A contrarian look at meat eating

I am an omnivore with a guilty conscience. What I mean by that is that I think that vegetarians and vegans have convincing arguments based on moral, ethical, economic, and climate reasoning that that is the way to live. But I have simply not had the will power to take the leap and switch over to that diet. Instead, I have taken the minimal step of reducing my meat consumption.

I am aware that some arguments have been advanced to justify meat eating based largely on the fact that it is an easy way to get proteins and a few essential vitamins and on a more specious argument that since our evolutionary history reveals that we were meat eaters from a long time back, that means that eating meat must provide some evolutionary benefit.

But I have never come across an argument that says that we should eat meat until I read this one that we actually owe it to animals to eat them.

If you care about animals, you should eat them. It is not just that you may do so, but you should do so. In fact, you owe it to animals to eat them. It is your duty. Why? Because eating animals benefits them and has benefitted them for a long time. Breeding and eating animals is a very long-standing cultural institution that is a mutually beneficial relationship between human beings and animals. We bring animals into existence, care for them, rear them, and then kill and eat them. From this, we get food and other animal products, and they get life. Both sides benefit. I should say that by ‘animals’ here, I mean nonhuman animals. It is true that we are also animals, but we are also more than that, in a way that makes a difference.

It is true that the practice does not benefit an animal at the moment we eat it. The benefit to the animal on our dinner table lies in the past. Nevertheless, even at that point, it has benefitted by its destiny of being killed and eaten. The existence of that animal, and animals of its kind, depends on human beings killing and eating animals of that kind. Domesticated animals exist in the numbers they do only because there is a practice of eating them.

However, the big negative, for many people is climate, and the effects, mostly, of cattle burping and farting. Does not climate give us reason to be vegetarian or vegan? Well, since the problem mostly comes from cows, one option would be to move to eating other kinds of animals in greater numbers. Moreover, the climate damage is mostly due to very intensive factory farming, which I do not defend because the animals do not have good lives. Indeed, the evidence is that small-scale farming in which animals have good lives does not harm the environment much, and it may even benefit it.

I don’t buy it. The argument seems to rest on a kind of utilitarian logic that says that the pleasure that animals that are bred for slaughter get from living good lives before they die more than compensates for the fact that they are deliberately killed to be eaten by humans. It also seems to suggest that ‘not being born’ is worse than being born and then prematurely killed, provided one has a good life while alive.

That seems specious to me. I don’t think that one can assign a value to ‘not being born’ and compare that to ‘having a good life’ to arrive at some net score. Both are immeasurable entities. The author goes on to try and and argue in great detail why humans should be excluded from this calculus.

When I first come across articles like this that seem to advance what seems like a preposterous premise, my first impulse is to check if it is April 1 or, failing that, if it appeared on a parody site or was written by a humorist. None of them apply here, as far as I can tell. I can only conclude that the author has a strongly contrarian streak.


  1. Dunc says

    We are all aware that we will die. It is quite likely that we will die in pain and fear. Would it therefore be better if we had never lived? Most people would say “no” -- that life is worth whatever suffering that it entails. Even people who have endured great hardship and suffering mostly seem to feel that their lives were “worthwhile”, that they would rather have endured their privations than to have never been born, or to have died in infancy. Why should it be different for non-human animals?

  2. says

    I have seen arguments close to this before. I do think I understand the angle of the argument. It seems to be a counter to vegetarian arguments about harm, implying not existing is an even worse harm. I’m guessing they don’t explicitly say that, do they?
    Otherwise, what I really don’t buy is this part: “Indeed, the evidence is that small-scale farming in which animals have good lives does not harm the environment much, and it may even benefit it.” Where is that small-scale farming going to take place? Do they think factory farming is simply a product of capitalism? Are they not aware of how the Amazon is being burned down to accommodate cattle ranching? Now, sure, that is being pushed by capitalism, but it’s also a problem of not having other land available for ranching. The point is they don’t seem to be considering that increasing small-scale farming likely means more overall land use and that has environmental consequences. Yeah, if small-scale farming could be increased without expanding on overall land use, that would be great. But I don’t see that happening without lowering meat consumption.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I agree with Mano that the argument is specious. If our primary motivation is care for the environment, then the metric we should be looking at is calories per acre. From that metric, something like soybeans are hard to beat — the figure that I’ve heard is that they’re up to ten times more efficient than beef by that metric.

    The same token also should also make us suspicious of “organic” food. Part of the reason it costs more is that it is less efficient to grow. Simply put, it doesn’t scale up well — if everyone were to eat nothing but food grown organically and nothing else, the amount of farmland would need to expand substantially.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    WMDKitty @2: A healthy diet is primarily about being informed. Some vegans don’t know about B12. Many meat-eaters don’t know about the risks of their diet. Criticizing choices should also be about being informed. Your blanket “primary problem” bullshit is ill-informed.

  5. Holms says

    #2 That’s quite the generalisation, and I say that as an omnivore. Separately, what’s with the asterisk?

