Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

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’.

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

26 thoughts on “Should Animals Be Off the Menu?”

  1. Vegans can stack anything (except meat and its derivative products) 😉 surprised its new to you

  2. I think i have told the story before about the vegans that managed a forestry reserve in WA that ran cattle to manage grass growth as bush fires were a very real danger to the trees. The cattle were seen as a better permaculture management plan than poison and manual labour was out of the question.

    After a year or too of sending lovely grass fed yearlings off to the abattoir 150km away, they had a meeting because this was A. a bit cowardly to just wipe their hands of the yearlings for non vegans to eat and B. not a good permaculture result having the trucked 150km down the road.

    So they decided that to give up veganism was the best permaculture outcome and converted to a beef and dairy diet!

  3. What an awesome sum-up, Tammi! So good to have a balanced article about the debate where the audience weren’t so balanced). Although I don’t eat meat (I eat fish occasionally, though), I agree with Adrian Richardson’s stance (he really is good speaker for a chef!), but also Singer’s rebuttal that ethically raised meat cannot meet the demands of the West – the analogy he used was that Fiona Chamber’s ethically raised pigs couldn’t sustain all those in the Town Hall. It definitely is a complicated issue (way too complex for me to understand fully). But here’s my 2 cents worth: hopefully, those who eat meat consider where their meat comes from and choose to eat less of it, instead of every day and at most meals.

  4. Presumably the debate was about whether meat should be taken off the menu in the (first world) society in which we live? Few would suggest that those who have few sources of nutrition should stop eating meat – however, we have the resources to make the choice to eat a nutrient-rich vegan or vegetarian diet. The circumstances under which we make food choices are simply not comparable to those under which the Hmong, for example, make such choices (if there is even a choice to make in the latter case). There is often an implication, in these debates, that veganism is a luxury, because those in the global south can’t be expected to eat in this way. Yet in a first world context, surely the consumption of meat for enjoyment, rather than any nutritional requirements, is the luxury. For some reason, those in the first world who eat meat every day (often at 2 or 3 meals) are never accused of failing to recognise their first-world privilege in the way vegans are.

    I’m really at a loss to come up with any logical argument to support the consumption of meat and dairy here in Australia. Perhaps this is why the Negative team lost the debate? I recognise, when I consume (relatively ethically produced) that I’m doing so for my own enjoyment and convenience, and that I cannot justify this consumption ethically or logically.

    That the place was ‘stacked’ with vegans is probably testament to the fact that vegans are more likely to be interested in issues of animal welfare.

  5. Hi sashi,

    I’m typing on a tablet, so pls excuse the inevitable typos.

    I wasn’t there alas, but from reading about it before & after there was no clarification given to either team about whether the menu being referred to was domestic or international.

    I think one of the real failings was that this wasn’t clarified. For example, none of the three speakers for eating meat were in any way in favour of business as usual, ie industrial factory- farm perpetuating agriculture here in Aust. & in fact i gather the last speaker for the affirmative did explicitly wddress overconsumption in the west to some extent. So none of them were suggesting that vegans were privileged, and nor is tammois. Seems a bit of a strawman.

    As to why to eat *some* meat here in Australia, well it principally comes down to supporting sustainable agriculture as well as enjoying it as a “benign extravagance” as it’s been memorably described of late. That our current agricultural system has a lot of problems is beyond doubt. However the production of grains and vegetables etc. all have their own problems under the current system. So ideally through careful choice we would all be supporting the best practice farming across all forms of production, to help transform our food system.

    I’d also disagree with you that Australians in general care less about animal welfare- look at the out ry over the footage from live cattle & sheep export. It was frankly nigh-on nprecedented. What it showed was that when it is exposed Australians care deeply about animal welfare issues, and I’d therefore be happy to take a bet if similar footage from our own abattoirs was shown Australians would react with the same outrage & demand for change. Indeed, the rapid growth in ethical meat show a growing consciousness & questioning.

  6. Argh where did last but go? Trying again-

    So I suspect there were more vegetarian / vegans at the debate because two of their big heroes in Singer & Wollen were speaking, and as a minority often nastily marginalised in our society, they ace to hear, support & do the validation thing.

  7. I agree with your frustration about the lack of discussion of what sustainable, ethical meat consumption would look like, along with a lack of the assessment of the sustainability of wide spread wealthy veg*ism.

