How much meat, dairy and egg do you eat? I must admit I’ve eaten plenty in my time. But here is my personal attempt at a logical argument for why I’m now trying to be vegan and think you should too.
In short, there are 3 premises I’d invite you to agree with:
- We don’t need meat to survive – in fact it’s bad for our health, costs more, and is a key contributor to climate change and other environmental harms.
- Pigs, chickens and cows (in the gender-neutral sense) are not merely objects – they share at least some of our capacity for experiencing pain and joy.
- Conditions are awful – these animals are being routinely tortured; not living happy lives worth living.
Which of those, if any, do you disagree with? Have a read and get in touch! These are important and interesting topics that deserve to be commonly discussed.
I also argue that this is not a minor issue to be solved only after doing more to tackle human suffering: we are talking about 30 billion sentient beings at a time, and rising. But there’s an optimistic conclusion: that individual and collective action can make a big difference. We can all be more vegan, support better conditions, and support new technology that could deliver cheap meat without the cruelty or environmental devastation.
(Note that for simplicity I’m not going to talk about fish, invertebrates, animal research, leather, feathers, pets or wildlife.)
Part 1: Don’t we have to eat meat to be healthy? No, it’s bad for your health, the planet and your wallet.
There’s strong evidence that being vegetarian or vegan is great for your health. The results below are from the latest comprehensive meta-analysis (Dinu et al., 2016) and show the risks of various negative health outcomes (including death) for vegetarians or vegans relative to omnivores. It “reports a significant protective effect of a vegetarian diet versus the incidence and/or mortality from ischemic heart disease (−25%) and incidence from total cancer (−8%). Vegan diet conferred a significant reduced risk (−15%) of incidence from total cancer.” More data will be needed, especially about veganism, to come to firmer conclusions about some of the other outcomes shown below.
On cancer in particular, in 2015 the World Health Organisation concluded that processed meats are carcinogenic while other red meat is “probably” carcinogenic. They “concluded that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer. An association with stomach cancer was also seen, but the evidence is not conclusive.” Just recently, another study found that processed meat consumption is associated with post-menopausal breast cancer. Regarding red meat, “the strongest, but still limited, evidence for an association with eating [it] is for colorectal cancer. There is also evidence of links with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.” In contrast, there is evidence that the consumption of soy products lowers the risk of prostate cancer and (at least in Asia) breast cancer. Vegetarianism is also associated with a 27% lower chance of diabetes (and is a good choice if you already have diabetes).
More broadly, research looking at how to alter current average food consumption to meet NHS balanced diet guidelines (while minimising change) suggests that red meat consumption should be reduced by 78%, white meat by 86% and cheese by 85%.
It almost goes without saying that eating meat also entails increased risk of parasites (tapeworms, toxoplasmosis etc.), prion diseases (BSE) and salmonellosis. And on a global level the vast numbers and super-high densities of farmed animals in the world also create reservoirs for disease – think swine flu and bird flu – while the overuse of antibiotics in farming may have contributed to the killer threat of antimicrobial resistance.
(The only dietary concern I’ve been persuaded of about veganism is a need for extra B12, which can only be produced by some bacteria/archaea. But supplements are small and dirt-cheap, and animal products are no guarantee of getting enough. Interestingly, “90% of B12 supplements produced in the world are fed to livestock” so you’re likely consuming the supplements indirectly at the moment.)
What about environmental and personal cost?
To briefly cover the environmental costs of meat and dairy products, it’s worth starting by looking at just how much land is used to make them. According to ourworldindata, of the 104 million km2 of habitable land available on Earth, humanity now uses 4o million for rearing and feeding livestock; slightly more than the 39 million covered by forest, and far more than the 11 million used for plant-based food despite the latter producing the great majority of calories and protein consumed by humans. So the questions here are of planetary-scale environmental significance. Humanity has removed half of the world’s mass of plants and extinguished countless species to make way for agriculture. Meanwhile, we’ve utterly decimated ocean life over the last two centuries.