  6. K says

    There are several books and documentaries from farmers who raise meat on pasture. Polyface Farm is probably the most well-known in the USA. Turns out farmers can raise chickens, cows, and pigs on pastureland for most of the year, and it’s better for the land and better for the animals.

    The problem with the all-soybean diet is 1) it’s missing a whole constellation of vitamins and minerals, and 2) like any non-meat foods, it’s super-high-carb. They’re finding in India that a surprising amount of the adult vegetarians are also diabetics,

  7. Mano Singham says

    Dunc @#1,

    I think your analogy is imperfect. To make it parallel to the argument about animals made in the article, the question would be whether it is ethical for humans to be deliberately bred and then killed in their prime so that others could benefit, say by using their healthy organs for transplants.

    Would the pleasure that they got from their relatively brief life outweigh the pain of them knowing that they were going to die an untimely death?

  8. Marshall says

    > I am an omnivore with a guilty conscience

    Mano you described what I have always tried to say, but better. I agree that if we are able to live, without a huge inconvenience, in a manner that doesn’t cause huge pain and suffering to animals, then we should. The problem is--it does start off as a huge inconvenience. I’m surrounded by vegetarians and vegans but I can’t fathom how I could possibly exist in that world. I eat much healthier than your average American but I still find myself giving into cravings every now and then, and those cravings are pretty much always for a meat product. I’d have to basically give up my cravings forever.

    Then I also read about the inevitable heat death of the universe and I get into this super weird philosophical argument in my head about how nothing matters, but at the same time it does. Here is my dilemma (sorry I’m getting sidetracked): two people are killed. One is tortured horribly for months, screaming in pain and agony the whole time, kept alive as long as possible. The second person has a nuclear bomb detonated next to their head and dies immediately. Once they’re dead, they cease to exist and have no knowledge of their suffering, so in a weird way, nobody is currently more harmed one way or the other. So what’s significant, I think, is that *now* is not what’s important. It’s that the experience happened in time at *some* point. And we should probably attempt to reduce suffering at any time.

    I ran off on a tangent and I could probably write about this for hours but I’m feeling like the TimeCube guy so I’ll stop.

  9. John Morales says

    chigau, maybe, but vegetarians typically don’t exclude sources of B12 such as milk and eggs.

    (If they did, they’d be vegans)

    For mine, the only valid concern is ethical; after all, humans have canine teeth and can digest meat.
    Natural omnivores, we are.

  10. anat says

    The argument quoted in the OP is ridiculous on so many grounds. Some utilitarians apply it to humans as well -- that we should increase the human population to such level that people live miserably, but just are just barely less miserable than the level that would drive them to suicide -- because at such population level the total sum of human happiness would be at maximum. The obvious silliness of the argument is that nobody experiences that total sum of happiness, they only experience their own. And individual happiness/sense of meaning/other positive feelings is what should matter, not total sum.

    The other matter is that it seems to assume the alternative to raising animals for slaughter is to not have any animals? If humans reduce or eliminate animal agriculture they’d be able to feed more humans with less land resources (and even the need to produce chemical fertilizer and synthetic vitamin B12 doesn’t undo the environmental savings from not having animal agriculture), leaving much land that can be rewilded and serve as environment for animals of many different species.

  11. anat says

    John Morales @12: Even when I was eating plenty of eggs and dairy my B12 levels were on the low end of normal -- that’s because I have a (rather common) genetic variant that makes me an inefficient absorber of B12. I started supplementing with methylated B12, which brought my levels to the highest level of normal range, even now when I no longer eating dairy nor eggs.

  12. says

    “Eight ounce steaks” are a capitalist fantasy and a way to display wealth, not a necessity. But farming is only about 12,000 years old, before that we were nomadic, we hunted and ate what plants we could find. We are 500,000 year old ominvores evolved to crave meat, sugar, fat, and other nutrients. Vegans and vegetarians can talk about “environmentalism ethics” until the cows come home to be dinner, but it doesn’t change our biology.


    Any talk about environmentalism and meat has to include discussion of how many people eat. If there were only a billion people instead of eight billion, there wouldn’t be a strain on the earth’s resources, clearing of rain forests or emptying of oceans. (Cue the ignorant, disingenuous, and dishonest claims that “discussing population is a call for euthanasia!” That’s the argument of quiverfull and catholic cultists.)

  13. anat says

    Marshall @9: Cravings do tend to change over time. Some cravings are driven by actual physiological deficiency/insufficiency, but others are simply hedonic. The former respond to better dietary planning, whereas the latter is less predictable. However some people experience that after removing a class of foods from their diet for a while they crave it less.

    Personally -- for me meat was never a high priority food. As a child I never cared for red meat (unless it was ground up and mixed with lots of other stuff). Some form of chicken I enjoyed, as well as some forms of fish-based dishes. so for me transitioning to meatless eating was easy. Nowadays if I smell meat being cooked it takes me a while to realize that what I’m smelling is something that other people eat. It just doesn’t smell like food to me.