    As it stands, I’m failing miserably at ethical eating and I have a long list of excuses for it. However, the biggest roadblock to me doing more and committing myself more fully is that I’ve yet to see a compelling positive argument for what we should be doing, rather than (albeit convincing) arguments against what we are doing. One based on research and fact, and not appeals to emotion and moral fibre.

    I realise this excuse is just as poor as all the others, but it’s just not in me to make major changes to my life and that of my family without good evidence. Where I’ve seen good evidence of something, with a viable alternative, I’ve changed. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and a significant barrier to causing a major shift in the eating habits of the many is the lack of a clear indication of what we should be aiming for, and why. The only thing I can see clearly is “not what we’re doing now”.

  8. Can I put a vote forward for encouraging kangaroo eating – lower environmental impact than cattle (both carbon (fart) emissions and impacting of soils, also can eat drought tolerant grasses (and other naturally grown plants)), the meat contains less fat (yay for everyone wanting to loose weight) and the meat is higher in things like iron for those who wonder about nutritional value.
    This could lead to a more environmental way of eating meat.
    [don’t quote me on all the benefits but i think they are along the right lines]

  9. Hi Imogen,
    Thanks for your response to my comment. I just want to clarify a couple of things – I was racing to type the last comment as my 9 month old slept, and now I’m racing to type while he eats his afternoon tea!

    Anyway, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that there is nobody who thoughtfully eats meat – I understand that many (albeit a minority of) meat eaters are very concerned with food production, and with overconsumption etc., tammi being one of them. These people are not supporters of factory farming, and many of them (again, including tammi, as well as the negative speakers) are actively arguing against it. However, I would argue that the majority of Australians continue to eat meat with little or no thought to where it came from – if this weren’t the case then there would be less of a demand for such meat, and people would be eating less of it, to ensure that smaller, more ethical producers could meet demand (which is at this stage impossible). I agree that the outcry over the live cattle trade was great to see, yet much of the discussion was characterised by a division between ‘us’ (who treat animals well) and ‘them’ (who are uncivilised in this regard). I wish that it had forced more people to take a look inside our own abattoirs and factory farms.

    I really don’t think that the notion of vegan ‘privilege’ is a straw man – although I wasn’t suggesting that tammi or the speakers overtly position veganism as a symptom of first-world privilege, as many do. I think the real straw man in this debate (and I’m talking about the wider debate, not the debate at the wheeler centre) is the suggestion that we have to be careful about advocating for vegetarianism/veganism because it fails to acknowledge the circumstances of those in the third world. (i.e. we shouldn’t forget that we are privileged, here in the first world, by acting as though veganism is possible for everybody. Who, exactly, is this an argument against?) I don’t know of any vegan/vegetarian who would advocate vegetarianism for the Hmong people of Vietnam. I don’t think the ‘morally absolute’ position (to quote tammi) against eating animals in the west is at all compromised at all by the acknowledgement that vegetarianism isn’t viable for everyone everywhere. I take your point that the context of the question up for debate wasn’t made clear at the outset – I just don’t think Peter Singer’s response to Tammi’s question in an way discredits his wider argument.

