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Keep calm and eat meat

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

In a strongly worded, emotive article last month, Lauren Hutton complained that the case against eating meat goes far beyond mere questions of culture and animal cruelty. She says it is a question of human survival and saving the planet. But in her desire for a “rational conversation”, she becomes decidedly irrational.

Whenever someone predicts a grave crisis in which human prosperity and progress will inevitably lead to famine and death, you can safely bet that they’re wrong. Prophets of doom have existed since time immemorial. Everyone has fears about the future, and those fears are routinely exaggerated not only to serve as prudent warnings to an unthinking society, but also to promote personal agendas and manipulate people into submission to political authority.

As I wrote recently, Paul Ehrlich was perhaps the most prominent prophet of doom of the environmental era. He was a biologist who predicted widespread global famines, brought about by growing population numbers and the impossibility of continued rises in agricultural productivity. He took to the press, declaring that humanity has lost the battle to feed itself, hundreds of millions would starve to death by 1985, India was already beyond hope of saving, and the only solution was to “remove income tax deductions for children, tax baby food and equipment … and invest more in population control programmes”.

Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society,” Ehrlich wrote in 1968. The 12-year-olds of Erhlich’s day turn 60 this year, but Lauren Hutton, a professional humanitarian, prefers not to learn from history. In an article entitled Genocide of the mind: Why can’t we have a rational conversation about meat eating?, she writes: “You are quite literally eating away your children’s and grandchildren’s future.”

She rattles off a barrage of numbers that is supposed to make the case that eating meat is far worse for both the environment and human health than eating a vegan diet. This can create the appearance of a rational argument, provided that the validity or relevance of the numbers are not questioned. Hutton tries to pre-empt such questions, by adding: “But by now, there are detractors reading this who are going to quickly jump on the above statistics and numbers for any number of reasons. I advise you to follow the link below, read up and educate yourself.”

A “detractor” is someone who devalues or discredits someone. A person who disagrees with an opinion is not a detractor of the person holding it. If someone had called Hutton “emotionally unhinged”, for example, they would be a detractor. If they merely disagree with her thesis that eating meat is morally wrong because it will cause environmental disaster and hunger, they are simply in disagreement with her.

With the phrase “for any number of reasons”, she cleverly insinuates that those reasons are probably unjustifiable and nefarious, by her standards. She talks of her vegan principles as “a belief system where my needs for instant gratification are weighed against the long-term survival of ours and other species”, thereby accusing everyone who disagrees with her of seeking instant gratification at the cost of the survival of others. By preremptorily saying “educate yourself” she calls her imagined persecutors stupid, and denies them standing to challenge her view.

The link below” refers to a website for Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a movie which vegans apparently find very inspiring, and from which Hutton cribbed most of her “facts”. The movie bills itself as “the film that environmental organisations don’t want you to see!”. The reason, one discovers, is that green groups are in cahoots with big business to hide the single greatest threat to the planet’s environment and climate, namely animal husbandry, and all our other efforts to develop more sustainable ways of living are pointless if we continue to eat meat.

Not all the factoids listed on the website are true, and even those that are nominally true largely serve as red herrings. Mostly, it relies on the principle of scary-big, context-free numbers, as so much advocacy propaganda does. I don’t propose to debunk all of them here, but a few examples would not go amiss.

According to Cowspiracy, and echoed by Hutton, 45% of the Earth’s total land is occupied by livestock. This will come as news to farmers, many of whom farm crops, and all of whom account for only 37.7% of the world’s total land. Moreover, the need for farmland to feed the world’s growing population has peaked. Although there are still areas where land is being claimed from nature for agricultural purposes, this is balanced by farmland in other regions that is being returned to nature. As I have written before, feeding the world is getting easier.

Cowspiracy says, and Hutton parrots, that a third of the Earth’s land is “desertified due to livestock”. In fact, only about 10% to 20% of the world’s drylands are degraded, which represents 6% of the world’s land area. Moreover, as I’ve written before, the world is getting greener on average, not browner.

Hutton and Cowspiracy make a big issue of the water use of animal farming, but that is also a red herring. The water cycle is a closed system. Water isn’t “consumed” when animals drink it. Water scarcity is less an environmental factor than it is a problem of inadequate infrastructure, as I’ve also written before.

They argue that meat requires more land and other resources to produce than an equivalent mass of vegetable food. But they forget that meat contains far more calories than an equivalent quantity of vegetables. People aspire to eat meat in addition to carbohydrate stables and vegetable foods because in moderate quantities, meat is healthy, nutritious, and an efficient way to obtain energy. Vegans typically need to obtain the protein others get from meat by snacking all day on legumes, nuts, grains and seeds. There’s a reason carnivores in nature eat once or twice a week, while herbivores spend most of their waking hours grazing or browsing.

