Editor-in-Chief Fintan Hogan explains his decision to not eat meat. Setting down and questioning his own logic, issues including flexitarianism, lab-grown meat and the case for still eating fish are considered.
Since the summer of 2019, I’ve not eaten meat. Thanks to the patience of my parents (and despite the frustrations of my grandparents), my last two years at home were meat-free and I’ve kept it up since coming to university. I try my best to be an ‘unproblematic vegetarian’ – I’m loath to ever let my friends change their plans for eating out or cooking to accommodate me. This is my choice and others don’t deserve to be inconvenienced by it. I also still eat fish (a decision that I re-assess in this article) which helps me stay flexible.
Earlier this year I moved to South Korea to study. The food culture is pretty meat-heavy, which can make social dining slightly more difficult to navigate. Feeling more like a burden on others here – and being regularly questioned by bemused South Koreans – it’s become more important to me to document why I’ve chosen to avoid meat. This article can also act as a belated explanation to my parents and a justification for myself. This is what (I think) I believe.
I face a few regular questions, chiefly ‘why does it matter?’, ‘how can you have that diet?’ and ‘what difference are you making?’. I believe that I can offer three sensible answers. This is my attempt to logically explain the intuition which has guided my choice for the last four years. I first look at the process, then at the product, then at my impact. I conclude that modern livestock farming is bad, we don’t need to eat meat and this change can make a difference. This makes up my ‘three-legged stool’ of vegetarianism – these three beliefs make a stand-alone argument for avoiding meat.
Leg One: Modern livestock farming is bad
This first section attempts to answer a simple question – is modern livestock farming a net negative, despite its romanticisation in popular culture? There are substantial moral and environmental qualms about meat production in the era of intensive farming which consumers are deliberately steered away from. People, on the whole, are more than happy to turn a blind eye.
I do not believe that animal lives are of equal moral weight to human lives, but this does not mean that their experiences are immaterial. As anyone who has ever seen another mammal knows instinctually, “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness”. Considering our position of dominance over animals, we have an obligation to consider their suffering. If we can choose between a cow being hurt and a cow not being hurt, everything else aside, it would take a cold-hearted carnivore to enjoy the bovine torment.
So do animals suffer in the butchery business? There is actually no prima facie reason to think so. A chicken who roams free for ten years on open pasture with a large flock, before being stunned in its sleep, enjoys a relatively unobjectionable life despite being raised for meat. Yet in reality, most livestock farming is done in unsavoury conditions. The UK government requires that farmers provide a ‘suitable environment’ and ‘suitable diet’ to all farm animals, as well as to prevent ‘unnecessary suffering’. Yet around 70% of UK farm animals are raised in factory farms. Over a fifth of British cows never go outside. The situation is even worse elsewhere, with 99% of livestock in the US being factory farmed.
In the UK, free range chickens have a recommended four square metres of space per chicken. Pigs are entitled to one square metre of space, but they are often literally penned into this so closely that they cannot turn or take a single step. Factory farmed chickens can be packed in at up to “39kg [of] birds per square metre”, a metric which seems deliberately difficult to visualise. If the average chicken weighs 4kg, this allows around 30cm x 30cm of cage space per adult chicken. Rules in the US are even laxer.
It is difficult to prove – and therefore I do not attempt to tackle – how livestock are killed or their real living conditions. There are many credible allegations that would only strengthen the moral argument against mass livestock farming. In the current ‘normal’ conditions, it would be better that the egg was never laid than the chicken had to suffer through their 35-day lives. Perhaps in the future I will reassess this – if their quality of life is reliably much higher and life expectancy is far longer. But for now, the case seems compelling. Meat definitely carries a moral burden, even if we are supposed to ignore it.
Yet even if you disagree with the idea that animals do suffer when being farmed, there is another crucial consideration, one which led my personal choice. Livestock production has a disproportionate environmental impact by product weight, calorie count and even by protein intake. Almost 15% of global emissions are caused by livestock farming – over double the total share of all Indian emissions. The need for new cattle pasture in South America is the primary driver of Amazonian deforestation. Livestock production accounts for 80% of global farmlands when you take into account grazing space and the production of animal fodder.
