Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Eating Meat Is Not Immoral (Interview with Dude2)

This is a special post where I  (Dude1) have the special privilege to interview Erik (Dude2) regarding a hot button topic.  Hopefully, you find it interesting and please feel free to voice your own opinion in the comments section.  Today's topic is the controversial subject of meat eating vs. vegetarianism.

Dude1: So let's talk meat.  I know you have something on your mind that occasionally comes up and tends to drive you a little crazy.

Dude2:  I read a rant last night about how people shouldn't eat meat and it got me thinking about what exactly is wrong with their argument.

Dude1: What was the reasoning of this particular person for why nobody should be eating meat?

Dude2: Their argument had two key points. First, they say that people don't eat other people, so why is eating other animals any different? Second, they say that meat animals are bad for the environment.  I think that's pretty representative of most of these debates.  Sometimes they throw in a nutritional angle, but that's easy to shut down if you specify humanely raised grass-fed meat. 

Dude1:  I don't understand the people don't eat other people argument.  Obviously, nature doesn't work like that.  Funny how lions don't eat other lions.

Dude2:  Yeah, the first argument is a red herring.  They are trying to cast the issue as one of superiority and "speciesism" (discrimination based on species...), when the truth of the matter is that it's an issue of ecological natural order.  Some animals eat meat, and humans are in that group.  It has nothing to do with some kind of power trip, it has to do with biology, nutrition, and digestive systems.  Conflating that with the moral issues of human society is simply a distraction.  Another issue I have with this argument is that it's trying to make an absolute moral distinction where there is none to be made.  If breeding, killing and eating animals for sustenance is immoral, why does the same rule not apply to fruits, vegetables, fungi, and microbes?  When you start talking at an ecosystem level, it is difficult to distinguish so-called "sentient" life from these other life forms -- their interrelationships are so complex that they develop a form of intelligence all their own, and it is certainly disrupted by tilling it under to grow domestic veggies.

As for the environmental part of the argument, this is a little more nuanced.  I have to agree with them that the vast majority of meat animals currently being raised in industrial society have enormous bad impact on the environment.  The grain that is raised to feed them, the antibiotic resistant pathogens that result from constant drugging, the air, soil, and water pollution that come from the concentrated herds are all detrimental.  However, this is a problem of the practice of animal husbandry, not a problem with the existence of the animals.  Animals raised correctly on pasture do not cause pollution, and they actually  improve biodiversity and sequester carbon into the soil at the same time they promote healthier soil and plant life.  They are healthy and do not require maintenance dosing of any drugs, and they generally live a life much like you would expect to see in a wild population.  So, CAFO meat is indeed bad for the environment, but pastured meat is not.

Dude1:  I often hear it being argued that if humans can survive on nothing but fruits, vegetables, and grains, then why should we be eating meat?

Dude2:  Because it's good for us, and we like it!  Humans are a part of nature, and our natural role includes the consumption of both meat and plant foods.  Besides, the burden of proof is on the people making that kind of argument because they are proposing a radical lifestyle and nutritional change.  The "why not" approach is not sufficient for them, but it is for me; i.e.  we've always eaten meat, so why shouldn't we?

Dude1:  But can you tell us why you think it might actually be important that humans eat meat?

Dude2:  I'd say that it's important that at least a significant portion of humanity continues to eat meat.  There are several reasons, but the two biggest are nutrition and ecology.  While it's certainly possible to have a complete diet based entirely on plant foods, it is more difficult and expensive to do so.  Access to meat greatly improves the likelihood of getting an appropriate amount of fats, protein, and other trace nutrients for the average person.  Additionally, good quality meat animals can be raised easily on land that would not support the type of agriculture necessary for plant-based crops of the same nutritional value.  On the ecological side of things, humanity is basically the only functional predator remaining in large areas of the world.  While I agree that this is not a good thing, it does mean that we have the responsibility to play that role appropriately or face the degradation and likely extinction of many prey animals that have co-evolved with their predators.  All life occurs in a cycle between birth, growth, death, and decay.  Participating in that cycle is not immoral, and upsetting it would likely have dire consequences.  If prey animals are not to be allowed to go extinct, then they must be part of a functioning predator prey cycle.  If it is okay for "natural" predators to eat animals, but not for humans, then the argument is basically saying that humans exist outside of nature.  I don't think that's the case, and I'm sure that the other side of this debate would agree.  In fact, the argument I read last night seemed to be saying that because humans are part of nature they must not eat meat.  My mouth was left hanging open on that one.