Planning a vegetarian or vegan diet is hard. Vegans need more iron and zinc than meat-eaters, because these minerals are less easily absorbed from plant foods. Vegans are often deficient in iodine, which can cause thyroid gland problems. It is recommended that vegans take vitamin supplements, especially to obtain B-12, which does not occur in a normal vegan diet. I’m sure the global supplement industry, which mostly just helps its customers produce expensive urine, loves to have a few customers who really need its overpriced products.

All this effort simply to stay adequately nourished may be a luxury that people employed by international aid agencies can afford, but it is hardly reasonable to impose such a burden on poor people. They have neither the time or money to invest in high-minded inconveniences such as vegan diets.

Hutton and Cowspiracy go on to fret about animal waste, as if manure isn’t a valuable fertiliser for both crops and natural vegetation, and vegan shit doesn’t stink.

In her title, Hutton invokes the phrase “genocide of the mind” to refer to hunger. She lifted this from an Oxfam report, which attributed it to a “Chief of Khoisan” from Bloemendal in the Eastern Cape who was not worthy of being named. Evocative though the phrase is, it is drivel.

Raising the spectre of hunger to justify a switch to veganism is unjustified. Hunger remains a problem for many, but according to the UN, the proportion of undernourished people in the developing world has declined by almost 50% since 1990, from 23.3% in 1990 to 1992, to 12.9% in 2014 to 2016. Where’s the crisis?

In all regions of the world, per capita calorie intake has increased over the last 50 years. The global average in 2015 was 2,940 kilocalories per capita per day, 25% higher than it was in 1965. (Note: kilocalories are usually, albeit wrongly, abbreviated to simply “calories” in dietary usage.) Even in sub-Saharan Africa, not counting South Africa, daily food intake has risen from 2,058 kcal/capita/day to 2,360, which is slightly more than the global average was in 1965. Where’s the crisis?

Just as Ehrlich in 1968, and before him Thomas Malthus, was wrong about our ability to produce enough food to feed a rising population, so is Hutton. She repeats the very same errors, in fact. Note how often she mentions “current consumption patterns”. This ignores the other main variable in the equation that determines whether we’ll have enough food: production. A key component of production is technological progress.

Prophets of doom always seem to assume the worst about human ingenuity, and never factor in the possibility that we might be able to identify and solve the problems we face, instead of running away from them. Due to the efforts of forgotten Nobel Prize winners such as Norman Borlaug, the yield of cereal crops, which was 1,420kg/ha in 1961, has risen consistently to 3,890kg/ha today. We produce almost three times as much food on the same amount of farmland than our grandparents did.

Catastrophists think that their unique foresight justifies their warnings about future scarcity, without recognising that the whole of economics exists to solve the problem of how to optimise our use of scarce resources. If meat really is as inefficient a source of nutrition as Hutton claims, the price mechanism would signal this, and rational people would prefer vegetarian foods. Ironically, many poor people already do so. Their poverty and malnutrition is not something to celebrate, nor is it an ideal we should aspire to.

There’s more to it than that, however. It is true that hunger has serious psychological and social consequences for people. It does affect one’s mind as much as it affects one’s body. But using a word like “genocide” means something else entirely. It means to deliberately and systematically attempt to exterminate a national, racial, religious or ethnic group of people. It requires a malicious actor to inflict this upon others.

The idea that hunger is something that malicious people – presumably meat-eaters – deliberately inflict upon others is absurd. To use strongly emotive words such as “genocide” in pursuit of the vegan cause suggests that farming animals is an atrocity equivalent to that of the Holocaust, or, perhaps more appropriately, the Holodomor, a man-made famine inflicted upon the Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933, which killed between 2.5-million and 7.5-million people by starvation. Even if vegans think farming is cruel, it’s hard to take that argument seriously when they compare it to killing humans.

Hutton is not the only person making such dehumanising comparisons. During the kerfuffle which prompted her article, over a fight among the UCT Board of the Faculty of Humanities about whether meat ought to be served at faculty events, Elisa Galgut, a vegan from the Department of Philosophy, allegedly drew an equivalence between the rights of animals and the rights of human slaves. Although she withdrew the analogy after a protest was raised, she and a colleague in a letter to the editor in which they defended the gravity of their cause called the incident “race-baiting”.

Since hunger is an unfortunate by-product of poverty, and nobody deliberately inflicts poverty on anyone, using terms such as “genocide” is wholly inappropriate. Such overblown rhetoric only serves to show how hollow the vegan argument really is.

Hutton says it isn’t enough to be concerned about animal suffering, and tradition does not justify continuing omnivorism. But if “cowspiracists” who advocate vegan diets want to have a rational conversation about this, as Hutton claims she does, perhaps they should begin by avoiding blatant falsehoods, shameless exaggerations and irrational metaphors. DM


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