Vegetarianism: A Bioethical Imperative

The singularly most damaging environmental footprint upon this planet is caused by our collectively costly and damaging appetite for meat. Some 3.2 billion cattle, sheep and goats are now being raised for human consumption, along with billions more pigs and poultry. These extensively and intensively farmed animals produce less food for us than they consume, and compete with us for water. Their numbers and appetites result in an increasing loss wildlife and habitat, and of good farmlands and grazing lands. Linked with deforestation, loss of wetlands, over-fishing and ocean pollution, our appetite for meat is the number one cause of global warming/climate change.

We can no longer continue to regard meat and other sources of animal protein as a dietary staple because of the enormous costs and harmful consequences of such a diet. Vegetarianism is an enlightened choice, and all people should at least become ‘conscientious omnivores,’ treating food of animal origin more as a condiment than a staple. According to The Economist, (Dec. 2nd 2006, p. 88), over 50 billion animals are killed for food every year, which comes to almost 100,000 a minute 247. In the past 40 year meat consumption per person has risen from 56 kg to 89 in Europe, from 89 kg to 124 in America, and from 4 kg to 54 in China, in spite of the nutritionally inefficient conversion of grass or grain to meat, some 10 kg of feed being needed to produce 1 kg of meat.

It is surely a bioethical imperative not to kill animals for their flesh when no less nutritious foods of plant origin are readily available, more affordable, and more sustainably produced. Ironically, the shift toward ‘improved’ animal-based diets correlates with increased incidence of so called Western diseases in developing countries, and with an increasingly dysfunctional, unhealthy environment.

These correlations support the karmic truism that when we harm others—animals and the natural environment—we harm ourselves. Hence obedience to the Golden Rule—of treating others as we would have them treat us, is enlightened self interest. This core bioethical principle is embraced by the animal rights and environmental/deep ecology movements that have been demonized by antidisestablishmentarians who have succeeded with the Bush administration to have both movements seen as potential terrorist organizations under the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002. Homeland Security and the protection of vested interests are one and the same, the continued, economically justified exploitation and suffering of animals, and environmental desecration, being protected under the law. U.S. animal industries have gained additional protection with the so- called Animal Enterprise Protection and Food Disparagement Acts that criminalizes certain conduct aimed against companies engaged in animal production, research and testing.

The economy of the Western industrial consumerist paradigm is non-sustainable, and because of its global reach, is wreaking global havoc, as predicted by Jared Diamond (1) and many other visionaries and critics of these times. For instance, much livestock feed is imported by the multinational food industry oligopolists from the impoverished third world, thus contributing to mass malnutrition in poorer countries. This problem is compounded by what is called ‘dumping’ of surplus, heavily subsidized, animal and other agricultural products/commodities on the third world, from chicken legs and powdered milk, to corn and wheat, often under the guise of emergency food aid. This only serves to enrich a corrupt few, and undermines the economic viability of indigenous farmers and once sustainable rural communities. So, we can no longer continue to regard meat and other sources of animal protein as a dietary staple because of the enormous costs and harmful consequences of such a diet.

CHANGING ENVIRONMENT, CHANGING OUR WAYS

A report (2) on our global impact on the environment, climate, wildlife and biodiversity in producing food for ourselves shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world.

Vegetarianism is an enlightened choice, and all people should at least become ‘conscientious omnivores,’ treating food of animal origin more as a condiment than as a dietary staple. At one time, when our numbers were few, the killing of wild animals for food and raw materials was ecologically sustainable and bioethically acceptable. This ‘Paleolithic’ diet was natural, and our ancestors had no other choice in most wild places they inhabited. But such a diet today, and the raising of animals just for their meat, is non-sustainable; it is bad for the planet, bad for animals wild and domesticated, and bad for the health of those who can still afford a high meat diet. For a sedentary, affluent sector to have to forcibly exercise and then take various drugs to treat the consequences of a meat-based diet is absurd and hypocritical, for indeed, as Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The cattle of the rich steal from the poor.’ Poor and rich alike could be better nourished and enjoy healthier and longer lives by becoming vegans, lacto-ovo- vegetarians or conscientious omnivores, more mindful of what they eat, and knowing how to cook nutritious meals themselves and families, a subject yet to be taught in most schools and colleges, and adopted by hospitals and other food-providing institutions and agencies.

  1. Diamond, J., ‘Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed.’ New York, Penguin Books, 2005.
  2. J.Poore et al Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 01 Jun 2018: Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 987-992 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216

Addendum

EATING RIGHT FOR HEALTH’S SAKE & FOR ANIMALS AND PLANET EARTH

Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems Published: January 16, 2019

Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability, however our current trajectories threaten both. The EAT–Lancet Commission addresses the need to feed a growing global population a healthy diet while also defining sustainable food systems that will minimize damage to our planet.

The Commission quantitively describes a universal healthy reference diet, based on an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts), and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar, and refined grains) that would provide major health benefits, and also increase the likelihood of attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.( For details visit https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/EAT).

Tim Radford in his EcoWatch article A New Diet for the Planet quotes Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet who told him the transformation that this Commission calls for is not superficial or simple, and requires a focus on complex systems, incentives and regulations, with communities and governments at multiple levels having a part to play in redefining how we eat. “Our connection with nature holds the answer, and if we can eat in a way that works for the planet as well as our bodies, the natural balance of the planet’s resources will be restored. The very nature that is disappearing holds the key to human and planetary survival.”