    My husband on the other hand was raised in Argentina, with a very meat-dominated diet. Yet it was his initiative to switch to a definitely meatless diet. Nowadays the smell of meat is to him a mix of happy memories with awareness that he freely chose to avoid such foods (he is a meditator and very mindful of his emotions and thinking process).

  14. anat says

    Intransitive @15: Our biology doesn’t change, but we do have the technology to fulfill our needs in a variety of ways.

  15. tuatara says

    WMDKitty @2

    I have been vegetarian since 1999, my partner since 1990. We have been together over 20 years and have (almost) an identical diet, with the exception being breakfast where she has a yeast extract -vegemite which is a vegetarian source of B12 -on toast and I peanut butter on toast. She has a B12 deficiency and I do not.
    Go figure?
    I do not miss meat in my diet at all. For the first 2 or 3 years, yes I did kind of miss it a little, but that soon passed.
    A variety of vegetable foods is essential to good health when one is vegetarian, as is understanding nutrient sources. The vital amino acids that we need can be sourced by combining something like bread with a legume (gluten or wheat protein lacks lysine which legumes contain). Falafel in a pita with salad, beans with rice, and on it goes.
    There are some notable vegetarians of great intelligence.
    The mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan was raised in a Brahmin environment and as such was a vegetarian since very early in life. He is considered one of the great mathematicians of history.
    Or the theoretical physicist Brian Greene, who is known to have become a vegetarian at age 9 of his own volition.
    Many gatherer-hunter peoples enjoyed a diet primarily from vegetable sources with a meat component of perhaps 5 or 10%. And all gathered within a few hours each day.
    As for canine teeth being a sign of meat consumption, well tell that to a mountain gorilla!

  16. Jazzlet says

    One of the things that too often gets overlooked, though it has been alluded to here, is that what you can farm on any given piece of land varies. From where I sit I can see moorland, upland with high rainfall, but thin soil, it is not suitable for any form of cultivation. It is however suitable for raising sheep which is what the local farmers do. There is a lot of moorland hereabouts, if it is to be used for any sort of food the choice is between sheep and game birds. Personally I’ll go for sheep every time, provided the meat is expensive enough that the land isn’t overgrazed.

  17. K says

    @Jazzlet, you raise an excellent point. As Tuatara pointed out, a vegetarian diet relies on a variety of foods all needed to provide the vitamins and minerals. Currently in the USA, the “breadbasket” area (corn, beans of all kinds including the “wonder bean” soybeans, other grains) is under several feet of snow, which is also wreaking havoc in the southern coast area (citrus fruit, other fruit). The vegetable and fruit and nut area (California) is coping with a mega-drought.

    What can animals do? Sheep, pigs (also omnivores like humans), cows, and goats survive quite well on grasses--which can be grown and harvested and stored as hay--and provide protein, vitamins, and minerals to humans. We evolved to eat a varied diet, and we evolved as hunters. Chicken--also omnivores--thrive on a mix of grains and fruit/veg and worms. On pasture, they will eat any worms they find from earthworms to parasite worms…and they turn what we can’t or won’t eat into eggs and meat.

    If you limit your food sources and then become allergic to one (legumes are a really common allergy), then what?

    Consuming handsful of vitamins is also not idea. There are many documentaries out there about the environmental damage that goes into making vitamins. A recent scandal in the USA featured vitamin companies that weren’t even trying to make vitamins, but selling their product as if it was what it said it was at the label. Walmart in particular (where a lot of rural and southern people shop because Walmart drove off all competition) is infamous for vitamins that contain nothing healthy.

    In order to be properly nourished as a vegetarian, the person trying it needs to be both educated in nutrition and able to buy a wide variety of foods, year-round.

  18. brucegee1962 says

    I became a vegetarian over twenty years ago when I got married, and my wife has been one since she was 14. After the first year or so, I never missed meat, and now eating creatures’ cooked muscles looks gross to me, like cannibalism probably looks to you. We eat dairy and eggs (so not vegan) and I’ve never noticed any health problems. Our kids have never had meat in their lives, and they are both healthy as well.
    The evolution argument seems specious to me as well. Probably most aspects of our modern lives have little to no connection with those of our ancient ancestors — why pick just this one area? We aren’t evolved to live in houses or drive cars, either. Plus, of course, diets must have been wildly different across the globe.
    Today, there are more and more meat substitutes that are practically indistinguishable from the real thing. When it gets to the point where you can’t tell whether you’re eating a burger made from a cow or from plants, what justification is there for preferring the cow? Other than simple cruelty?

  19. Holms says

    #21 bruceg

    Today, there are more and more meat substitutes that are practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

    Just a quick reminder: you have not tasted meat for 20 years. Are you still a good judge of what meat tastes like? I for one have eaten a fair few different meat substitutes which were alleged to taste like the real thing, without being told beforehand that they were a meat subsitute. They don’t, unless they are in small quantities and smothered by larger amounts of other strongly flavoured things. But then, that would cover the flavour of real meat too.

