Meat Guilt

A blogpost over at GOOD magazine* reviews a new book on veganism, applauds the book for its flexible approach, and says we should "give up trying to guilt people into not eating any meat." The post mentions the environmental impacts of meat, which are indeed significant (according the the UN, rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars), but does not venture much further in the realm of why there is a guilt campaign around meat eating (which, I would argue, has been a fairly weak campaign -- the potential for gruesomeness hardly fulfilled at all).

If it is not yet clear on this platform, I question the use of guilt as an effective medium for change, too. However, I believe there are plenty of reasons to feel guilty about the prolific meat eating by North American consumers (and some European ones) and that this guilt is justified and, if anything, understated. Anyone unfamiliar with the obscenely inhumane practices of raising meat in this country should try Google or at least read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (a flexitarian himself, with perfectly reasonable views on how to approach one's diet: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. As for the meat we eat, we should know how its raised and ensure that's it's raised in the most humane conditions possible). It's not particularly noble or brave to downplay just how foul the meat industry is and how guilty and ashamed we should all feel for allowing it to persist and overproduce.

Understanding just how much meat we consume is not easy. But a student of mine recently sent me a link to this impressive data visualizer that shows the number of animals slaughtered in the U.S. every second: 287 chickens, 3.68 pigs, and 1.12 cows.

True: what we are doing is not right (nor is it sustainable). Also true: a meatless diet is not for everyone. I agree with the premise that flexitarianism is the healthiest and least yuppified approach (even if I opt for a full vegetarian diet myself). But I appreciate the broad spectrum of voices in the meat movement (a spectrum that does not exist for seafood) and even the dogmatic approach by a few to keep that spectrum wide and diverse.

As for the "obnoxiously dogmatic" side of vegans (which the GOOD author finds difficult), this is a personality trait we can find among any group of zealots: religious fundamentalists, soldiers, hardcore Democrats and Republicans, used car salesmen, environmentalists, and even the raging atheists who have voiced their anger at unforetold decibels with the new outlet here at Scienceblogs. In fact, most religious people, most politicians, most atheists, most conservationists, and most vegans express their beliefs (and live by them) with a quiet and respect that many of us should admire and seek to emulate. It's the loud who are heard but not necessarily who should be listened to...

*Thank you AB for a point in this direction.

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The problem with "flexitarianism" is that if you are doing it for ethical reasons, it is rather contradictory, since eating meat is not necessary to be healthy. If something is bad, then it's bad, and you shouldn't be doing it, unless you are a flexitarian with the intention of eventually being vegan. Of course, eating a little meat is better than eating lots of meat, but we should hold ourselves responsible for our actions, and not excuse ourselves just because we're doing better than other people. This is why I encourage people who care about the issue to continue reducing their meat intake, using flexitarianism as a means to a more ethical diet, rather than an end in itself. I guess some people would consider that dogmatic, but I think it's important to live a life that is consistent with your morals.

I used to think it was impossible to be a vegan, but I got past my worries, and now I consider it one the best choices I've made in my life. Of course I still think cheese would taste good, I've just decided certain things are more important.

Casey, I admire your resolve, but I think you miss the point of the blog post. There's a lot of people out there, myself included, that are trying to reduce our negative impacts on the planet by doing things like eating less meat, growing some of our own food, and cutting wastes like driving and utilities. Trying to make us feel guilty about what we can manage is not helpful.

You don't have to go far from here to see how bad the arguments over eating meat can be, just look at some of the commenting going on around Scienceblogs about the latest PETA billboards.

By ABradford (not verified) on 04 Jun 2009 #permalink

Dear Dr. Jacquet,
Right you are that it is important to recognize that even the reduction of meat for one day of the week can lead to significant reduction to carbon emissions, a philosophy that propels the nonprofit Meatless Monday, for which I currently intern. As a project of Johns Hopkinsâ Bloomberg School of Public Health, Meatless Monday addresses both the physical health benefits as well as the environmental benefits of going meatless. And in order for a meatless diet to be nutritious, there must be a conscious inclusion of the fiber and protein rich foods in place of meat; the Meatless Monday website makes this transition a smooth one with a wealth of meatless recipes, cooking tips, and nutrition facts: Also, for the history and science behind this campaign, check out the Meatless Monday Youtube video:

I've always believed that imperatives don't do much unless one is already under the umbrella of the ethic. Should, must, right, wrong: they fail to empower people to join force in an issue. I think they all to often disenfranchise those who don't already have a seed planted by other means. They are words directed at a captivate audience. Taken to an specific level, say the humanistic treatment of animals as mentioned above, and you lose most of the audience-a fair number who believe in conservation and environmental causes. How much respect do the PETA folks carry among the general American audience or even among the academic crowds I interact with? Nil, we all have been raised with too much of a utilitarian upbringing to swing that far left. And we are moderate compared to those who fundamentally believe in dominion, a group whose #s are large in the US.