Dude1:  That's where I see that some environmentalists go wrong.  They define nature as the state of the earth without human interference. Therefore, they are implying that humans are not part of nature.

Dude2:  I consider myself an environmentalist, in that I do as much as I can to leave the world in better condition that it was in when I found it.  I believe that they share that goal, but in my opinion they seem to have a misunderstanding of ecology. Being part of nature means fulfilling your natural roles, and for humans that includes consumption of meat. Ironically, there are a lot of environmentalists that say there are too many people, then argue (possibly even correctly) that the only way to support more people is for everyone to be vegetarian.  That seems like it would exacerbate the problem to me...

Dude1:  Good point.  But they may be talking about supporting existing humans that are starving to dealth across the world.

Dude2:  They may be, but then if they make life supremely comfortable for everyone by providing a bountiful harvest (with or without meat), it is an absolute certainty that we would end up with even more people unless there is some serious education regarding the reasonable ecological role of the human.  Besides, the lack of hooved animals is a prime contributor to the desertification of those arid areas where people are actually starving.  Governments regulate the rangeland to limit "overgrazing" (which they have incorrectly defined), and the side effect is that the grasses and forbs that co-evolved with the ruminant animals are killed from lack of animal impact.  That's a large part of what the holistic management book is about.  Arid areas NEED meat animals in order to maintain their ecosystems.


Thanks for reading through Real Food Dudes first interview posting.  We hope you got something out of it.  We would also love to hear what you think about this issue.


  1. Great points real food dude. Can I clone you?

  2. If I could have just one wish when it comes to the ethical eating debate, it'd be that meat-eaters would quit conceding the argument that human beings can survive on nothing but plants. Because we can't. There is no indigenous vegan culture. Period. Of the traditional vegetarian cultures, all of them arose out of revealed (scripture-based) religions, not truly traditional indigenous teachings--and they are all lacto-vegetarian or ovo-lacto vegetarian. Milk and eggs are not plants. Try to live as a vegan without industrial food supplements and you will die of nutrient deficiency--and possibly more than one.

    Here is what you cannot get on a plants-only diet:

    vitamin D3 (not everyone can get enough sun either)
    vitamin K2, analog mk-4 (the most bioavailable K)
    preformed vitamin A (not everyone can convert beta carotene)
    vitamin B12
    long-chain saturated fatty acids (good luck keeping your gallbladder healthy)

    It's also more difficult to get all the essential amino acids without also getting a huge load of carbs, AND it's difficult to get bioavailable minerals. I have talked to people who tried being vegetarian and wound up anemic because they needed more heme iron in their diets. I was going through my vegan experimentation phase and ignored them--then I experienced a vitamin A shortage later that also hurt my daughter.

    Don't concede this thing. It's WRONG. We can NOT do without animal foods in the diet. Even the arboreal theory of primate evolution says we became primates in the tree canopy--what foods are available in a tree canopy? Leaves... fruit... and BUGS. Bugs are meat. Every primate eats them--even us, if you look at indigenous cuisine anywhere that insects are an available food source. And our GI tracts are too short to support the size of brain we have on an all-plants diet, too. Which would be why average brain size has shrunk in those human societies that have adopted agriculture.

    1. You're taking this far to literally. I took it as a given that drinking protein drinks and stuff was not in any way against the rules. They aren't being super specific because it shouldn't be necessary.

  3. "While it's certainly possible to have a complete diet based entirely on plant foods, it is more difficult and expensive to do so. Access to meat greatly improves the likelihood of getting an appropriate amount of fats, protein, and other trace nutrients for the average person. "

    The issue with this part of your argument is twofold: firstly, one of the reasons meat is so "cheap" is that the cattle industry is heavily subsidized by the government. The "real" price of a McDonald's hamburger is nor 99 cents. It is considerably more, but the difference is made up by the taxpayer. If organic vegetables were subsidized at the same rate, we could get 59 cent McBoca Burgers and your point would fall flat. So the price argument isn't entirely accurate.