  20. K says

    The meat substitutes are all heavily-processed and not a healthy option for anyone who can’t have soy or wheat, or who don’t want any questionable additives in their food. If you want to eat meat, eat meat. If you don’t want to eat meat, there are plenty of options that don’t try to pretend they’re something they’re not. There are a number of brands of tasty bean burgers, spiced cauliflower patties, mixed-veggie sausages, and the like.

    From an article in The Guardian: Concern for our health is one of the main reasons we are now buying vegetarian sausages and burgers in such quantities, according to survey data. The catch is that there is not necessarily anything particularly healthy about a vegan hotdog. Many see them as just another set of overly processed industrial foods in a world that is already awash with what food writer Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances”.


  21. billseymour says

    “Yes, I’m an animal, too; but I’m more than that in a way that makes a difference,” said the tardigrade to the paramecium.

  22. mnb0 says

    I don’t care about ethical arguments; they apply to plants too and not eating isn’t an option for me. It’s arguments this

    “If the world adopted a plant-based diet we would reduce global agricultural land use from 4 to 1 billion hectares”
    that convinced me to reduce my meat consumption. Since a few years I eat it once or twice a week, with a maximum of 0,5 kg a week. So I consume 20 -- 30% of the average Dutchman/American. Without feeling any guilt.
    The funny thing is that I enjoy it more than before, because it has become a treat.

  23. garnetstar says

    Let’s go to lab-grown meat. If we can clone human organs for transplant, we can clone animal ones, or even muscle, I suppose. If we can’t do this yet, let’s work on it. Seems like one of the only good uses for cloning that I’ve heard of. Eating less meat, for those who want to eat it, also has health benefits.

    The environmental benefits from switching to lab-grown meat would then accrue, as well as the humanitarian ones. I would be glad to see the utter demise of factory farming and infliction of needless cruelty in the farming and sacrifice of animals.

  24. anat says

    K, various posts.

    @7: Plant-based diets are not super-high in carbs by necessity. For tips for low-carb plant-based eating see Plant-Based Low-Carb Diets. That said, there is no evidence that eating a diet high in carbohydrates is harmful to non-diabetics as long as the carbohydrates are mostly in a non-refined form and protein is adequate. Low carb, moderate carb, and high carb diets based mostly on whole and minimally processed foods can all be good, and people can find what works for their tastes and circumstances.

    @23: See Plant-based meat lowers some cardiovascular risk factors compared with red meat, study finds. Yes, It was funded by Beyond Meat. However the analysis was done by a third party, following a pre-published plan, as a measure to avoid bias.

    I’d say meat-substitutes are good as a bridge strategy for people who seek to eat less animal-based foods for assorted reasons while they learn more about whole-food plant-based foods, where to get good ingredients, better ways to prepare them, etc. Another option is to just gradually replace animal-based foods with non-animal based foods. Our family transitioned gradually to vegetarian eating over the course of many months. In recent years I transitioned gradually to animal-free eating.

  25. anat says

    garnetstar, lab-grown chicken is now available at some restaurants in Singapore. See here. It’s just a matter of time till it’s more broadly available.

  26. says

    To me, the original argument sounds an awful lot like the pro-slavery arguments that were made in the 1800s.

    Goofy thought experiment: Following the original argument regarding the “benefits” to the animals, suppose an advanced alien race came to Earth and decided that homo sapiens (a species that is obviously inferior to them) are delicious and decided to farm us. In the process, they cure a bunch of diseases and provide most of humanity with plenty of food, medical care, and safe, sanitary living quarters. How many humans would agree that this is a great tradeoff when the time comes at age 35 and you’re “harvested”?

    Maybe it’s just because I don’t think that so-called “dumb animals” are all that dumb. I’ve known too many dogs that had their own unique personalities, and every person I know who has owned a horse has said likewise.

  27. rgmani says

    The argument that you quoted is ridiculous on so many levels. Let us just start with the “I don’t support factory farming section”

    Moreover, the climate damage is mostly due to very intensive factory farming, which I do not defend because the animals do not have good lives.

    There are 7.5 billion people on the planet and less than one hundred million vegans. This means that 7.4 billion people consume animal products in some form. In approximately 30 years, the world population is projected to be close to 10 billion (a 30 percent increase) -- and not only is the population increasing, so is the per capita consumption of animal products. The only way of producing enough animal products to feed this many people at a price they can afford is factory farming. Unless the per capita consumption of animal products comes down drastically (which will not happen unless a considerable percentage of the world’s population goes vegan), factory farming is literally the only game in town.

    Then there is this nonsensical argument.

    The existence of that animal, and animals of its kind, depends on human beings killing and eating animals of that kind.