As the ourworldindata article makes clear, if the rest of the world becomes as rich and carnivorous as the UK currently is, either food production must become far, far more productive or we’ll need to get rid of those remaining forests. (In contrast, to meet climate change goals the UK should be looking to increase forest cover by 40%, soon.) Growing edible crops, feeding them to animals and then eating the animals is just a terribly inefficient way to consume food.
A recent paper concluded that eating a plant-based diet is the fourth best action you can individually take to reduce emissions – and a comparatively easy one – after having fewer children, living car-free and avoiding airplane travel. As the research below shows, different protein-rich foods produce very different greenhouse gas emissions per kg, with beef and lamb being by far the worst offenders.
Note that “intensive” farming of meat produces lower emissions than “extensive” farming where animals have more space and live longer. And chicken is much more environmentally friendly than beef, but involves far more individual animals suffering and worse conditions. This suggests a trade-off for meat eaters between animal welfare (discussed below) and tackling climate change.
Other research (this time per weight of protein) shows the same emissions profile of different foods – but also that cheese has a higher impact than pork or poultry. It demonstrates that meat is also generally far worse in terms of land use, soil acidification, and eutrophication. Indeed, across these issues, even “the lowest-impact animal products exceed average impacts of substitute vegetable proteins”. The lead author concludes that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use… Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”
Another climate change paper concluded that “reduced ruminant meat and dairy consumption will be indispensable for reaching the 2°C target with a high probability, unless unprecedented advances in technology take place.” And because methane has a much shorter atmospheric life (~9 years) than CO2, reductions or increases in methane emissions can have a disproportionately large impact on global temperatures in the short-term.
Perhaps this alone is not an argument against all meat and dairy consumption. Few people can say they’ve done everything they can to reduce their personal environmental impact, and many people love to eat meat and given a personal carbon budget would choose to ‘spend’ a big chunk of it in that way (though I should note that those carbon budgets are going to have to shrink to zero or less fairly soon). But the impacts on the climate, land use, biodiversity and water use are overwhelmingly compelling reasons to try and eat less meat and dairy, even before all the considerations below.
Financial cost is another reason. A US study compared two nutritionally balanced diets with and without meat, and found that the non-vegetarian diet cost 37% more. And if your answer to the ethical considerations of meat (below) were to support higher production standards and avoid cheaper products, obviously that cost difference would widen considerably. What’s more, if agriculture were not so heavily subsidised via its free pass for emissions, tax breaks and actual cash subsidies, the potential savings from veganism would grow even further. Finally, when it comes to (currently) niche products like fake meat and non-dairy milk, while these can be relatively expensive, increased competition, innovation and economies of scale will drive these prices down further if demand increases.
The balance of evidence might change on the health or financial benefits of veganism. But my fundamental point is simply that there’s no biological or economic necessity to consume animal products. Of course, you may like the taste, the feel, the look of meat and dairy, but when considering the animal rights questions below let’s be clear that there isn’t a grander defence than that.
Part 2: Aren’t other animals morally equivalent to rocks? No, they share at least some of our capacity for experiencing pain and joy.
The environmental arguments outlined above are more than sufficient, I think, to warrant big changes in our personal choices and public policy. But the need to reduce non-human suffering is if anything an even stronger argument for veganism. However, this argument assumes that other animals have some capacity for suffering or joy, and are not simply objects. I don’t know if anyone (in the UK at least) actually disagrees with this premise (see the animal sentience vote palaver), but it’s a fundamentally important point worth some exploration.
There is one religious viewpoint that says that humans are special beings, with “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle” – beings that were simply created for our use. But we now know that this isn’t true. Humans are mammals, separated from cows, pigs, cats and dogs by only around 100 million years of divergent evolution and from chimpanzees by only around 500,000 generations. Of course that doesn’t mean that all species are (or are not) morally equivalent, but it does make the case that whether a particular species experiences pain, pleasure, suffering, joy and consciousness is an open, scientific question rather than a clear-cut religious truth. You may, after deep examination, decide that only Homo sapiens seem to have the mental or linguistic capacity for suffering, but if this is the case then it is something that evolved over those past 500,000 generations: not some fundamental, categorical difference between “humans” and “animals”.
