The recent outcry surrounding Australian live meat export to Indonesia has raised some interesting questions in public about how we (as humans) source and treat our food before it lands on our plate. Seeing the footage of cattle being slaughtered and sheep being jammed into the boots of cars on the ABC’s Four Corners was enough to turn many into vegetarians. This is one of the most common reasons for vegetarianism that I hear on my day-to-day rounds: killing an animal is inhumane (inanimane?), and that they have a right to live. I would agree with this statement, but I would also reject it at the same time. Why?
Let me start by saying that in no way am I having a go at vegetarians (I used to be vegetarian, before my metabolism decided that it wanted to lose 5kg of ‘unnecessary’ muscle). I’m just saying that if we look at the world of biology; at animals and bacteria and plants and fungi and everything else that it out there, we see a persistant theme begin to emerge. Living things kill and eat each other to survive!
No way! Yes way. In fact, the world is divided into (basically) two types of organisms: autotrophs and heterotrophs.
Autotrophs are the guys that make their own food; they are the plants, algae and bacteria in this world. Plants make up such a large portion of all life on earth, and are essential for all animal life because (directly or indirectly) we all feed off of them! They are there to be eaten.
Heterotrophs are the organisms that make up basically everything else. These guys eat autotrophs and also other heterotrophs. That puts us and every other animal into this category, whether they are herbivore, carnivore, omnivore or detritivore (things that feed on decaying organic material – like mushrooms!). These guys are also there to be eaten. So unless you are a plant or specialised bacterium, you’re basically living off of some other living (possibly dying) thing.
So then, what’s the difference between killing a plant or some bacteria to eat, and an animal? I would say the common argument here would be that animals have neural networks that allow them to think, but also experience sensations such as pain. Do correct me if I’m wrong.
This is where the discussion gets tricky, and where the specifics become important. You see, if we were to argue simply that because we see members of the Animal Kingdom eat other animals then vegetarianism is nonsense, the discussion would be over. But because of the way in which our meat industry (and agriculture industry, for that matter) functions, we have to start to look at our own ethics about the way that we keep these animals and how they are
For me, the issue lies more in the treatment of the animal while it is alive than in its death. In the real world, a buffalo that is killed by a hungry lion is going to suffer for quite a long time. But for us, because it is relatively simple to relieve the animal of this suffering then there is no reason as to why we shouldn’t do it. But the systematic breeding and slaughtering of animals that are fed specialised diets to make them ‘produce’ more meat is where I draw my moral line. If you think this is an interesting topic, then I recommend watching the film Food Inc. While it is based around an American industry and also includes agriculture, it is still relevant for us Aussies (or wherever you’re reading this from).
There are of course other reasons for being vegetarian. Another common one is: ‘We don’t need meat nutritionally as it can be supplemented with other things, so why eat it?’ There is still debate about that one as many vegetarians do not adequately plan their nutrient intake, but if this is done correctly then all stages of life (including pregnancy) can be safely achieved with a vego diet. Even still, it is known that some nutrients such as iron are far more easily absorbed through meat than iron supplements and other vego sources (~25% absorption compared to ~8% absorption). Iron is essential for your body’s ability to create energy, as it is used in your blood to transport oxygen from your lungs to your cells for burning. Feeling tired? Eat some iron. (But not literally, please.)
On the plus side, well-prepared vegetarians reap the benefits of showing lower rates of coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and dementia. Pescetarians (‘vegetarians’ who also eat fish) compare even more favourably.
So why are(n’t) you a vegetarian?