VEGETARIANISM: A BIOETHICAL IMPERATIVE
By Michael W. Fox BVetMed, PhD, DSc, MRCVS
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, plant and animal species extinction as well as pandemics of influenza and coronaviruses and other zoonotic diseases.
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 24⁄7. 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. Furthermore, high meat consumption is associated with increased incidence of colon, prostate and breast cancer and heart disease.
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.
Per capita, the average EU citizen consumes 80 kilos of meat and 240 kilos of milk, compared to a global average of just 42 kilos and 90 kilos respectively. Within this huge appetite, there’s room to shift from meat and dairy to more plant-based foods. “Europeans are culturally attached to meat and dairy product consumption,…..“Reducing our climate footprint does not necessarily require stopping eating these food products, but rather diversifying further our diets to reduce the share of these.”(3)..
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.
A plant-based diet may lower severity of COVID-19 infection by 73 per cent
Hyunu Kim et al. Plant-based diets, pescatarian diets and COVID-19 severity: a population-based case–control study in six countries. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health, May 15th, 2021. Plant-based diets, pescatarian diets and COVID-19 severity: a population-based case–control study in six countries | BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health
This research finds that in six European countries and the U.S., plant-based diets or pescatarian diets were associated with lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19. These dietary patterns may be considered for protection against severe COVID-19. While I applaud this study and its conclusions, I would caution that the research was limited to relatively affluent, if not more educated countries with better food-choices and availability than in many other countries such as India and those of Africa and poor Central and South American communities along with those mainly non-white citizens of the U.S.
It is in these regions and communities with high carbohydrate and low protein diets and close to 700 million malnourished with insufficient dietary calories and essential nutrients that the coronavirus seems to spread and mutate rapidly, gaining infective function and resulting in high mortality and morbidity rates. World hunger is on the rise, affecting 8.9 percent of people globally. From 2018 to 2019, the number of undernourished people grew by 10 million. ( For details see https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics). Using agricultural land to feed people first and not feed for livestock and poultry could help alleviate world hunger but not without coordinated family planning/birth control along with food aid.
1.Diamond, J., ‘Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed.’ New York, Penguin Books, 2005.
2.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