The global edible crop harvest comes in at 6,000 calories per capita per day. That’s three times the necessary amount to feed everyone. While around a third are lost to waste and to biofuels, almost a third are fed to livestock, plus a huge amount of grass and hay which is grown on land that could otherwise support edible crops. Two-thirds of the calories fed to animals are then lost. With meat demand in the developing world surging, more and more of our agricultural intake is being routed through this inefficient path. As we lose over 120,000km2 of arable land a year, it’s important that those who can, chose to eat better. We could feed the planet with less water, land and greenhouse gas emissions if we opted for plant-based alternatives. In the context of disastrous global warming, this seems a switch worth making.
There are some positives to the livestock industry which should be considered. Millions of people are employed in livestock farming and mass vegetarianism would thus result in a huge economic dislocation. It is part of the history and culture of different groups worldwide. But these genuine concerns simply do not apply to modern livestock farming in Europe and North America. While 1.3 billion people are employed in livestock-related fields, over a third are from the poorest global 10% and all forms of agricultural employment have declined precipitously in rich countries since 1900. Small, traditional farming is being undercut by ‘mega-farms’ which create economies of scale by exploiting animals in the ways outlined above, mechanised and automated to maximise output. Small European farms are being lost at a “drastic” rate, according to the EU. The benefits of livestock farming are few and fleeting in the ‘rich world’. Actually, it is not vegetarianism which is destroying traditional farming, but our insatiable appetite for meat.
If you had the exact same product but could avoid the suffering of animals and the environmental destruction, would this be better? I think the answer is quite self-explanatory. I am happy to conclude that modern livestock farming is on balance bad for animals, people and the planet. But despite the enormous downsides of production, do we still need the product? Is livestock farming simply a necessary evil?
Leg Two: You don’t need to eat meat
Meat is an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Humans have eaten animals for millennia and this calorie-rich diet contributed to us evolving into the intelligent species which we are today. Poultry, fish and meat are some of the richest natural sources of iodine, iron, zinc and omega-3 – all essential for our cardiovascular and neurological health. Our dental structure shows that we are ‘supposed’ to have an omnivorous diet – you don’t need your canines to eat carrots.
But meat isn’t the only source of these crucial nutrients. Vegetarian or even exclusively plant-based diets can provide all of these essential products too, provided you don’t live on chips, pasta and sweets alone. The average Briton currently eats almost twice as much protein as they need a day – there is no pressing need for steaks and sausages. Grains and eggs are alternatives which already contribute much of our daily necessary intake. Kidney and edamame beans provide omega-3. Peas, seeds and spinach are packed full of iron. “You can get the nutrients you need from eating a varied and balanced vegan diet”, conclude the NHS. Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Kyrie Irving, Alex Morgan and Nate Diaz, all elite vegan athletes, would definitely agree.
Supplements ranging from protein powder to omega-3 pills can fill out nutritional gaps. ‘But that’s not natural’. Nor is modern meat. The global demand for meat has not only completely altered general farming practices but also rapidly changed the actual animals which are produced. Vitamin tablets are hardly ‘less natural’ for us to eat than the cow which is fed on the same kind of scientifically enriched products, including genetically modified ones. ‘Natural’ is no longer an accessible option either way and your burger definitely isn’t anywhere close.
Avoiding meat can actually have substantial health benefits too. Vegetarians consume far smaller amounts of saturated fat and have lower cholesterol levels, possibly cutting the risk of cardiac arrest. There is some evidence that levels of cancer and type 2 diabetes are lower too. But beyond this abstract medical data, it’s simply much easier to eat healthily when you’re vegetarian. While the ‘ideal diet’ – if there is such a thing – is probably a Mediterranean one (largely plant-based with fish, meat and dairy ‘in moderation’), the average café or restaurant menu will have its healthiest options in the vegetarian section. Save the occasional time when I’ve been stuck with macaroni cheese or a side of chips, I almost always eat better than any of my friends. I bulk out my fridge with vegetables like lettuce and pak choi, and it’s now much easier to walk past a McDonalds without a second glance.