My current assumption is that single-celled organisms, plants and fungi are – like rocks – incapable of any kind of ethically important experience. And among animals I assume there is a range of intelligence and capacity for pain or enjoyment. Whether worms and flies experience pain in a meaningful way, I do not know. But in discussing veganism, we don’t need to consider that right now. Nor do we need to consider the demonstrable intelligence – and consciousness? – of primates, cephalopods, cetaceans and many birds (but note that dolphins really are amazing). For the purposes of this blog let’s consider just 3 animals: cows, pigs and chickens.
I won’t dwell long on the argument that “you wouldn’t eat a dog”. But it is worth asking whether you feel that cats and dogs (animals that many of us have had far more experience with than cows, pigs and chickens) are merely objects or whether they experience pain and pleasure. To use extreme examples, would there be anything morally wrong with sawing a dog’s nose off or putting a kitten in a meat grinder? It would be awfully convenient and evolutionary questionable to argue that humans, cats and dogs are capable of suffering but that cows and pigs are not.
Of course, there’s no definitive way (yet?) of knowing whether other species are capable of conscious experience. Even in the case of other humans other than oneself, you can only assume that they are also conscious – on the basis of their outward similarity to yourself, of what they communicate, and of the biological implausibility that you alone are really conscious.
Neither dry, scientific facts nor soppy, cute videos can truly settle questions of what other animals experience. But – given the atrocities we’ll cover in the next section – the burden of proof really should be on non-vegans to show that those animals aren’t capable of suffering.
And a quick review of academic evidence points clearly towards cows, pigs and chickens having similar minds to our own on many basic levels, at least.
- In a simple demonstration that pigs can feel pain, “piglets castrated without local anaesthesia produced almost double the number of screams as piglets castrated with anaesthesia”
- Similarly, castration and other modifications of cattle are known to increase cortisol levels, which are considered a good indicator of pain, and local anaesthesia helps.
- Chicks at just 3-4 days of age show “impressive proto-arithmetic capacities” in a ‘counting’ exercise.
- Remarkably, chicks also seem to share with humans – and many other species – an innate predisposition to place smaller numbers to the left of bigger ones.
- Spending time clicker-training chickens makes students more likely to agree that chickens are intelligent and feel different emotions
- Some pigs (like Nellie) have been trained to perform a wide range of tricks and challenges
- Roosters emit different alarm calls for different predators. They also make ‘food calls’ when they find food, but can also trick females into coming close by making these in the absence of food – while females learn to avoid males who pull this trick too often.
- Similarly, pigs are able to deceive one another about the location of the best food sources; and can make use of mirrors
- Hens become distressed when they see their chicks exposed to a “mildly aversive air puff”, implying some potential for empathy
- Cows are known to frolic when released outside for the first time each year
To reiterate, it’s essentially impossible to know about other species’s subjective experiences – and 5 minutes with them is probably worth more than countless academic papers – but hopefully you agree that the experiences of livestock matter to at least some degree (or at least that we should err on the side of caution and assume that they do).
Part 3: OK, but aren’t conditions pretty good generally? No, these animals are being tortured; not living happy lives worth living.
Hopefully at this point you agree with me that it’s not necessary to consume animal products and that there are some practical arguments (overwhelming on the environmental side) in support of greatly reducing that consumption (Part 1); and that livestock animals have some capacity for conscious experience (Part 2). But you may, quite reasonably (in theory), argue that their lives are worth living, even given captivity and artificial death.
It’s important to acknowledge, of course, that there is a vast range of different living conditions and means of death. There is an argument that killing animals for food, or rearing them with that purpose, is always wrong. I’m not convinced of that (yet?), though I also find the opposite conclusion – that rearing and killing conscious beings for food or fun is fine so long as suffering is otherwise minimised – troubling. That complex set of arguments about the morality of an idealised animal rearing system, however, should not distract from, or give a free pass to, what actually typically happens in the 21st century.
