Let’s face it, meat is resource intensive and we could feed more people if we all just ate veg, right? Well, not necessarily. Under an ecological model of agriculture, I will ague that eating a combination of meat and plants is the most balanced and ethical choice.
Okay, here me out; I’m probably not going to convert your vegetarian ways but I would like to make the case that the debate isn’t as clear cut as it seems. Heresy, I know. Before sending me to the proverbial butter’s block, hear me out.
According to the NaturalNews.com article Four Reasons People Become Vegetarian most people are vegetarians for one or more of the following reasons (Jones-Shoeman, 2011): health, environment, ethics (the killing of animals), and global food shortages. In defence of meat, I will attempt to address each of these, though, as I feel that issues of health, the killing of animals, and food shortages are extremely debatable, I will more heavily focus my attention on environmental impact (which I will address last).
Eating Meat is Unhealthy No; eating a pound of bacon for breakfast each day is unhealthy. Like anything else, meat should be consumed in moderation and offers a variety of health benefits and risks that vary according to each species, the conditions in which it was raised/grown, processed, stored, and the manner in which it was prepared. I would never advocate only eating meat and, as a general statement, am an advocate for eating less of it; North Americans, especially, consume more meat than is recommended, needed, or likely healthy. However, that doesn’t mean that meat is unhealthy or evil.
Ethical Reasons (The Killing Of Animals) I have personally killed an animal, for the purposes of consumption and, I’ll be honest, it is hard. For the last year and a half, students and I have been raising tilapia in an aquaponics system at Jasper Place High School. On more than one occasion, I have helped students remove a large fish from the tank and killed it; I have come to realize what it means to consume an animal. It is a very strange thing to look an animal in the eye, to understand that it knows that you are going to take its life, and to do it anyway. In truth, it hurts. Killing an animal is a sobering experience and when I look around at the ten or so culinary arts students who are standing there with me, I can see that each and every one of them is feeling the same thing but that’s the point. Most people have no idea where their food comes from, let alone the significance of slaughtering an animal; pre-packaged, pre-prepared food removes consumers from the processes that sustain life. Though, here’s the kicker, that fish-stick you had for lunch was also a living breathing being that someone killed on your behalf. That is important to understand. It may sound like I’m arguing in favour of vegetarianism but what I’m really advocating for is a closer connection to our food. In truth, to say that it is ok to eat vegetables but not animals is to anthropomorphize one kingdom and not another. A living thing is a living thing and to say that one species is more important than another is to forget that each organism contributes to the resiliency of life. Evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that we more easily identify with animals, as animals ourselves, it is probably much easier to empathize with closer relatives. Hence the “I won’t eat anything with a face” philosophy. Don’t get me started on mushrooms who are more closely related to the animal kingdom than the plants.
Global Food Shortages Isn’t meat production far more resource intensive? Absolutely, and we could produce far more vegetables (and food) if we moved away from producing animals for consumption (I will address this, in a moment). In truth, the world already produces enough food to feed ten billion people (Holt Gimenez, 2012); the problem isn’t one of production but of distribution and inequality. However, I do think that we could be growing our food better and on less land; using urban agriculture, as an example.
Environment Before beginning, just to prove that I don’t have my head in the sand, here are some frightening statistic about the current state of meat production:
- Producing one kilogram of meat causes the emissions equivalent of 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide” (“Lifestyle changes can,” 2008).
- On average, it takes 54 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of meat protein (Bluejay).
- On average, to takes 5 214 Gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, 1 630 Gallons to produce a pound of pork, and 815 Gallons to produce a pound of chicken (Bluejay).
- 2.5 acres of cattle could only support the annual caloric intake of 1 person while (apparently) the same area of land producing cabbages could support 23 (Bluejay).
- A staggering 30% of global land is used directly or indirectly for livestock production (“Meat,” 2012)
Wow! That is some terrifying stuff of which I can not possibly justify; luckily, I don’t have to. Honestly, if I thought that this was the only way to produce meat, I’d stop; done, finished, quit cold turkey (literally). Clearly things need to change but I think that blaming it exclusively on meat production and not the system from which it was produced is shortsighted.
A Tale Of Two Systems
Industrial Agriculture Perhaps my biggest criticism of our current agricultural system is that, well, it is not a system; or a very good one, at least. Systems are the sum of their elements and the connections that bind them together; stable and resilient systems are diverse and complex interconnected networks. Conventional agriculture, as it stands, is neither stable or resilient. Its lack of connections have given agriculture the following characteristics:
- Overly linear (little or none of its yields fulfill its own needs and, as a result, is resource and waste intensive.
- Lacking in diversity (hence opportunities for connections).
- Broken nutrient cycles (produces yields that don’t fulfill any needs).
- Single functioning (does not stack functions to produce multiple yields).
