For many of us, the consumption of meat is an everyday occurrence, an activity woven into the fabric of our lives. It is just the way it is, and the way it always has been. It can be difficult to imagine what life would be like without it. This is, however, merely a failure of imagination.
Many people have made the conscious decision not to eat meat and have continued to successfully go about living their lives. Why would someone do this?
This piece aims to answer that question.
1. We will live in a world with far less animal suffering
We eat animals. In order for us to eat them, we have to kill them.
This seems to be the best-case scenario for those who wish to live in a world in which we eat meat.
A world in which we systematically displace creatures that are likely not harming anyone and slaughter them.
Some people believe that, if the animals were treated well and lived good lives before being slaughtered, then the ethical problem of eating meat vanishes. But the fact that we have to kill the animals means there is a minimum amount of suffering we must inflict.
Think of the pleasure you gain from eating a steak. Is it really worth killing an animal as sensitive and intelligent as a cow?
The end of an entire life for a fleeting pleasure on our tongues.
And what is the scope of this senseless slaughter of our fellow animals? Every year, billions of land animals and over a trillion marine animals are killed for human consumption.
In a single year we cause more bloodshed than during any war in history simply because of what we choose to put on our plate.
This is the best-case scenario. This is the problem we would face if our farming practices enabled the animals to live happy, carefree lives.
This is not the world we are living in.
The Problem of Factory Farming
Imagine a factory, in which the products are living, conscious beings that feel every part of the production process…
A factory farm is a facility dedicated to the mass raising of livestock for food. Its prime objective is to be profitable.
Think about this for a moment.
What is the likelihood that an operation that seeks to maximise profits will also maximise the well-being of the animals?
The fact of the matter is that we don't even try to give them good lives. Most factory farmed animals lead lives that we would not even deem tolerable. We just keep them alive until we can kill them for their flesh.
Hens are kept in battery cages with almost no room to move throughout their entire lives. There can be up to twenty chickens in a single square-metre and their beaks are often trimmed to prevent them from pecking one another out of stress.
Male chicks are sent to a grinder alive as they will not grow up to be hens.
Pigs are kept in enclosed spaces, where they do not even have the space to move or even turn around for most of their lives. Piglets have their teeth clipped to prevent them from biting one another out of frustration at living so tightly packed together, amid their own waste. Their tails are often also cut off to prevent them from being bitten — a procedure almost certainly carried out without the use of painkillers.
Shortly after birth, calves are separated from their mothers causing emotional distress for both. Cattle raised for dairy are often kept in a perpetual state of pregnancy to optimise milk yields, while cattle raised for beef are often branded, castrated and may even have their horns removed.
Within their first year, the cows are moved from the pasture to crowded feedlots where they are fattened for slaughter. The typical slaughter age for beef cattle is eighteen months and for dairy cattle it is four years. The natural lifespan of cattle is twenty years.
Arguably the most innocent beings on the planet are being tortured, mutilated and murdered on a regular basis.
Would you wish suffering of this magnitude upon your worst enemy? Is this really okay with you?
2. We will inflict far less damage on the environment
Animal agriculture is directly responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions, this is more than all our combined exhaust from transportation.
A significant proportion of this greenhouse gas is methane which is at least twenty-five times as potent as carbon dioxide.
In addition to the raising of the livestock, we must take indirect sources of emissions into consideration including:
- The processing of the flesh of billions of animals into meat and many other products
- The transportation involved at every stage of their distribution and production
- The large tracts of land that have to be cleared to establish these farms. Green carbon (carbon stored in trees) goes largely unmentioned in public discourse.
At this late stage, we can see for ourselves that the climate is changing year-to-year, as the predictions of our scientists are vindicated time and again.
In my mind, the problem of climate change is the biggest issue in the public view. It is an existential threat and — unlike that posed by nuclear warfare and increasingly powerful AI — we know what will happen if we fail to act.
The way we lead our lives is unsustainable. There's so much wrong with our habits, that it can be hard to know where to begin. But here is one simple step anyone can take to reduce their carbon footprint substantially:
- Cut down on meat
An aside on personal responsibility
"I feel any difference I make will be a drop in the ocean, it is our governments and corporations should be responsible for making the world a better place."