The important question is not whether some meat is ethical, but whether massive-scale affordable meat production can be ethical. Otherwise we’re just arguing about whether the world should be 100% vegan or merely 99% vegan.
And I’d like to argue that the mass consumption of meat and dairy rests on unspeakable torment for hundreds of billions of (at-least-semi-)conscious beings. Below I look at the typical lives of farmed pigs, chickens and cows.
It is hard to know exactly where our food comes from and under what circumstances. Farming organisations will not be completely open, and animal rights activists might exaggerate. It is also difficult – and uncomfortable – to spare the time to find out. But I’ve tried my best to find representative information about conditions for cows, pigs and chickens, though please do try to find your own (and get in touch if you think this is an unfair summary)! I’ve also concentrated on the UK, where conditions are better than in most of the world (including the US).
To repeat my argument from Part 2, if these animals are simply non-feeling objects then none of this matters: physically harming them is ethically fine. But how sure of that non-sentience are you? And if you agree that there is – or even might be – substantial suffering involved (on top of the environmental and health costs) then: is it all worth it for some particular combination of taste and texture?
Typical lives for farmed pigs:
- Sows are commonly artificially inseminated (or they are ‘served’ up in a rack to a male), usually within 5 days of the previous litter being removed; and then spend around 16 weeks in a concrete pen
- For boars, semen is often collected by electro-ejaculation (an electrode inserted into the rectum), while others receive vasectomies to become ‘teaser boars’
- Piglets are typically born – in unnaturally large litters – into a metal farrowing crate, in which the mother essentially can’t move for four weeks at a time twice a year (though in the UK outdoor births with greater freedom are also common). 18% of piglets die at this stage.
- Their 8 needle teeth are clipped (cut off almost to the gum) – without anaesthetic – to avoid damage to the sows’ teats. In the wild this is avoided by allowing the sows to move.
- Parts of their tails are cut off – without anaesthetic – to limit the pigs harming each other
- Outside the UK, male piglets are generally castrated – without anaesthetic – in order to reduce aggression and change the taste of their meat
- Tags are typically pinned through their ears
- Piglets are given a large injection of iron
- Weaning happens at a very early age (so that the sow can be bred again)
- After weaning, the vast majority of pigs (>90%) live entirely indoors, on slatted floors, and packed together. The guidelines say only that they must “have enough space to allow all the animals to lie down at the same time”.
- On the off-chance that pigs are reared outside, nose rings may be inserted to make it more painful for them to root, to reduce the amount of digging
- Pigs are generally fed cereals and soya – around 2kg a day that could otherwise have gone directly to feeding humans
- Cannibalism of both dead and live pigs has often been observed
- Disease is common, from diarrhoea at an early age to outbreaks like foot and mouth (leading to mass killings)
- Obviously the potential exists for abuse, with examples of workers kicking and beating pigs, stabbing them with pitchforks or spraying paint up their noses for fun
- Pigs are slaughtered at around 5-6 months of age
- They are prodded into cramped lorries and then transported. Around 1 in 100 pigs die in at this stage. In winter, apparently live pigs can be frozen to the inside of trucks and need to be ripped off, while in summer heat stress is possible.
- Across the EU, 28 million pigs a year experience journeys of over 8 hours
- At the abattoir, they are usually pushed into a cramped gas chamber where they are suffocated by CO2, which involves around 30 seconds of conscious suffering
- Alternatively, electric stunning (followed by bleeding out) can be used but this doesn’t always work perfectly and the wait before stunning can apparently be stressful
It’s hard to know what conditions are really representative, but I reckon these two videos show neither the worst nor the best of the UK pig industry:
Typical lives for farmed chickens:
- In the case of egg-laying breeds, male chicks will be killed almost immediately. In the UK this is done using gas but in many other places they go into a grinder.
- The tips of their beaks are removed (using an infrared beam) to limit their ability to harm one another densely packed conditions. (Note that a bird’s beak “is a complex sensory organ with numerous nerve endings” and is its main means of interacting with the world.)