An Ecosystem Who waters an ecosystem? Who weeds, tills, fertilizes, and kills the insects? Nobody, of course! Ecology is self-sustaining, self-regulating, and self-perpetuating; containing the diversity to support countless connections, it cycles nutrients and resources, establishes feedback loops, sequesters carbon, and increases in biodiversity, complexity, and resiliency over time. If a forest burns down, it will self-assemble. Unfortunately, we typically cut forests down to build farms. Ecology generally contains the following characteristics:
- An interconnected complex system.
- Rich in diversity; often increasing over time.
- Intact nutrient cycles that largely stay on site.
- Functioning at multiple levels; the end of each process becomes the beginning of another.
Now, let us turn our attention to meat production within each system; at first, this may appear strange, as we’re not accustomed to thinking about ecological systems in terms of food production. Animals, however, only represent a small fraction of an entire ecosystem; the vast majority of which are plants. Now imagine that you are given the following two choices; to harvest all of the plants or all of the animals from an ecosystem. Though, consuming all the animals would, in itself, be detrimental, the overall ecosystem would remain relatively intact and be able to continue. Consuming the plants, on the other hand, would completely strip the ecological pyramid and cause the entire system to collapse.
This is, of course, an over simplification to prove a point. In reality animals also perform many crucial services for plant and I would never advocate the removal of such an integral part of the ecosystem nor am I advocating meat only diets. In fact, as Chef Dan Barber put it in his 2010 TED Talk, How I Fell In Love With A Fish, a sustainable farm should ”measures its success by the success of its predators” (top trophic levels).
Industrial agriculture, on the other hand, is the worst of both worlds; generally consuming all the producers and consumers at once, or worse, harvesting an entire vegetative trophic level in one system to sustain a separate system that lacks its own; one monoculture feeding another (conventional meat production).
The key is recognizing the amazing (and free) services that animals can contribute to plant production. Consider the role of a large herbivore living in a forest; they consume vegetation, redistribute seeds, prune back branches, rut up patches of earth, redistribute nutrients (manure), and act as a water reservoirs (72% water). What I’m advocating for is the restructuring of our current agricultural systems in such a way that they behave like ecosystems. While taking my permaculture design certificate (PDC) my instructor, Jesse Lemieux, recalled a story from when he had worked at an apple orchard. As I recall it, one of Jesse’s least favourite chores was picking up fallen apples. Obviously frustrated with this never-ending task, Jesse proposed introducing pigs to the orchards, as pigs would happily consume the fallen fruit on site, drastically reducing labour while simultaneously offering the additional yields of manure and pork. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that his advice was ever taken. As this example illustrates, the addition of pigs has a net positive effect on the farm while reducing inputs (labour) and turning “waste” products into a yields (manure and pork).*
Agricultural systems that mimic and adopt the patterns and principals of ecology could create mutually beneficial polycultures of plants and animal species. The goal then is to create agriculturally productive ecosystems; systems in which animals play integral roles in increasing productivity. In these systems, farmers would benefit from increasing the health of their farms trophic pyramids and by harvesting “slices” of plants and animals as abundance permits.
Harvesting is done in such a way that ensures that the system remains intact for future production. In this system harvesting plants from the base of the system must be accompanied by a proportional harvest of the animals that depend on this base; if not, the system will be out of balance and correct itself.
So, is eating meat ethical? Well… I don’t think that it is unethical. The deciding factor probably depends on the system from which it was derived. Under the current agricultural system, let us face it, there are issues. Though, under an ecological model eating meat is justified (even ethical) if it helps maintain a balanced trophic level pyramid. I personally feel that vegetarianism is a perfectly normal reaction to a misguided agricultural system that is particularly bad at producing meat and that it is the system (not the meat) that we should be trying to avoid. By now, you have probably realized that this article has more to do with a need to move towards ecologically inspired agricultural systems than it has to do with meat… see what I did there?
*It might be interesting to note that in the example that introduces pigs to an apple orchard that the addition of animals followed the successful establishment of an orchard (plants before animals). This is the order in which ecological succession would predict and it might be interesting to explore if this should always be the case.
(2012). Meat. http://www.globalagriculture.org, Retrieved from http://www.globalagriculture.org/report-topics/meat.html
(2008). Lifestyle changes can curb climate change. AFP, Retrieved from http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5iIVBkZpOUA9Hz3Xc2u-61mDlrw0Q
Bluejay, M. (n.d.). Lifestyle changes can curb climate change: Ipcc chief. AFP, Retrieved from http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/environment.html
Holt Gimenez, E. (2012, May 02). We already grow enough food for 10 billion people — and still can’t end hunger. http://www.huffingtonpost.com, Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-holt-gimenez/world-hunger_b_1463429.html
Jones-Shoeman, C. (2011). Four reasons why people become vegetarian. http://www.naturalnews.com, Retrieved from http://www.naturalnews.com/030890_vegetarian_reasons.html