To Meat or Not To Meat—My Plight

(revision two)

 

            Growing up in a small town in the end of the 20th century has brought me and taught me many-a-thing, as well as left gaping holes in my education and a blind eye as to serious business going on in the world.  It left me with several prejudices, known and unknown, hard-learned experiences with living in a small, tight-knit gossip circle, filled with housewives, local business owners, and the like always trying to one-up the others with the latest tidbit about so-and-so over the morning coffee and the usual chit-chat about the local gossip scene.  I came to resent this, but learned to work with it, and turn the system back upon itself so as to playfully incriminate those doing the “talking” and rumor spreading.  From this came an understanding of the local social circles, and how to rise above them, removing myself so as to gain a better perspective of the motivations of those involved.

            This false feeling of control has proved to be deceitful in recent years.  While being confident about my beliefs and practices, I was trained to keep watching; looking down the road, looking straight ahead.  This sort of tunnel vision or speed blindness tends to leave a person with a lack of perspective, which I had previously found so sought-after.

            I have been toying with the idea of vegetarianism for some time now, and when I started down this road, I really had no idea what I was about to get myself into.  I now receive strange reactions from people when I mentioned that I did not eat this or that, the looks of people at the dinner table when I order a dish with the tofu option over chicken or beef.  Let me just say now that I have come to enjoy tofu more than most types of meat I have been so attracted to in my life. In fact, I sometimes crave it, as if it were a drug, of sorts.  Perhaps it is.

            In this paper I am going to attempt to really dive in, for the first time, and lay out facts, fictions, thoughts, and deeds that are involved regarding the human consumption, or rather MY consumption of meat, and all that is involved therein.  I will almost certainly not resolve my inner conflict on these pages, but I will make some headway towards some sort of dietary aspiration.  In the end, I may decide to become vegetarian.  I may even decide to go vegan.  Perhaps I will dive headlong into an all-meat diet, with nothing but steaks, hamburgers, fried chicken, and lamb to await my every meal for the rest of my days.  In all likelihood, I foresee that I will decide to try out vegetarianism for a while, just to see if I can swing it[1]. 

I will begin by diving into the material, starting with William Stephens Five Arguments for Vegetarianism[2].  Stephens’ first argument is one of distributive justice.  Principals of distributive justice are normative, designed to allocate goods in limited supply relative to demand.  The essential argument here is that, in terms of grain and soy needed to produce relative amounts of meat versus just eating the grain, meat is a very costly item.  The ratios here are simply shocking: there is a sixteen to twenty-one-to-one ratio involved in the production of beef; it takes sixteen to twenty-one-to-one pounds of grain and soy to produce one pound of beef.  Moving through the other varieties of meat, there is a six to eight-to-one ratio in the production of pork, a four-to-one ratio in the production of turkey, and a three-to-one ratio involved in producing chicken meat. 

            I find these numbers simply astonishing.  As a student of science, specifically physics, let me compare this to one of the least efficient, yet widely used means of transportation today: the gasoline engine.  Based on a non-renewable energy source, four-stroke gasoline engine waists approximately sixty to eighty percent of its potential energy produced in the form of heat and friction, never to be available again.  It is easy to say that this process is far less than efficient, yet it is used by millions upon millions of people every day to go here and there, not to mention the chemical pollutants involved in this process.  Imagine just how powerful or efficient of vehicles we could be using if we were able to gain 100 % efficiency out of a gasoline engine/non-renewable energy source, much less a renewable energy source.  We’re talking about a high-end sports car getting over one hundred miles to the gallon.

            Even the most efficient of the means of meat production is horribly inefficient, and it does not take a student of science to see that, by cutting back production of meat and channeling those extra grain resources into the slew of people—the millions of people who die each year from lack of grains in their diet, we could save lives; we could save many lives.  The ratio involved here is more or less one-to-one—almost 100% efficient!  It would take close to a miracle to make an advance even close to that in terms of engine efficiency.  In heed of this and continuing to eat meat, I am not only putting my stamp of approval on wasteful production, but I am being selfish and refusing to share, showing a blatant disregard for distributive justice. 

            Stephens points out that developing nations mimicking America worsens this.  We, as one of the most technologically advanced and industrialized country in the world, are setting a poor and irresponsible example.  As serious as some people interpret the Bible and watch football, it seems to me that if we’re fortunate enough, by chance of birth, to be born, live, and be consumers in an agriculturally wealthy nation, we should lower the demand for meat by laying embargo to its ‘luxury.’  We should not be showing such reckless abandon by selfishly squandering our agricultural wealth; we should instead be sharing it with those, who, by the similar accident of birth, live in agriculturally poor areas of the world.

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          Friends and neighbors aside, what else do I have to worry about?  Pollution.  Erosion.  Waste.  The Environment.  My Environment; Our Environment—Mother Nature.  The production of livestock, besides being inefficient, also produces a large amount of waist, specifically livestock manure.  Manure produces, amongst other things, methane, one of four gases that contributes to global warming.  Livestock account for somewhere from fifteen to twenty percent of global methane emissions.