    And what kind of animal would that be? The animals that exist on our factory farms are nothing like their wild ancestors. What we have are cows which have been bred to produce so much milk that they can barely waddle from place to place, chickens that grow so fast that their legs literally snap under them and other such franken-creatures. At the same time, many of the wild animals that these have descended from have either gone extinct or are in danger of going extinct. Looking at cattle alone, the aurochs from which all domestic cattle are descended went extinct many centuries ago and other species of wild cattle like the Indian Gaur and the Javan Banteng are in danger. Deforestation is one of the main drivers of species extinction and the biggest driver of deforestation is animal agriculture. Animal agriculture is incredibly inefficient -- it uses close to 80 percent of agricultural land and produces less than 20 percent of our calories. Just getting off animal agriculture and re-wilding all the land we will no longer need is what is needed to preserve species.

    The nutrition argument against veganism is not valid either. Yes, vegan food is deficient in B12 but not because of some mysterious property that animals have that humans lack. B12 is produced not by any animal or plant but by bacteria present in the soil and water. Unfortunately, since we wash our vegetables and sanitize our water, that source is not available to us. These bacteria are also present in our guts but they are too far down for us to absorb a significant quantity of the B12 they produce. So, we either need to consume animal products or take a supplement. Interestingly livestock also have the same issue as we do with regards to B12 -- so there are plenty of livestock B12 supplements on the market. Directly or indirectly -- chances are that everyone is consuming B12 supplements. As regards other nutrients, there are good vegan sources for every one of them. Any time you switch to a new diet, you will need to plan what you eat to ensure you are getting enough nutrition and a vegan diet is no exception. The good news is that once you figure it out, it becomes automatic and you no longer need to put a ton of thought into whether you are getting enough nutrition.

    The only somewhat acceptable reason for not going vegan is the one that Mano gave.

    But I have simply not had the will power to take the leap and switch over to that diet.

    That was me for many years until I finally bit the bullet and switched over and a lot of vegans I know had similar difficulty. Our diet is so central to who we are that radically altering it is one of the most difficult things to do. For me the change was somewhat easy as I was already a vegetarian -- and yet it took me several years before I made the switch. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for someone for whom meat and other animal products are a central part of their diet.

  28. Jazzlet says

    anat @24
    One of the points I was making was that we can not convert all land presently used for agriculture into arable farming, and this is often not taken into account in discussions like this. As far as rewilding the moors goes, I would like to see some of them rewilded, but it would be almost as difficult a proposition socially (not the correct word, sorry I’m bit drugged up on Tramadol) as getting people to eat less meat.

    I am not suggesting that current levels of meat consumption are either healthy or environmentlly sustainable, but if you reduce meat consumption to the level of almost a seasoning you can get all of the benefits while being far more environmentally sustainable. For example yesterday for dinner I had, rice, chana dhal, kale cooked in mustard oil and chipolata sausages cooked in a tomato sauce. The meat portion of the meal weighed around 40g or less than 1.5 oz. We don’t eat a lot of meat, when we do it is nearly always a small amount rather than the main event so to write. I am not saying that my diet is perfect, but if all meat eaters ate as little meat as we do meat consumption wouldn’t be the huge problem it is at present.

  29. Deepak Shetty says

    I’m vegetarian by choice for about 25 years now --
    I dont think the too difficult to be vegetarian argument flies these days for a good number of places within the United States. Im also amused by the requirement that vegetarians must have a highly balanced nutritionally rich , devoid of any vitamin deficiencies, diet -- clearly all the Omnivores do that , no ? The humans evolved to be omnivores is also funny given that without fire , think about what the ones we evolved from were actually eating- perhaps we should call this the paleo diet fallacy ?

    I don’t care about ethical arguments; they apply to plants too

    You might want to actually read the arguments before making such a claim. Or else it looks like you believe ethical concerns about eating animals = ethical concerns about eating plants = ethical concerns about eating humans ?

  30. John Morales says

    Im also amused by the requirement that vegetarians must have a highly balanced nutritionally rich , devoid of any vitamin deficiencies, diet — clearly all the Omnivores do that , no ?

    No. But it’s a lot easier. More or less comes naturally. 😉

    Fruit, veg, legumes, tubers, herbs, grains, fish, fowl, ruminants, herbivores, milk, cheese, eggs.
    And more.
    All grist to the mill.

    So, not too difficult, but more difficult. And far less choice.

  31. Heidi Nemeth says

    A large number of vegetarians and vegans own carnivorous pets (which eat meat). Why would you keep a pet which must eat meat if you will not eat meat yourself?

  32. John Morales says

    Heidi, duh. Because such pets as are obligate carnivores must eat meat, or die horribly.

    My dog is coprophagic; he just loves cat poo, in particular, though he’ll settle for other sorts. Much to my disgust.

    Also, my plants like soil.

    (Do you really find it strange that I don’t eat shit or soil, yet keep a dog and plants?)