Perhaps for some, there is a cultural consideration to the question of meat. The Spaniard may consider jamón ibérico genuinely essential to their identity; the Greek may want their children to try païdakia; the Brazilian may have always eaten Alcatra sirloin on their birthday. It’s not for me to judge if these are a ‘want’ or a ‘need’. But, for sure, none of them need to have bacon with their French toast. Three-legged vegetarianism argues that we should question our over-reliance on commercial meat, not that we indefinitely and immediately abandon any sympathy for culture. But even if three-legged vegetarianism can tolerate a few slices of prosciutto, you should still order paneer instead of pork.
The consensus is overwhelming. Even the author of ‘Sorry Vegans: Here’s How Meat-Eating Made Us Human’ concludes that “Vegans are absolutely right when they say that a plant-based diet can be healthy, varied and exceedingly satisfying… The modern pleasures of a grilled steak or a BLT may well be trumped by the health and environmental benefits of going vegan”. For almost everyone in Britain today, choosing to eat meat is singularly a decision about taste (something which, from experience, can change). Health and dietary arguments are simply unsubstantiated (other medical considerations notwithstanding). Meat-eating is convenient, cheap and tasty – but it is not essential.
Leg Three: Your change can make an impact
If you agree that modern livestock farming is indeed bad and that, no, we don’t actually need meat, then there is one more defence of the omnivorous norm. ‘It’s already dead’, says everyone, always. ‘What difference does it make if you eat it now?’ Indeed, to justify vegetarianism it’s not enough to show that livestock farming is bad and meat is inessential – will an individual avoiding meat actually make the world a better place? Even sympathetic friends can be pretty defeatist when it comes to this question. ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ would be more than a little conceited. There’s a grain of truth in the idea social changes start with individual changes, but that’s a difficult idea to sell to a hungry crowd. Luckily, your impact would be far more substantial than that.
In the era of hyper-keen supermarket stocktaking, companies really do note when consumers change dietary preferences. While it’s easy to assume that the store will order the same number of beef burgers regardless of your individual choice, once enough people opt out there is a ‘cut-off point’ where one less case is ordered. It’s unlikely that your individual choice will be that tipping point, but if it is then the impact is monumental. For example, if beef burgers are ordered in cases of 50, then 49 new vegetarians will have no impact on the order placed by the company. But the next vegetarian would have an enormous impact, fifty times more important than their individual choice, as the supermarket decides that one crate fewer should be bought next week. Even if your choice isn’t that tipping point, you change the profitability calculation for the company. Thanks to your switch, the veggie burger becomes marginally more profitable for the supermarket (as one fewer is wasted) and the beef burger becomes marginally less profitable (as one more goes to waste).
This is obviously a simplified example, but it cuts against the nihilism of ‘they won’t care’. They probably won’t care about you right now, but soon they’ll care about someone enough to change their impact. “It is entirely possible (perhaps even likely) that a vegetarian may go through her entire life and never, by failing to purchase factory-farmed animal products, have actually prevented any animal suffering by lowering production. But because she has no way of knowing when the special purchase that does set off the chain of significant demand reduction will be, she has to act as if every purchase does count.” It’s easy to be sceptical about this claim, but the Lancet journal concludes that per capita meat consumption in the UK decreased by almost 20% between 2008 and 2019. Milk consumption has almost halved in the past two decades. None of the around 6 million British vegans and vegetarians thought they were a tipping point, but enough of them were to have this enormous impact.
Over the last four years, I’ve spent hundreds of pounds on vegetarian alternatives from Quorn to jackfruit. There’s a similar market logic here – eventually restaurants and supermarkets reach a tipping point where they order more plant-based alternatives and fewer meat products. Food is one industry where there has been relatively little change in consumer preferences in the past century, when compared to telecommunications or transport for example. Considering that there is now an “unprecedented level of competition and disruption, driven by the growth of viable plant-based alternatives”, corporations will be keen to speed up the adoption process for plant-based alternatives by advertising these products as suitable switches for vegetarian-sympathetic customers.
The retail sector is aware of this enormous opportunity – Deloitte projects that the plant-based alternative market in Europe and North America will be worth over £3.5 billion by 2025. In the UK we are already over a tipping point, with the main supermarkets brands having vegan and vegetarian own-brand ranges. There are great plant-based options out there for everyone – I can particularly recommend imitation meat burgers. Since 2019 I’ve said that I would continue eating these even if I starting having meat again. By purchasing these alternatives, you increase the incentive for supermarkets to shift their supply chains and advertising practices.