            Nitrogen is a chemical natural to our earth; it comprises 78% of our atmosphere and is a vital ingredient in any artificial fertilizer.  It is everywhere.  Since manure is exposed to open air and most likely a fertilizer of some type immediately upon its production, the means for the production of certain types of harmful nitrates is almost guaranteed.  These are also almost guaranteed to find their way into ground water, drinking water.  This is a leading cause for Methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), cancer, and numerous forms of nervous system impairments.  This is a natural cycle considered an organic pollutant, but the sheer number of livestock is now to account for over one half of the toxic organic pollutants found in fresh water.

            Speaking of water, apparently it takes about 3,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of American beef.  3,000 liters!  This is mostly due to inefficient use of irrigation and water recycling techniques.  This, combined with deforestation, contributes to massive desertification of the land on which the livestock is grown.  Overgrazing and over cultivation of this land are prime factors in a ridiculous amount of erosion of the earth, costing up to about thirty-five pounds of topsoil per pound of steak produced. 

            My prime ‘beef’ with all of these facts is waste.  The toil on the land, the tainting of the ground water—the cost is simply too high per unit of livestock meat on my plate for me to reflect and happily chew a piece of steak at the same time.  As if the labor on the land and the inefficient allocation of resources, we come back to energy and non-renewable resources.  The amount of non-renewable assets that go into the amount of meat the average American consumes in a year is enough to drive all the way across the United States and half way back in the new Honda Insight[3]. 

            Livestock production leads to serious environmental harm.  As a human being eating meat, I am in a sense laughing in the face of sustainable development.  Ecologically it would be beneficial to impose sanctions on livestock and take up a vegetarian diet.  What about the animals?  How do they deal with being cooped up, slaves to the humans, living each day out just to wake up one morning to be slaughtered and served on the latest McDonald’s big meal deal.  Peter Singer[4] and Tom Regan[5] have two different arguments that arrive on the thesis against factory farming.   

            Singer, whose line of thought makes so much more sense to me is quite simple, starting out by saying that we should simply take into account the interests of every sentient being, and give those interests similar weight of interest as the like interest of any other sentient being.  Now, practices that inflict suffering on any sentient being without good reason, should be considered morally wrong.  My problem (which I also find with Regan’s argument) lies here, which I shall address in a moment. 

            The two turning points here are that factory farming inflicts suffering on sentient beings and that humans (arguably) do not need meat for a healthy diet.  These points taken, it easily follows that sentient beings have a serious interest in not being made to suffer, and that humans, having a trivial interest in meat as a dietary luxury must wage this trivial interest against the aforementioned serious interest in not being made to suffer, and concede that factory farming is, in fact, morally wrong.[6]

            Due to its exceptional layout and self-inclusive gist, I follow and can side myself with Singer’s argument much more quickly than Regan’s, and I submit that inflicting suffering on a sentient being or a SOAL is morally wrong and fundamentally unjust because it is both an unnatural and immoral form of hunting, but I have to question whether cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and the like are sentient beings and I HAVE to question if they are a SOAL.  I will concede that they are, in fact sentient, as it means simply conscious, but Regan’s intense and presumptuous description left me with an awful taste in my mouth.  I find it IMMENSLEY hard to go all the way and believe that a cow/pig/sheep/chicken/turkey has a sense of the future, including their own, and emotional life with preference and welfare interests, with the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their own desires and goals, having a psychophysical identity over time. 

            Personally, I will put these premises past a cow/pig/sheep/chicken/turkey.  Certainly they can act to protect themselves to a point, but I think that, given any semi-complex scenario, an animal as simple as these will have a hard time plotting revenge or escape, if you will.  Certainly we can give animated characters such as Tom and Jerry human qualities such as curiosity, anger, hatred, jealousy, or an appreciation for art and music, but it seems, at least for the mentioned livestock-class animals we are discussing, to be a *bit* much. 

 

            Friends, neighbors, environment and moral considerations aside, what more could there to be potentially argue for or against concerning livestock?  What about ourselves?  What about me?  I feel like quitting meat ‘cold turkey’ is going to throw off my body, my metabolism, my mental well being, probably my athletic performance.  On ignorant premonition, I feel as though I will easily be able to sustain myself by replacing protein sources and the like, but to what degree will my body be thrown off?

            First off, we have the Eskimos, Greenlanders, Laplanders, and the Russian Kurgi tribes, with the populations as a whole consuming the highest percentage of animal flesh in the world.  These groups also seem to have the lowest life expectancy, right around thirty years.  Thirty years!?  Originally I thought that this was a really skewed claim, and only somewhat relevant.  These people live in harsh climates, it is no wonder they have a low life expectancy.  But then I found about another Russian group, the Caucasians, the Yukatan Indians, the East Indian Todas, and the Pakistan Hunzakuts, all of which live in equally harsh conditions, but their diets consist of little or no animal flesh, combined with some of the highest life expectancies in the world--90 to 100 years.  In the East Andes of Ecuador, on the Black Sea, and in the Himalayas of Northern Pakistan live groups of people that enjoy full, active lives, living, working, and playing past the age of eighty while having diets that consist of only 1.5% meat and dairy product calories. 

