The Half Truths of the Anti-Meat Lobby

I've always been conflicted about vegetarianism. I have known many vegetarians and vegans in my life and it is a lifestyle choice that I can respect for its intent. I genuinely dislike factory farming of any food product, animal or plant. We take it for granted that our supermarket shelves will be stocked with mountains of flesh for consumption, and I hate to think of all the meat that is wasted.

Last night I skimmed a Facebook post fervently discussing vegetarianism. The author posted a huge list of claims, from its health benefits to supposed evolutionary ties, and I wanted to take some time to set a few things straight, not only because of his post, but because I've been hearing the same arguments for quite some time now, and even more frequently with the public focus on environmentalism.

First of all, let's clarify the core issue for the anti-meat lobby. They are against the subjugation of animals in general, maintaining that it is wrong for humans to continue to kill any animal (mostly livestock) for consumption. It is a moral issue for them and the slaughter of animals for food is often equated with murder.

But there is a fine line between empathy and anthropomorphism, between devotion and obsession. I think that the fervent anti-meat lobbyists cross these lines and are hopping on the environmentalism bandwagon to propagate their exaggerated claims.

Much of my friend's "evidence" comes from links to pro-vegan and vegetarian NGO and lobbying group websites. Also, the evidence of the positive health effects of veganism and vegetarianism is largely based on anecdotal studies (notice the "may" included at the beginning of these articles).

But I'm not going to debate the positive/negative health effects of vegetarianism. There seems to be only tentative evidence on either side, which tells me that the perfect diet lies somewhere between no meat and meat-at-every-meal diets. Red meat and pork are proven killers.

What I do want to address is this ridiculous assertion:

A diet that includes meat and other animal products is not natural...

This is one of the most bogus claims on the list. The link he gives takes us to this page, where they claim that humans lack certain visible defining characteristics of carnivorous organisms:

Prehistoric evidence indicates that humans developed hunting skills relatively recently and that most of our short, meat-eating past was spent scavenging and eating almost anything in order to survive; even then, meat was a tiny part of our caloric intake.

Humans lack both the physical characteristics of carnivores and the instinct that drives them to kill animals and devour their raw carcasses. Ask yourself: When you see dead animals on the side of the road, are you tempted to stop for a snack? Does the sight of a dead bird make you salivate? Do you daydream about killing cows with your bare hands and eating them raw? If you answered "no" to all of these questions, congratulations--you're a normal human herbivore--like it or not. Humans were simply not designed to eat meat.

Lame argument, with only one weak resource and an out-of-context quote from Richard Leaky. Like it or not, we have an evolutionary history of meat consumption. We are omnivores, and have been for millions of years:

Carnivorous humans go back a long way. Stone tools for butchering meat, and animal bones with corresponding cut marks on them, first appear in the fossil record about 2.5 million years ago.

That puts hunting and eating meat at the beginnings of the Homo genus for those keeping score. Not all that "recent" at all.

Some studies suggest that the sympatric relationship between chimps (omnivores) and gorillas (herbivores) might give a clue to how early hominids first started eating meat. These primates can coexist in the forest without direct competition because of their eating habits. Perhaps hominids began to scavenge carcasses (or outright hunt) when in direct competition with another herbivore.

If eating meat was so "unnatural", then why are our systems so damn good at processing animal fat and cholesterol (relatively speaking of course; with meat readily available, we go overboard). Raw meat seems repulsive to us as we sit in our kitchen pounding it out, but it might seem downright sumptuous if we huddled in a frozen cave in prehistoric Europe.

Factory farming, meat production, and the livestock industry are a leading cause of species extinction

To say that meat production is a leading cause of global warming or of species extinction is unnecessarily narrowing the focus for the anti-meat agenda. Habitat destruction and agriculture in general (including vegetable production for human consumption) are leading causes of extinction and pollution, respectively, not solely the meat industry.

To be honest, I think the anti-meat lobby does more harm than good for the environmental movement. I certainly don't want to associate respectable ideas about viable conservation and ecological protection with bratty and pigheaded refusals to eat at the same tables with meat eaters. They have an "us vs. them" mentality that is destructive and ultimately turns people off. Environmentalism needs people who can talk to others and communicate ideas based on science, not Joe Revolutionary condemning their diet with nothing but half-assed claims to back him up.