An acquaintance of mine once echoed this sentiment.
Our institutions certainly need to change. But is it all on them?
What is a society but a collection of individuals? What are organisations but groups of people? What can a government or corporation do besides respond to the will of the people within and without?
What is the ocean but a collection of drops?
And what does "responsibility" mean anyway? The effects of our actions are independent to our notion of responsibility. Regardless of whom we considered responsible, damage is damage.
If a person who pays an assassin is responsible for the victim's murder, is not a person who pays another to slaughter animals or pollute the environment similarly responsible?
If there are simple steps a person can take to reduce the suffering of present and future sentient beings, it would be wise to take them.
How can we feel so justified in complaining our own suffering and that of those around us, when we casually contribute to greater suffering on a day-to-day basis?
As the sage Shantideva has pointed out:
"We who are like children,
shrink from pain,
but love its causes"
3. It is a monumental waste
Have you ever thought about how inefficient it is to feed plants to livestock rather than eat them directly? If you are what you eat, then what you eat is what it eats.
Cows, chickens and pigs produce all sorts of by-products. From their excretions to all the parts of their bodies that we deem unusable.
Naturally, to produce a specific amount of meat-based protein, many times that amount of plant-based protein is required.
To produce 1kg of beef, it can take 43kg of plant matter. Up to 13kg of this is edible crop.
Therefore, however many resources it takes to tend to crops, raising livestock is necessarily many times more resource intensive — even if we don't include all the water, land and chemical resources that go into raising and taking care of the livestock.
If you don't understand why we shouldn't waste our precious crops like this, let me remind you that one in ten of us suffers from malnutrition. It really does take a lot to bring the bacon home.
To give you a clearer picture of the extent of this waste:
Over a third of all the landmass on earth is used for animal agriculture.
The image above shows how land use is allocated in the US. The large yellow square shows the land used for raising livestock. The much smaller grey rectangle to its right represents the land on which we grow crops for our own consumption. The olive square below it represents the land use for the crops to feed livestock.
41% of the land in the US is devoted to animal agriculture. Worldwide, this figure is closer to 35%.
And yet this is still not enough to satisfy our infinite hunger — we are cutting down forests by the hour, all in the name of our appetites.
We are cutting down the rainforest to fuel our addiction to the flesh of our fellow animals.
To help you picture this, here is an aerial view of a portion of the Amazon shown in time-lapse covering the years 2000—2008.
We know that it is the demand for meat that is driving this.
It is incredible to consider that we are sacrificing the natural splendour of the rainforests — which freely and effortlessly clean our atmosphere — only to build farms which pollute it.
4. Once you are used to it, it is effortless
It's not hard to live without meat. It really isn't. It's as if people imagine vegetarians are constant pushing a boulder uphill, their lives a continual struggle. The truth is, we often hardly even think of it. In fact the concept of "being vegetarian" tends not to come up except when eating in a social setting. We're just ordinary people living our lives and experiencing the same ups and downs as anyone else. Nothing feels like it has been lost.
Whenever you choose to do one thing, you forgo doing anything else. Is this a sacrifice? Whenever you eat a meal, do you dwell upon every other possible meal you are missing out on?
It is true that when you give up meat, there are a lot of meals that you may never eat. However, in their place you will discover many foods that you would otherwise never have tried.
It is the transition that people can find difficult, since they have to break out of their existing habit patterns.
When you have adjusted to no longer eating meat, that's it. There is no longer any sense of struggle or sacrifice. Life goes on as usual. There's not even much need to think about it.
The need to exert effort and willpower is temporary.
Many people worry about craving meat. But cravings are ephemeral, they arise and fade like mist. Like bad behaviour in a child, if you don't reward them, they disappear on their own. What is a craving but the memory of a prior experience and the desire to relive it?
With physical exercise we must break through the pain-barrier, here we must break through the craving-barrier. Our suffering is in our own minds.
