Last week I went along to one of the Wheeler Centre’s IQ2 debates, ‘Should Animals Be off the Menu?’ with my usual high hopes of learning something new, and in a way, I suppose I both learned something new and confirmed something old.

New: vegans can stack the Town Hall.

Old: most people don’t actually want to learn, they just want to be right.

So allow me to take you through the ‘debate’, such that it was…

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of Animal Liberation (1975), was the first speaker for the affirmative. Singer is what I usually refer to (perhaps sloppily) as an ethical pragmatist, but I gather he is more rightly classified a secular, preference utilitarian ethicist… (Although I have some training in philosophy, it’s not actually my field, so please correct me insofar as it is useful to the discussion we will have here, but not for the pure pleasure of pedantry, if you please.)

Singer opened with the arguments I would expect from him, and ones I agree with:

  • ‘we can live a healthy life without eating animals’, and
  • ‘misuse of grain to feed animals is wasteful’.

On the first point, I agree with Singer that the majority of the global north could lead a healthy vegetarian life. I certainly did for seven years of my life. I’m not sure it would solve our environmental woes given the state of industrial monocropping, industrial-scale dairy and intensive poultry raising for the majority of the world’s eggs, but he’s right, most of us could be healthy as vegetarians. As for how healthy even we in the global north could be as vegans, there are healthy vegans around (and some less healthy), but I’d be interested in research around how many are taking supplements (especially B12…), and what sustainability would really look like if we all ate fridgeloads of processed soy products.

In many parts of the global south, strict vegetarianism or veganism is clearly less healthy given lack of availability of nutrient-dense foods, but I’ll return to that point later.

Singer’s second point on grain was that nearly half the world’s cereal production is used to produce animal feed, and meat consumption is increasing [pdf]. This is a serious human/all-species/planet-threatening problem. It must be addressed at all levels of consumption, production, distribution, and, importantly, marketing. The biggest marketing coup of our time was/is surely ‘grain-fed beef’, where the population was led to believe that grain-fed beef was a foodie’s delight, and one we should all demand, *never mind why they were being grain fed.* The clear reason is because beef cattle have increasingly moved onto feedlots in the US (much less so in Australia, where most are still pasture raised), where their diet suddenly spiked in grain.

I’ll go into further detail in another post about Singer’s next argument, where he flagged enthusiastic support for the latest report on how red meat consumption will make you die earlier than a vegetarian diet, but in short here, would like to say a) the debate was about putting ‘meat’ off the menu, not just red meat, b) how much ‘meat’ or ‘red meat’ is a health hazard, especially as compared with a non-supplemented vegan diet, and c) please can we talk about lower levels of any meat consumption rather than all or nothing? (But just quietly, have a look at the link above, which does some pretty good debunking of a study Singer seemed keen to cite, presumably so his team might win this debate…)

Singer’s final bit on how pasture-raised cattle cause worse emissions than intensively-raised  cattle simply beggars belief that an ethical pragmatist vegetarian/flexible vegan would lead the audience to eat more feedlot-raised beef. Even the most damning of livestock studies [pdf] make it clear that deforestation and overgrazing are two of the most significant contributors to grazing animal livestock greenhouse gases, and Singer is disingenuous to the extreme to suggest otherwise. Of course grazing animals in paddocks that were once carbon sequestering forests is contributing to climate change. That doesn’t mean animals shouldn’t graze on feed-abundant grassy plains in appropriate numbers. Once again, the serious issue here is around over-consumption, leading to inappropriate production methods, not that ‘animals should be off the menu’.

Fiona Chambers, free-range, rare-breed pig farmer and Lecturer at Marcus Oldham College, was the first speaker for the Opposition, and she had a tough gig standing up in the face of the sneers, sighs and general disrespect that was palpable and voluminous from the floor. Chambers made salient points about the importance of healthy rotational systems where animals provide fertiliser inputs and consume or otherwise break down (so-called waste) outputs (which cycle as inputs once again), the reliance of the global south on the few animals in many smallholder systems (such as the Hmong in Vietnam, whom she cited [pdf]), and new developments in carbon capturing soil technology for excess methane outputs from livestock.