The sensible solution is to call for moderation in meat consumption (which is done adequately by doctors), where farmers are paid well for their goods, animals are treated ethically, the growth of feed can be cut back to a more reasonable amount and people take responsibility for the health of their bodies.

Let's be honest: The anti-meat lobby wants people to stop eating meat because they think it's murder, not because it might cause cancer or diabetes or global warming or habitat destruction. Their core argument is based on nothing but speculation and personal experience, and is therefore a religious argument, and in my book, null and void.

The meat industry needs to be better regulated and ethically managed, I agree. But it is childish to call for its abolition.


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There is one irrefutable reason to be a vegetarian, which I have been for some 25 years or so:

1. Would you eat a Republican? No? Then how on earth could you consume a higher life form, like a clam or a cow?

Nice post Jeremy; I too am sometimes conflicted about the issue, but not so much from the "moral" standpoint of "It's wrong to eat any animal" (this argument reminds me of a Futurama episode where vegetarians tried to use a lion fed on tofu as evidence that carnivores could be converted...). I'm more concerned with the amount of corn in our diet, antibiotics/hormones in meat, habitat destruction caused by farming, etc., and for that reason would prefer to eat meat only once and a while that has been purchased from local farms. Personally, I think the decision to go local when it comes to food is far more important than the vegetarian issue.

Tristero -- hah! Of course, a lot of us meat eaters prefer the higher life forms. Give me a cow over a cricket or worm any day. Republicans are just too squicky and bug-like to eat.

It's been a long time since I ran into any confrontational vegetarians. Most of the ones I know are veggies out of personal preference or for (doctor-recommended) health reasons . So I haven't even heard a lot of these arguments. But it's good to be reminded that cherry-picking evidence isn't an activity restricted to the ID morons.

I'm a vegetarian for mostly sanitary reasons. I'd much rather live on certified kosher hot dogs than have to eat a diet of vegetables that came off a badly-inspected slow boat from China, for example. I turned my back on filthy factory farming. I really don't want to put anything as perishable as meat or milk into my body unless I know how it's raised and stored and cooked. At least I can usually wash a veggie and leave it on the kitchen counter for an hour without worrying about killing my family.

People like this militant moron make it really tough for people like me to maintain our credibility when we try to explain our preferences to others. Thanks for pointing out this latest outrage so I'm not caught flat-footed when the next steak-chewing Texas cowboy tries to make me look like an idiot in front of my dinner guests.

By speedwell (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

Hmm, when I'm driving down the road I don't much salivate over grass either. Or pine needles. When I see a field of wheat I don't want bread. I've never craved potatoes or carrots by seeing the plants. Basically all this concludes to me is - food looks great when it looks like food. Give me a cheeseburger tree and I'll salivate over that.

I've been vegetarian all my life, which means that I was raised that way (yes, people actually ask that), and over the years my reasoning for sticking to it has changed considerably, as I've gone from adolescent to punk to adult.

These days I'm vegetarian mostly for the same reason I ride my bike for transportation -- it's much better for the environment (in that meat takes scads of resources to produce). I get significant personal benefits from both, in that I really enjoy the ride and get fitter, and I feel better about not killing, but I'm no zealot. Well, not about the meat -- I'm basically a zealot when it comes to the bike.

I agree with you on most of this stuff; it's crap, and people claiming it as anything but that are doing vegetarianism and the environmental movement a disservice.

I'm a vegetarian, hold a master's in Biology education, and feel pretty good about my choice. The easiest talking point about being a vegetarian is entropy. Meat simply isn't that efficient a food source. With land, water, and other resources at a premium, it seems strange to waste so much on making meat.

After that comes health, with the American diet being far too meat-oriented. I'm a fan of evolution-based eating, which is mostly a lot of plants and seeds, with the occasional protein source. Though humans at various times have eaten meat, in most cultures it has supplemented the diet rather that been the primary source. Studies have shown correlation between high-meat diets, cancer, and obesity. For me, it's easier to eat well sticking to a vegetarian diet.