  33. K says

    @anat, you’ve touted this low-carb vegetarian diet endlessly on another blogger’s site. In short, you have to limit yourself excessively to a handful of ingredients and (in a time of supply chain issues) hope like crazy that the six things you eat are actually available at the store. As John Morales points out, an omnivore diet includes: Fruit, veg, legumes, tubers, herbs, grains, fish, fowl, ruminants, herbivores, milk, cheese, eggs. And more” (like leafy greens.) Not handsful of vitamins, because it’s much easier to get needed nutrients. And unlike limiting the diet, if one or two items aren’t available, others certainly are. One recent snow-clearing day, we started the day with French Toast (bread dipped in egg and vanilla and cinnamon, then fried in a nonstick pan in its own juices) with some maple syrup for added energy. Afterward, we had homemade tomato-veggie soup. Omnivores eat a variety of plant and animal life.

    Does being a vegetarian make you feel superior to everyone else? That’s certainly the vibe you give off.

  34. rgmani says

    @K -- you say

    In short, you have to limit yourself excessively to a handful of ingredients and (in a time of supply chain issues) hope like crazy that the six things you eat are actually available at the store.

    The definition of veganism (as per the Vegan Society which is the oldest vegan organization in the world) is

    Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose …

    Pretty much every vegan that I personally know or have seen on social media accepts this definition. Please note the “as far as is possible or practicable” in the definition. Of course this is subject to interpretation but if you are being honest about it, it means consuming as few animal products as you possibly can. For most people in a modern urban/suburban environment, this means completely abstaining from all animal products. However, at a time of food scarcity or if you are living in a food desert or if plant-based food is prohibitively expensive or you have some severe dietary limitation you may be forced to consume some animal products and that is perfectly fine. So long as you are consuming only as much animal-based food as is essential for you, you can still call yourself vegan as far as I am concerned.

    The goal is not to be perfect but to be as good as you possibly can be. As I vegan I am fully aware that I am very imperfect. There is a lot of animal suffering and death involved in plant farming and if I am being true to my ethical beliefs, I will bend over backwards to find the foods that involve the least amount of animal suffering -- that is something I am clearly not doing. Given that it took me years after being convinced of the case for veganism to actually make the switch, I am not going to demonize or look down on anyone who has not made the transition yet. The the only thing I have no patience for are dishonesty and bad faith arguments.

  35. Rob Grigjanis says

    K @37: (To anat)

    Does being a vegetarian make you feel superior to everyone else? That’s certainly the vibe you give off.

    I’m just seeing someone talk about their own diet, along with some data. I don’t get a ‘superior vibe’ at all. But I do often see meat eaters respond in a prickly way to any comments by vegans/vegetarians along the lines of “what, you think you’re better than me?”. Funny.

    I’m an inveterate meat-eater myself. It’s one of the areas in which I wish I had more self-discipline. But I have looked into the issues around diets which exclude any animal products out of theoretical interest, and was surprised at how easy it is to get all the proteins, etc you need (with the usual caveat about B12).

  36. anat says

    K, I don’t feel superior as I have been in various places with my diet over the course of my life, I just find the objections come from unjustified assumptions and a lack of experience.

    If it weren’t for certain knowledge of my personal genetics I’d probably be eating a moderate to high carb animal-free diet now. The animal-free eating is a conclusion from my ethics, the kind of animal-free diet is up to all sorts of considerations. Also, I foresee a time where animal-based eating will not be possible for most of humanity. So it is up to those of us who can easily afford to do so to explore the range of options -- whether by experimenting with new (to them) whole foods, or by creating a market for alternatives of various kinds.

  37. John Morales says


    The animals we raise and kill — only to throw away

    According to USDA data from 2010, Americans throw out 26 percent of meat, poultry, and fish at the retail and consumer level. Harish Sethu, a data scientist and author of the blog Counting Animals, says America’s meat waste problem means we’re raising about a billion chickens, more than 100 million other land animals (mostly turkeys, pigs, and cows), as well as capturing around 25 billion fish and 15 billion shellfish (mostly shrimp), only to have them wind up in a landfill.

    While the data is over a decade old, the situation is likely worse now, as US meat production rose 10.3 percent from 2011 to 2018 while food waste only decreased by 1 percent.


  38. John Morales says


    So it is up to those of us who can easily afford to do so to explore the range of options

    Worms, insects, bacteria.

  39. K says

    Anat, I apologize. I spoke out of frustration.

    I’ve looked into the miracle Israeli low-carb vegetarian diet, and found it to be too restrictive and too dependent on specialty foods not readily available in my area without great cost. I was vegetarian for about 8 years, and my body just couldn’t handle the carb load. Pea protein? High carb. Soy protein? Legume. Iron? I run anemic if I don’t eat red meat, and iron tablets don’t sit well on my stomach. It’s one thing to say we all should eat nothing but fruit and veg, but that’s simply not realistic. People differ in their nutrition needs.

    As far as waste goes, I buy my meat from a local collective of farmers supplying one farm. Visitors are welcome to visit the farms and see the animals on pasture. I don’t waste meat.

