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Debate over meat heats up




Nutrition Decision



Everyone’s arguing about meat.

The recent announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) concerning the cancer risk caused by consumption of red and processed meats has, predictably, provoked a heated debate in social and conventional media.

While this is a human health issue, ethical vegetarians and animal activists naturally welcome evidence that may contribute to lower consumption of animal flesh.  The meat industry, of course, is attacking WHO’s report as “alarmist”.  Meat lovers are expressing defiance, with many regaling media with personal anecdotes such as: “My grandpa was 102 years old when he died, and he had beef and potatoes every day.”

While the debate over how much meat is safe to eat continues, another controversy rages over the environmental impact of meat consumption.   The United Nations says that livestock are responsible for 14.5 per cent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, thus contributing more to climate change than transport. Yet, agriculture’s contribution is not on the agenda at the upcoming climate change conference in Paris, an omission that has attracted criticism. Research has shown that livestock and meat production have other negative impacts that could be alleviated by lower meat consumption.  A 2014 report  by respected think-tank Chatham House concluded: “Lower consumption of livestock products in high-consuming countries could also yield significant environmental and societal co-benefits for health, global food security, water security and biodiversity.”

For many vegetarians and vegans these are, to some degree, side issues (albeit important ones) in their decision to switch to a plant-based diet.  Philosopher Peter Singer, often described as the father of the animal rights movement, has long argued that, if it is possible to survive and be healthy without eating meat, fish, dairy or eggs, one ought to choose that option instead of causing unnecessary harm to animals.  This is about a taking a moral, compassionate position against the unnecessary suffering and slaughter of animals.

At VHS, our goal is to reduce or eliminate animal suffering wherever possible.  We have no doubt that reducing or eliminating meat consumption helps achieve that goal.  Whatever the health risks or environmental impacts of meat consumption, moving toward a plant-based diet is good for the billions of animals who face misery and death on factory farms around the world.

The good news is that it’s never been easier to move to a meat-free diet.   Peter Singer was right about being able “to survive and be healthy” without eating animal products – but now plant-based diets are just as much about pleasure as health, ethics or environmental sustainability.  The emergence of convenient and better quality meat alternatives, the increasing number of vegetarian-friendly restaurants and the explosion of online meatless recipes have all helped make plant-based diets familiar, easy and enjoyable.

So while the debates about meat, health, ethics and the environment will rage on in all their complexities, our view is quite simple: If one can eat well without cruelty or slaughter, why not?


2 replies on “Debate over meat heats up”

I share your ideal goal of a world free of animal suffering. However, how we actually get there is a factor which you don’t seem to much care about. The current economic system, including household economies worldwide is very much centred on the exploitation of life forms, animal and human. What of the people whose livehood is dependent on farm animal husbandry, processing and selling of animal-for-profit goods and services, how will their suffering be alleviated? You have a moral duty to consider that as part of the overall equation of the elimination of animal suffering. Aren’t humans also animals. And, aren’t humans perhaps the biggest victims of animal-against-animal violence? Hypocrits you are, I would dare say.

All social progress has impacts on sections of society, but that is no reason not to press for such progress. We believe there is strong evidence that reducing or eliminating meat consumption will benefit not only the animals but also the environment and human health. It’s true that people working in these industries would be affected but, as these changes are unlikely to happen overnight, there would be a long period of adjustment for the businesses involved. It is interesting to note that the meat and livestock industry is often criticized for its treatment of workers as well as animals (See: As with technical innovation, social and moral progress brings opportunities as well as challenges. Canada, for example, has a unique agricultural opportunity to become a significant producer of non-animal protein, as we describe here: If government subsidies were switched away from meat production to such new industries they could experience significant growth, thus providing economic benefits and new jobs. Change is always daunting, but when something as cruel, shameful and immoral as factory farming has become part of our society, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge it and find better ways to treat animals, the planet an ourselves.

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