    But it does lead to the second (and more important) point, which is: the reason it is so cheap and that you "[improve] the likelihood of getting an appropriate amount of fats, protein, and other trace nutrients for the average person." is because you are getting meat to the "average person" by means of CAFO/Agribusiness, something you concede is a net negative.

    Only a tiny fraction of beef is open pasture/grass-fed/organic, and this beef is much more expensive. Therefore the "good" beef goes only to the tiny percent of the population that is well above "average" in terms of income. Just mathematically speaking, the "average" person you are describing is per force getting his meat from the CAFO people. So while you are denigrating industrial beef on one hand, you are subtly endorsing it on the other hand. This is a core flaw in your argument.

    I used to love all sorts of beef products before I became raw (and mostly vegan), and while I would love to see the world more vegan than it is, I would be much more accepting of the omnivorous diet if all of the animals were grown in the way you suggest and slaughtered humanely. But there does not yet exist an economic model by which we can have the quantity at the right price to provide grass-fed to the billions of beefeaters that will share the globe over the next decades. Therefore more industrial beef is going to be the standard.

    Your point about humans being responsible "predators" fails along similar lines: There is a tiny minority of the (US) population that gets its meat solely from hunting. Many vegans give these folks a pass, and for the sake of argument (and because the numbers are miniscule), I will too.

    But basically we are only predators of cows, chickens, and pigs because we breed them deliberately to slaughter them. This is not predatorship in the ecological sense you are describing, i.e. natural population control/balancing. It is farming, and is therefore something that can be controlled. So we could simply "grow" fewer cows and then kill fewer of them. We have total control over the numbers- they're not like deer that breed on their own in the wilderness where there are no wolves to control them. We are in total control of the cattle supply, and so unless we are talking about hunting wild game (or hitting them with our cars), we are not fulfilling any role as "responsible predators."


  4. (cont'd)

    Anyway, there are a lot of horrible a (and exasperating) pro-vegan arguments, but that doesn't automatically make the anti-vegan arguments valid. We don't get too deeply into the humanitarian issues of meat slaughter in this piece, but they also fit snuggly in with the anti-industrial meat argument (whose validity you fail to repudiate given the mathematical inconsistencies in your argument). I am not a loud/angry vegan, but many of those who are would be much quieter if animals were all slaughtered in the Halal style and raised humanely. But there's no way to get there given the economic rationales you site.

    My argument for veganism - and raw veganism specifically - is that you feel better, look hotter, live without fear of disease, and save money on doctors. . .did I mention looking hotter? :)

    These are major incentivising forces that don't have anything to do with animals or their welfare- they are purely self-interested motives, and that is the language of economics. If you want to change the demand for chemical-cow meat, then people need to experience the tangible benefits of long term abstention. In the long run, that's the only thing that will work in America to convert "cheap," subsidized meat to the expensive stuff you're boosting in this article. Unfortunately medical industry subsidies soften the consequences of our bad diet choices, and so a larger cultural shift is required for the majority of people even to consider serious dietary change as part of their health regime. Alas. . .

  5. @ D-Blog - "Look better" ? - Are you kidding? So not true.

  6. I get sooo tired of having the vegan argument with, um, an unnamed relative who think I am poisoning my kids. Thanks for putting this out there. I cam over from Real Food Weds and so happy I did.

  7. D-Blog: Thank you for the well-argued response. I appreciate a civil debate, and they are rare on the Internet.

    Getting to the core of the matter though, I have to remind you that my argument says nothing about the *quantity* of meat that is to be consumed, only that it is not immoral to consume meat in and of itself. Personally, I believe that plant-based foods do need a larger representation in nearly everyone's diet for their numerous nutritional and health benefits, so we have no quarrel there. As to the price argument, if the subsidy structure were removed (and the relevant taxes repealed), the economics of corn and pasture are competitive. Argentina primarily uses the pasture model, and I believe Brazil and many other countries do as well. It works quite well for them. In fact, Argentinians are famous for the enormous quantities of beef they consume (65 kilos per year, per person, according to wikipedia). There is nothing magical about this, it's just a matter of switching models of production.

