Should I stop eating meat?

Exploring the subject of Climate Change has brought up many questions for me. One of them being “should I stop eating meat?”. I have always been a meat eater. I was brought up eating it, as so many of us are and the question of becoming a vegetarian or a vegan is not something I ever seriously considered. In fact, I have even joked over the years about never becoming a vegan, “because I like my food too much and I wouldn’t be disciplined enough to do it”. But recently, I have found myself thinking more and more about the meat I am eating, where I’m purchasing it, the factory farm it may have come from and most of all about the animals and wondering how they were treated in the process. Not to mention the role factory farming plays in climate change but I will discuss that later. I love animals and hate to think of any of them being in pain so why had I not looked in to this earlier?

Buying and eating meat had always felt normal to me. When it was time for me to purchase my own meat, I was so caught up in my daily life of college, work, insecurities, relationships, etc. that I didn’t give too much thought to where my meat was coming from. When it came to marriage and parenthood, while I had become conscious that it was better to eat organic, I would purchase it but not always. Occasionally, I saw people posting pictures of factory farm animals on social media and while the scenes horrified me, for some reason, it still didn’t spur me on to do anything about it. I’m embarrassed to say that it’s possible that I promptly switched to a funny video to look at or listen to a song that made me feel happy instead. I realize now that I had become increasingly detached from nature and the outdoors, so it was easy for me to have lost my feelings of kinship with the animals. This is a subject that Marc Bekoff, a biologist, touches on in his book “Animals Matter – why we should treat animals with compassion and respect”.

In his book, Bekoff talks about how so many of us have become far removed from animals and nature in general and how this distance has created the difficulties we now have with pollution, disease, too many cars, people and abused animals. He encourages us to remember that animals are not mere resources for human consumption and stresses the importance of not objectifying animals, to do with whatever we want. “We may have control and “dominion” over other animals, but this does not mean that we have the right to exploit and dominate them” and “just because we can exercise power over animals doesn’t mean we have to do it; we have a choice”.

Bekoff uses dogs to bridge the empathy gap we have constructed between ourselves and other animals. Using dogs as an example, it helps people to recognize how we’re often extremely inconsistent in how we view and treat other non-human animals compared to our many household companions. Bearing in mind, he understands why the following employees may be in the jobs they are, Bekoff describes how startled researchers and people who slaughter animals on factory farms are when he asks the question, “Would you do it to your dog?”. Understanding why he would raise this question, I began to read up on the personalities of farm animals.

In the case of pigs, scientists have determined that they are very smart, even smarter than dogs. They are ranked as the fourth most intelligent animal on the earth, have excellent memories, are extremely social and love playing with each other. They can even make good pets for companionship and love a good belly rub. Cows are friendly, intelligent animals with an innate sense of curiosity. They have a full range of personality traits including being sociable and emotional. They rely on the bonds they have with each other to cope with stressful situations and are known to focus more time grooming sick or injured cows than other members of the herd.

Chickens are known to be smart, adaptive and emotional and are known to be able to count and perform basic arithmetic, while sheep are also known to be intelligent, emotional, unique and enjoy spending time in groups with their friends, often for life. According to Drs. Lori Marino and Debra Merski, who published a paper called "Intelligence, complexity and individuality in sheep", “Nothing we’ve learned about sheep gives us a free pass to mistreat them based on myths about their “mindlessness".... Sheep have excellent general memory and learning abilities".

The more I learnt about these animals, the more I wanted to get to know them, not just because of their intelligence or they sounded like fun, but because it brought home to me, so much more, that just as humans deserve to be treated with respect and compassion, so do all non-human animals. I see how much our dog loves a good belly rub because he wants attention and it made me want to give these animals that kind of attention too. Because they deserve to be loved, just as much as he does.

Sadly, the vast majority of these animals raised in the U.S. will never get to play or show off their intelligence. According to the Humane Society, there are more than 9 billion land animals raised for human consumption in the United States and the vast majority of them are subjected to a number of abuses – many of which would be illegal if forced on dogs or cats. The female pigs will be kept in gestation crates, be forcibly impregnated, have their babies taken away from them, and eventually be slaughtered. Their piglets will be castrated without anesthesia, their teeth pulled out, their tails will be chopped off and they will never know their mothers. According to research, the restrictions placed on mother pigs in factory farms could be a risk factor for post-birth disorders similar to that experienced by human mothers. Just like women, mother pigs have maternal instincts, one of them being to build nests for their piglets before giving birth. However, being confined to cages is depriving them of fulfilling these natural instincts and is leading to an increase in stress hormones from their feelings of distress. The World Animal Protection organization is urging producers to provide pens, along with nesting materials instead of cages to reduce this stress so they can reach and bond with their piglets.

Cows that are used to produce dairy milk will be intensively confined and constantly impregnated to produce milk. Just like pigs, most often within hours of giving birth, their calves will be removed from them, depriving the calves of deriving nutrients from their mothers’ milk which can often cause them to become sick, eat less, lose weight and cry so much that their throats become raw and inflamed.