  10. An interesting post, Tammi. You probably won’t be surprised that I had a somewhat different take on the issues raised. Like you, I found the debate as a whole relatively un-illuminating, and with the exception of Peter Singer, I thought all of the speakers were disappointing, and oddly underprepared for what could have been a much more sophisticated discussion. I completely agree that Veronica Ridge added very little, and Philip Wollen, while he has done an enormous amount of good for which I have great respect, employs a style of rhetoric that I find rather cringe-inducing.
    More substantial, however, were the factual errors, and, I would argue, rather disingenuous attempts at misdirection employed by the speakers for the opposition. To claim that the debate was not about intensive farming, when it was staged in a society where the vast majority of meat consumed is intensively farmed, was, frankly, silly. The IQ2 debates are intended to engage issues that are relevant to our society – they are not, for the most part, exercises in abstract philosophy. If the topic were immigration, education, marriage equality or climate change, I think we would assume that the debate would at least address these issues as they are experienced in Australia. Is it perhaps because we have a profound sense of discomfort about the Australian treatment of farm animals that we are often so keen to see the debate relocated overseas? The reality is that if we are going to talk about eating animals in this country we do need to talk about factory farming because, overwhelmingly, that is the process by which the meat arrives on the table. We all talk about the importance of transparency and the value of individual choice, but we need to acknowledge that as a society, the choices we are making with regard to animal welfare are very poor, very selfish ones. I struggle to name one ‘ethical omnivore’ who genuinely NEVER consumes intensively farmed meat or eggs. The clauses ‘except when I’m travelling….except when there isn’t anything else on the menu…except when I’m really drunk’ all spring to mind.
    We are very fortunate in Australia in that eating animals is a matter of choice, not survival, and omnivores need to take responsibility for that and be able to argue their position accordingly. And in the case of this debate, they didn’t do that very well.
    I was particularly surprised to hear Fiona Chambers, who has a background in science, refer to the relationship between humans and the animals they consume as symbiotic. This is an inaccurate use of a term which has a specific meaning. Symbiosis is a state in which two organisms exist together, usually in the absence of harm to either organism. Even in the case of parasitism, the least mutually beneficial form of symbiosis, the health of the host is impaired slowly – the symbiotic relationship necessarily ends if the host dies. Her comparison of bees pollinating flowers was similarly laughable. There is a scientific term for eating animals, and it is predation. I’m not saying that this is inherently unethical, but let’s at least be honest about what the relationship is. I was also astonished to hear her describe the disappearance of heritage breeds as ‘species extinction,’ with all the attendant environmental and biodiversity concerns that that title implies. A species is, as I’m sure she knows, entirely different from a breed. Heritage breeds are essentially human creations – like specialist dog breeds, their presence has no bearing on wild ecosystems, and to compare their disappearance to that of naturally occurring wild animals endangered by human activity is ludicrous and misleading. Equally telling (given that this was essentially the crux of her argument) was her inability to name a single peer-reviewed study which supported her claims about soil nitrogenation.
    Bruce McGregor was right to raise the treatment of bobby calves, but wrong to claim that milk is a necessary source of nutrients for those who don’t consume meat. I would like to add though, that vegetarians often find themselves in a lose/lose situation in discussions of dairy. If they eat dairy and eggs they are dismissed as inconsistent, if they exclude them they are dismissed as fanatics. Making the switch from vegetarian to vegan is, I would argue, bigger and more socially challenging than the switch from omnivore to vegetarian.
    There is a tremendous amount of bad feeling toward vegans. To be consistently derided as humourless, judgemental, sentimental, squeamish and pleasure denying, when you are in fact none of these things, can become quite dispiriting. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have admitted my veganism (usually out of necessity having politely turned down various proffered foodstuffs) only to be interrogated about my weight, pallor (neither of which have changed at all since I became vegan 6 years ago), and general medical history. I have been told that vegans ‘would have to be really bad in bad.’ It can be quite funny, but it’s also revealing that anyone would be so rude to someone they have just met, over an issue about which they generally know nothing. I wonder how an omnivore would feel being subjected to the same kinds of questions, and, indeed, faced with such patronising derision about a belief that is both deeply felt and entirely logical. One can’t help but wonder if the issue is largely one of defensiveness.
    There were evidently a large number of vegans in the audience at the debate, a fact which, as Sashi pointed out, is evidence only that they, as a group, take a greater interest in animal welfare. There were still tickets available half an hour before the debate began though, so it seems unlikely that any interested ethical omnivores were denied access. I also found the few people who interrupted the speakers irritating and disrespectful, as, I think did the majority of vegans in the audience. I have to admit, however, that when Bruce McGregor suggested that the rainforest was being cleared to grow soy to feed to vegetarians (when in fact the variety of soy grown in these areas is used exclusively for stock feed) I nearly yelled at him myself.
    With regard to your final question about abortion (and here I can only speak for myself – vegans are not, as many seem to presume, a homogenous mass), I am thoroughly pro-choice. Something which occurs within our own bodies is not, I would argue, a comparable issue to that of imposing suffering and death on creatures that exist outside us. I would add here, that if a pig were ever to take up residence in my uterus, I would reserve the right to remove it. I do have concerns about very late-term abortion carried out for reasons other than the physical or mental health of the mother, or considerable disability on the part of the foetus. This issue, like those around animal welfare, and indeed human rights, exists within an ethical continuum and decisions should be made accordingly, with potential suffering of all beings involved taken into account.
    Apologies for the length of this response. It is an issue about which I feel deeply, and which I think deserves a great deal of our consideration.

