food Waste: More than Table Scraps
Food waste is huge. Beyond ridiculous. According to Food Waste Facts at Foodwise.com, Australia wastes $4 billion in food every year, which equates to approximately $20 in food per week for every single person. It doesn’t seem like much, but you have to remember you’re not only wasting the food, but all the resources it took to get that food from paddock to plate.
What’s that got to with veganism? Well, it’s hard to pinpoint the argument but from my perspective, It’s probably a lot less wasteful to throw away some carrots and broccoli than throw away that piece of chicken thigh for example. Simply put, we all contribute to waste but animals products produce a lot more waste in the form of unused cuts, trimmings, fat, and carcasses.
Why Sustainability is a Double-Edged Sword
We’ve been encouraged for quite some time to consider the positive aspects of sustainability. However, Mother Nature Network has reported on new ways companies are developing sustainable products and industries that are not friendly to animal welfare; for example, the development of disposable diapers and hospital gowns made from plastics derived from a protein found in feathers, synthetic diesel made from beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat, and cooking grease, and poultry litter turned into fertilizer.
These days we all like our lean cuts or favorite cuts of meats. Can you imagine if everyone buys only the rib steak or the eye fillet? Favorite selection can be a contributor to waste if you’re not eating the whole beast. I’ve always liked the idea of the nose to tail eating philosophy. Chef Fergus Henderson is an original promoter, to the best of my knowledge. He takes a beast and attempts to not waste a single piece of it. Our desire for the perfect looking fruits and vegetables (or is that supermarkets’ idea?) contribute to waste also. It is estimated that around 20-40% of the fruits and vegetables don’t make it to market because of imperfections. This type of food waste contributes to greenhouse gases, also.
Environmental and Economic Impact
This always comes up when defending veganism. Meat has a very large impact on the environment. Even meat eaters could not disagree here. According to a 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, it was estimated that livestock was responsible for about 18% of the greenhouse gases caused by humans. Science Time goes on to say that this figure that has “been criticized by the meat industry as too high and by some environmentalists as far too low”. The problem with livestock, and predominantly beef, is that it takes a lot of resources to produce 1kg of meat (and don’t forget some of that will be wasted anyway). Beef, sheep and goat are far less efficient than pigs and chickens. Current methods of livestock production also require heavy use of antibiotics and a lot of water. Related issues include sewage overflow, and how to best make use of wastewater. In addition, contaminants of all kinds may affect wheat and animal products alike.
A lot of land is cleared to produce grains for the sole purpose of feeding cattle. This results in deforestation, which again negatively impacts greenhouse gases. On the flipside, if we never ate meat, we would most
likely need fewer farms for livestock, and fewer farms for livestock feed. But would that mean we needed more farms for other grains? More walnut or almond plantations would be a positive contribution to the problem of greenhouse gases, wouldn’t it?
And while on the subject of fewer farms, consider the related issue of employment in the livestock production industry. The article “The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production” states “Livestock production, which includes meat, milk and eggs, contributes 40% of the global agricultural gross domestic product, provides income for more than 1.3 billion people…” Poor argument I think though, for maintaining the livestock industry. Wouldn’t they just find work in plant-based industries, picking tomatoes or driving tractors?
There are a number of ethical factors that go into the decision of whether or not to eat meat. Animal welfare, production resources, and environmental damage are just a few. The scope of some of these ideas goes far beyond the actions of one person’s dietary choices; however, if large groups of people
decided to make a commitment to vegan living, a huge impact on animal welfare and farming could be felt that would echo through the food and energy production industries, too. Whatever happens, I’m always going to eat vegan meals occasionally, be conscious of meat consumption and respect peoples decision to eat what they want.