Arguing for Vegetarianism

Over the weekend I read an interesting post by Eric Marcus at Vegan.com. He writes that it is very important for the vegan community to be accurate when talking to meat eaters about why they should go veggie. He is specifically talking about the environmental impacts of eating meat. We've certainly been on that bandwagon... we've written about eating vegan for the environment on a few occasions already. Marcus wrote his post after reading an article by John Harris in The Guardian which discusses how people are converting to vegetarianism as a way to end human hunger. The current food crisis is underlining how inefficient it is to use grain to feed animals, which in turn produces a smaller amount of meat for human consumption, instead of using that grain to feed humans directly. (Not to mention the issues of water usage, environmental pollution, land usage, etc. also directly related to feeding humans.)

However, what I learned in reading Marcus' post is that information (regarding the inefficiencies of producing meat versus producing vegetables), which we have also shared with people, is not entirely correct. Apparently raising chickens has the same impact to the environment as raising vegetables:

...I’d be surprised if producing a calorie of chicken requires greater land use than that required for a calorie of vegetables. I worry that if people buy into the argument laid out by Harris without understanding that chicken(s) are ridiculously efficient compared to other farmed animals, there will be a backlash against vegetarianism down the road when people realize that this is the case. We can’t afford to trick people into going veggie, and that means not only giving people pro-veggie info, but also the information we wish wasn’t true.

I do agree with Marcus. People should be given all the facts, and be allowed to make their own decisions. However, when you throw in the argument as to how horrifically chickens are raised, and this includes the "free range" chickens as well, there is no excuse to eat poultry or eggs, efficient or not. Of course, in this time and place, that is your choice. It is not a crime for chickens to be treated the way they are (even if it should be), nor is a crime to eat poultry or eggs.

But what I found most interesting in all this is the idea John Harris presented, that we vegans could use "human benefit" as an argument to eat vegan. It's happened to most of us at one time or another -- when discussing veganism with an omnivore, we've been challenged. Why do we care so much about animal rights when horrific things are being done to humans? There is a clearcut answer to that argument. 850 million people are starving. People are starving so that other people can eat meat. If we all ate vegan, far fewer people would starve.

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Comments

  1. One thing I learned in my International Politics class a couple of years back is that world hunger is largely a problem of distribution. In other words, there is enough food to feed everybody already but it’s not getting into the mouths of the starving.

    Aid sent to starving countries gets blocked by the government and used for other purposes or even left to rot (sometimes through cruelty, sometimes through a lack of infrastructure adequate for food distribution.

    Family farms in third world countries are destroyed so that crops for wealthy nations – bananas, for example – can be grown.

    As much as I wish that my strict vegetarian diet were helping solve world hunger, I know that it’s not. The answer to world hunger is not more food, it’s development of better means of delivery and, in many cases, installation of laws respecting private property to prevent the peasants from losing their land to large Western corporations.

  2. Bea Elliott says:

    I’ve come to believe that chicken come with their own set of bodily environmental issues – especially when housed by the millions – Avian flu virus at the top of the list….. There food often contains arsenic – and when they are “processed” their bodies absorb anti-bacterial agents as well as chlorine and other antimicrobials. I hardly think this stew of chemicals can be called “sustainable” or “environmentally sound”.

    Anyway you slice and dice it – vegetables appear to be the most friendly to the human body as well as to the planet. …. Chic peas not chicks :)

  3. Sparrow makes an excellent point about distribution being the problem, not the amount of food.

    I’m leery of arguments about producing more food will make things better off. Even if the means of distribution were perfect, making sure that everyone is well fed is likely to lead to people having more children and using more resources. This doesn’t really improve their situation.

    I honestly think arguing for veg*nism on the basis of environmental concerns if a dead end. It is based on the assumption that people won’t act out of compassion, but will do so out of long-term self-interest (in this case, saving the environment). Based on my recent readings in psychology, this is bound to fail. While we will gladly pay lip-service to self-improvement, we ultimately choose the thing that gives us the short-term pleasure.

  4. Hi Sparrow,
    Interesting, I’d not heard that before, but of course it makes a lot of sense. I don’t think either of these would invalidate the other though. Look at the rise in food prices over the last few years, in part attributable to corn being diverted to fuel production…
    Obviously there is a lot more going on here than we have touched on. But I still believe that reducing meat consumption (as a society, not an individual) will result food becoming available to a greater number of people.

    Hi Bea,
    Yes, I agree… There are many other issues associated with chickens… I understand Marcus to be saying that we need to be careful how we encourage others to consider veg*ism. If we say, it’s more efficient to eat vegetables than it is to eat meat, we are in essence, misconstruing the truth. According to Marcus, producing chickens uses the same resources as producing vegetables. There are numerous other arguments to use against eating poultry and you have touched upon the scarier ones.
    What really frightens me is that we’ve exported the desire for our consumption-based society to the rest of the globe. So even if we can start to make changes, what havoc have we wrought?

    Hi Sat,
    I agree that producing more food doesn’t necessarily mean producing a better lifestyle. But (hopefully) it does result in fewer people starving. The issues of population control are myriad. I read somewhere recently, that a prominent scientist is suggesting we start working on a plan to colonize the moon within the next 50 years, so we’ll be ready when we need to expand.