    Their fruit & veg offerings are seasonal because I live in an area with seasons. If I had to rely on solely vegetables, I’d go hungry if they’re not available at the supermarket (which is frequently the case).

  40. anat says

    Not sure which Israeli low carb diet you speak of, the one I linked to here is by a British doctor of Polish decent. Not sure where you live, perhaps geography is a factor -- many of the specific products she mentions are British (though she makes her own tofu -- apparently daily? and I see that people make their own soy protein isolate? Not sure I’ll go that way any time soon, but back in the day I didn’t expect to bake my own bread, which I did for a few years, so who knows).

    What do you mean by ‘my body couldn’t handle the carb load’? Were you hyper-glycemic?

    As for iron -- my husband used to be borderline anemic, it was one of the many problems that went away when he went gluten-free. (Tahini and legumes have plenty of iron, but for best absorbability they need to be eaten with a vitamin C source.)

    I’m not sure where you get the idea that I or any other animal-free eater relies solely on vegetables? Though I have increased my intake over the last 3 years. Nuts and seeds are an important source of minerals, as are nutritional yeast. And yes, dry legumes. (When the lockdowns started we made sure to have large bagfuls of various kinds, and were not worried about the possibility that we’d have to reduce frequency of shopping trips.)

  41. Rob Curtis says

    How about Breatharianism?
    no sticky moral quandries about killing plants and animals

  42. Deepak Shetty says

    @John Morales

    But it’s a lot easier.

    Theoretically , may be. Practically at least the correlation is that the vegetarians are nutritionally healthier (as far as I remember from studies). It goes higher if you consider people who actively make that choice (i.e. who did some reading about it) v/s those who are vegetarians because they were born into it or because their religion demands it.

    And far less choice.

    In theory maybe. Practically , I have a far easier time buying a variety of vegetables v/s trying to buy a fresh wild caught fish (as opposed to previously frozen or farm raised) for my children in my budget.

  43. John Morales says


    Theoretically , may be.

    And practically. Remember, vegetarianism is a subset of omnivory.

    In theory maybe.

    And in practice. Do you not get that an omnivore can get the same stuff as you do, and also other stuff you don’t?

  44. rgmani says

    @John Morales

    And in practice. Do you not get that an omnivore can get the same stuff as you do, and also other stuff you don’t?

    For all practical purposes there is no issue being vegetarian in the US -- nor has there been for the thirty plus years I have lived here. Being from India, I know tons of vegetarians who lived in pretty much every area of the country. Granted, no one that I know has lived in a remote rural area but in pretty much any urban/suburban area, there is no issue finding a large variety of vegetarian items in grocery stores or in finding vegetarian options in restaurants. Indian groceries were sometimes a problem -- I recall people complaining twenty years ago that they had to drive 30-40 minutes to find Indian groceries or mail order them. Today even that is not an issue.

    Twenty years ago, vegan options were limited and were often quite expensive. Now, that is much less of an issue. Getting a wide selection of inexpensive vegetarian/vegan options at grocery stores is really easy nowadays. Yes, you can always bring up food deserts and rural areas where not much is available or point to some place in Alaska where produce is ridiculously expensive but in most places it is just not an issue.

  45. John Morales says

    rgmani, you have apparently misunderstood me.

    Again: everything a vegetarian can get to eat, an omnivore can too.
    But the converse is not true.

    Simple as that.

  46. rgmani says

    @John Morales

    rgmani, you have apparently misunderstood me.

    Again: everything a vegetarian can get to eat, an omnivore can too.
    But the converse is not true.

    I think it is you who are misunderstanding the point that Deepak and I are trying to make. What you say above is trivially true. But does it make any significant practical difference to the life of a vegetarian/vegan? That is the more interesting question. Is a vegetarian or vegan going to find it hard to find nutritious food at a reasonable price? Increasingly, the answer to that question is no. Nowadays, it isn’t “a lot easier” to be an omnivore (to use your own phrase), for most people it is only marginally easier.

    The biggest issue you are likely to have as a vegetarian/vegan is when dining at someone else’s place. So you can ask your friends/family to accommodate your dietary requirements (which someone close to you will usually be happy to do) or you can make an exception to your diet on such occasions. I personally have chosen the former but I know people who have chosen the latter approach. I went vegan when I was convinced of the ethical, environmental and public health case for abstaining from animal products. But a person who is plant-based 90 percent of the time is having essentially the same impact as I am.

  47. Holms says

    This defensiveness over the plain fact that omnivores have more options is something I see repeatedly in these conversations.

  48. anat says

    Yes, omnivores have more options. But for some reason they mostly limit themselves to those options that are considered culturally acceptable and easily obtainable. Why only a short list of mammals, birds, fish, and some water-living invertebrates? Where are the dog farms? (Chihuahuas were originally bred for food.) Why isn’t there a squirrel section in the supermarket -- so many of those around, getting them should be easy? The choice of which animal to eat seems a bit more arbitrary than whether to eat an animal at all. I think most Western people would consider a dog as a friend or potential friend rather than potential meat and would consider the idea of dog meat as an expansion of their choices as a meaningless addition.