If everyone shrugged at consumer problems, progress would be much slower. Boycotts of South African products likely hastened the end of apartheid. Nike revised and improved its labour practices in the 1990s after activists led a global boycott. No individual made a direct, monumental difference by not buying a product, but the weight of numbers told. There is no reason to believe that people cannot be convinced that factory farming deserves this treatment, in just the same way that fast food chains were pressured to use free-range eggs in the early 2000s.
I doubt that meat will be scrapped from our plates before I die, but I would not be surprised if our grandchildren and great-grandchildren look with distaste at the ethical and environmental practices which we tolerated in the name of consumer convenience. If you agree that 1) modern livestock farming is environmentally and morally problematic, 2) we don’t need to eat meat to live happy, healthy lives and 3) consumer choices do impact producer behaviour, perhaps reassess your decision. Taste, convenience and habit can all make three-legged vegetarianism difficult to adhere to, but that’s how I chose to live by my convictions.
Writing this article allowed me to self-reflect on a few contentious dietary issues. What does three-legged vegetarianism mean for flexitarianism, fish, veganism and stealing the leftovers when no-one is watching?
Most importantly and obviously, this is a highly conditional argument in favour of vegetarianism. Most notably, the second leg (available alternatives) simply does not apply except in conditions of economic security. In modern Britain, healthy vegetarian diets are actually cheaper than healthy meat-inclusive diets, according to a recent study published in the Lancet. Yet you cannot over-generalise from this, since researchers did not look at the processed foods which many people rely on, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis.
The unsavoury reality is that some people simply cannot afford to eat healthily and for these groups a chicken sandwich may genuinely be the most nutritious way to live on a budget. For those living in poverty in a country where meat is the norm, partly due to the choice of our government to subsidise these industries, meat may genuinely be a ‘need’ not a ‘want’. But for middle- and upper-class Britons, the stool holds firm. We are lucky to live in a world-leading place to buy vegetarian alternatives.
The worst moral issues with meat are the result of factory farming being more-or-less the norm. If we ate meat from responsible and accountable sources, would that be alright?
It would certainly be a lot better. This would severely challenge the first leg (livestock farming is bad) since many of the worst moral qualms would abate if genuinely considerate animal farming was the norm. We would, however, still have the environmental concern that animals still have a far greater carbon footprint than vegetation. If we both ate far less meat and it was from responsible sources, that would certainly be a dramatic improvement – but this would make the responsibility less pressing, not make it disappear. While we face a carbon countdown, it’s incumbent on the people who can cut back on meat to do so, regardless of how it is farmed. Perhaps lab-grown meat will solve both the ethical and the environmental concerns in the future and bring the first leg crumbling down.
Three-legged vegetarianism says something quite different about flexitarianism (eating less meat or no meat on some days) than many other vegetarians would. It is not absolutist in the way that ‘meat is murder’ advocates are. Since the concern is primarily about the enormous scale of the suffering and environmental damage caused by modern livestock practices, eating far less meat is almost as good as eating none. This is different to those who argue that killing at all is the issue; that taking a life is unforgivable.
Because of the third leg (your individual consumption makes a difference), the argument rests on a population’s overall reduction of meat consumption. There is no effective difference between 10% of people eating no meat and all people eating 10% less meat. Our planet can probably support ethical, environmentally considerate livestock farming. Flexitarianism is one way of getting there. We won’t move as fast as by not eating meat entirely, but it’s much better than standing still. Eating 90% less meat is 90% as good as eating none!
The three points – animal farming is bad, we can live without it and consumer changes make real changes – would, at first glance, seem to be an argument for veganism too. At the very least, if mass-scale livestock farming is environmentally disastrous, then avoiding eggs and milk would seem to follow by the same logic. But I don’t think that it’s yet particularly easy to avoid all animal products in our busy, hectic lives. I don’t question the definite environmental benefits of veganism however I don’t believe that vegan alternatives are yet ubiquitous enough to merit the praise that ‘being vegan is easy’, as being vegetarian now certainly is. The nutritional value and versatility of products like eggs are still hard to replace. In twenty years, the case may be different.