I agree that guilt could be a tool for swaying people to a more sustainable lifestyle and commodities market. I live in the Inter-Mt west where it is hard to ignore the ecosystem damage caused by livestock, mainly cattle. The damage is everywhere on BLM and USFS lands. And I would welcome a campaign that successfully supplanted guilt instead of carnivorous delight every time I chomped into a burger at a local joint. But for that guilt to lead to significant change in my behavior I must also see a system that charges accurately for the impact the meat has, incentives for local ranchers to change their economies (instead of the subsidies that allow users to abuse public lands at below market costs), etc. Until then, I'm not likely to feel like further reduction in my meat consumption (and we already have introduced 2-3 vegetarian meals a week into our diet in my household) is actually going to have much effect. Nonetheless, I am not going to feel guilty that a cow, chicken, or fish is raised and slaughtered in "inhumane" manners. Friends losing jobs, medical problems, etc. all rank much higher than that peripheral, abstract issue right now. To be perfectly honest.

Plus, if we want to use guilt and actually solve something....guilt the human race for bearing so many offspring. Not sure any sustainability campaign will ever succeed until we find a way to constructively talk about that problem. There must be a self-interest angle to that issue that we can guilt ourselves into following. I hope.

Notice how there are some pretty solid reasons given in support of vegan diets: the suffering and environmental damage caused by eating meat, especially on the scale that we do. To this one could add the fact that meat-heavy diets aren't very healthy.

Also notice how there aren't really ANY reasons given for eating meat. Being vegan "just isn't for everyone." Why not? "Cheeseburgers taste good" doesn't count as a moral argument, in the same way that "Look at all the money I made" doesn't count as a moral argument for theft. Being vegan is presented as being unthinkable because it's just...unthinkable. In these debates it's very rare to see someone present an affirmative case for why we SHOULD eat any meat at all.

"We evolved eating meat" is the exception to this, but you can't derive an ought from an is. We evolved engaging in violence and warfare, too, but that's not an argument in favor of starting wars. If you can meat your nutritional needs perfectly well on a vegan diet (which you can), why should you favor the diet that causes an animal to suffer over the one that doesn't?

I don't think I've said anything that's unreasonable or "obnoxious and dogmatic" or whatever, but thinking that a piece of cheese maybe isn't worth what the cow had to endure makes me some kind of fringe radical.

The difficulty of being vegan is VASTLY OVERSTATED. You can make a perfectly tasty vegan version of just about any dish, and there are cheap and readily available vegan B12 supplements and fortified foods. My household income consists of someone with a part-time retail job at the mall and my graduate student stipend (in a large and expensive city). It's not some kind of yuppie thing that's impossible for normal people.

Nothing I've said hinges on any sort of moral equivalence between animals and people, either. "All things being equal, don't hurt things" isn't really a radical idea.

The real problem is that people feel that actually living according to the ethical principles they claim to hold would be inconvenient for them, or they'd be denied ice cream or something. It's fair to say they SHOULD feel guilty for that, because it's WRONG. The reason we have ethical principles in the first place is to put a check on harmful behaviors that are beneficial to the person committing them. Moral behavior, almost by definition, is going to involve sacrifices and things that aren't necessarily in your immediate self-interest. To Phillip in particular, this IS a utilitarian argument. Peter Singer IS a utilitarian. Eating ice cream is wrong on the principle that we should reduce suffering and promote happiness. The fact that other people are unwilling to do the right thing is not an argument against doing the right thing. I don't think being vegan is going to put any slaughterhouses out of business, and I don't think anything meaningful is going to be done about global warming. You put "inhumane" in quotation marks. Why? That's a very casual dismissal. You'd probably be outraged if you saw someone beating a dog mercilessly and arbitrarily. This is an argument about very concrete things being done to huge numbers of very real animals. Personally, I think cutting off a chicken's beak or a pig's tail, then keeping it confined so tightly that it can't turn around in an environment choked with ammonia is inhumane, but I'm a bleeding-heart commie pinko vegan leftist radical. If anything, the problem is that these issues are made too abstract by eliminating any obvious connection between the meat at the store and an animal. A chicken nugget shaped like a dinosaur leaves its source entirely up to the imagination. I think many people that eat meat are like people that enthusiastically support wars but refuse to look at images of civilian casualties and coffins of dead soldiers.

Vegetarianism is not an adequate compromise, either. Dairy cows aren't raised in good conditions (it can involve a "rape rack"), and it still takes large amounts of resources to keep the cow alive, and the cow still releases methane. Same goes for chickens raised in battery cages.

Things like the Polyface farm described in The Omnivore's Dilemma aren't really objectionable on these grounds, but this isn't where the animal products most people have a choice about eating come from. If that's where we got our meat, meat would be an expensive treat, not the foundation of trendy diets.