Becoming a vegetarian was a fairly practical thing to do. I'm fine with animal experimentation (when necessary). I wear leather shoes. I just feel that Americans are way overboard using animals as a food source and think the world would be a better place if it were vastly curtailed.

im vegetarian/almost vegan but not against things like culling the huge herds of deer that live in my area. so painting vegetarians with such a broad brush is pretty lame. the main reason I'm vegetarian is not animal rights reasons but environmental ones which are pretty well established. an recently a UN study looked at how much greenhouse gas is produced by livestock and found it was more than all the cars and trucks on the road. so i am hardcore though in saying that you really cant claim to care about the environment if you consume lots of regular ol' factory farmed meat from the supermarkets, restaurants or fast food places. being vegetarian is an easy thing to do and cheaper than putting solar panels on your roof.

Damn plant killers...

How many millions of lettuce heads have give up their young lives, so that you selfish Vegans may eat. The only ethical answer is to swear off killing and eating plants, and get on the insect bandwagon. Mmmmmmm - Cicada! Tastes a lot like grubbs!

ron said -

so i am hardcore though in saying that you really cant claim to care about the environment if you consume lots of regular ol' factory farmed meat from the supermarkets, restaurants or fast food places. being vegetarian is an easy thing to do and cheaper than putting solar panels on your roof.

Well then I'm saying you really can't claim to care about the environment if you ride a private jet, don't drive a hybrid car, support nuclear power, and etc.

I'm a vegetarian, but it's a personal choice. I never try to convince anyone to go that way. Part of it's probably perversity; if most people were vegetarians, I might be inclined to eat meat just to buck the trend.

You're right in pointing out that there are a lot of flakes out there making vacuous arguments against meat-eating. For some reason, the sub-cultures that I run in tend to attract a higher than expected proportion of flakes.

Which is all just a roundabout way to get to saying "Nice post."

I think one of the worst arguments they make is about the efficiency of meat production compared to vegetable and that if everyone went vegetarian, that would free up enough farm land to feed the entire world. Ignoring economic factors, or the fact that we already set aside land that could be used for farming because we produce too much otherwise.

By G. Shelley (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

Interesting post. I'm not a vegetarian and I have no moral problem with eating meat, but I've been making an effort to consume less of it to reduce my environmental impact. I also carefully choose produce grown as locally as possible, and so on. I decided which brand of yogurt to buy based on which was the most locally produced. My boyfriend and I plan our week's meals in advance and try not to have more than one meat meal per week. It gives us a little variety, and some good protein sources, but is less than the average American family.

After being treated for breast cancer (DCIS), I asked my surgeon what I could do to prevent a recurrence. Her first words: "Don't eat anything with a face." She had many other suggestions too, all of which I had heard before, but that one stuck with me.

By Geobrarian (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

Those are some pretty bizarre arguments. Humans didn't have the *option* to eat vegetarian in temperate climes until the development of agriculture 10-12,000 years ago, when a non-migratory life made storing a winter's worth of bulky plant foods possible. The further north you go, the more meat there is in the diet, until you meet the Inuit, who eat essentially no plant matter at all.

Certainly eating lower on the food chain reduces one's environmental impact, but eating locally helps far more - good choice, Laura!. If only supermarket chains didn't sometimes ship goods via warehouses halfway across the country.

I live in the city, but I buy animals from local farmers and slaughter them myself. It means I know where the animal came from, a good deal about how it was raised, and all about how it died. And, more importantly, I know that something had to die so I can eat meat, so it would be disrespectful to waste it.

Regarding the supposedly spurious nature of the links I posted: I listed 39 separate claims, linking to 23 different sources. Of these 23 sources; only 4 are pro-vegan and vegetarian NGO and lobbying group websites who back up a claim made in my post, another 4 are used for images only. 7 are news websites, the most frequently used being the BBC, in addition to the Washington post, the CBC, and 4 alternative news websites. I linked to the national cancer institute 3 times, and referenced 4 different parts of a 2006 UN report. I cited other organizations including the American Cancer Society, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club. The remaining links were comprised of various sources including, Rolling Stone, and a short essay by Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer.

