This is an extremely relevant, contemporary question.
One aspect of this debate is indisputable. Industrial meat production is destructive to Planetary Ecology. Rainforests, the lungs of the planet, are burned to make way for growing soy to produce cattle feed. Water sources become polluted. Greenhouse gasses (which affect climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere) are produced in great quantities: from the methane generated by cattle to the nitrous oxide from petro-chemical fertilizers which are spread on the land.
The verdict is not so clear over which diet is best for our health, since both meat-eaters and vegetarians claim to be healthy. Recent research on the effects of toxins from industrial meat, and farmed fish, shows that these toxins accumulate and interact in unknown ways in people’s bodies which cause disease. And, its sad to say, most fish are now contaminated with mercury. From a health perspective, some people, such as the current Dalai Lama, desire to be vegetarians but may experience general weakness, and are advised by a doctor to add some animal protein to their diet.
By far, the most contentious aspect to this debate is the morality of eating meat. To many a vegetarian, eating flesh is simply immoral. Since animals are like humans in so many ways: they form friendships, feel pain and joy, grieve for loved ones, and are afraid to die. The moral conclusion is to treat animals like humans.
To counter this, the carnivore reminds us that throughout history, meat has been a staple of the human diet, and that the predator/prey system exists in nature. In places unfavourable for agriculture, locals must supplement whatever foods they can grow with hunting wild animals because animal protein and fat provide energy, strength and stamina. Also, if we were not able to heat our homes in winter, would a vegetarian diet be a healthy choice?
There are now options for both the conscientious meat-eater who shuns industrial meat and does not hunt, and also the conscientious vegetarian who eats dairy and eggs. They can source their animal foods from small farms that practice traditional land stewardship and humane forms of animal husbandry.
However, proponents of industrial meat operations insist that small farms are incapable of filling the huge demand for meat. This is the excuse given for surrendering to gruesome animal suffering. Many videos available on the internet depict the horrors of abuse that are rampant in these industrial operations. By accepting this inhumane behaviour, we ourselves have become less humane and caring as a species.
In this way, our attitude to food is connected with our evolution as a species. What and how we eat is a reflection of our true nature as individuals and collectively as a society. For indigenous tribes, taking meat into their bodies is sacred. It is a gesture of sharing in the pain and pleasure of life, a way of taking responsibility for one’s existence. It is said that before enlightenment, the Buddha experienced every type of food sensation, ranging from taste delight to revulsion, from satiation to starvation. When monks accept food in their begging bowl, they do not reject meat, unless it has been killed specifically for them. No matter what food we eat, we know that gluttony is a vice. We know that allowing unconscious appetites and desires to rule, leads to a state of general unconsciousness.
In our zeal to become more conscious, it may be tempting to believe that one diet is “holier” than another. Regrettably, this has led to the phenomenon of the self-righteous vegetarian. One friend shared his story of debating the merits of vegetarianism with a meat-eater, but was royally told off for being preachy and sanctimonious. There is even a “pecking order” of superiority amongst some extreme vegetarians: Another friend visiting “raw foodists” in Hawaii was eating a peanut butter sandwich, and the look they shot at him for this “sin” was a far worse “poison” than the refined food (the bread) he was eating. It is valuable to note that compassion for animals was why Hitler chose not to eat meat; a powerful example of someone who is a vegetarian not necessarily a compassionate person.
As a child at my parent’s table, I ate meat. But after seeing flies swatted onto carcasses hanging at an outdoor butcher shop in Marrakech, Morocco, I decided it was time to become vegetarian, especially since I loved vegetables and was aware of the Buddhist principles of compassion toward all sentient beings. But my attitude was dogmatic. On my first visit to my parents as a strict vegetarian, I brought brown rice and engevita yeast with me, because now, the food they had fed me all those years was just not good enough. My deep sense of regret for this display of self-righteousness led to my decision to eat my mother’s roast chicken the following visit. My last major dietary change was an organic moment when a neighbour brought over some freshly caught fish, all cleaned and ready to pop in the pan, and there I was, 4 months pregnant and vegetarian. For that meal, instead of brown rice from California, I ate fresh food from nearby waters. If we are looking at lessening our dietary footprint, local is always better. Especially since food production, in general, uses enormous resources. It is worth noting that wetland rice fields generate 25% of planetary human-generated methane.
The most significant bottom line logistics regarding global meat-eating are as follows: farm animals use 70% of ALL agricultural land; additionally, they eat a 50% of the world’s grain that uses 33% of global arable land. All this food would nourish up to 10 times as many humans if eaten directly in the form of grains instead of meat. These numbers point to the extreme inefficiency of the world’s food production system, with so much focus on industrial meat. We simply cannot ignore these facts.
While it is doubtful that the world’s people will stop eating meat, it is realistic to appeal to open-minded meat-eaters to simply eat less meat. To this end, there are several strategies: reduce meat intake from several times a day to only once a day, designate one day a week (or more) as meatless, and allot just one chunk of meat for the whole family, cut into small pieces along with grains and vegetables. This is practiced extensively around the world.
Today’s excessive meat consumption depends almost entirely on grotesque and immoral factory farming practices which harm our environment, our health, and ultimately takes food out of other people’s mouths. When we talk about changing the world and becoming more aware, isn’t eating less meat a good place to start?
Tsiporah is a Gabriolan of 37 years, and keen observer of our times and evolutionary potential as compassionate human beings.