When I first moved to Canada in 2010, it didn’t take me long to realize that vegetarianism was a big thing here, certainly more than in Colombia. Most restaurants have clear indications of a wide-range of dishes that do not contain meat or animal products, not to mention the numerous restaurants that specialized in vegetarian cuisine. The residence were I was staying, had many options for vegetarians in its meal plan. Similarly, of the dozens of people I met, a surprisingly large fraction of them were excluding meat from their diets. At the time, this struck me as something unique to Canada, but I understand now that the shift away from animal products is actually a global trend, specially in the developed world.
As a scientist, my instinctive reaction to this phenomenon was genuine curiosity. Why are all these people not eating meat? Embarrassingly, I did not have an answer to that question, so I started to investigate. This is a general strategy of mine: Whenever I am faced with an important question whose answer will have a direct impact on my life, I make an honest effort to research the topic and think about it as objectively as possible. See this post for an example. Only through unbiased inquiry can you unravel truths that your instincts and prejudices would have prevented you from discovering.
What did my investigations lead me to? To the truth: Eating meat is really bad for your health, it is terrible for the environment, and it is specially horrific for the animals we farm and kill for food. This is an ugly, inconvenient, and harsh truth, but it is the truth nonetheless.
To make this point clearer, here are a few facts about eating meat. Unless otherwise stated, they are taken from the meticulously researched book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer:
– In the United States, 83% of all chicken meat (including organic and antibiotic free brands) is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase. This is a major cause of food-borne illnesses.
– 76 million Americans become ill from their food annually, mostly due to animal products.
– In the United States, about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but at least 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock.
– One-third of the land surface of the planet is dedicated to livestock.
– Farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times more waste than the human populations, roughly 87,000 pounds of manure per second.
– The UN special envoy on food called it a “crime against humanity” to funnel 100 million tons of grain and corn to ethanol while almost a billion people are starving. But animal agriculture uses 756 million tons of grain and corn per year, not to mention the fact that 98% of the 225 million tonnes of globally produced soy crop is fed to farm animals.
– Per weight, raising beef requires about one hundred times more water than most vegetables.
– American farmers are four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
– Slaughterhouse workers have the highest injury rate of any job, 27% annually.
– The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that current production levels of meat contribute between 14 and 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of “CO2-equivalent” greenhouse gases the world produces every year. This is more than the whole of the transportation industry combined. (Reference: Scientific American)
– There are at least 40 different diseases that can be transferred from animal waste to humans. (Reference: Rolling Stone)
– Yearly slaughter numbers for the United States: 9 billion broiler chickens, 113 million pigs, 33 million cows, 250 million turkeys. (Reference: Rolling Stone)
– The majority of the mass of land mammals on the planet is taken up by our livestock and pets. (Reference: xkcd)
– Reducing the consumption of farmed animals will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.
If you are skeptical of the facts I have listed, I invite you to check the links I have provided and the references therein. As far as I can tell after examination and cross-checking, the numbers I have provided are accurate. Most of the data refers to the United States, but there is very little reason to think that the situation is significantly different anywhere else in the world where meat is easily affordable.
Do you know what I asked myself after learning this information? What do I do now? I didn’t want to stop eating meat — meat was an essential part of my diet! Also, I knew that vegetarianism can be a huge inconvenience, specially when travelling, because very often there are either limited or no vegetarian options available. Moreover, completely cutting meat out from my diet would mean missing out from special moments that I enjoy with my friends and family. For example, the favourite restaurant of my partner’s parents is “Le Relais de Venise“, which serves a single main dish: steak frites. We have a tradition of going there for special occasions, like when we visit them in Paris. If I stopped eating meat, I would never go there again.
So I was faced with the following fundamental dilemma:
I understand that the problems with eating meat are severe and undeniable but, at the same time, I love eating meat and it would be a great inconvenience for me to never do it again. What should I do?
I have seen essentially two answers to this question: denial and vegetarianism. People that opt for denial are those who choose to ignore the awful truth about eating meat and continue with their lives in exactly the same way as before. For them, it is just not worthwhile to give up chicken, pork, and beef, so they don’t do it, regardless of the consequences. They toss the facts to the bin and make an effort to ignore them in the future. Since the food industry is a specialist of hiding all these problems, these people have an easy time forgetting that there are any issues at all. Denial is, after all, a very natural reaction when faced with facts that are hard to assimilate.
Alternatively, people will find a way to rationalize their decision to not make any changes to their diet. They will say things like: “But meat is so delicious!”, or: “I buy my meat in Whole Foods so it’s OK”, or even: “Those things you are saying only apply to fast food chains like KFC and McDonald’s, which I don’t go to anyway”. I don’t believe they do this because they do not care about animals, their health or the environment, but because it is the only way of feeling good about eating meat: fool yourself into thinking there is nothing wrong with it.
