Isn’t that a bit inconsistent? If we think that vegetarianism or veganism is a good idea, how can we also think that keeping animals – most of which are kept for meat – is a good idea too? We had a comment about this from someone recently who said that they were unfollowing us because we were encouraging people to eat meat. Our position is that we’re trying to persuade people to eat less meat – but we know that meat is still going to be eaten, so we’re advocating that animals are kept free-range, organically and on mixed smallholdings rather than in factory farms. We think that this is a consistent message, and we say to vegans: stay on board – it may be hard to see articles about keeping animals or preserving meat etc, but if you focus on reducing the amount of meat eaten and improving conditions for the animals that are kept, then that’s good in terms of sustainability and it may be a stepping stone towards your ultimate goal of not eating animals at all. That goal may be a long way off, and it may not arrive at all, but I think that we can be fellow travellers.
If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan because you don’t like the taste of meat, then for you there won’t necessarily be any problem. Your position might be that if other people want to eat meat, that’s fine – but you don’t want to. But if not eating meat is a philosophical position for you – i.e. that eating meat is tantamount to murder – then there almost certainly will be a problem, in that you won’t be happy just not eating meat yourself, you’ll also be very unhappy that anyone else eats meat. After all, most of us would not commit murder for moral reasons, but that doesn’t mean that we’d be happy if other people commit murder. If something is wrong, then it’s wrong, whoever does it.
I have a cat and he has a personality – I know when he’s feeling affectionate, angry, bored, playful, curious, worried etc. I’ve lived on a smallholding with pigs, and they certainly have personalities too. It could be argued that anything with a personality is a ‘person’, and it has been argued in the animal rights debate. So if anyone took the philosophical position that an animal (or a mammal at least) has a personality, is therefore a ‘person’ and that it’s morally wrong for a human to kill a person, then I think that would be quite a difficult position to argue against, and really it could only be done on ecological grounds – i.e. that we would need to turn more natural habitat into farmland to grow plants for humans to eat if we didn’t a) harvest animals from the wild, b) keep pigs (et al) in woodlands, c) keep sheep, cattle and other livestock on upland or marginal land that won’t support trees, and d) keep just a few animals on mixed smallholdings so that their dung can be used to improve the land an increase yields.
If your position is that it’s wrong to kill animals at all on moral grounds, then it’s up to you to make that point and try to persuade people. Lowimpact.org could be an excellent platform for that, and we would certainly be happy for you to put your case on Lowimpact’s blog, forum and Facebook page. It’s still a very minority position, but it’s gaining ground. Most people in the world still eat meat, so that’s a reality we have to work with.
Unfortunately, from a vegan position, meat-eating is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. FAO figures show that meat-eating is on the rise, and they predict that the amount of meat eaten globally will double from 2000-2050, so the goal of eliminating meat from our diets altogether is a very long-term aim indeed.
Veganism means not eating fish, which means replacing fish protein globally with plant protein (beans, pulses, grains, nuts etc.). This means that we’ll have to turn more natural habitat into farmland to do that, which ecologically, is not such a good idea as harvesting food from the wild. In the case of fish however, we don’t seem to have a ‘stop’ button – overfishing is not ecologically sound, and without strictly-enforced quotas, humans don’t seem to be able to understand that taking everything now means nothing for the future. The most extreme example of this was the destruction of the North Atlantic cod fisheries in the nineties. 35,000 people lost their jobs, but they still weren’t able to prevent it happening. Nevertheless, ecologically-speaking, if we fish sustainably, it’s a more ecologically sound way to obtain protein than clearing land for agriculture. But again, if you think it’s philosophically wrong to eat fish, then that’s a debate we can have.
An omnivore’s response might be that to stop animals being killed for food, we’d have to kill all the carnivorous animals in the world, which I’m assuming vegans wouldn’t want to happen. Nature is cruel – a pack of wolves will separate a caribou calf from its mother, chase it to exhaustion, and the leading animal will start eating from the calf without bothering to kill it first. Whether wolves can really be called cruel is open to debate, but for the caribou calf it’s a moot point – it’s a horrible way to die. If were a caribou, and I had the choice, give me an abattoir any day. The vegan argument is that wolves have no option – they either kill other animals or die themselves – but humans are not wolves, and we don’t need to eat animals to survive.
In fact, eating meat came relatively late in the primate line. Gorillas are vegan, chimpanzees do eat meat, but certainly not regularly, and the main foods for our tree-dwelling hominid ancestors would probably have been fruits and leaves, before climate change shrank the forests and hominids were forced into the dangerous savannas, where they had to co-operate to avoid predators and hunt game (there was a corresponding huge jump in brain size around this time). There would be absolutely no health problems for humanity if we reverted to a completely herbivorous diet – in fact there are vegan cage fighters, and they don’t come much fitter than that.
