Vegetarianism appears to be an increasingly popular phenomenon. You’ve probably been affected by it at some point, whether it’s that awkward moment at the BBQ, your die hard ‘meat-is-murder’ flatmate, or conversely a lack of veggie options not involving goat’s cheese! But does being a vegetarian make someone more or less moral? Is it an issue which demands consideration from everyone, not just the fluffy bunny lovers? And could it really solve some of the problems associated with malnutrition – or rather would it exacerbate them?
Not long ago, our very own Dr Nigel Pleasants graced the Streatham Court A for a compelling talk about the morality of exploitative methods associated with meat eating. He is a Lecturer of Philosophy and Social Science here at the University, not to mention a proud vegan. He was addressing an audience of approximately 70% vegetarian, the other 30% presumably among the members of the Philosophy Society. Whether he was trying to sway their beliefs was questionable, given his opening statement was ‘I doubt whether my powers of persuasion are particularly persuasive’. That aside, it was a very informative evening, which laid out some of the most important arguments for vegetarianism.
The first of these was self-interest – that it is in fact healthier to be a vegetarian. Dr Pleasants believes this form of persuasion will probably be the most effective in years to come, actually superseding moral arguments. While I personally would like to think most people would put morality first (problem 1), surely getting protein, nutrients and iron is much more difficult for the vegetarian (problem 2)? However, according to the Vegetarian Times, vegetarian diet reduces the risk of diseases such as obesity, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Digging deeper, I found a study conducted from 1986 to 1992 by Dr. Ornish, President of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, who found that overweight people who followed a low-fat, vegetarian diet lost an average of 24 pounds in the first year and kept off that weight 5 years later. Despite these fun facts, it is undeniably more difficult getting what your body needs via a vegetarian regime, and much more carefully managed diet is required.
Secondly, and more controversially, Dr Pleasants claims that meat eating has, and will continue to cause significant environmental damage. In Livestock’s Long Shadow, a UN report in 2005, it was revealed that 18% of greenhouse gases are from meat production – a huge percentage even exceeding the quota accredited to transport. This is parallel to the claim that grain which goes towards cattle production could theoretically be being used to feed malnourished people. Does that make you squirm? Does it even sound feasible? Pragmatically speaking it is unlikely that these problems would be fully solved if we all gave up the Sunday roasts or fish and chip Fridays… But to what extent would they could be helped through dietary changes is surrounded by much debate.
And the clincher is, perhaps most obviously, the animals themselves. Would you eat your cat? Would you want Patch the little Jack Russell, Snowy your fluffy little kitten, or Cody, effectively the fifth member of your family, to be enjoyed over a BBQ after being subjected to a lifetime lived in captivity in unthinkably dire conditions. I’m not much of an animal person myself, so I understand that the this argument may sound a little soft. But Dr Pleasants argued that, once the cruelty of mass meat production is brought a little closer to home, most people find that the real persuasion has already taken place. Though I found the comparison he made between meat eating and slavery was a little farfetched, I suppose the basic principle still stands. And who knows, perhaps in the same way that slavery is now viewed as barbaric, and homophobia as reprobate, meat eating could be the next issue under the critical public eye.
Whilst I severely doubt meat eating will ever be a thing of the past, I do believe alternate lifestyles and responsible sourcing of all our food needs increased awareness and consideration, whether this is eating organically, using Fair Trade suppliers, eating veggie twice a week or even going full out vegan. Though vegetarianism originally dates back to the Greeks, in terms of popularity it’s a relatively new phenomena, only coming to public attention in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. He frames the debate differently: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they Suffer?’
So whether your own personal stance is sympathetic to this statement or not, it’s definitely worth bearing in mind the other reasons behind vegetarianism: both personal and political. In our increasingly global society, considering our consumerist responsibilities and the global socio-political repercussions of our decisions is salient. There may be no clear cut answer, but it’s a key issue which demands a personal response.
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