The vegetarians take the other extreme position — they make a conscious decision to never eat meat again. Some of them continue being vegetarians for the rest of their lives, while many others go back to eating meat at some point in the future. For them, the decision is clear: eating meat is a terrible thing, therefore I should not ever do it. In fact, it seems that unless we pretend that the problems aren’t there, vegetarianism is the only ethical choice. After all, what moral justification can we provide to eating meat even, in small quantities, when every time we do so we are contributing to major problem? Thus, it really appears to be that our only choices are vegetarianism or denial, nothing else. In fact, I believe this is how the dilemma is most often presented to people: Are you going to become a vegetarian or not?
The problem with this line of thinking is that it makes for an extremely ineffective strategy. Morally, I agree with the vegetarians — we should stop eating meat as long as it causes all these horrible problems. But at the same time, I cannot deny that when faced with vegetarianism as the only possibility, the vast majority of people, myself included, will not go down that road — we have too much to lose. This results in a situation in which the efforts everyone who is trying to raise awareness on this issue lead only to converting a small percentage of the population into vegetarians. I think this is an atrociously ineffective way of helping ourselves, our environment, and the billions of animals suffering in factory farms. It is utterly ineffective.
If the goal is to reduce meat consumption, it is more effective to make an effort to eat as little meat as possible. If you want to be a vegetarian, awesome. If you are only going to eat meat during the holidays when you visit your grandma, that’s OK too. If your local cafeteria doesn’t offer good vegetarian options, so you will eat meat there but nowhere else, that’s fine. If you love meat too much, but will make an effort to cut your consumption by 50% (and save money in the process), that’s a great.
The reason that this is a more effective strategy boils down to a simple inequality. Suppose that when people are presented with the truth about eating meat, X% of them will decide to become vegetarians. Alternatively, suppose that on average, each person will reduce their meat consumption by Y%. Then as long as Y>X, it is a better strategy to encourage people to eat as little meat as possible than to encourage them to become vegetarians.
From experience, I would estimate that no more than 10% of people will become vegetarians, even after being strongly persuaded with hard facts. On the other hand, let’s consider a conservative scenario in which the average person changes only three meals per week to dishes without meat. If the person has 21 meals per week, those three meals constitute a 14% reduction in meat consumption. My actual guess is that most people will easily go much higher than that, basically eating meat only on special occasions or when it is otherwise too inconvenient for them. My estimate is that, after being persuaded by evidence, people will reduce their consumption of meat by at least 30%. Graham Hill, who encourages people to become ‘weekday vegetarians’ in his 5 min TED-talk, appears to be largely motivated by the same premise: asking people to eat as little meat as possible is a more effective way of making a positive change in the world.
Notice how this black or white picture that is often painted with respect to meat consumption is not present in other issues. For example, when we learn about climate change, we don’t encourage others to never again use fossil fuels. We don’t offer a binary choice, we expect people to try to minimize their carbon footprint. Both climate change and meat-eating are situations where an argument could be made that an absolute minimization is the best scenario: No fossil fuels, no meat. The reason we don’t insist on a complete eradication is that we understand the drawbacks of never using fossil fuels again. All I am saying we should do the same with respect to meat.
Personally, I have done an immense effort to reduce the amount of meat I eat to an absolute minimum. Aleks, my partner, and I never buy meat beef, pork or chicken in our groceries, with the exception of salami that she can’t resist using on pizzas and calzones. We occasionally buy salmon and even more rarely, shrimp. Outside of home, I will buy meat whenever there are no good vegetarian alternatives, or when the people around me want to go to a place were there are no vegetarian options. Every now and then, I confess that I give into temptation and order a meal with meat, even with a delicious vegetarian dish on the menu. Overall, it has been surprisingly easy for me to greatly reduce the amount of meat I consume — I always eat things that I love and I completely avoid going through difficulties.
Along the way, I have learnt many valuable things. First, I have realized that most of the time, the meat in a dish is either of bad quality or the flavour of the meat is dominated by the taste of all the other ingredients. For both of these cases, which constitute most meals I was previously having, removing the meat altogether or replacing it with a vegetarian alternative is an almost unnoticeable change. This is true for example in most of Italian, Indian and Mexican food. Second, I have learnt that some vegetarian alternatives are even better than the meat ones! For example, Aleks and I both prefer veggie ground beef, veggie burger patties, and veggie chicken nuggets to their meat counterparts. They are delicious, easy to cook and cheaper! Finally, I have noticed that my health has improved significantly because of this change in my diet.
Since I set myself the goal of eating as little meat as possible, I have reduced my meat consumption by around 90% compared to five years ago when I was living in Colombia. For very little effort, my life has improved immensely, and I have the great satisfaction that I am doing something significant to help our planet and to end the unnecessary and horrendous suffering of animals in factory farms around the world.
So here is my final advice to you: Try your best to eat as little meat as you can. Your body will thank you for it. Planet Earth will thank you for it. The suffering animals will thank you for it. You won’t regret it.
The featured image comes from the Instagram feed of Esther the Wonder Pig. It’s a beautiful example of humans and animals coexisting in harmony.