By Chris Grimsley (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

Where I live being vegetarian isn't exactly an environmentally friendly option either. It's next to impossible to buy local produce (supermarkets buy everything up and send it all over the world before it can hit local farmers markets) so that simple salad you're having with your steak probably has more air miles attached to it than you'll rack up yourself all year!

Good post though. I'm heading towards more moderate meat consumption after three decades of being a bloodthirsty uber-carnivore. Doubt I could ever give up the flesh altogether though - I believe it was Aristotle who said, "A life without cream cheese and bacon bagels on a Sunday morning is no life at all".

My question for the vegans/vegetarians is: what do you think will happen to all those animals if we stop eating them? Do you think the cows and chickens will just roam free? No ... the only reason there ARE so many of them is because we eat them. Animals that people do not find "useful" tend to get wiped out.

If people didn't eat chickens and cows, there would only be about 100 of them left, and we'd only see them in zoos!

I think one of the worst arguments they make is about the efficiency of meat production compared to vegetable and that if everyone went vegetarian, that would free up enough farm land to feed the entire world. Ignoring economic factors, or the fact that we already set aside land that could be used for farming because we produce too much otherwise.

There's some physics involved that are impossible to get around. When creatures eat plants, roughly 90% of that energy wasted on non-food producing things. Think about all the energy cows expend on chewing, digesting, walking around, making more cows, and so on. The "real" costs to consumers are hidden because the dairy industry is highly subsidized.

If a whole lot of farm land suddenly became available, I suspect people could think of interesting things to do with it. Grow more organic fruits and vegetables, or make more national parks. I'd be fine having hunters and fishermen do their thing. With most predators gone from North America, it helps keep populations in check.

I speak here as someone who does see a cow as good, bloody beef on the hoof. (And actually, I really like raw beef, if it can be gotten from a safe, clean herd. Insert slivers of garlic into a steak, marinate it for 24 hours in red wine, and eat. MMMMmmmmmmmm....{drool})

That said, in our long evolutionary history, our most distant ancestors almost certainly had a mostly vegetable diet with occasional meat and fish or seafood, going by physiology and primate evidence, and I recognise that our desire to glut ourselves with meat stems from the same root desire for the rare, desireable treat as our desire to glut ourselves on fats, salts and sugar. More recently, human populations which relied almost entirely on meat for their nutrition (like the Inuit and also a number of mountain-dwellers, and Mongolians) also developed metabolic adaptations to those diets not shared by all humans (just like Europeans and the cattle-raising tribes of Africa separately developed lactose-tolerance as adults). So, yes, many of us eat much more meat than is good for us, without regard for the consequences for either our health or the planet, what with the resource usage which supports industrial meat production. And speaking as someone moderately familiar with cattle and evolutionary biology, I absolutely despise the harm that is done with growth hormones in dairy cattle and the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics in almost everything.

But to claim that we can't/shouldn't eat any meat at all on the basis that it isn't "natural" is absolutely absurd. We probably need to scale it back a bit, but...we do not have a herbivore's gut, any more than we have a pure carnivore's gut. We do not have a herbivore's teeth any more than we have a pure carnivore's teeth. We fall right in the middle -- bang-on what you would expect for a proper omnivore. And we do tend to thrive and grow best with the fats and proteins from meat and fish available to us.

Eliminating meat-eating entirely would hardly solve the world's food ills. Or health ills. Or environmental ills, given that not all the land or forage dedicated to feeding meatstock would be suitable for supporting humans directly, and we would still need to farm quite intensively. I can respect people who don't want to eat meat because they don't want animals to die to feed them. But trying to impose that on other people for false reasons annoys me.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 25 May 2007 #permalink

I became a vegetarian after seeing the downed cattle video from the California slaughterhouse. At first I just stopped eating beef. My 10 year old son could not understand why I had stopped eating meat, so I looked up the footage on the internet and it was linked to The Humane Society of the United States. I ended up watching all of the video clips on not only cattle, but chickens, turkeys and pigs. My heart was broken and I just sat and cried. I knew then that I did not want to eat meat anymore. I plan to remain a vegetarian strictly for ethical reasons.