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Ethics of Eating Meat – a Personal Opinion

12 January 2015

In his book, Eating Meat: Science and Consumption Culture, Howard Swatland presents a new look at eating meat from a personal point of view.

eating meat coverWhile the book covers meat technology and science, muscle formation and chemistry and eating quality and cooking, it also looks at some of the ethical issues surrounding meat production and eating.

In the chapter on Personal Ethics of Eating Meat and Responsibilities in Animal Transport and Slaughter discusses the technical, scientific and ethical issues.

But he also gives his own personal views on why he eats meat.

My Opinion by Howard Swatland

Let me start with the biosphere – that incredibly thin layer of the surface and atmosphere of Mother Earth which we all inhabit. Virtually every atom of the biosphere, except those recently released from ancient rocks or dropped from the heavens, is a triumph of recycling. All the atoms in my body may have passed a few millennia in some seaweed or another, made a couple of passes through some ancient fish or dinosaur, before now ending up in me. Courtesy of global carbon and nitrogen cycles, ‘who is what’ and ‘what is who’ is only a snapshot in time. So, our only chance of escaping biosphere recycling is to pop into a space capsule and take a one-way trip into outer space. Even then, after a long, long time, we will become part of an even larger recycling effort for stellar materials.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, what gives me the right to eat meat? I claim the grandparent clause – long-established habit and tradition. From my personal ancestors over the last million years, I have inherited dentition and digestive enzymes ideally suited for meat-eating (Stanford and Bunn, 2001), I have a predilection for juicy steak and I lack the appropriate education to devise for myself a perfectly healthy diet free of animal products. When my children were babies, I think it would have been wrong to deprive them of the animal fats that get incorporated into growing nerves and brain cells. Nor am I about to change my leather hiking boots for plastic sandals, stop washing with soap or close the cupboard door on numerous household items containing animal products. Any suggestion that raising beef cattle is bad for the ecology or bad for our global climate cannot withstand exposure to common sense. Large ruminants have been chewing the cud – tough plant fibres on which no other large animals can thrive – since they first evolved, and their role in recycling nutrients has been essential in many ecosystems. Bison or cattle, it makes little overall difference to me, except that bison were more effective at distributing their manure over the grasslands, which was of great ecological importance (James, 1992). Before them, herbivorous dinosaurs must have made similar quantities of methane.

The socio-political arguments against eating meat are, in my opinion, quite unrealistic. I know I live in a wealthy country. Although I live in a small home in academic squalor, I do have a truck with a big engine, I do keep my home tolerably warm and I do travel by air for my holidays. Thus, I am contributing to global warming.

If sufficiently motivated, I might walk everywhere, live in a freezing cold house and stop going on holiday – but if everyone did the same thing, the global economy would crash. Likewise, I am happy for some people never to eat meat, but if everyone quit, again the global economy would crash and there would be mass malnutrition in wealthy countries like there is already in poor countries. So should all the wealthy people in the world share their resources with all the poor people? Dream on – for me it makes more sense to show those who do not have meat how to grow their own meat animals. The real challenge for us all is working out how to produce meat and get it to our tables without squandering fossil fuel.

So killing meat animals is cruel, is it? Well, not in the developed countries where we have laws to make sure it is done humanely, with no more distress to the animal than would be experienced by someone knocked out from behind in a sporting accident. I have been knocked out twice – once at school and once in a car accident. If you do not wake up, it is not going to hurt.

Now let me take aim at a far more powerful adversary: one with medical authority and deep commercial resources – the nutrition lobby.

  • Animal fats have been under attack for more than fifty years, ever since margarine manufacturers hit on a great marketing plan to grab a big slice of the butter market. During those years, meat producers have responded to market demands by making tremendous reductions in the amount of fat in meat. I always viewed hydrogenated oils in margarine with great suspicion because of their trans fats, and now I am happy that I always preferred the taste of butter.
  • Even if high levels of certain cholesterol fractions in our blood may coincide with a high risk of heart attack, prove to me that a healthy person who enjoys fresh air, exercise and a well-balanced diet is going to go from the health club to the sick club just because of a generous serving of roast beef on Sundays.
  • Before I reduce my meat consumption, I want conclusive experimental evidence of cause and effect, not coincidental innuendo. Even the worst case scenarios produced by the anti-meat lobbies involve risk probabilities that are laughably small to anyone who travels regularly in heavy road traffic or by air.
  • Why are meat-haters telling me not to eat beef? Do they want me to eat something else they are selling, like soggy chunks of texturized vegetable protein masquerading as meat? Should I attend an expensive clinic or buy a glossy diet book? Sorry, but I believe in looking in the bedroom mirror to see the truth. If my waist looks too big, I cut out potatoes, noodles and rice. If my arms look spindly, I spend more time cutting firewood without a chainsaw or log splitter. In other words, it looks to me as if most of the evidence purporting to show that meat is bad for me, actually shows that a lack of healthy exercise is bad for me.
  • And as for popping pills to lower my cholesterol, thank you, but no. Personally I would rather go hungry a few days a week; it might be just as effective and certainly allows me to wear my old Harris Tweed trousers without perpetually buying new ones to accommodate an expanding waist.
  • Who else bombards me with misleading propaganda? Ah, yes, the tainted food lobby. Meat is full of drugs, chemicals, red dye and bacteria, is it? Well, people rob banks too. That is against the law as well, just like selling fresh meat with drug residues or illegal artificial colouring or allowing it to become contaminated. We do the best we can to stop these things happening, but a few banks get robbed and a few bugs get on meat.
  • What about a mouth-watering roast still a bit pink in the middle? Well, I believe that it is safe for me to eat. All meat animals are carefully inspected by trained personnel before and after slaughter, and by law, only meat from healthy animals can be sold as fresh meat for human consumption. So, unlike hamburgers, where surface bacteria may permeate the whole product, the inside of a roast is sterile. Obviously, meat gets hottest on the outside during roasting, and any surface bugs get torched. As an individual, there is very little I can do for people who do not cook their meat properly or to combat commercial companies who ignore government regulations.
  • So, can meat kill you? Yes, it certainly can. A side of beef falling from an overhead rail in a packing plant can easily break your neck. From the Stone Age onwards, I think more people have been killed or maimed trying to get meat than have died from eating it. Unless the pictures of starving children in the Third World are a total media fiction, then more people today die because they cannot get meat than those who die from eating too much of it. We are all bombarded by dietary information on meat and mortality, but what about the often underpaid, underprivileged workers who put the meat on our tables? Who looks after them? Agriculture and the meat industry are dangerous industries. My sympathy is with those, who cannot get meat, and with those who are exploited to provide it, not with greedy people who eat too much of it.

Eating Meat: Science & Consumption Culture can be obtained from 5m Books priced £19.95.

December 2014

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