- Male chickens may have their claws, spurs and sometimes comb/wattle/earlobes removed
- Chickens now lay roughly an egg a day, compared to once every few weeks in the wild. Large eggs are believed to be more painful and can lead to ‘vent prolapse’.
- Industrial egg-laying and inactivity make osteoporosis common, leading in turn to bone fractures, chronic pain and death
- Although ‘battery cages’ were banned, their main replacement is simply a slightly larger cage
- Free-range is probably less cruel, though birds typically still spend the vast majority (and in many cases all) of their time indoors, in a very cramped barn with thousands of others in awful conditions. 16,000 birds sharing a shed would still be free range.
- Even after debeaking, pecking is extremely common when there’s so little space or enrichment
- Chicken and eggs with the Soil Association Organic label do come with significantly higher standards (though it’s a shame they consider GM feed to be a comparable problem) but this accounts for only 2% of eggs and the cost is over 70% more than regular “free-range”
- Meat chickens tend to be kept in sheds at densities of 17 per square metre or more
- As meat chicken litters are not changed until the flock is killed, 82% of even Grade A chicken shows hock burns where the high level of ammonia in the air has burned the skin
- Chickens can easily live more than 5 years (even 16 in one case). But egg-laying hens are killed after a year or so, while chickens bred for meat are usually killed at 33-38 days. Extremely rapid growth in the latter often causes sudden death, severe lameness, bone defects, or deformity
- The majority of fast-growth chickens have severe walking problems
- Chickens are caught (by hand or machine) and put in crates, to be transported. Around a million chickens a year in the UK die on the way to be slaughtered, due to suffocation or broken bones.
- At a processing plant, birds that aren’t gassed are likely to be hung up by their (often already injured) legs and stunned unconscious as they pass through a water bath
- Where stunning fails to work, there are many cases of chickens being boiled alive
- With the rise of halal meat in the UK – far beyond actual demand – almost 1 in 5 chickens now have their throats cut without being stunned first, with the British Veterinary Association expressing “grave concern” about this
- Again, there is huge potential for abuse, such as “jumping up and down on live chickens, drop-kicking them like footballs and slamming them into walls” or smashing their heads against rails to kill them
The video below has a vegan agenda, but hopefully it gives some idea of what the caged and “free-range” approaches look like in practice:
Typical lives for cows:
- Artificial insemination is most common, with semen collected through electro-ejaculation and cows impregnated by inserting a pipette and guiding it up through the cervix using the other arm inserted into the rectum
- Calves and mothers are separated within the first few days, which can be very distressing for both
- A fifth of male dairy calves (i.e. 1 in 10 of all dairy cattle) are simply shot at birth
- Dairy calves that are not killed may be kept in cramped cages alone for veal, beef or until ready for impregnation. Others will be exported.
- Ears are tagged, and freeze branding may also be used
- If females are born with more than 4 teats, these ‘supernumeraries’ are cut off with scissors – without anaesthetic
- Dairy cows are reimpregnated whilst still lactating, to minimise the gap between lactations, and milked for 7 out of 9 months of pregnancy
- They graze in the better half of the year, but an estimated 20% of dairy cows are never allowed outside
- Cows spend most of their time on concrete, often slippery with manure and urine
- Lameness is very common (and interventions such as shackles and foot trimming may help, though over-trimming is another problem)
- Dairy cows of course produce (and carry around) vast volumes of milk
- Mastitis is very common (note: astonishingly, homeopathy is commonly used to try and cure mastitis on organic farms across Europe)
- Udder flaming is used to remove hair and keep udders clean (which is not necessarily painful but may go wrong)
- Around 1 in 4 adult dairy cows are culled each year. They reach an average of 3 lactations (or you might say offspring) each, before they are culled due to reduced fertility, mastitis, lameness, reduced yield or other reasons. Arguably these are all related to the huge strain that is put on their bodies.
