A Proposition

February 2009

A vegetarian diet is dependent on community, civilisation, and climate. To live wild and solitary, or to live in certain places, one should be prepared to eat meat.

Further: to live truly in balance with nature requires killing and eating meat.

Industrialised meat is a bad thing. Farming animals purely for the sake of killing them – ruling them not only in death but also in life – is no good. Nor is the current dependence on oil for all of our farming systems – the processing of the animals themselves, and the growing of the feed with which we fatten them for slaughter.

However, the opposite extreme – opting out of the cycle of predation completely – seems equally imbalanced. Where currently we have mastered nature so completely as to have largely tamed it, refusing to participate at all would be no more of an answer.

(Even if one could opt out entirely, which is not so easy. A vegetarian may not kill animals, but they still compete with animals for available food supplies, and in a balanced biosphere will then necessarily cause both human and animal populations to be kept in check by the cycles of supply and demand. We are unavoidably and constantly in conflict with the rest of nature.)

To live truly in harmony with nature would require living in such a way as to make the most efficient use of nature's resources, acknowledging ourselves, animals and plants all as parts of one system, and remembering that even as herbivores eat plants and carnivores (and humans) eat animals, eventually the carnivores too will die, to be eaten by plants. It's, well, the circle of life.

And more than this; nature works, succeeds, survives, because species compete, balance each other, consume excesses, and contribute to the whole. Vegetarianism is justified as a response to industrialised food chains, but in a more universal sense it seems to step outside of exactly what makes nature work, making a decision that, well, maybe isn't ours to make.

This article contains a number of not-really-backed-up assertions and a couple of outright oddities (‘Moreover, without cooking, the human brain (…) could not keep running…,’) but nonetheless contains a few points I believe important. Mainly: we can survive on a vegetarian diet, but should we be trying so hard to do so, given the inefficiencies involved?

I'm keen to hear counter-evidence, too – is a vegetarian diet truly more healthy, or is it just more healthy than the usual western crap? The macrobiotic diet contains some meat, and the Inuit diet also seems to work just fine.

Jody commented:

Great topic. I agree that opting out of the cycle is extreme, but in times of excess it's an important extreme. By all means get close to nature, only eat what's growing around you, make friends with a wild cow and share her milk if she's producing it and doesn't need it for babies, and you are so hungry from foraging that you are in need of the kind of nutrition that grows a small calf to a big cow in a year. By all means. But treating cows as pieces of machinery, keeping them pregnant and producing babies as a byproduct of milk, creating a market for the meat of two day old males because they are a byproduct too... that's sick, and opting out is far more likely to help with "balance". As long as millions and millions of people are scoffing this that and the other thing with wild abandon, whatever they see, whoever it belongs to, that tickles their fancy, some people have to opt out and help with a tiny fraction of balance.

Prodigal Summer and Animal Vegetable Miracle, both by Barbara Kingsolver, are books I have found thought provoking on this subject (and certainly not promoting veganism).

Please note, all of my content is just as unbacked up as the article to which you refer :)

Nato commented:

I'm not sure the entire system is that sick? (or at least is more sick than a hunter gatherer killing when hungry) I mean, if it's ok to kill a cow because you're hungry foraging, then surely it's ok to have a small heard that you can use for such a purpose, in anticipation of needing protein and iron? And as far as consuming two day old males, isn't that a good thing? Much like the American Indians would use all of a buffalo that they slaughtered, rather than letting things go to waste?

I guess I just see a slippery slope...

I guess at the end of it all, we should aim to be respectful of nature, and not mindlessly consuming, aiming to being aware about what is going on?

Aeonsim commented:

Considering the methods used by hunter gatherers to get meat I consider the modern methods to be far more humane (ie not running them off cliffs to break there legs). Also with modern farming practices at least in New Zealand the animals are far better treated and in much better health than they would be if they lived in the wild.

As for making friends with a wild cow, romantic, but they're a herd animal. It would be a good way to get killed by the bull or the cow when you approached too close. Also surely it's better to kill the excessive young rather than allowing the numbers to reach levels where they die of starvation. Considering they're a herd animal, they would be having a calf each year any way, as long as there was sufficient food to allow them to reach a condition where they are fertile. Or is it preferred to allow them to be partly starved so their condition drops and they remain infertile?