    The argument I wish to make is that it is not only possible, but beneficial to raise animals for meat. I don't wish to require everyone to eat meat, or to say that you must eat a lot of it, or even to argue explicitly *against* veganism. As far as I'm concerned, people can eat what they want and it's none of my business. I only wish to respond to the charge that many vegans/vegetarians make that eating meat is somehow evil. I am strongly opposed to the inhumane living conditions present in CAFO operations, and to the industrial corn infrastructure that exists to support them. For that reason, I buy and produce only meat that is raised under humane conditions on the appropriate forage for the species. The fact that feedlots are heavily subsidized with my own money via taxation truly lights a fire under me. That still does not make an argument for abstention though, only for responsible consumption.

    Your argument about the cheapness of meat being a result of factory production carries water, but only under the assumption that meat must be both centrally produced and the primary source of nutrition, as is currently the case. It is possible to raise chickens, rabbits, and even sheep on a suburban lot in sufficient numbers to meet a family's actual needs for meat. This is much less work than maintaining the average garden, and you can get fats, vitamins, and proteins directly from your own grass that would require exotic plant sources that are difficult to produce in many regions. Animals are much more tolerant of difficult climates, vagaries in weather, and insect pests than are gardens. Animals eat weeds rather than succumb to them. These properties mean that animals can be raised in places and under conditions that prohibit vegetable production. If you consider the highway frontages, medians, public parks, large open grassy fields, and other areas that currently must be mowed just to keep them from being eyesores, there is an enormous untapped resource for the cheap production of meat even within cities. These areas could theoretically be used for vegetable production, but it would require a much larger investment of labor and equipment to deal with weeds, watering, tilling, fertilizing, harvesting and other problems that don't apply to animal production. This approach is already in use, and I expect it to gain steam as people become more educated about the horrid conditions of concentrated animal lots.

    As to your point about being "hotter," I have to call shenanigans. A person's level of "hotness" is a direct result of lifestyle and genetics. Diet is only one component of lifestyle, and it is possible to be unhealthy no matter what diet you consume. It is also possible (with the right genetics) to be healthy on a terrible diet. For most people, a well balanced diet is necessary but not sufficient to ensure health (and hence attractiveness), and it is clearly possible to achieve such a diet without abstaining from meat.

  8. @Dana: Thank you for that information. I'm basing my statement on information offered by some of my vegetarian/vegan friends, and on the simple observation that there seem to be many healthy vegetarians. I have to confess that I haven't really studied vegetarian diets because they haven't been terribly interesting to me. I would love to learn more -- do you have some references I could use to improve my understanding? I'm particularly interested in the brain size portion of your comment.

  9. Erik -

    ...just one of many articles from the Weston A Price Foundation that explains the basics of nutrition based on our biological makeup. It's generally about cancer but touches on a wide range of topics. Quote pull that relates to Dana's comment:

    "Remember that the herbivorous animals literally must eat all day to extract nutrients from grass, leaves and seeds. You, as the predator human, can get concentrated fats and protein from the herbivores, and you need only a short digestive system to get all you need to develop a healthy body and a healthier more robust brain to talk, think and create. You don’t have to eat all day long. When you revert to a more “gorilla-ish” way of life, you increase the number of times you have to eat, increase the size of your digestive apparatus, and shrink your brain, which is exactly what has happened to us over the last ten thousand years."

  10. @Erik

    I'll in turn thank you for the thoughtful response, and yes, it is a rarity in the wild west that is the typical blogosphere comments section to find a civil debate.

    I will say that if you want to pull subsidies for agribusiness (and so many other sectors), you will find no greater supporter than me. The market distortions are unbelievably destructive, and they make ideas such as private-property livestock raising almost impossible.

    The vast majority of Americans make economic considerations central to most of their purchases- particularly in regards to food. So the incentive of cheap, "sanitized" meat, where you don't have to feed and/or kill Mrs. Wiggles is very hard to pass up. If I recall, for most parts of the world 30-40% of a family's budget goes to food. In the US, it's something like 10%. From a macroeconomic perspective, we tend to look at this as a good thing (and it certainly is a boon for the pharmaceutical sector), but it enshrines the cultural norm of agribusiness to a depressing degree, and factory slaughterhouses are a central part of that formula.

    In terms of the "quantity" of meat people consume, I'm not sure that I meant how much meat an individual should eat during the day but the quantity of Americans out there (in the 100s of millions) who will per force be eating factory farmed animals because that's what they can afford.