- In horned cattle, usually the horns are removed (disbudding) using a hot iron or caustic soda (with pain relief in the UK), possibly while the cow is restrained in a cattle crush
- Male calves for beef tend to be castrated
- With fewer abattoirs than there used to be, cows may be transported quite long distances to slaughter
- Electric shock instruments can be used if cattle refuse to move
- 1% of cattle (but a quarter of sheep and goats) are not stunned before slaughter, due to the religious exemption
The videos below show the simple realities of separating calves from mothers.
Less typically, keeping vast numbers of animals confined in close quarters means that disasters can happen quite regularly, such as 1.7 million chickens drowning (and others starving) due to flooding, or over a thousand pigs drowning, or 16,000 chickens being burnt alive, or 4,300 pigs being burnt alive, or 2,400 sheep on a boat dying of heat stress, or 28,000 animals drowning at sea.
A couple of broad points should be noted about the lists above.
First, farmers clearly do not take most of these actions to be mean to animals. For one, they’ve invested lots of money in their livestock. Many or most of the unsavoury steps above – such as debeaking or teeth clipping – are taken to try and avoid extra harm later. It is quite possible that there is no better way to mass-produce cheap animal products – requiring high densities of livestock – without those steps. But rather than accept those practices as therefore inevitable, we should ask whether it’s necessary to mass-produce cheap animal products at all.
Second, it’s true that the above are concentrated lists of the bad bits about factory farming. Most of the time conditions may be more benign – with animals just standing around eating or even (in the case of cows, sometimes) grazing outdoors. But nor does the above reflect important, positive things that are missing from farm animals’ lives. A system that produced lives worth living might not only minimise pain but also allow animals to: have relationships with their parents or offspring; have relationships with the opposite sex; not be surrounded by thousands of others all the time; be outside; forage; play; fly (in some cases!); experience variety; and live long. Could more of that be (re)introduced into animal farming? Again the answer is no – not without drastically reducing consumption.
Part 4: OK, but aren’t there more important things to be concerned about? No, there really aren’t.
The environmental argument alone should be enough. But in more direct moral terms, note that in 2016 there were 1.5 billion cattle in the world, 1.2 billion sheep, 1 billion goats, 1 billion pigs, 23 billion chickens, 1.2 billion ducks and 0.5 billion turkeys.
Together, these 30 billion (among other farmed animals), outnumber humans by 4 to 1. And with their short lives, the actual number of deaths is far greater than the number of individual humans who live and die. Dr Melanie Joy says that “More farmed animals are slaughtered in one week than the total number of people killed in all wars throughout human history”. In the UK alone, over 20 million broiler chickens are slaughtered each week (up from around 20,000 a week in 1950).
This is not to claim that livestock matter more than humans because there are more of them. It is not necessary to give farmed animals equal moral weight to humans. But, because of their number, even if you think torturing one individual farm animal is only 0.1% as bad as torturing a human (i.e. branding 1 person would be as bad as branding 1,000 pigs); the harm is still ‘equivalent’ to 30 million people being routinely tortured. Of course, if you give them a weight of 10%, that figure rises to 3 billion people being routinely tortured.
And with human population rising and incomes growing rapidly in developing countries, the number of livestock is growing too. In fact, George Monbiot says the livestock population is growing twice as fast as the human population (with the former being the far easier environmental problem to solve).
It’s also worth comparing the livestock population to the wild vertebrate population. We might get the impression from natural history programmes that the world is filled with polar bears, giraffes, monkeys and flocks of wild birds. But the world’s wild tetrapods (mammals, birds/reptiles and amphibians) are now a tiny minority compared to humanity’s livestock, which collectively weighs ten times more than all that wildlife. Farmed poultry represent 70% of the birds on the planet. And causes that have aroused strong feelings in the UK like fox hunting and badger culling (both justified as protecting factory farming, incidentally) pale in comparison in terms of total animal suffering.
Indeed, alongside a “mass extinction event”, and other environmental changes shown below (from Ripple et al., 2017), it’s notable that domesticated chicken bones have been suggested as a marker of the Anthropocene geological epoch, the planet being so littered with them.
