Why does our list of topics include vegetarianism, veganism AND keeping animals?

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Posted Sep 6 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
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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.