Chickens are among the most widely abused of all farm animals for the mass production of their meat. Their natural life expectancy is several years but they live an average of just 42 days on factory farms. Because of their shortened life span, chickens being bred for meat will have gained more than 1.76 ounces every day and may look fully grown, but they are still babies when being slaughtered. The additional weight can cause them to suffer a range of physical problems because their immune systems, organs and legs cannot keep up. And in the case of sheep, who are raised for meat, milk and for fibers used in textiles, in all three industries, these intelligent, sentient beings will also suffer inhumane treatment before being slaughtered for human consumption. As many as 12% of chickens and 14% of pigs die from stress, injury or diseases because of appalling conditions of today’s factory farms. These are only some of the examples of the horrifying treatment experienced by these animals. There are many other non-human animals that suffer just as badly.

Climate Change

In addition to harming animals, factory farming is also playing a central role in every environmental problem currently threatening humans and other species. Factory farms are dependent on singular crops, heavy ploughing machinery, fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides. All of which are contributing to land degradation, species loss, water pollution and waste. Factory farming in agriculture such as the intensive production of crops, is a bigger driver of climate change than just factory farming of animals. Crops are grown to feed livestock as well as humans so there is some overlap but I will look at this separately in another post. Factory farm animals emit enormous amounts of gases that cause or exacerbate global warming and depletion of the planet’s stratospheric ozone layer that protects us on earth from deadly radiation. The agricultural industry is responsible for 14.5% of our greenhouse gas emissions worldwide with the United Nations stating that it is “exerting mounting pressure on the world’s natural resources.” These practices are overwhelming the earth’s ability to support both wildlife and humans.

Things we can do

With all of these things considered, not forgetting, the anti-biotic abuse, unjust employment practices, foodborne illness and community health crises that also stem from factory farming, when I look at meat on my plate now, I’m hesitant and conflicted. While I have not become a vegetarian or vegan, myself and my husband have significantly reduced our meat intake, making sure to seek out the welfare-certified brands that represent more humane and transparent farming practices when we do buy it. According to recent research from John Hopkins University, it’s not enough to just cut out meat altogether to eat sustainably. Taking a more balanced approach, such as eating a “flexitarian” diet, may be a better option. According to the study, this type of diet inspired by former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman’s VB6 model (vegan before 6) – which consists of consuming meat at one meal each day and eating vegan for the other two – is a more sustainable way to eat than going full-on vegetarian. This is mainly because dairy and egg production also has a major impact on the environment, and becoming a vegetarian typically requires increasing your consumption of both.

Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, agrees that we don’t have to stop eating meat and other animal products entirely to eat for a healthier environment. “Fortunately, the diet best for sustainability is the same as the diet best for health and longevity … The Mediterranean diet being one example”. This diet was ranked the best diet by a panel of experts from U.S. News and World Report in 2021. Abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and olive oil, it features fish and eggs with a little meat and dairy if you wish, favoring poultry-lean sources of protein over red meat. According to Nestle, “Putting your emphasis on wholefoods is key for those aiming to build a more sustainable plate”. 

We have also started to experiment with plant-based brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Plant based meat is created and manufactured to appear, feel and taste like conventional meat from animal products. As these brands are more expensive, we are still working out how much it compares to what we would have been spending when we were eating meat on a daily basis. I have also been making burgers and chili with black beans.  I'm happy to report that I enjoy them and so far, I am not missing real meat as much as I thought.

The ASPCA also have a wonderful website and offer a one-week factory farming detox program you can sign up to for free. Once registered, they will send you all sorts of tips and resources for more humane shopping. Committing to Meatless Monday is another option. This global campaign also offers free resources and support. Research shows that Mondays are the day most people are open to making positive changes. It can also lead people to eat more fruits and vegetables and plant-based meals throughout the rest of the week. "Just one person replacing meat one day a week saves 40 animals per year!”

So “when did we become the “master species” and decide it was okay to do anything we want to animals, just because we can?” This is a question raised in Bekoff’s book which I found myself pondering. Struggling to remember what I had learnt in Religion class at school and as a late comer to reading the bible, (I’m admitting a lot about myself in these posts) I decided it was time for me to buy one, to see how I might interpret what God meant, when he is said to have granted men “dominion” over all the animals. Preferring to read a paraphrased version, I purchased “The Living Bible”. During my reading of “Genesis” and other parts of The Old Testament, I couldn’t help forming the opinion that God was entrusting humanity to be good stewards of the land, to care for His creations and that He did not mean that we had ownership of animals, to do with what we want. I was delighted to find that Pope Francis, in his new encyclical on the environment in 2015, condemned the view that humans have “absolute domination over other creatures” as a misinterpretation of God’s grant of “dominion” over creation. He declared, it should be understood “in the sense of responsible stewardship” and said “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures”. Also saying, Jesus would invite the disciples to recognize the paternal relationship God has with all his creatures …and would remind them that “each one of them is important in God’s eyes”.

Another main reason for Factory farming is due to the growing populations around the world and an increase in the demand for meat, which is also affordable. This agricultural technique was invented in the 1960’s to maximize efficiency and production so that farms could meet these demands. With our current population being over 7 billion and expected to rise by another 2 billion by 2050, it raises the question - How will we be expected to feed the planet if we eliminate this technique? As this is such  an important topic to consider, I will address it in another post.

Ending this post has been hard as there is so much that could be written about this topic. I’ll finish with some words that struck a chord with me during my research and have stayed in my mind. When St. Paul addressed the Corinthians in The New Testament and spoke to them about abstaining from things they were free to enjoy, he said, “It’s not against God’s law…. but that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and do it. Don’t think only of yourself. Try to think of the other fellow too and what is best for him”. Together, we can at least try and collectively for the good of animals, the environment and for each other, make a change.