So, having replaced a huge part of the world’s biomass with factory-farmed animals owned by humans, and completely changed the make-up of (probably) conscious life on Earth, we really can’t turn a blind eye to their suffering. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “This is why the fate of farm animals is not an ethical side issue. It concerns the majority of Earth’s large creatures: tens of billions of sentient beings, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, but which live and die on an industrial production line.”
I do think it’s fair to say that this is a global atrocity, and that our generations may not be judged kindly by history for it. So, while I personally work on a wide range of public policy areas, it’s hard to argue that many – if any – deserve more attention at present than animal welfare. This is particularly so given that the solutions are also solutions to our environmental problems; are also related to global food inequality; and would also improve human health and help avoid pandemics. And – unlike many big problems – there are clear actions that can be taken, both as individuals and collectively.
Part 5: Fine, what can we do about it?
I suspect that most people – even if they agree with much of the above – are neither interested in trying to influence government policy (probably for good reason – it is hard to make a difference) nor making personal behavioural changes that go beyond current norms. But if you’re the kind of person that does either then perhaps you’ll agree, given the above, that this is a cause worth reflecting in your choices. And, despite the brutality and shocking scale of it all, there are reasons to be optimistic that change is possible.
a) Change what we buy
It hardly needs saying that if you agree that factory farming is causing a huge amount of suffering or environmental harm, then you should seriously consider eating less meat. And, although people like absolute labels like “vegetarian” or “vegan”, that clarity is not what matters from an environmental or welfare point of view. If 1 million people go from eating meat 6 days a week to eating it 4 days a week, that’s more impactful than 1 million people going from eating meat 1 day a week to never eating it. As explored above, eating less meat seems to be good for your health too, and has never been easier.
We should also look at our consumption of milk, cheese and eggs. One way in which my views have changed over the last year – particularly while researching for this blog – is that I no longer see vegetarianism as a defensible, consistent position (though it remains useful as part of that spectrum of reducing animal product consumption). In fact, the production of milk and eggs involves just as much killing, but with some extra cruelty thrown in along the way. There might be “some abstract notion of purity” from not personally consuming the animals themselves, but the cruelty is no less, and cheese does not stack up well in environmental terms.
Personally, I don’t find it challenging at all to have 21 meals a week without eating animals (and thankfully never liked eggs). I then found it surprisingly easy to switch almost overnight to non-dairy milks (oat, soy, hazelnut, almond, coconut…). Cheese was admittedly harder, but first I stopped buying cheese for home use and now I avoid it entirely. What’s harder to avoid (for now) is the ubiquitous presence of eggs, milk and butter in processed food: whether it be biscuits, curries, even Quorn. So although I would now self-identify as vegan, I don’t think it’s important to agonise about whether I’m 100.0% vegan or only 99.9%.
The standards of animal products matter too, of course. As mentioned, Soil Association Organic standards ban the worst practices for pigs, eggs, chicken, and cows (and sheep and fish), which is not something I’d appreciated about their ‘organic’ label before. Look out for those products! But “buying your way out of veganism” is perhaps only a realistic prospect for those on higher incomes and, as noted above, high welfare standards are quite probably worse for the environment. And even if you try to buy responsibly (even when eating out?), the economic incentives will always be for farmers to ignore the rules where possible and for marketers to mislead you about a product’s welfare standards.
I also suspect there is a kind of “Schrödinger’s cow” principle, whereby consumers know that some meat is (relatively) humane and therefore, so long as they don’t actually check, everyone can believe that their particular consumption is the humane kind. Don’t fall for that.
b) Talk about it
Relatedly, I evidently think we should talk more about veganism, carnism and welfare standards. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the current factory farm industry relies on there being as little scrutiny and awareness as possible, which leads to bad decision-making. More fundamentally, as Melanie Joy puts it, “We don’t see meat eating as we do vegetarianism – as a choice, based on a set of assumptions about animals, our world, and ourselves. Rather, we see it as a given, the “natural” thing to do, the way things have always been and the way things will always be. We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why…” Similarly, Joanna Blythman argues that most people follow a “safety in numbers philosophy”, assuming “If this is the normal thing then it must be fine. I don’t want to think too much about it.”