I'll end by stressing that everything I've written is about DIET, not any of the other uses we make of animals, which must be evaluated separately on their merits. I have a pet, and I've probably killed more animals myself in the lab than most gung-ho defenders of meat-eating. I can't be dismissed out of hand because, like, PETA is a bunch of terrorist-sympathizing obnoxious people.

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 04 Jun 2009 #permalink

"B12 supplements and fortified foods"

The fact that vegans so frequently need these is testament to the fact that meat is a higher quality food than beans. There are different essential nutrients that you cannot get from beans and they are generally more bio-available. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, are present in some plant foods as ALA, but the body must convert it to DHA and is only able to convert a certain fraction. DHA in fish is readily available.

Besides that, avoiding suffering is more complex than just avoiding eating animal products. Where was your food grown? What land was cleared to grow it? What pest control methods do they use? What about animal-derived fertilizer? Was it harvested mechanically? What was the "collateral damage" rate of the machines used?

I am pretty confident that my diet, which mostly locally grown and wild plants, but includes some fish and meat I hunt myself or purchase from local ecological farms, causes less suffering than a diet of industrially grown beans and wheat.

But I would agree that vegetarianism is just plain silly. Dairy cows and laying hens don't exactly go to Green Acres Retirement Center when their productivity declines. I eat vegan when I'm at restaurants or banquets (frequently enduring some unnecessarily terrible vegan cookery), but at home, I don't feel guilty about some salmon. I'm not rich either. I just have made the decision to spend a large percentage of my living stipend to eat healthy.

But really, as a vegan, the best thing you can do is protest Boca burgers and low fat bulger salads that give your ilk a bad name. Vegan food really can taste good and you should be out there serving it up to skeptical carnivores.

B12 used to be hard to get without using animal sources, but this is no longer true due to the marvels of modern technology. We can now avoid anemia while letting the cows keep their bodies intact and letting the chickens keep their eggs! Shouldn't we?

You're right that the body isn't efficient at converting the ALA in, say, flax seeds into DHA. That's irrelevant, because you can get DHA from the same place fish get it: algal oils. The supplements aren't expensive, and you can even get Minute Maid juice from the supermarket that's DHA-fortified.

It's a ridiculous to compare meat and beans directly. You'd be malnourished eating nothing but meat, too, unless you ate most of it raw. You need to eat a balanced diet, vegan or not.

It's true that some animals die from industrial farming equipment. That's an argument raised by Stephen Davis and a good commentary on this argument can be found here:

To summarize, it's also true that a large portion of the crops we grow are fed to animals, which means that animals are being killed to grow food for the animals we will later kill. Less land is needed for a vegan diet, so less animals are killed in the process of producing it. Before being killed, the mice in a field aren't being branded, castrated or prevented from breeding, dehorned, transported in overcrowded conditions without shelter from heat and cold, etc.

Even if it were impossible to feed vegans without mechanical agricultural equipment, vegans would be responsible for fewer animal deaths and less animal suffering than omnivores. Of course, it's possible to eat vegetables not produced on industrial farms. It's also not necessary to kill and eat more animals over and above "collateral damage" from growing crops. I'm still not seeing an argument why we SHOULD eat meat, all things being equal.

At the end of the day we are still part of the natural world, in competition with other species for resources. The right thing to do is still to minimize the amount of suffering we cause arbitrarily.

By inverse_agonist (not verified) on 07 Jun 2009 #permalink

inverse_agonist, you are making exactly the sort of moralistic arguments that stops people even considering your case. That said, I suppose it's an interesting debate to have, if somewhat orthogonal to the environmental impacts of meat (and dairy), which are probably best reduced by encouraging people to *reduce* their individual consumption.

But OK - I think there *are* good arguments to use dairy products and eggs, if not meat. Sure, industrially produced eggs from battery hens fed on industrially produced grain have pretty much no redeeming features. But what about free-range chickens fed food waste, grass and other things that are *not* edible for humans? That's a fairly good environmental argument, bringing things back into the human food chain that otherwise wouldn't be.
Oh, you'd like the chickens to "keep their eggs"? To do what, exactly? They've been bred, over many generations, to produce as many unfertilized eggs as possible, so if you suggest that humans should stop using chickens in any way at all, what do we do with them? We'd have to kill them all, they'd be unable to survive in the wild. And I also fail to see how keeping chickens in free-range conditions, feeding them a more-or-less natural diet and collecting their excess eggs, causes them any *suffering*.
The same argument can be made, of course, for cows and dairy, though the need for a cow to calve regularly complicates things somewhat. And the same argument can be made for other animals, and possibly even for eating their meat - e.g. sheep are *necessary* to maintain certain landscapes such as Dartmoor here in the UK, and they've been bred to produce wool, so they need to be shorn regularly.

Sorry, there are some good arguments, and I think the ethics of eating meat are quite difficult to discuss and reach any tenable conclusion, but your "no justification at all! you should be ashamed for eating meat!" rhetoric doesn't help anyone.