Unfortunately, a lot of Chambers’ points were lost on many people in this particular audience, like the two people seated in front of me, who started sighing, groaning and rolling their eyes as she was being introduced. It would not have mattered what the Opposition said, these people were here to have their belief that ‘eating animals is wrong’ vindicated at all costs.

They got their money’s worth in breathtaking emotive rhetoric when Philip Wollen spoke. Wollen founded The Kindness Trust, whose mission is ‘to promote kindness towards all other living beings…’, after making a fortune as a merchant banker (he was vice-president of Citibank in his former life). While it was pleasing to see a banker use his abundant energy to work for good, Wollen had nothing new to offer the debate, and unfortunately, he hijacked it for a long rant against factory farming. Were this a debate about intensive animal agriculture, he would have been brilliant, but he had no real points beyond highlighting the shocking cruelty dealt to animals in industrial systems the world round. Wollen did not distinguish between who should take animals off their menus – his position is that it is morally wrong to take the life of a sentient being for human consumption.

Wollen offered an interesting statistic, that there are 600,000,000 vegetarians in the world. If that’s accurate, it means about 9% of the world are vegetarians. Around 40% of Indians are vegetarian, and many people in the global south are mostly vegetarian because they have little choice, whereas in Australia the figure is somewhere between 3 and 5%, though there’s debate about these figures, which rely on self-reported behaviours.

Animal scientist Bruce McGregor spoke next, starting with the point that if you want to save animals, you must stop eating dairy because most bobby calves are sent to slaughter. For vegetarians, giving up dairy would thereby forsake what McGregor proposed is an important nutrient source. He also asked the audience whether they believe that organisations like Oxfam are immoral for supporting programs to buy animals for families/villages in the global south.

McGregor equated natural losses in ecosystems with what he proposed to be sustainable levels of ‘harvesting’ of animals, a point I would have liked to have heard developed further, as I really don’t know what those levels would look like in non-anthropogenic ecosystems. I agree with McGregor that there is a need for more biological research and government regulation of livestock, and understanding ecosystems better would be one way to guide us on what sustainable meat consumption means in numbers of livestock.

McGregor made some final points on the well-known issues with monocropping, claiming that animals can be used to break disease cycles as well as to build healthy soils. Though I’m not familiar with that literature, I did find this Nuffield report on integrating livestock with cropping in Victoria.

Veronica Ridge of The Age added very little to the debate, in my opinion, except her early and excellent point that industrial agriculture perpetuates the concealment of cruelty to animals. There is no question that the secrecy around CAFOs in the US especially enables people to carry on eating animals raised in conditions they would never tolerate if they saw them. Unfortunately, beyond that, Ridge’s point was merely that vegetables are quite delicious, especially if prepared by top chefs around the world and served with plenty of delicious cheese.

The final speaker was Adrian Richardson, chef at La Luna, who opened with a provocation for the vegans, asserting, ‘ I love meat. If it’s got a pulse, I can cook it.’ Richardson went on to make a case for ethically-raised meat animals, saying that one needs to choose meat carefully. He told us of his half vegetarian family and how the grandparents lived into their nineties, as did the meat-eating side of the family, using this anecdata to insist that “eating meat doesn’t kill you, eating too much meat (& processed crap) kills you.” While I’m not sure about his sample size, I do tend to agree.

Richardson said he respects vegetarians, and wants them to respect choice, which rather reminded me of arguments around abortion, and led me to wonder just how many vegans are pro-life/anti-choice when it comes to reproductive rights and the arguments around sentience, but I decided against asking them during question time.

Richardson finished with a couple of simple admonishments:

  • ‘don’t buy supermarket meat’, and
  • ‘eat meat responsibly.’

Although the debate was resoundingly won in the popular vote by the Affirmative, I think Singer gave it away when he responding to my question about how the morally absolute position to not eat animals applies to those for whom it is an important nutrient-dense food when they can get it:

‘I’m saying we should take meat off our Australian menu, not you should take it off your global south menu so you and your children starve.’

Indeed. It’s far more complicated than simply to ‘take animals off the menu’.