    So as long as there's a lower-middle class in America (and there is!), and as long as they are not vegetarians/vegans, the "quantity" of animals being raised and slaughtered in these torture facilities will remain extremely high, no matter the serving size of each individual consumer. It's a horror show, and one that has no end as far down the horizon as i can look.

    So my point is: cheap subsidized meat = more meat "production" and the crowding out of backyard style farms. For me, I think backyard farming is a lovely idea. I also happen to live in New York City and occasionally in Los Angeles, and at least in NYC, there is exactly 0% chance of this notion becoming popular. Even the wealthiest among us here don't have back yards, and the oppressive regulatory regime in the City (that until recently forbade beekeeping) would make significant numbers of urban famers a virtual impossibility.

    Also, the larger culture in America - while there is a hearty Thoreau-ian strain - is more or less opposed to doing agricultural labor. As cool of an idea as the backyard chicken house is, I remain deeply skeptical that it would take off. Indeed, most of the lower-middle class which is upwardly mobile are anxious to get away from the kind of land-based life that their parents and grandparents led in the old country - or even as migrating workers in this one. The memories of privation and distress are not far from our ancestral minds, and part of the American "dream" is to ascend the ladder out of needing to perform that kind of labor. Funnily, it is only the 3rd or 4th generation that turn into back-to-the-landers and wish to recapture a more natural lifestyle. But their numbers are tiny relative to those that will always consume industry beef.


  11. (cont'd and @Anonymous)

    As to the comment about being hot- that was a joke, something lost on Anonymous as well. I happen to feel that healthy raw foodists tend to be a lot more attractive than "healthy" other people. And I don't actually concede that you can really be that healthy if your body is a toxic waste dump. You may not degrade at the same rate, and your outward appearance may disguise the inner poisons, but you will still by stagnant and "deathly" in a way that live foodists (excepting the many, many neurotic ones who do little for our public reputation) are not.

    This is a longer debate, and unfortunately, as I said, there are too many "raw foodists" who are simply just crazy and turn off much of the larger public to the movement. The same, of course, is true of many vegans - particularly political vegans - who may yet win one or two vegan "converts" amongst their friends, but who will alienate thousands in the general public either by political stunts or by haughty condescension. These vegans do themselves - and the animals they supposedly love - much more harm than good, and unfortunately, many raw foodists have the same negative effect on their movement.

    So the reason I brought up good looks (in a long list of other positive attributes, btw) is because it markets towards people's self-interest, which, as we can see re: beef prices is a huge motivating factor in Americans' behavior choices. Telling people they "should" so something almost guarantees they won't do it. Telling people it's "good for them" after a lifetime of nannying from parents/state/teachers/doctors/experts will have little better effect. Telling people they will save money, age less, and yes, be hotter is something that will perk up the ears of many, many Americans, particularly women approaching a certain age (or not even). Not surprisingly, those women make up a significant population in the raw food community, and as tacky as it can sometimes be, for the sake of my movement (and yes, the animals), I prefer a motivation that at least will work, rather than one that I know will not. So that was the purpose of writing that glib line above.

    Anyway, thank you for the read. Your notions are well taken, although I think the low level of pro-vegan argument is the real culprit here. It is what motivates people to justify non-vegan positions so forcefully. I appreciate your concessions that you would just have people eat what they want. I basically share that idea, and I actually believe that if farms and doctors weren't subsidized at their incredible rate, people would naturally gravitate to a raw food-like diet with minimal variation including some raw dairy, and even some raw meat. But in the current climate, making that transition requires an uphill struggle that most people are frankly too sick and poisoned to undertake. It's a bummer, so I keep focusing on my own health and bring along as many "converts" as I can without alienating people whose "conversions" just might take a little longer.

    All best to you, "Dude."

  12. D-Blog: Removing all subsidies from everything would be fantastic! As a matter of fact, that is a large part of the reason for me writing for this blog -- I want to show people how to make a positive difference in the world without resorting to politics, regulation, and other meddling, which I believe are always ultimately destructive. I used to think those approaches would work, but ultimately I concluded that it was a cultural issue, and that you can't (and shouldn't try to) change culture from the top. So, my goal is to show how easy and rewarding real food is so that more people feel it's accessible and give it a shot. I'm not picky about who does it or what "version" of real food they subscribe to, so long as some people do it -- the more people that come on board, the more market share this type of food will gain, and the more marginalized the industrial production system will become. In the process, relationships between neighbors and within communities will be strengthened, and people in general will find themselves healthier, happier, and more independent. It may take generations for the change to happen, but I feel that it's actually inevitable (doesn't stop me from pushing though...).