There are easy switches you can make – oat milk for milk, olive spread for butter – and where these changes don’t hugely impact your quality of life it is morally better do make them. But the complete vegan diet falls at the second leg. I don’t think that absolute veganism is a moral imperative for most people in Britain (yet) because of its massive inconvenience. Vegetarianism is a matter of taste; veganism is unfortunately still a lifestyle.
I’ve not actually been vegetarian for the past four years – I’ve been pescatarian. However that made for a less catchy headline, so I’ve bent the truth. I try not to order fish when I’m dining out and I mostly eat canned, dolphin-friendly tuna at home, but perhaps this is my own moral blind-spot? I justified it on the basis of its convenience in being high-protein, low-cost and long-lasting, as well as my soft-spot for being a little bit flexible. But is it morally incumbent upon me to cut fish out of my diet based on three-legged vegetarianism?
My change would make an impact by the same logic as it would for meat consumption. I could live a happy, healthy life without it, even if it would make planning a little more difficult. But is catching fish morally or environmentally bad? Fish are less carbon intense by protein than eggs and wild fish are less carbon intense by total weight too. There are concerns over fish farming in terms of local environmental disruption, but this does not initially seem to be the case for all wild fishing. Fishing trawlers still create huge amounts of ‘by-catch’ (non-target marine life including sharks, dolphins and sea birds which are caught in nets) and seabed destruction. The MSC has programmes for minimising and managing by-catch, but ‘pole and line’ fishing is the best option in terms of bycatch and local environmental destruction. Environmentally, line-caught fish seems sustainable.
Fish can (probably) feel something like pain. This has historically been neglected as their distinctly non-human features have reduced public pressure and legislation about humane slaughter. However recent progress on this has been made by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASQ), which now requires immediate stunning – without which, fish slowly suffocate for hours. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – the ‘gold standard’ of fishing certification – is under pressure to follow suit. If caught, immediately stunned and killed on-site, the moral concerns associated with farmed meat seem satiated.
Line-caught, sustainable-certified fish, as are readily available in UK supermarkets, are probably neither environmentally disastrous nor morally appalling – particularly if new stunning requirements, akin to humane slaughter rules for livestock, are implemented. Beware of blindly trusting MSC labelling: factoring in a suitable level of doubt about real fishing practices, where easy and viable alternatives exist, fish should be avoided. But we should not reject fish out-of-hand as it is a nutritious, affordable choice for many, coming without many of the worst moral and environmental downsides of terrestrial farmed meat. To me, selectively eating line-caught fish would seem to be permitted by three-legged vegetarianism (pescatarianism?)… or perhaps I am just confirming my priors. I am definitely open to new evidence and debate.
By the same logic as line-fishing, I am more open to hunting terrestrial animals than to their farming and slaughter. But unfortunately this is not a silver bullet which allows a convenient exception to the meat-eating rule. There are issues with humane deaths and over-hunting, particularly since hunting is usually difficult to regulate or monitor. Game is also only accessible for a slim minority, and for reasons of credibility (as addressed in the final section below) it is best to steer clear regardless. Perhaps the same criticism could be levelled against my specific allowance of line-caught fish – is my position nuanced or hypocritical?
There’s one place where I actually give the ‘it’s already dead’ argument some credence. Consider a hypothetical picnic where the leftover cocktail sausages are definitely about to go in the bin (they’re out-of-date tomorrow etc.). The market for meat is entirely unimpacted by your choice. As a ‘capitalist vegetarian’, considering the market logic of three-legged vegetarianism and the fact I don’t think it’s intrinsically wrong to eat the body of an animal, I’ve asked myself this question more than others have. I’ll admit that I’ve often been tempted to secretly indulge. A spare, unsupervised sausage with no-one around? Tempting. Since I’m not increasing demand for the product, what’s the issue?
Yet there are a few problems, more practical than philosophical. For one, it’s just easier to go cold turkey on meat than to steal spare mouthfuls. If caught, it can also seem rude and contradictory to other people, particularly if they’ve made dietary changes to accommodate you. Finally, it’s difficult for this not to become a slippery slope. If people know that you don’t order meat, but are happy to clean up the leftovers, they’re more likely to over-order on your behalf. While the case can be made that being flexible actually increases the respect others have for your choice, in reality I tend to find the opposite. Leave the Boxing Day left-overs to the rest of the family – they’re not worth being called a hypocrite over.