So it’s good to talk: to ensure we’re making informed decisions, not just default decisions. Certainly the more I’ve read the more I’ve been shocked by the scale and inherent cruelty of factory farming – and my views and behaviour have changed as a result. A lack of public awareness and discourse about the environmental impacts of eating meat has also been cited as a reason why “governments are missing a key opportunity for climate mitigation, trapped in a cycle of inertia”.
But, similarly, veganism shouldn’t be an unquestioned “fad” either. If you disagree with the arguments and conclusions in this blog, please share your views! I for one am open to persuasion.
c) Support changes to legislation
Briefly: there is of course a lot that the government could do. It could ban many of the practices above. Note that Labour policy includes banning caged hens, farrowing crates and live exports, among other measures. Lib Dem policy includes banning caged hens and dehorning, while Green Party policy is naturally very strong. Public opinion and tabloid attitudes also seem very much in favour of higher welfare rights, so action seems quite possible. Even this Conservative government has introduced mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses, will consult on “restricting” live exports, and might ban imports of foie gras post-Brexit.
Agricultural subsidies can also be reformed. There are plans to link these partly to higher animal welfare standards, but the details are still to be determined. The government could also look to extend greenhouse gas pricing to agriculture (which is currently exempt) – meaning some of the environmental costs of producing beef and lamb would be reflected in its cost, for example – or look again at the many other tax breaks the meat and dairy industry benefits from (see VAT, business rates, inheritance tax, red diesel). And the state can support higher welfare standards and vegan options through the huge amount of food bought by the NHS and schools.
We also need to insist on higher standards for imported meat and dairy. Standards in the UK are relatively high, and import restrictions should reflect that. But the likelihood of the UK being in a strong position to influence other countries’ standards post-Brexit seems quite low to me.
d) Support new technology and innovation
Perhaps the greatest room for optimism is on the technological side (as is often the case). As the climate change issue has shown, public behaviour is slow to turn around and agreeing international co-operation is hard. But advances in technology (think improvements in solar panels or electric cars) can make less harmful alternatives a viable option, first, and eventually the obvious economic choice. Technological solutions also have the advantage of potentially transforming consumption across the world rather than just where concern is highest.
In the case of food, there are clearly already broad alternatives to animal products, and often at a lower cost. But what if we could make indistinguishable meat, cheese, milk, eggs and fish without having to rear those animals, without the environmental costs, and cheaper than current products? That would be a game changer for animal suffering, the environment and even people’s material living standards across the world.
Animals convert plants into other food products, but do it very inefficiently. If we insist on drinking milk and eating meat and cheese, could we skip out the animal part? Perfect Day are, for me, the most exciting company in the world, using yeast instead of cows to convert plants into actual dairy proteins. Clara Foods are making animal-free egg whites. JUST already mass-produce egg-less mayonnaise. And many companies are working on either plant-based meat replicas or meat grown in a lab using animal cells. (Though even with current meat alternatives I sometimes have to double-check in restaurants that they aren’t meat – they can be so convincing.)
I don’t think this technological promise is a reason not to change one’s behaviour now, however. And such innovation might require active support from consumers and governments, particularly in the face of lobbying from incumbent industries (who’ve already been working to limit the use of the word ‘meat’ or ‘milk’, for example). The need to promote those alternatives is particularly strong if we’re not going to try and tax the externalities of environmental harm and animal suffering.
Hopefully (though perhaps that’s not the right word here) future historians will look back on the current period as a uniquely atrocious one for animal welfare. In the future, as Winston Churchill predicted in 1931, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” We might be able to feed the world the meat it wants without the suffering or environmental harms. And in the past, though animal rights were even less of a consideration, people ate fewer animals and such high densities of livestock were not feasible. In recent years, however, technology and competition (usually good things!) have driven production so far beyond what was previously possible that we are committing “perhaps the worst crime in history”. Let’s hope we can end it soon – and I encourage you to make whatever difference you can.