Ultimately, I don't believe that this is a question of sacrificing our own happiness for that of our fellow creatures. I don't believe that vegetarians or vegans are any less happy than anyone else.
The Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard — whom I mentioned earlier — is a strict vegan. He once took part in a study in which the many participants had their brain activity scanned using FMRI. By all the neural measures of happiness we know of, Ricard's was off the charts. They started calling him the happiest man in the world.
Here he is talking about the reasons to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet:
Since then neuroscientists have looked into the brains of even more experienced monks and yogis and the results have been similar. While their vegetarianism was not necessarily the cause of their happiness, it shows that the highest degree of human happiness is compatible with it.
Given that the happiest people ever measured live their lives free of meat, how can you say that you would be miserable without it?
When we talk about a life being difficult or easy, we just are talking about how much suffering or well-being is in it. Many believe that will be more miserable without meat — but this is certainly misguided.
It is possible to live a happy, fulfilling life without meat
It's getting better all the time ♫♪
There has never been a more pleasant time to live as a vegetarian or vegan. Almost every restaurant has at least one meat-free option and — if they don't — it is almost always possible to request a simple substitution.
"Hey, can I get the Big Mac but with hashbrowns instead of meat?"
Supermarkets are stocked with vegan sausages and patties, it's easy to buy tempeh, tofu, falafel and plant-based sources of protein. As more cultures and their cuisines spread to the ends of the earth, it is becoming easier to find a variety of ways to fulfil our nutritional needs with little to no harm to other creatures.
All sorts of pastas, curries, noodles, burgers, burritos and burgers still exist on the menu and that is just the beginning. There is more than enough choice for anyone.
Being able to visit a supermarket allows you to feast on a thousand tastes. Even without meat, anyone living in the first world today can dine better than the kings and queens of centuries past. Who could possibly want more?
Now that substitute meats are becoming more sophisticated, the transition is becoming even easier. We now have options like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger which ever more closely resemble the taste and texture of meat.
You wouldn't be missing out on nearly as much as you'd think. And in place of what you are missing, you would be having all sorts of interesting experiences that you might otherwise never have considered.
But why has it become so easy to live without meat?
It is because of all the people that became vegetarian and vegans when it wasn't easy. The pioneers who withstood inconvenience, while their actions slowly increased the demand for cruelty-free products.
These earlier vegetarians and vegans also had to be immensely creative. They were able to come up with all sorts of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to traditional dishes. As well as find ways to get by with far less options in restaurants and supermarkets. They had trained themselves to become far less picky with with foods and were willing to have the same conversations over and over with those around them.
Restaurants provide vegetarian and vegan options because there is a demand for them — and that is because people were willing to eat salads or even go hungry rather than contribute to the suffering of their fellow creatures.
It's sad to think that on top of all these sacrifices they had to deal with pressures, insults and mockery from those around them.
The reason we can play the vegetarian game in easy mode, is because it's already been played in hard mode.
What can I do?
What you can do right here and right now, is simply give up meat altogether.
"It just takes one second to decide to stop."
Even better — but more difficult — is to embrace life as a vegan. That is, to strive to live life without causing any animal suffering. This means abstaining from eggs, dairy and any product derived from an animal. This is all to minimise the inevitable suffering of the animals involved in the production of such products.
Here are some excellent resources for transitioning to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle:
Have you heard of the term reducetarian?
- An individual committed to eating less meat - red meat, poultry, and seafood - as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree of the reduction or its motivation.
It is wonderful to cut out meat and even all animal products completely. If this is something you can see yourself doing, do it. I absolutely insist.
If not, it will still be of great benefit to our fellow animals and to the world itself to eat less meat and animal products.
Ways to do this include:
- Limiting meat and/or animal products to only a few meals a week
- Eating vegetarian or vegan meals at restaurants when the option is there (this also increases demand for those products)
- Cutting out certain type of meat from your diet (this only counts if you aren't replacing it with different meat)
- Forgoing meat or animal products on certain days of the week
- Refraining from buying clothes, accessories or other products that are known to contribute to animal suffering
Basically anything you can do to decrease your consumption of meat or animal products is a good. Provided, obviously, that you aren't simply replacing one animal with another.