            Contrast these two scenarios with the United States:  we have one of the lowest life expectancies of all industrialized nations, yet we live in a temperate environment, and have the most sophisticated medical technology available in the world.  The US is one of the highest consumers of meat and animal products.

            These cases combined with several different studies documenting that the stamina and strength of a vegetarian is superior to that of meat eaters makes me wonder how in the world I can eat meat and be consider myself healthy.[7]  It seems that a balanced, well thought out, meat-less diet is healthier than a diet containing meat, thus providing strong reasons for becoming a vegetarian.

 

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            Now, is it really going to matter if I decide to buy and eat meat?  The lines of causation that stretch out between the boycotting of meat by Americans, the market effect this will have on international agribusiness, rising surplusses of grain worldwide, and political decissions to export such surplusses to famine-plagued areas, are without question long, complicated, difficult to establish, and even more difficult to predict the outcome of.  It is easy to argue that such tenuous, convoluted causal lines are too easily severed by unforseen or uncontrollable circumstances.  Any single person boycotting the meat industry is going to be symbolic at face value, but coupled with political action and greater numbers of people, it could exert real market pressure to undercut the meat industry. 

            Consider this: Americans lead the world in meat consumption, with one hundred and twelve kilograms per capita, or about two kilograms per week, whereas in India on average of two kilograms per capita are consumed per year.  Our view of meat consumption might look better if we remember that if Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by only ten percent for one year, it would free over twelve million tons of grain for global famine relief—enough to feed sixty million starving people.  Factory-farmed meat is a luxure indulged by in predominantly by Americans and Europeans at the expense of the poor of developing nations—it is a wasteful and selfish at odds with distributive justice, showing a lack of compassion for those who deserve decent food. 

            It could also be said that by limiting consumption to those animals (i.e. goats) that graze on unfarmable ‘rough pasture land that grows only grass’ as Singer describes it (i.e. mountain slopes), meat eaters would not be depriving hungry people of any grain protein at all.  This then, concedes that farmable land should not be used to support meat production, but this all too quickly assures that all land ‘that grows only grass’ can and rightly should be used to produce animal protein for humans. 

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            What choice could I possibly have?  I have laid out all of the facts against meat eating, and every one of them sickens me.  Distributive justice supplies a piece of prominent Christian philosophy of selflessness, sharing, and equality.  There are more than several reasons for abandoning meat production all together for environmental reasons, and I do not wish harm upon cute little animals.  Sentient or not, I should hold their serious interest in not being made to suffer over my trifling, petty interest in eating meat.  There are even numerous health studies that suggest that I will be able to work harder, live longer, and further my enjoyment of life by lessening or quitting my meat and dairy intake all together.  Still, I am hard pressed to quit eating meat outright as I feel that I have left some vital points against vegetarianism, not to mention a deeper discussion of the validity of animals being SOAL and/or sentient beings.  Thus I submit here a draft, on the promise that I will try a vegetarian diet over the present holiday.

 

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UPDATE

            It has now been almost two months since I first laid my fingers into this text, and decided to try out vegetarianism.  I am still going strong, and find that, with the exception of a rare craving for chicken tender melts from Perkins, I have no desire to eat meat on a sound moral and physiological basis. 

 



[1] I actually have experience in this area.  Although undocumented in any of my previous papers or diaries, I quit drinking pop/soda/coke last summer.  Truth be told, I actually ran out of Mountain Dew one day, and decided that I should try and see just how long I could do without.  That was nine months ago.  I have, to this day, not had a single pop/soda/coke.  I tried one over Christmas, but a drink was all I could stand.  The thickness of the sweetness in the liquid was just too much.

 

 

[2] Pp 288 - 301, Environmental Ethics: Concepts, Policy, and Theory by Joseph DesJardins.  Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, California.

 

[3] 3400 Miles; or any popular domestic SUV to the grocery store and back, either adds up to about 190 liters of gasoline. (www.honda.com)

 

[4] Singer, P 293, Environmental Ethics.

 

[5] Regan, P 294, Environmental Ethics.

 

[6] Given that Factory Farming inflicts suffering without good reason.  Taking a step back, here, I should note that, while working out this argument in my notes, I represented factory farming as ‘FF.’ Coincidently, these letters are often used to represent ‘Fergus Falls,’ my hometown.  Thus the statement sat on my paper ‘FF is morally wrong.’  Not too far off from my original statement on page 1!

 

[7] http://www.vegsource.com, thevegitariansite.com, acorn.net/av, arrs.envirolink.org, meatstinks.com, veganstreet.com, vegetarianfriends.com, eatright.org, livingpure.com, soyinfo.com.

 

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