Of the health stories I write, none generate more ire than those about diet. Deigning to enter the fray on plant-based versus carnivorous has people sharpening their canines (or baring their molars, depending on which side of the fence they are on).
"LOL what a dumb bitch," was one of the less eloquent replies I received on Twitter recently, in response to a story about a body of diet research that didn’t fit with that person’s own body of research.
The debate between meat-eaters and vegans isn’t helping but we do need to talk about food and our future.Credit:bushy.com.au
And we are our own body of research. Understandably, we are passionate about whatever approach we believe has helped our health, our weight, or the way we feel.
Add to that increasing awareness about food ethics and the impact of our diet on the environment and other animals and suddenly we are not just talking about our health, or the food we enjoy eating, but morality and the future of our planet too.
Two New York University academics argue the debate between vegetarians and meat eaters is not only pointless, it is missing the point.
“We think that many debates between vegans and non-vegans are unproductive,” say Christopher Schlottmann and Jeff Sebo via email. “One reason is that we often overemphasise the role of the individual consumer while underemphasising systemic solutions. This is distracting and unhelpful.
“Another reason is that the empirical evidence that industrial animal agriculture harms humans, animals, and the environment is quite strong. Any productive conversation should focus on what to do about this.”
In their book, Food, Animals, and the Environment: An Ethical Approach, Schlottmann and Sebo, both of NYU’s Environmental Studies and Bioethics departments, examine some of this evidence.
For instance, industrial animal agriculture kills more than 100 billion animals per year and causes "massive and unnecessary" harm to humans, animals and the environment.
Also, about 70 per cent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture, especially for farmed animals and animal-based agriculture is responsible for about 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas, about 9 per cent of carbon emissions and it takes 4000 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1000 calories of protein in a chicken for human consumption.
The impact of the way we eat goes beyond animals.Credit:Robert Rough
Details such as these that prompted the recent EAT Lancet paper, recommending people eat no more than the meat equivalent of one nano-burger a day or one hamburger a week.
But trying to suggest there is a perfect solution is naive because no approach is completely harmless or available to everyone and no argument bulletproof.
“No food system is perfect,” write Schlottmann and Sebo. “Every food system alters nature, benefits some individuals and harms other individuals as a result.”
Hunting or DIY meat-eating: People consume only what they need, have minimal impact on the environment and allow an animal to live a ‘natural’ life. Cons: Their deaths are often slower and potentially less humane. It is also not scalable to a world population of 7+ billion people.
Vegan/Vegetarian: A plant-based approach has about 10 per cent of the environmental footprint as animal agriculture and means animals aren’t farmed to kill. It is also likely to be scalable, healthful and affordable. Cons: It still displaces harms or kills wild animals, uses land, water and energy. Pescetarianism, reducetarianism or conscientious omnivory may in fact produce less harm overall than a vegetarian diet involving eggs and dairy.
Plant-based ‘meat’ or cultured meat: Cultivated from plants or animal cell culture saves animal lives and provides a viable alternative to meat. Cons: It requires more processing and may reinforce the idea of animals as commodities.
Conscientious omnivorism/organic/free range: Allows animals more freedom and they tend to experience less disease. Organic also means no synthetic fertilisers, which are a “key stressor on marine ecosystems” and minimal use of harmful pesticides (suspected in bee colony collapses among other things). Cons: It is more expensive, animals are still held captive, treated as a commodity and have short lives (e.g. a pig might live for 6 months in a factory farm, 12 months+ in a free range farm and 15 years naturally).
Pescetarian: Eating fish, but no meat, preserves land and animal life. Cons: more than 50 per cent of the ocean is currently used for fishing, and estimates of over one trillion aquatic creatures are killed each year, many of them unintentionally.
Reducetarian: People aim to eat less but not completely eliminate animal products with the view that reducing our contribution to harm makes a difference. Cons: Critics debate how much reduction is enough with some saying only complete elimination will do.
Freeganism: People won’t buy anything that they see as supporting harmful food systems, but will eat these products if they haven’t purchased them (i.e. they are put in front of them, they are roadkill or found in a dumpster). Cons: Dumpsters aside, critics question whether eating the animals, regardless of whether they have been purchased, is still contributing to the problem.
Other imperfect solutions include local food (fewer food miles, higher profit margins direct to farmer and seasonal), non industrial or low density farming practices like permaculture (less land clearing, more regenerative and a smaller environmental impact), insect-eating and holistic grazing (where grazing is planned to encourage regeneration of land).
A plant-based approach is better for the environment.Credit:Shutterstock
It’s messy moral territory (especially when you consider agriculture employs about one billion people globally) and what we choose depends on our views and values, resources and opportunities.
“On one hand, we know that moving towards a more plant-based system benefits almost everyone. On the other hand, it is a complex question exactly what kind of food system would be ideal, and how we can ethically and effectively bring that kind of food system about,” admit Schlottmann and Sebo.
While the debate pitting vegetarians and meat eaters against each other is futile, we do need to have a conversation about how to solve a problem that affects us all.
The key is having awareness of biases in our moral thinking (e.g. we don't like eating dogs but pigs are OK or think one way of eating is more “natural” than another). Schlottmann and Sebo suggest allowing moral intuition to guide us while also cultivating a healthy skepticism toward our own beliefs and working to discount them in cases where bias is likely to be playing a role.
“Keep an open mind. This is a challenging subject,” say the pair who are both vegan. “We need a broad, pluralistic food movement that includes many different people taking many different approaches.
“Given the urgency of climate change and other global environmental changes, we hope that others will share our goal of working to create a food system that produces more benefits and fewer harms for humans, animals, and the environment.”
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