  11. Angie
    Interesting thoughts but I think that I can provide maybe a better rationale and a more local one.

    First I’ll deal with something that I find troubling about the main thrust of veganism, it’s moral justice. While I find high intensity factory farming abhorrent, I also find the degradation of land and rivers for cropping in Australia equally so. We are already at breaking point of our use of farm land. Because of when most of Australia was settled we are probably using land that cannot support crops without some form of intensive irrigation. If all of Australia was suddenly to become vegan or even vegetarian where would all that crop come from.

    If you are to answer “from all the land the cattle are on”, this is where the argument falls in a hole. Most of the cattle grazing land in Australia is not suitable for cropping without the addition of massive storages of water and huge amounts of nutrients into the soil. Do you want to see river systems in the cape and the northern territory dammed and turned back to grow crops?

    Most beef and lamb in Australia spends most of its life on grass. Even the beef labeled ‘grain fed’ will have spent a large proportion of its life on grass and only really export beef to places like Japan will have been exclusively fed on grain. Australian palates do not like the taste of exclusively grain fed beef and producers know it.

    There is definetily downsides in the meat industry, in particular with pigs and chicken, but free range pork and chicken is pretty easy to buy now.

    Can you claim to know the provenance and impact that every grain that passes your through your mouth has had?

    The ‘all or nothing’ approach is destructive and self serving. It is saying ‘my way of life is right and you are wrong’ and sidelines those of us who are trying to improve people’s treatment of animals and respect for meat.

    To give you some background, I grow my own chickens and beef, and milk a cow and make cheese. According to vegan fundamentalists I am part of the problem. My cows keep down grass that would otherwise be slashed with a petrol using tractor. They help clear the lantana that is a noxious pest on the land. They and the chooks devour 2 x 25L bins of fruit and veg waste from the local shop that would be going into landfill. I grow as much of my own fruit and veg as I can while raising a baby and keeping down a full time job because I care what goes into my stomach and how it’s raised.

    What’s more I try and educate my mates on the fact that using the whole beast, buying meat from a producer that knows and cares for his product is not only a good thing to do, but tastes better. Eat less of it, support the people doing the right thing.

    Ps. I won’t even go into any of the science being bandied around at the moment.

  12. Hi Sashi

    I don’t think we’re disagreeing at all on the central contention – that Australians eat meat with little thought as to where it comes from, hence (to cut to the chase) making industrial farming systems which in turn rely on animal suffering possible.

    Really I would have thought this was something that ethical ominvores, vegetarians and vegans alike agree on, so the real question is -what do we want to do about it?

    The former answers -replace it with a sustainable humane system which is inherently built on Australians eating far less meat & dairy, and thus allows for agro-ecology which does not rely on animal suffering. The latter two contend that the only way forward is to remove animals from our diet completely, or with veryu strict controls around dairy & eggs.

    My point is simply – given the opportunity, there is an interest and willingness to consider animal welfare as it relates to diet. Whether you’re an ethical omnivore or a veg/an the ‘enemy’ remains the same; industrial capitalism interested in profit and hence keeping the realities of factory farming away from people’s consciousness. I think therefore rather than picking apart the bad bits of the Australian response to live animal export cruelty (eg the inevitable racism), we’d be better to concentrate on the fact that it was the single largest community campaign in a very long time. I work in an federal electorate office. Any of us can tell you that there’s been nothing like it for many years.

    That is an energy & interest that should be harnessed. One obvious focus would be on the Australian love of chicken, now being fanned by the likes of Coles offering permanently very cheap chicken. Chickens and pigs are the two factory farmed animals in Australia and now (thanks to relentless marketing I might add) make up ~50% of Australian meat consumption. I doubt anyone here on this blog needs to be reminded how much chickens and pigs suffer, so it would be lovely to see a campaign going after Coles & Woollies for pushing cheap battery chicken, and of course battery eggs.

    As to your second contention, hate to tell you this but I have met many vegans who do indeed contend that the global south should also be meat free. They write facbook posts exhorting their friends not to buy animals through oxfam as charitable xmas gifts and frankly espouse a unique form of white privilege that is cring-inducing. I am in no way contending they are the majority of vegans (how would I know?) but they are certainly out there.

    Sidetrack – I actually find it very interesting how Singer navigates the terrain of veganism for fat whities but will accept animal suffering in the global south as part of acknowledging the broader issues of malnutrition, poverty etc.