    Or in a different formulation, a billionaire can have a larger flotilla of yachts than a multi-millionaire, but then while most people might understand the attraction of having some kind of boat it is hard to see the practical meaning of having that range of choice.

    So back to the choices available to omnivores vs those available to vegans and vegetarians -- especially in high income countries, we are already spoilt for choices.

  49. Holms says

    A mix of flavour when cooked (many animals make for lousy eating), regional economic viability (zero squirrels where I live, but plenty of kangaroos), and cultural mores.

  50. K says

    @anat, once again you circle around to foods that many people cannot manage (legumes, gluten, soy being just some of them). A vegetarian diet is necessarily carb-rich because (as I said above) pretty much everything is a carb. Pea protein? Carb-rich. Most vegetables with the exception of cruciferous veggies? Carb-rich. Grains? Carb-rich.

    I spent nearly a decade as a vegetarian, under the guidance of a hospital-based nutritionist, and wound up far sicker than when I started. Turned out I had food sensitivities that had gone undiagnosed, and while vegetarian, added raging anemia to the mix. Constantly needing to supplement with expensive vitamins was also a drag.

    As an omnivore who avoids the things my body can’t handle, my health is great. I don’t need to keep buying vitamins--which is a chore in itself because a lot of what’s marketed as vitamins turned out to be fake, as several reports a couple of years back revealed.

    I have no desire to bake my own bread…because I don’t eat bread, I’ve never liked it. I do however have an endless repertoire of crockpot and Instapot meals that I can throw together…because as an omnivore, I have a variety of foods at my fingertips.

    Also, despite some claims above, it’s not simple to be a vegetarian. Many mainstream restaurants, wedding caterers, and event halls are stuck in, “You’re vegetarian? Here’s a handful of spaghetti and a plain potato.”

  51. anat says

    K: I doubt literally most people can’t manage legumes, as entire cuisines have them as a major ingredient -- Indian, Mexican, Chinese. It’s just a matter of cooking them enough, for which pressure cooking is the best method. I don’t have a problem accepting that for some that won’t be enough, but when you make more general claims I have to doubt them.

    As for vegetables being carb-rich: Non-starchy vegetables are low in calories in general, so while the small number of calories they contribute come from carbs, those are easily overwhelmed by fat and protein from other components of the meal. I did the exercise of weighing and calculating the components of my typical lunch a few times. My lunch is about 6 servings of assorted raw vegetables, half an avocado, a handful of walnuts, half a cup of shelled edamame and a serving of fruit (usually berries). The ratios turned out being about 60% fat, 15% protein, and 25% carbohydrates.

    (I still don’t understand what you meant about not being able to handle high carb eating. From reading the medical literature, non-diabetic people do just as well on any ratio of fat: carbs while holding protein constant.) Though I’m happy for you that you found a way of eating that works for you.

    Ease of cooking: very easy with an instant hot-pot: Just toss everything in it and turn on. Other favorite cooking styles is stir-frying which requires more prep time but is very easy to improvise. Vegans also have a variety of foods at their fingertips. Any person with access to ingredients and modern cooking implements does.

    Eating out is easy where I am (OK, was, before the pandemic; I doubt I’ll be eating out in the next few years if I can avoid it) -- lots of Indian and Thai restaurants (and yes, they even have fish-less ‘phish sauce’). Sushi places have vegan options. The fish place near work used to have excellent vegan soup+salad (one of the many places that closed due to the pandemic). With Mexican vegetarian is easier than vegan, but I guess I just need to ask them to skip the cheese.

  52. Dago Red says

    Late to the game — but I got an alternative view here:

    I still argue that since humans largely prefer to be omnivorous, we should focus on using other forms of less objectionable animal proteins that eliminate most, if not all, the concerns we associate with our current animal-based food sources — namely, start using lots more edible insects, worms, and mollusks (among other non-sentient/non-intelligent edible life forms). These sources can provide great protein, while (with a little genetic tinkering) can also convert a lot of inedible plant waste found in veg*nism into more accessible nutrition. This makes this kind of alternative omnivorous diet far more sustainable, as well as more tasty (once one gets over the “ick factor”) than trying to simply farm our way out of our current dilemma. Farming, after all, may seem far more sustainable than ranching, but it doesn’t really solve many of the problems (like land limitations), it simply delays them. Arable land is very finite and ways of “creating” more of it (like high rise farming) are quite cost prohibitive, and the needed infrastructure is likely too environmentally destructive too.

    Using what we already produce more efficiently, and perhaps even using a lot which we currently can’t use at all for food — seems like a more effective goal. To do this, I believe we will need certain kinds of edible animals (perhaps in the form of GMO’s) to help us turn the inedible into the edible.

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