Killing sacred cows

Vegetarians and vegans have taken the moral high ground, but think again - in a fossil-fuel challenged world, animals need to be part of the food chain.

Meat-eating in Green circles is considered rude, and cruel. The received wisdom is that one can’t credibly plug animal welfare and the environment while trashing them. I was, for many years, convinced of the utter rightness and unassailable logic of being vegetarian and, more briefly, vegan. But all three options are, in their different ways, equally indefensible. In a fossil-fuel challenged world, animals – dead animals – can help.

Earth is small and crowded. Meat production is inefficient. Some oft-cited statistics relate to the fact that virtually all American meat – beef, as well as pork and poultry – is grain-fed. The 13 lbs of grain that it takes to produce 1 lb of beef comes out of people's mouths. The position is not that different when animals are grass-fed: an acre of crop land can feed 10 times as many people as much protein and as many calories as an acre used for beef.

China and others are on the move, wanting a slice of our middle-class lifestyle. There’s insufficient arable land worldwide to support the developed world’s level of protein consumption by nations as populous as China. Certainly, there’s insufficient land to support it in an ethically defensible way; factory farming may be humanitarian, but its clearly inhumane.

If we each had to wield the knife, there’s no question fewer creatures would die. Modern food production has made it all too easy. We as a species would not have survived without eating animals and using their byproducts (wool, fur, leather, tallow, etc), but the present reality is one of gastronomic preference, not need.

Many animals have rather more cognitive ability than some human “marginal cases” (eg, newborn babies, dementia sufferers, the severely mentally impaired). We accord the latter “human” rights, but will not do the same for animals. Peter Singer (renowned animal rights philosopher and vegan) and others have called this species-ism, analogous to racism and sexism, which in time will be equally reviled.

It can be hard to pin down whether ethical concerns are directed at animal killing (the “meat is murder” school of thought) or animal suffering.

If it is animal suffering, vegetarianism, you might think, is defensible. Cruelty-free milk and egg harvesting troubles the animals little. But if animal suffering is your concern, and if slaughter can be achieved humanely at the end of a happy natural life (a big “if”), then vegetarianism offers little advance on eating meat.

If the killing troubles you, both the dairy and egg industries still leave blood on your hands. Virtually all the little males, chickens and bobby calves, are surplus to requirements. Standard layer hen feed includes animal fats and blood and bone. Hens are not natural vegetarians.

Dairy production is one of the worst culprits for environmental pollution and inefficient land use, sometimes worse than meat. Sheep and beef cattle can utilise marginal land that would not support other crops; we have lots of such land in New Zealand. Yields can be multiplied by running poultry or sheep under fruit. Dairy cattle take prime land or, increasingly, unsuitable land heavily irrigated.

In short, vegetarianism is a steep and slippery slope, not, as it first appears, defensible middle ground.

Vegans pay a high price to address the above anxieties; a futile price I think. The anomalies are no fewer, just different.

The rice and soy products and, often, vitamin supplements that feature in a vegan diet are industrialised food: factory-made, bound together and made edible (though not appetising) by a list of additives. It cuts both ways, of course. You can call it, pejoratively, an industrialised diet. Or you can argue it's a progressive diet, using technology for the positive purpose of living in a more ethical way. But there is an incongruity between eating low on the food chain, and choosing other products – no wool jerseys or leather shoes in a vegan world – from a long industrial one.

Creatures do die, to support a vegetable dinner. Some are pests; others collateral damage. Soil is dead things. A decent soil structure is supported by animal by-products like manure and blood and bone – or, less sustainably, fossil fuel-based fertiliser. Veganism is best defended in the pristine environs of the supermarket, buying the tofu ready-prepared and plastic-wrapped.

Singer is a hard man to argue with, but he doesn’t always get it right. Responding to the proposition that farm animals, bred for purpose, suit captivity, Singer notes that meat animals are culled relatively young:

They might have lived several more years … years in which they matured, experienced sexual intercourse, and, if they were females, cared for their children.”

He’s thinking in human terms: the ambitions and aspirations that are part and parcel of human being. Anthropomorphism, in other words – species-ism, surely, in another guise.

Similarly, for vegans who keep pets, purchasing dog roll, jellimeat and the like indirectly supports both factory farming and the meat industry. In response to this difficulty, some people require their dogs and cats to become vegetarian.

There are undoubtedly vegans who don’t test the logical limits I’ve described. Equally, there are people who eat some meat, sometimes, without pillaging the earth. All of which suggests a middle way: Choose meat, milk and eggs wisely; use them and their byproducts well.