For more resources, visit the Reducetarian website.
How exactly can we live a good life? Morality is concerned with the difference between happiness and suffering. Right now, our farm animals seem to be suffering the most.
Mahavira, the patriach of Jainism sums up the essence of our morality in a single line.
"Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature."
Life can be very difficult. Each one of us is facing a tremendous level of uncertainty in our circumstance. Not knowing what to do, it is all too easy to feel paralysed and descend into cynicism. Chains of cause and effect are complex, and it is difficult to know what all the effects of our actions will be.
When a low-hanging fruit dangles before us, we should be quick to grab it. When there is something simple and straightforward we can do to make the world a better place, we should be very keen to act.
If I had to sum up moral life in one line it would be:
Do not take action that you know causes unnecessary suffering
When we consume animals, the harm we inflict is greater than the benefits we derive. In the midst of our confusion about how to act, here is something we can grasp. There are simple, tangible steps that we can take.
Please know that eating meat and other animal products is a direct cause for vast suffering, the destruction of our environment and immense wasting of resources.
And please understand that to cease to perpetuate suffering is to live in a world with less suffering.
This is a precious chance — a golden opportunity — that we should not let slip away.
It can be done in an instant, or as a transition over time but there are three paths forward.
- Give up all animal products
- Give up meat
- Make a sincere attempt to reduce the amount of meat and animal products you consume and lessen the suffering to which you contribute
It is possible to live life in a way that does not lead to this pointless suffering. You can do this, I believe in you.
It's easy to underestimate how intelligent and sensitive cows can be. Their brains have a neocortex and a limbic system like our own and they display emotion and behaviours to match. It is even said that they are known to shed tears for the humans that have taken care of them. ↩︎
In his book "A Plea for the Animals" Matthieu Ricard cites the figures of over sixty billion land animals and over a trillion marine animals. He also references these numbers in the video embedded in this article. ↩︎
More details about the conditions of animals in factory farms can be found on the Mercy for Animals website. They are a group responsible for taking undercover investigations into the treatment of animals on factory farms. ↩︎
The Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī once said “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” ↩︎
These numbers are from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For a more detailed and precise comparison of the resource usage and environmental impact of different food sources read this 2018 paper from Science. These are some visuals summarising data from this study courtesy of the subreddit /r/PlantBased4ThePlanet. ↩︎
This page on Our World in Data appears to be an excellent resource. It is actually 38.5% of all habitable land on earth that is used for grazing livestock. Have a look at this graph summarising the data. The number would be higher if it took into account the crops grown for feeding them. According to the International Livestock Research Institute it is 45%. ↩︎
This graphic was put together by the news website Bloomberg, for this article. I highly recommend you check it out for an excellent visualisation of how US land is used. The data used for them were derived from this 2017 study by the United States Department of Agriculture. ↩︎
Global Forest Watch is a great resource for keeping an eye on the rate of deforestation and regrowth happening throughout the world. The amount of forest clearance they gave for 2017 was 29.4Mha (Mega Hectares or million hectares). I divided this by 31536000 (365 x 24 x 60 x 60) to get the per second amount which was 9322.7m2 ↩︎
A 2019 piece by the Rainforest information site Mongabay cites cattle ranching as a cause for 65-70% of deforestation in the Amazon and other forms of agriculture for 25-30%. Keep in mind that these other forms will include the raising of other livestock as well as growing crops to feed them. ↩︎
If you would like to learn more about the scientific studies of Mattheiu Ricard and others, I highly recommend the book Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson. It was released in some parts of the world as The Science of Meditation. ↩︎
He doesn't seem to like being referred to in this way, although he conceeds it is better than being the considered most miserable in the world. He has always insisted that there are many other monks and yogis who are happier than him. He once consulted his masters about the moniker and it seemed they found it amusing. Their advice: "just roll with it". ↩︎
This is described in greater detail in the book Altered Traits. If I remember correctly the study-participant with the highest correlates of happiness ever measured was the wonderful Mingyur Rinpoche who authored the best-seller The Joy of Living. ↩︎