Over the last decade or so what we eat has become an area of significant public interest. Twenty-first century humans are not only interested in the question of what constitutes a balanced, nutritious diet; they’re also increasingly troubled by the environmental impact of, and animal welfare issues arising from, modern agricultural practices. The underlying utilitarian sentiment is one of wanting to eat as well/healthily as possible while doing as little harm as practicable. And when it comes to determining how to realise this the question of whether or not to eat meat looms especially large, with increasing numbers of concerned individuals deciding to forgo foods containing any kind of animal or animal-derived product altogether.
One of the more novel and interesting aspects of this rising vegan/vegetarian ethic is the contention that humans are not natural carnivores. How we chew (side to side as well as up and down, thereby allowing us to grind-up fruits and vegetables in a way the characteristically two-dimensional carnivorous jaw doesn’t); our small canines, long and windy intestinal tracts, lack of claws, along with the fact that we have to cook (most) raw meat before we can safely consume it—all this is used to suggest we are herbivores by nature, with a digestive system not at all suited to processing either meat, dairy or seafood, especially in large quantities. It’s a seductive argument, that has a strong pull on those already inclined to think in this way. Here, after all, appears to be solid scientific support for their personal morality. More than that, the idea that anatomically-speaking human digestive systems are not well-adapted to processing animal products can be used to explain a number of pressing health issues in the contemporary western world, including high rates of certain cancers and a growing obesity epidemic. Combined this holds out the enticing prospect that by sparing animals we can save both them and ourselves.
The problem with this thesis, however, is that it just isn’t supported by the evidence, historical or biological. The simple truth is that humans are omnivores—opportunist eaters with a rather generalised digestive system, who can and most importantly have survived on a variety of food sources of both plant and animal origin (creepy-crawlies included!). Because of this those who try to reconcile the idea of humans as herbivores by nature with the reality that we’ve been happily eating meat for millennia will inevitably end up tying themselves in intellectual knots. It’s an impossible circle to square. Furthermore, there’re also big issues with trying to blame meat specifically for various dietary-related health problems as opposed to highlighting the role of processed foods more generally. After all, it’s just as possible to have a healthy diet in which meat, fish, dairy and eggs form part as it is to have an unhealthy one. Countless elite athletes reared on these foods attest to a fact that no one not drunk on dietary ideology could possibly dispute.
Rather then than trying to prove the impossible, proponents of the herbivore lifestyle would be better off asking their fellow humans to engage in a dialogue around the subject of what we gain from eating meat and what we’d lose by giving it up. Historically, the human ability to draw nourishment from a wide range of food sources derived from both plants and animals has played a central role in our survival and success as a species. It’s a big part of the reason why we’ve been able to adapt to, and prosper in, a number of different and often inhospitable climes. In face of these challenges meat in particular provided an important and much-needed source of essential proteins, fats and minerals. So much so that for most of human history it can arguably be considered to have been something of a ‘superfood’. (Indeed, the massive nutritional and calorific bonuses humans gained as a result of becoming meat-eating hunters is widely thought to have played a central role in the cognitive revolution that has underpinned our extraordinary rise from the bowels of the animal kingdom.)
At least in the first world the age of scarcity and struggle that characterised most of our past has long gone however. Supermarkets packed with every kind of cuisine imaginable mean we no longer need to be opportunistic omnivores, gorging at every opportunity we get. More significant again, we get very little from animal-based foodstuffs that can’t be acquired from plant-based alternatives, with targeted dietary supplements being more than capable of filling-in the remaining holes. As a result those who renounce meat/animal-based products can live perfectly happy, healthy lives. So can those who don’t of course, though excessive consumption of red meat and dairy in particular can have real downsides for our health, increasing the risk of both cardiovascular disease and cancer, as well as playing havoc with our toilet habits.
The point? In today’s modern capitalist world eating meat is more a luxury than a necessity, in principle little different from wearing leather or fur. A luxury, moreover, that if not enjoyed in moderation can be harmful to ourselves as well as the animals we exploit. So be it, perhaps. But if this train of thought is correct—and it’s difficult to see a fault in the logic underpinning it—this leads us down a rather disturbing path. Namely, if eating meat is not necessary for our survival but merely something we do because it brings us pleasure, then it becomes very difficult to defend the practice once you balance that against the pain it results in, the massive suffering factory farming entails in particular. If humanity violently subjugates other living beings solely because we like how they taste and despite the known health risks to ourselves consuming them presents, then it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in regard to this issue at least we are morally and perhaps also intellectually bankrupt. All the more so given that this wanton cruelty is often in part justified on the grounds that animals are lesser creatures than humans, whom we’re therefore free to imprison, slaughter and eat on an truly gargantuan scale.
If that doesn’t get the point across, perhaps a little thought experiment will: Suppose for a moment some more intelligent life forms came to earth. Would it be ok for this more advanced alien species to consider humans a viable food source merely because we’re not as smart as them? Most people would doubtless find this an outrageous proposition, just as they’d recoil from the idea that we could eat the mentally diminished within our own ranks. Cannibalism is something that throughout history most societies have considered taboo. Likewise with certain other sentient beings, which for religious and/or cultural reasons certain peoples have also elected not to eat.
Objectively, however, it’s hard to find any kind of logical or moral rhyme or reason in sparing some living, breathing organisms while killing others. The underlying principle instead appears to be the capriciousness of might makes right. When it comes to the food chain humans, apex predators that we’ve become, do whatever we want. In respect of diet, regardless of what we are by nature, or what we have done throughout our history, we now have the unalloyed freedom to eat pretty much whatever we want to eat. This is both the advantage modern society conveys; yet also the all-important, conscience-troubling reality it throws up. And when all is said and done there’s no harm in feeling conflicted by all this. That only shows you’re human.
Ultimately, of course, this whole dilemma looks set to be resolved by scientific advancement. A steak grown in a laboratory, unattached to an actual living, feeling cow, will render pretty much all ethical concerns redundant. There’ll still be questions about whether, on balance, consuming meat is good for us and in what amounts. But even if it isn’t, in-line with the principle of first do no harm to others, there’ll be little moral quandary in choosing to indulge in a artery-clogging, cholesterol-inducing hunk of flesh. When, moreover, this day does come to pass future generations will perhaps in time look back on the agricultural practices of contemporary world and those responsible for them with the same kind of disgust that we now have for those who a few hundred years ago willingly participated in the transatlantic slave trade. The opponents of meat-eating, meanwhile, can look forward to being held in the same kind of regard as the abolitionists.
Nevertheless, until science saves the day, it wouldn’t do the carnivores among us any harm to think about the real world consequences of our continued consumption of this luxury. As tasty and succulent as it may be, eating meat and other animal-based products does come at a real cost. That’s not something we should ignore. If only for entirely selfish reasons related to our own health, both physical and spiritual.