Getting back to the topic of the main post though I agree, the "natural" (such as there is any natural state) has us as consumers of both meat and plants. However while the modern systems of mass producing meat and animal products may be less than ideal I'd argue that they're kinder on the animals than nature has ever been. Still there is probably an over production and consumption of meat especially among the western cultures. The big problem though is that there is too many humans, though that is less of a western issue and more of an eastern one. I guess because we've moved to the top of the food chain and managed to break away from most of the things that could control our numbers we need to work out how to control our selves.

As for which is healthier, I'm not sure it matters, it's oxygen that kills us all in the end. A balanced diet of meat and plants will likely provide more than enough of the antioxidants that help the body resist damage along with plenty of energy in a form that doesn't physically wear down the body. While a vegetarian diet will provide more antioxidants, probably more than is needed, and sufficient energy but does so in a form that requires more strain/wear and tear for the body to utilize (though cooking does reduce this), so I suspect it's much of a muchness.

Matt commented:

Also with modern farming practices at least in New Zealand the animals are far better treated and in much better health than they would be if they lived in the wild.

Cows and sheep, sure, but as far as I'm aware – even in New Zealand – chickens are kept in large (albeit well-lit) warehouses for their entire (several-week) lives, and pigs are generally treated worse than battery hens.

I think I'd be happy eating meat if (a) the animals lived in reasonably natural conditions until their deaths and (b) it didn't require massive industrial machinery and infrastructure.

brehaut commented:

I think I’d be happy eating meat if ... it didn’t require massive industrial machinery and infrastructure.

I was pretty sure that vegetable production requires massive industrial machinery and infrastructure too.

Michael commented:

"...about 50% of our pigs are bred in free range systems."

To quote from Pork NZ

While I realize that is far from an ideal figure, I think it's still a fair bit better than we expect..

Matt commented:

Brehaut: sure, just not quite as much. Plants require significantly less energy to get to your table than meat. That said, they provide less energy, and I'm not quite sure where the balance is; that's a big part of my question. Vegetarianism is still totally dependent on that whole system, it's just slightly less damaging about it. And I have to eat something.

Michael: okay, although that page is (a) directly from the pork industry, and (b) very carefully worded, enough that I can see some gaps and I wonder what they're leaving out. For instance:

…50% of our pigs are bred in free range systems.

Note that he says ‘are bred,’ not ‘live’ – could just be semantic quibbling on my part, but remember that this is a close relative of the industry that injects antibiotics into eggs before the chickens are born so they can claim that the chickens have never been given antibiotics.

Here are a few other perspectives on NZ pork: Te Ara, openrescue.org, and vegetarian.org.nz.

Jody commented:

"Back in the day" humans were way down the food chain and made do as best we could. Nowadays some humans rule the food chain, so we need to rule our greed ourselves.

That's me not to getting hysterical :)

Matt commented:

To add some more 'facts' to the discussion, Jim tells me that:

  • The environmental impacts of NZ dairy farming (non-organic) are similar or less than organic dairy farming in Germany, and less than organic dairy farming in Denmark. For conventional farming in Germany and Denmark it's much worse.

  • Shipping pork from Denmark to Japan uses, per kilogram of meat, energy roughly equivalent to driving your car around 12km.

New Zealand may not be such a bad place to eat a conventional western diet. Still, it would be silly for me to get rid of my car and continue eating tens of kilometres every week.

Jim commented:

A clarification, for pork, that was not just for the shipping, but for the entire production- getting feed, growing pigs, transporting them within denmark to the slaughterhouse, processing them there, transport to a port in denmark and then shipping to a port in japan.

The main point of the study was looking at the environmental impact of danish pork for export to the UK— the Japan case was an alternative presented in the discussion on transport contributions. I've just checked and it was reporting on greenhouse emissions not energy usage (although there is correlation when most of the energy is from fossil sources) The 20,000 odd kilometres of shipping was only about 5% of the greenhouse gas emissions, of which the total (per kilo of delivered pork) was equivalent to a 10 -12 km journey in an average passenger car.

article is here http://www.lcafood.dk/djfhus82ny.pdf and page 20 concerns transport.

This article is about the environmental impacts only, and does not consider the pigs' welfare. Oh, and it was partly funded by the Danish Meat Association.