I’ve heard the argument that eating meat stunts our spiritual development, and although I understand the point, in that killing sentient beings is not usually seen as a spiritually-advanced thing to do, it’s a very difficult one to make, because humans have been eating meat for so long (actually, this might strengthen your point, as the history of humanity is the history of butchery of each other, as well as of animals). But do make your point – let’s have the debate. It’s a waste of time: a) arguing that you don’t think it’s right to eat animals, without making a good philosophical case for why you believe that, or b) walking away without arguing any case at all.
For us, the most important thing is to live sustainably, and in a way that doesn’t support the corporate sector. If you’re a vegan, but also a frequent flyer, high consumer (especially of corporate brands) and your lifestyle requires lots of resources and produces lots of waste, then we’d prefer your veganism to lapse rather than your continuing to live in a high-impact way. We’re about building a sustainable, non-corporate system, and our main focus is not veganism. We do think that veganism is a good thing however, because from an ecological point of view, humans eat too much meat. Overall though, having a small amount of meat in our diet might well be more sustainable than eating no meat at all. See here for more arguments from both sides on this.
But things change, and in the same way that we look back with horror or bemusement at witch-burning or trying to turn base metals into gold, our descendants may look back with horror when they learn that their ancestors ate meat, and consider it barbaric. However, if the only meat or fish that was consumed was produced on marginal land unsuitable for crops, or free-range on mixed smallholdings, or harvested from the wild, then any further reduction in meat-eating would require more land to grow the vegetables, grains, pulses etc. to replace it. So if that were the case, a move from there to complete veganism would be a backward step, ecologically-speaking, until and unless the human population fell significantly, so that there was plenty of land to produce those extra crops required, without encroaching on more natural habitat. As there is zero chance that humans will all go vegan in the near future, we can put this one off until we’ve solved the ecological crisis. With the world population what it is, it would be good thing for us to eat less meat, and to produce it sustainably – and this is why we support both veganism and the raising of free-range animals on organic smallholdings. In future, when (or if) we’ve learned how to live in harmony with the nature of this planet (which will probably require a lower population), then we can perhaps move towards a vegan future for humanity (or post-humanity). In the meantime, the priority has to be building a sustainable world (which in our opinion necessarily means a non-corporate world).
So, I would appeal to vegans not to abandon an organisation committed to reducing the amount of meat eaten, and stopping animals being factory-farmed. I hope I’ve made the case that it is entirely consistent to provide information on keeping free-range animals in a sustainable way in a small-scale agricultural system, as well as providing information on becoming vegetarian and/or vegan, but I’m sure you’ll let me know if you don’t think I have.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1John Harrison September 6th, 2015
In my book Low Cost Living I advocated eating less meat and had some angry comments from people. We raise chickens and eat meat – the thing is I’ve killed food animals and it makes you really value the product. It is a matter of respect to the animal that nothing is wasted. One chicken provides six meals for us and 500 grams of mincemeat fed 5 people well as a component in the meal.
I believe we are animals that are evolved to eat small amounts of meat (like chimps) and that animals are the most realistic way to produce food from very poor quality land. I too have campaigned against factory farming and for animal welfare. Yes, animals have personalities and I’ve seen cats get embarrassed at misjudging a jump – the difference is I’ve never seen a cat have sympathy for a mouse or a fox for a hen. As humans we can be and should be humane.
There are things on this web site I disagree with and, as Dave knows, we differ politically BUT the site has much of value for everyone. On my own website, allotment-garden.org, I’ve been accused of being in the pay of the chemical companies and of being ‘an organic beardy wierdy’ – so I must be doing something right.
2Matt Beaumont September 6th, 2015
I very much appreciate this well-thought out statement/argument from you Mr Darby.
I concur with John Harrison and several Facebook commenters, that it is perfectly possible and reasonable for people of varying diets to come together in their shared interests and goals of reducing meat consumption globally, eating more locally, and farming and living more sustainably in general.
Me and a group of friends are establishing an organic mixed smallhold in Spain (we got in touch over the French property), and we have members ranging from omnivores like me, to pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. I hope that this article can go someway to informing our collective approach to our “animal dilemma”. This article might even end up influencing our mission statement in some way, if the group can agree on a shared understanding and policy! ?
3Dani Austin September 7th, 2015
Really good read and overall agree with most things. As a vegan I know that lots of people eat meat so we need to try and adjust how they get that meat (and maybe convert a few over at the same time).
I had a few points I am not sure are right though….