    It’s a concession I whole-heartedly support but it is a concession nonetheless to his central arguments around speciesm in Animal Liberation. I don’t think it discredits his wider argument either, but it does acknowledge that the landscape is very much more complex than sometimes we are allowed to talk about.

  13. Beeso,

    You seem to forget that the majority of crops grown in Australia (and indeed worldwide) are consumed by farm animals rather than humans. I won’t enter into the argument about feed ratios as this is always contested, but the most conservative estimate (and one accepted by the majority of farmers) is around 3:1. Remove the demand for animal feed and that frees up a lot of land for crops. I agree that it would not be possible to convert much Australian grazing land to cropping, but this is essentially an erroneous point as it would not be necessary to do so. We also seem to be forgetting the issue of soil erosion, which remains a serious concern in the farming of hard-footed animals in Australia. The bottom line is that we simply have never tried to live without meat in this country – the suggestion that it is not possible or desirable to do so has absolutely no factual grounding.

    I don’t know the origin of every grain I eat and I don’t pretend to, but I know that by eating it myself rather than having it converted into animal tissue, I am causing less waste and less suffering. Of course my diet is imperfect – we are all hypocrites to some degree and we do our best to minimise this – but I resent the claim that my lifestyle is ‘destructive and self-serving’, and I don’t think you have provided a single piece of evidence that it is either of these things.

    On the factory farming front, the fact that free range pork and chicken is ‘pretty easy to buy now’ doesn’t mean that the majority of people actually buy it. This is still, after decades of availability, very much a niche market; if it really were providing a widely accepted alternative to intensively farmed meat, we would see numbers of intensively raised animals falling, rather than, as is in fact the case, continuing to increase. I can provide you with statistics on this if you are interested.

    If people are determined to eat meat, I would absolutely prefer to see them obtain it from small scale farms in which the animals live long(er) lives, which approximate, as closely as possible, those that they might live without human intervention. You will notice that my main concern was the failure of the debate to adequately address intensive farming, and as long as this exists, I would never focus my intention on smaller scale farmers who at least profess an interest in animal welfare.

    This does not mean, however, that I actually believe killing animals is justified when we have a healthy, environmentally sustainable alternative. In short, I do not accept that the momentary pleasure I might derive from the taste of an animal’s flesh is worth more than that animal’s life. I am not sentimental, unrealistic or squeamish about death. Having been involved for many years in animal shelters and in wildlife rescue I have witnessed a great deal of animal suffering and death. Indeed, being in close proximity to these things makes me feel all the more strongly that I don’t want to add to the already enormous amount of damage that humans cause, much of it inadvertent. Even free range animals must undergo the stress (and frequent pain and injury) involved in transport and slaughter. Male chicks hatched in the process of farming commercial free range eggs are still macerated alive. The majority of commercial free range hens are still de-beaked. I could go on.

    If eating animals were a matter of survival, not pleasure, I would feel differently, and I do not condemn anyone who consumes meat out of genuine need.

    You hold up your own lifestyle as an example for emulation, and I have no desire to make personal attacks on you, but please don’t ask me to congratulate you for it either – we have different ideas about what ‘doing the right thing’ entails.

    Finally, please don’t refer to vegans as fundamentalists. Fundamentalism, as you may or may not know, indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs, to the exclusion of reasoned opposition, and without logical basis. My ethical position is as logical, open-minded, and clearly evidenced as that of any omnivore. It is precisely this kind of patronising, derogatory tag that alienates us. A person who happens to disagree with you is not a fundamentalist, and the fact that veganism makes you defensive does not make it irrational.

  14. Hi Angie

    I’d like to respond to your posts in more detail when I get a chance, but for the interim I want to put forward a couple of corrections:

    1. Australia’s meat is not overwhelmingly factory farmed. Poultry and pigs are factory farmed in Australia and make up ~50% of average meat consumption. The other ~50% is coming from beef and lamb consumption which are not factory farmed in Australia. Beef feedlots here are thankfully still a very small minority and are almost exclusively marketing their meat to the Japanese and other cultures that favour grain fed red meat.

    A quick google search for Australia average meat consumption will confirm this from multiple sources over the last 10 years. What is true as I mentioned above to Sashi is that marketing combined with price has seen chicken and pork grow as a proportion of Australian meat cosumption quite radically over the last 40 years, increasing factory farming.

    2. The majority of Australia’s cereal and grain crops are not fed to animals. Just looking at our domestic meat consumption patterns shows this (our cattle and sheep are not grain fed).

