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Meat Eating to Save the World

Saturday, 27 September, 2014

Ilustration by Cameron Baker
Infographic by Ghylaine de Rozario and Baya Ou Yang

“Don’t get me started” says Dad, winding up for another of his scathing salvos.

In our household, conversations about vegetarianism—or God forbid, veganism—aren’t the most popular dinner-table topic. Join us for Christmas lunch and your plate will be heaped high with roast beef, pork, chicken, and ham. In fact the last time one of my friends mentioned she didn’t eat meat, Gran was rushed to hospital for choking on a chicken bone.

Alright, so that didn’t actually happen, but you get my point: we don’t enjoy sharing our meals with a self-righteous vegetarian. I mean, spare us the judgement. Usually all we want is a bit of peace and quiet to savour our next juicy drumstick. We don’t need you to make us feel guilty.

But the problem is, many people feel uncomfortable because, deep down, we realise that the vegos are probably right. Meat eating, so we are told, is unethical from both an environmental sustainability and animal rights perspective.

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So, I hear you ask, are there salvageable ethics in eating meat, or do we really have to feel ashamed of our diets?

As the developing world becomes wealthier, meat consumption increases. Unfortunately, current methods of meat production aren’t that sustainable. Carbon dioxide produced from deforestation,and methane released from cow farts are responsible for at least 20 per cent of annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. As a comparison, globally, transportation combined contributes 13 per cent. It follows then that tackling climate change in the 21st century will require a radical rethink of our current diet.

Of course, non-meat eaters will tell you that the only we can reduce our carbon footprint is by adopting universal vegetarianism. This argument does have weight, but as an omnivorous environmentalist, I have to ask if there is another solution.

Yes, contemporary meat farming practices are inherently unsustainable, but that shouldn’t prevent us from imagining a future where the composition of our food system is radically altered, and still includes animals.

For example, pigs and poultry could be raised on a diet of scraps harvested exclusively from the waste produced by farms and restaurants. Not only is this food inedible for humans, but if we leave it to decompose (rather than use it), it will actually contribute to climate change through the release of methane. This is a big problem when you consider that around two per cent of Australia’s total emissions comes from landfill, and almost all of that is sourced from decomposing organic material. Waste-eating animals can help to make the human food chain more efficient, more sustainable, and ultimately, more ethical.

This style of meat production is fundamentally different to current practices. Under the proposed model, livestock production would almost completely disappear, and the management of pigs and chickens would happen at a micro level in community farm-plots. Although this system disturbs classical ideas about economies-of-scale, the reality is that environmental survival necessitates such an approach.

But in truth, for this type of model to work we also need to eat a lot less meat. And even if we do so, us ham-fisted omnivores are still likely to draw criticism for causing animals to be raised purely for slaughter.

For reasons of practicality, I would caution against such a strident criticism.

Let’s divert for a moment: in a seminal work of environmentalist literature, author William Cronon argues that the idea of wilderness—embodied in national parks—teaches us to be dismissive of the subtle and accessible experiences of nature present in everyday life (see The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature). Simply put, we are taught to appreciate ‘purity’ over ecological value.

A similar accusation may be levelled at those who envision a society of widespread vegetarianism. Today, humans are more removed from animals than at any other moment in history. We happily buy our meat in plastic wrappers and tin cans, and yet how many of us have actually been to a cattle farm, let alone a slaughterhouse? Most of our experiences with animals are as either pets, or at the zoo, where the animals are hidden behind protective glass screens. Our separation from animals is directly comparable to the disconnect from wilderness that Cronon described, and it prevents us from caring at a broader scale.

If meat production is localised, and managed by community members, there would be a stronger connection developed between humans and animals. As children are raised, they would become increasingly involved in this process, developing a healthy respect and love for animals. The result of this would be a society that values all lifeforms, and cares just as much about protecting fish stocks and insects as it does about pandas and whales.

Life, and death, are part of the natural order. It is ethically desirable for our society to reconnect with this experience to ultimately develop a greater sense of compassion and responsibility—not just for some animals, but biodiversity at large.