1. (From above) “However, if the whole world became vegan now, then we’re going to need a lot more land to grow the vegetables, grains, pulses etc. to replace the meat and fish that can be produced on marginal land, that can be harvested from the wild and that can make organic smallholdings more viable”
The amount of vegetables, grains and pulses already produced to feed livestock is huge, and a lot of energy/calories is lost along the food chain (I remember that from my GCSE Biology classes). If we channel the pulses and grains being produced to feed animals for meat we would have a lot of food for the new world of vegans. Also, as much as I’d like to think a lot of meat is produced on marginal land and in smallholdings, I believe most meat in overdeveloped countries comes from intensive factory farms.
2. The comment above about other animals eating meat, and it being better to go through an abattoir than chased down in the wild.
Firstly, other animals do not have the level or comprehension/morals people have the potential for, therefore I would expect us, as the species with more moral potential, to progress past our basic animal instincts (if that is to eat meat) and actually advance in levels of compassion and compassion.
Secondly, although that caribou had a bad time of it being chased and bitten into alive, it would have been minutes/hours perhaps of it’s overall life. A life in captivity is for their whole life. This life can mean being separated from parents and offspring, being caged, being deformed, being contained, and being in an abattoir could last easily as long as the cairbou chase and involve prodding, tazing, hanging upside down, often being skinned or beginning to be gutted while still alive, and I’ve heard a lot worse than that. I think I’d take the chase.
A few quotes from articles. Unfortunately not peer reviewed scientific journals but I like to avoid those since saturation at uni.
“U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists”
“Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein, according to the Cornell ecologist’s analysis.”
“About 85 percent of the world’s soybean crop is processed into meal and vegetable oil, and virtually all of that meal is used in animal feed. Some two percent of the soybean meal is further processed into soy flours and proteins for food use… Approximately six percent of soybeans are used directly as human food, mostly in Asia.”
“Factory farms raise 99.9 percent of chickens for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle currently sold in the United States”
4Dave Darby September 7th, 2015
Organic beardy weirdy sounds like a compliment to me. Your site is great, and yes, a lot of people seem to be unnecessarily critical of their ‘side’ for the slightest mistake or disagreement.
5Dave Darby September 7th, 2015
Hi Matt, yes I remember you – glad you’re getting your smallholding. Yes, I think there is scope for collaboration between all kinds of people when it comes to challenging corporate power and trying to build a better system. That’s left and right; Muslim, Christian and atheist; hunters and vegans etc. We can argue about the details later, but if we don’t replace this system, we all lose.
6Dave Darby September 7th, 2015
I think you’re right about the first point, and I need to change the article. What I meant was that in an ideal world, with no factory farming, the only meat eaten would be a) raised on hills and marginal land no good for growing crops, b) raised free-range on mixed smallholdings, c) raised in natural habitat (e.g. pigs in woods) or d) harvested from the wild (including fish). But of course we don’t live in that world.
The second point was that animal suffering can never be eliminated from this planet unless we remove all carnivores, which would be a very bad idea, ecologically speaking. So even if humans stop eating meat, we’d have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that sentient animals were still being terrified, tortured (a loaded word – is it torture if there is no evil intention behind it? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference to the prey animal) and torn apart in agony every day, every minute, every second. The only consolation would be that humans weren’t doing it, so it would be a salve to our consciences (and maybe it would uplift us spiritually), but overall, we would still be living on a planet with lots and lots of animal suffering. So it would be more for the benefit of human development than to stop animals suffering.
But regardless of how I’d spent the rest of my life, if I were given the choice between being hunted down by wolves or a bolt in the head in an abattoir, I’d go for the abattoir every time.
7John Harrison September 7th, 2015
“…if I were given the choice between being hunted down by wolves or a bolt in the head in an abattoir, I’d go for the abattoir every time.” The masses of legislation brought in for health and safety, welfare reasons have resulted in far fewer abattoirs that are geared for the large scale producers. The poor animals are shipped for many miles and then await their fate for hours prior to entering the conveyor of death so it’s not actually that much better.
Some smallholders I’ve come across since moving to the country just ignore the regulations and take matters into their own hands. The pig doesn’t know it’s a gun so has no warning, no fear. The reason they break the law this way is out of kindness to their livestock.
8Dave Darby September 7th, 2015
True, when you factor in transport, waiting (and for an intelligent animal like a pig, they know what’s coming) and watching, it may not be much better. And who knows, so much adrenalin could kick in with a wild kill that it may act as an anaesthetic. I know that people who’ve been attacked by sharks or bears have said that there was no pain at the time, Maybe it’s nature’s anaesthetic. This supports foxhunters’ arguments, but in their case, killing wild, inedible animals for sport is too wrong to be worth debating here. Plus it’s illegal, so we don’t need to debate it.