    Most of our grains and cereals are exported. Taking that into account when we look at the global system, approximately 35% of total cereal and grain production is going into feeding animals. The FAO has good in-depth (by crop, by region) breakdowns on this, here is a quick overall summary –

    Finally, soy, a favourite weapon for both sides of the debate, is actually one of the most complex crops to understand the drive in demand & hence its role in promoting deforestation. Soy is still predominantly grown as an oil crop, as soy oil is not only used in many countries for domestic cooking, it is also found almost ubiquitiously through processed foods, and of course now biofuel has become another source of demand. The left over grain after the process of extracting oil is fed to animals as feedstock.

    Additionally, demand for soy based foods such as milk have seen a very large, sustained increase in demand for such products.

    As a result, when looking at deforestation and soy the argument almost becomes nonsensical because the bottom line is the demand for soy globally has been very significantly increasing and as a major industrial crop with massive consequences, it needs to be curtailed. Being able to point out that ‘that’ particular patch of Amazon was cleared for tofu while *that* one was for oil & animal feed seems to rather silly, not least because how on earth would we sort out how much soy oil went into processed food suitable for vegetarians and vegans, and particularly as those of us who give a rats all agree that factory farming (and presumably deforestation) needs to end.

    On the matter of personal attacks etc., I really don’t want to be in the middle of you & Beeso, but you did in your initial post essentially accuse ethical omnivores of hypocrisy and excuse making, then in your second said the same of yourself. Nor do I agree with calling people fundamentalist. So perhaps it would be better if we all disarmed our keyboards and aimed for a polite discussion where I think everyone knows there will be a couple of core areas of fundamental disagreement.

  15. Ps Angie – what I haven’t got time to write now but want to take up with you is the issue of symbiosis and agro-ecology. Sorry, meant to include that above.

  16. Hi Imogen,
    You’re right, I think we largely agree (coming at the issue from perspectives that are slightly different, rather than opposing), so I’ll try and keep this brief!
    I wasn’t attempting to dismiss the outcry over the export cruelty – rather, my point was that it demonstrated that people have genuine concern for animals but that their level of tolerance of cruelty is still, in my opinion, too high. The recent campaign over the slaughter of bobby calves didn’t reduce our consumption of dairy, as a society, for example – am I being too cynical if I suggest that this is considered to be an acceptable practice because without it we would have to pay more for milk? There is clearly still demand for super cheap milk, putting the squeeze on dairy farmers who need to become more and more economical, and simply can’t afford to be less efficient in order to be less cruel. I would argue that the majority of Australians really ‘don’t want to know’ when it comes to the origin of their own food, which is not to deny the genuine horror many felt upon viewing the footage of practices in Indonesia. I, too, would love to see a campaign against Coles and Woolies such as the one you talk about – I’m just not sure how much of an impact it would have. Hopefully I’m being overly pessimistic!
    I suppose there’s nothing wrong with choosing something other than an animal for a charitable christmas gift – that being said, I’m sure there are those on every side of the debate who are extreme. I agree that this is an extremely problematic position, but would argue that it is equally problematic to argue against veganism on the grounds that it’s not an option that’s available to everyone. It sounds like we agree on this though!

  17. Interesting post and comments, but a few issues need clarifying.

    1. Australians eat about 1.8 million tonnes of cereals which provide 718 kCal/person/day. Our feedlot cattle consume more than double that. Some is consumed locally and some is exported … I don’t know of any reliable data on the breakdown, but here is some feed data from ABARE:

    Pigs and chickens consume similar amounts (3.9 million tonnes) of cereals but provide just 270 kCal/person/day.

    2. Nobody needs special “protein foods”. All you need is food. Being protein deficient without starving is incredibly difficult. Consider please the following document on malnutrition in developing countries:

    This is a large and detailed paper and the word protein isn’t mentioned in its entire 124 pages. Doctors worked this stuff out decades ago, but the protein myth lives on, constantly spruiked by the meat industry and repeated ad-nauseum, even by some nutritionists who really should know better. Consider for example if you lived on broccoli. Consuming 2500 kCal of broccoli every day. Is broccoli a “protein food”? No. Would you get enough protein? You would get TOO MUCH! Way over the upper limit advised by the NHMRC. I’m not recommending this as a diet, just an illustration. This works with many vegetables and even some fruits, all grains, all legumes. All you need to do is eat enough food to meet your energy needs and getting enough protein is almost guaranteed. I say “almost” because you can muck things up if you eat junk like coke and chips. These can give you enough energy without enough protein. Has this ever happened in Australia? Not that I know of. I went through the AIHW database looking for hospital admissions with amino acid problems. Not a single case. So concerns over protein and all that soy required are not justified. If Australia doubled its cereal intake and halved its meat intake, that would make it similar to Italy in the 1960s … before obesity and diabetes became the latest big thing!