    The positive things you bring up in relation to vegetarianism are the same qualities I associate with a real food diet. In fact, I would probably say that vegetarian diets are a kind of subset of real food -- what I consider real food is basically what you'd call a balanced vegetarian diet with the addition of real meat (humanely raised, etc.) and the removal of any GMOs and unsustainable crops and practices. Based on our discussion, I'd say that our goals are nearly the same, and as such I'll wish you the best of luck bringing as many people as possible into your version of the real food camp, and I'll keep working on mine.

  13. @Erik

    It's a beautiful vision, and I support you 100%. My hunch is that there are many, many vegans (of the condescending/annoying variety) who would actually agree with you too. I think the old test: If you're willing to kill it yourself, you should be free to eat it stands even with some of the more radical vegans. So I guess I'm looking to build allies, because, as we are discovering, our visions aren't that far apart. Rifts and cliques within the community are helpful to develop different aspects of the work, but when they become too antagonistic to one another, there is usually some misunderstanding or a loss of a sense of the big picture- and that leads us over the edge and weakens our position vis a vis mainstream food production.

    Anyway, glad to clarify all of this, and I appreciate the thoughtful responses. Will look forward to keeping up with the blog in future. . .

    All best,

  14. Great discussion here. I, personally, was a vegetarian (not vegan) for 15 years primarily because I love animals. In my 30's, I found myself anemic, hypothyroid, and B-12 deficient. I blame dairy and gluten for part of this, but often wonder if I wouldn't have gotten so depleted if meat were in my diet. Meat has definitely been a necessary part of my healing and recovery. I am diligent about making sure any meat I purchase was humanely raised.

  15. Interesting conversation. I grew up as one of the small percentage that got most of our meat from hunting. I was a vegetarian for five years and that was always the one concession I would make for eating meat since I knew the animals were hunted according to regulation and killed humanely.

    I am not a vegetarian now but when I went back to eating meat I decided I needed to realize where all my meat was coming from. It's much tougher to visualize that you are eating a big eyed cow or Babe's cousin. I think that if we can make changes to society to bring us back in contact with our food instead of gazing at pork chops sealed in plastic and Styrofoam then we will see the demand for humanely raised animals.

    I made the switch last year to buying non-factory farmed meats and I have discovered new and different ways to stretch the meat we do still eat. When we eat chicken, we use every part of the bird. I substitute more vegetables and less meat in things like tacos or even meatballs. I know that a creature died for what I'm eating and we can at least do it the respect of not wasting it.

  16. The sooner, the vegetarian community realise, meat will do them good the better. Oh well, they're loss.

    1. The point of said community is to exclude meat for the diets EVEN THOUGH it doesn't do them good. That's the point. It's a sacrifice, but, in my opinion, is more morally correct.

  17. D-Blog: I am curious about your diet and lifestyle. You sound like you are thriving on it, so I am wondering more about what specific foods are staples for you, and what your daily activities are.

    I also find interesting your argument that cultural changes must be economical and attractive to the public, but I can't really follow that argument to the same logical end you do. You seem to be suggesting that if all (or at least many more) people adopted a raw-vegan diet, then other large cultural and structural shifts (such as disparities in wealth, aversion to land based labor, population distribution, town/city organization/infrastructure, percentage of income allotted to food budget, etc.) would be unnecessary. Have I interpreted you incorrectly, or do you really feel this is the case?

    Finally, I'm hearing in your argument the suggestion that meat and animal foods are "poisons", or at least always produce poisons in the body when they are consumed. I don't really agree with this perspective. As some comments have already noted, animal foods can be a valuable source of certain essential nutrients and make up an important part of a healthy diet for some individuals. Nutrition is a very complicated subject, and when it comes down to it, all we can really do is eat what makes us feel good. I just want to say that, in my personal observation, a lot of people feel better when they include animal foods in their diets than when they exclude them.

    Many thanks for continuing a long-standing and always interesting debate!