    As for the arguments to consider veg*ism, I agree with you, and here’s the perfect example — I walk down my block on garbage collection morning and can’t believe what people put in their trash. We have curbside recycling, everything (plastics 0-7) all co-mingled… couldn’t be easier, and still people throw things in the trash. Argh!
    Re the lip-service to self improvement. Change is hard. It’s easier to continue doing what I know how to do rather than having to think about something new, especially if that something new requires some kind of “sacrifice” on my part. But some people might try, and every little bit helps.

  5. “chicken(s) are ridiculously efficient compared to other farmed animals”

    They’re especially “efficient” when crammed together in tiny cages and/or confined to warehouses. They’re not quite as “efficient” when raised more humanely.

    “If we all ate vegan, far fewer people would starve.”
    True, but there are problems with that argument as well, because food supplies aren’t the real issue when it comes to starvation. The issue is about food allocation. Certain people/ countries horde resources. Even if we all went vegan it might not prevent people from starvation because the people who currently horde rice, corn, and wheat would still horde food.

    Yes, going vegan can help prevent some damage to the environment and can help prevent some starvation, but it doesn’t stop bad people from doing bad things. Polluters will still pollute and horders will still horde. So, regardless of all the very good reasons to go vegan two stand out in my mind:
    1) Animal flesh and secretions are bad for your health, period. Anyone who thinks they should eat them might also want to consider eating lead paint and swallowing glass.
    2) Meat comes from dead sentient beings who don’t deserve to be treated as commodities. Animals should not live, breed, and die according to human whims.

  6. Bea Elliott says:

    Hi Lane…. yes, “producing” the chickens might have the same environmental impact and growing veggies….. but my curious mind travels a bit and wants to include the abstracts like what it costs to ship the “products” being they must be kept cold en route and at the store…. Then I wonder about the energy it takes to bring this “product” to a cooked temperature high enough to be safe….. I just think ALL animals make a poor choice for sustainable “food”…. and I like to explore every angle of the “pro-meat” argument.

    Thanks for letting me wander off track a bit…. :)

    And I know what you mean about “what havoc have we wrought?”….. and what on earth can be done to “fix” it???? – except of course: Go Vegan.

  7. Hi Elaine,
    Regardless of the conditions in which the chickens are raised, Marcus makes the point that we cannot use efficiency as a standalone argument. If we do, we are opening the door for corporations like Tyson to come back and “prove” that vegetables and chickens are equally efficient, thus rendering any other argument invalid as we’re perceived as either deliberately misrepresenting the facts, or worse, we don’t have the knowledge to speak intelligently.
    Re starvation – Yes Sparrow brought that up as well. There are issues with food distribution, and there are hoarders. These will probably get worse as food supplies are diverted to biofuel initiatives and meat production (and the population continues to increase). I stand by my statement – if we all reduce our consumption of meat, more grains can be made available to humans, probably at a lower cost, simply by virtue of there being a larger supply. We’ve all been reading about the food riots around the globe as grain prices continue to escalate.
    As for your two very good reasons to go vegan — 1) I hardly think you can compare eating meat to swallowing glass. It’s this kind of argument that causes people to stop listening. Swallowing glass can result in immediate death. Eating meat may kill you over a period of 50-80 years. Pure hyperbole.
    2) I agree wholeheartedly that our treatment of animals is abysmal. In this time and in this place, we can exist without eating meat (wearing leather, etc).

    Hi Bea,
    Very good points. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone talk about the costs associated with keeping the meat fresh and viable at the grocers. I’ll have to add that to my repertoire. Thanks.
    Unfortunately, even if we all went vegan tomorrow, I’m sure we’d still be doing a whole host of damage to the planet… Pesticides, electronic waste, con-trails.

  8. I’m an omnivore that is beginning to lean Vegetarian/Vegan. And actually most of the reasons you cited were the reasons I chose to become Vegan/Vegetarian 5 days out of a week. It’s a tough change, but I think that this approach plus the health reasons, really struck a cord with me more than Animal Rights ever did. Not to say that I don’t dislike the way animals are treated at slaughterhouses, it’s just to say that the human angle resonated more strongly. I felt greedy once I started my reading and education and that’s something that I think helped drive me to make better choices. Also, I have a Vegan friend who really helped me when I started showing interest — she let me borrow cook books gave me a list of Vegan places to try around town and told me some tips on how to keep Vegan. I thought her message was pretty powerful. Veganism is fun, rewarding and Vegans are helpful. I think if you’re trying to convince an omnivore to try Vegan, you have to show how easy it is.

    Or start small. Cut out one animal a month :D

  9. Hi Shannon,
    We had a similar start. Our veganism was for our health, rather than any other reason. Today, we’re vegans for the animals. If somehow, our doctor told us we had to eat meat in order to be healthy (and had proof), I honestly don’t know if we could do it.
    Of course, those animals you’re cutting out have to actually be animals you’d eat, not say a hyena, or a giraffe! ;-)

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