    3. Are animals required in “the south”? They are a major cause of poverty and hunger right through Africa and Oxfam should be hung drawn and quartered for supplying animals. Livestock in most of Africa consumes crop stubble to reduce subsequent productivity by increasing soil erosions and decreasing soil carbon. I have written extensively about the problems here:

  18. Thanks Imogen – interesting comments.

    With regard to the percentage of intensively farmed meat consumed in Australia, I think we are slightly at cross purposes in how we’re quoting our figures. I presume you are referring to the total volume of meat consumed, rather than number of animals slaughtered. Obviously a cow weighs rather more than a chicken, so in terms of sheer volume, we may consume about equal percentages of intensively farmed and pasture farmed meat. In terms of actual animal lives however, the increase in our consumption of chicken means that the vast majority of Australian animals consumed are intensively farmed. According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, each year in Australia, over half a billion chickens are slaughtered for meat. Only 15% of these are raised ‘free range.’ I probably wasn’t clear about what I meant by ‘majority’ though, so apologies for the confusion.

    We all seem to agree that feedlots are a bad thing, and you mention that the majority of Australian cattle raised on feedlots are intended for the export market. That’s true, but this is really a matter of taste and economics rather than ethical practice on the part of the industry. Does it really matter, in issues of animal welfare, whether the animals we raise are eaten here or elsewhere? This is about Australian welfare standards – surely an animal destined for export is entitled to the same ethical considerations as one destined for an Australian table.

    A significant proportion of pasture raised cows (and a smaller percentage of sheep) are also now ‘finished’ in feedlots over a period of weeks or months, including many of those intended for the domestic market and nearly all of those intended for live export. If an animal ends its life in a feedlot, it can no longer be classed as free range.

    The fact that sheep are not routinely raised in feedlots is simply a matter of economics. ‘Fat lambs’ are being continually trialled in feedlots, but because of high mortality, currently only around 14% of lambs are ‘finished’ in this way. This is unlikely to remain the case, however. According to the DPI:
    “The lamb feedlotting industry in Australia is poised for considerable expansion….Much of the country’s sheep and grain growing regions are well placed to capitalize on feedlotting as they have ready access to lambs and feed as well as being climatically suitable.” You can read more about this here and here

    The CSIRO also have a booklet about how to increase the economic viability of feedlot lams in Australia – you can read it here:

    The conclusion from both that DPI and the CSIRO is that feedlotting is a desirable and profitable practice that, depending on our ability to limit animal mortality and associated financial risk, is destined to become routine in Australia.

    I just think we need to be very wary of labelling beef and lamb as inherently more ethical alternatives when, inevitably, many producers (with considerable government support) are seeking to increase profits and efficiency irrespective of the welfare cost.

    On the matter of hypocrisy, all I was really saying is that my diet is necessarily imperfect, and I know that in producing it there will be unintended animal casualties. I can say with confidence though that a vegan diet generates less environmental degradation, less waste and most importantly for me, less suffering (both human and animal) than an omnivorous equivalent. This is a position upheld by the United Nations Food Program – hardly a radical separatist organisation.

    I won’t post again because I think we are unlikely to agree. I would maintain, however, that to debate the ethics of meat production in Australia without addressing intensive farming is rather a pointless exercise, which doesn’t give fair acknowledgement to the hundreds of millions of animals that live and die every year in this country in conditions that most of us don’t like to contemplate.

  19. Just remembered the other point I wanted to make about feedlots and export – given that Australian feedlot animals are fed Australian grain, in environmental terms, it makes absolutely no difference whether their meat is subsequently exported or not.

    I’m not going to go into the soy thing because, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t any more relevant to veganism than to omnivorous diets. Have a look at the ingredients of a commercial meat pie if you doubt this. There are many, many different protein crops adapted to all kinds of climates and ecosystems. Vegans aren’t dependant on soy, and we should probably all eat less of it.

  20. Wow! Some serious commenting. I can’t confess to being anything approaching as knowledgable on these issues as other posters, but rather I’m an interested amateur I guess.

    I haven’t eaten meat for 4 months now. Made this decision for various reasons, ethical concerns being well up the list.

    I will eat meat again though. I intend to start eating meat again this year in fact, but rarely (perhaps once a month?), and with the respect it deserves.

    For me, the ultimate would be to raise my own meat, I can’t yet, but I will one day I hope. I realise this is not practical for most people though. It would be good if more people did though I think. If they had to kill it themselves they might eat less of it!

    Funny how fish doesn’t get mentioned – its future seems very bleak to me – I am pretty certain I won’t eat it again unless I raise it myself.

    The dairy issue is a tough one – I can’t imagine life without dairy products, even knowing that there are issues with it in terms of unwanted calves etc. If anyone can suggest cheese to buy that has minimal impact in this regard I’d be very interested in hearing about it.

    Thanks for a great post, and blog!

  21. Richard, Why do you think “respect” or killing the animal yourself has any relevance? Imagine telling the judge in a trial: “Please acquit me your honour, I didn’t merely receive stolen property, I actually stole it myself!” or “I bowed my head and said a little prayer prior to the rape of that woman … it was rape with respect”.

    No judge would buy such rubbish and would more likely increase your sentence for being ridiculous rather than give any kind of credit.

  22. @Geoff I eat meat because I like eating meat. I like the taste, and I have yet to find a vegetable that replaces that taste.

    I am also concerned at the treatment animals receive in order that I can get that get that meat via the standard means (the supermarket/butcher). Currently, I am prepared to buy meat from one of these sources if I’m confident that it was reared according to standards I feel are acceptable to me.

    But for me, the ultimate end point on this road is me rearing and killing the animal myself in order to eat it. That way know exactly how it lived and died.

    This is not illegal, so I don’t see how comparing it to rape or theft is relevant I’m afraid.

    To me this is the ultimate respect to an animal that will die for my benefit.

    I realise that there are issues with this view, most vividly to me at this point would be the practicality of everyone rearing meat this way, but I am, I think pragmatically, making a decision that I can due to my own personal circumstances.

  23. I watched the entire debate & I think two key points weren’t adequately clarified at the outset: did animals off menu also refer to dairy & eggs (as it should). Second was the need to clarify if this was for global consideration or just Australia or wealthy western countries? I am a pragmatic vegan. In countries such as Australia we can eat vegan successfully, in some subsistence cultures this is prob not doable. However this should be considered carefully as recent history shows us that as nations develop the trend is to adopt adiet more based on animal produce. Higher consumption of animal products undoubtedly expands factory farming, environmental damage (climate, land & sea), generates more ‘lifestyle’ diseases & instills a disrespect for living beings. It could be argued (but I won’t) that this in turn contributes to a ostrich approach to cruelty which may in fact have some psychological impact on human community. I agree with @richard concerning fish (although I’d day aquatic life as a whole) being ignored. There are massive issues with toxification of waterways (salt & fresh) due to fertilizer & chemical run off, salination & rubbish, yet this is even easier to ignore that farmed animals. I do find it it interesting that in your first post Richard, you mentioned giving up meat for (not only) ethical reasons but in response to Geoff you revert to the taste argument as why you’ll eat it again. What ethical position do you have that allows you to stop & then start again, simply for taste? Oh & for the record I am a vegan of 12 months & I don’t take or need supplements. Like any diet there are balanced versions of anything. I do not find it difficult. What I do struggle with is the ignorance & selfishness of others who choose to stay ignorant or worse seek to attack those of us who are trying to be a solution.

  24. It’s funny that the word solution keeps coming up. I also would like to minimise the impact on the world. However i do not do that by being a vegan and dislike the imputation that i am morally bankrupt. I probably work a lot harder for my food than any vegan, considering i feed and care fore three cows and a bunch of chooks/ducks/guinea fowl. Veganism is not the only way and if you want to perpetuate the war that anyone who eats meat is part of the problem, you will never, ever, win.

  25. What I think is odd is that Adrian Richardson argues that _vegans_ anthropomorphise animals. He is an advocate for happy meat. That’s the king of anthropromorphisation!

    Abolitionists – Animals behave as thought they suffer, therefore they suffer.

    Welfarists – Animals behave as though they suffer so let’s ensure they don’t behave that way too much, therefore they are happy.

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