I was impressed with the enthusiasm with which Yearly Meeting 2019 tackled Earthcare and climate change. I was, however, was somewhat perturbed with the haste with which the Meeting supported the suggestion that future Quaker gatherings be fed only vegetarian or vegan fare. I thought this decision should have received further research and spiritual discernment.
It was somewhat to my relief, therefore, that my attention was drawn to On Eating Meat by Matthew Evans. Evans, a trained chef, then a food writer and restaurant critic, now a farmer in southern Tasmania, has written the book as a guide for the “Ethical Omnivore”. He treads a well-balanced path between the vegetarian/vegan camp and industrial agriculture. He writes “I don’t see meat as a commodity. I see it as a privilege.”
Evans describes feedlots, piggeries, and poultry farms (160,000 birds slaughtered a day). He was far from impressed with either the animal welfare standards or the end product. And these were the ones he was allowed to see; we can assume that the others were worse. He argues that animals selected and reared for quick growth and slaughtered at a young age produce tender but tasteless meat. Good meat comes from animals which grow slowly and have maximum freedom of movement. From animals that live enjoyable lives, up until the last day – or the last second if it can be managed that way. He is no callous meat eater. He devotes one entire emotional chapter to his feelings when he has one of his steers killed on the farm.
But, Evans argues, the death of an animal slaughtered for meat, even in a less than ideal abattoir, is probably less unpleasant than deaths of animals in nature. In “natural” settings animals prey on others, perhaps the greatest predators being feral cats. And yet, he points out, it is “animal welfare” groups, often led by vegetarians and vegans, who resist measures to control feral animals.
Vegans believe that no animals are harmed in the production of their food, but Evans points out this is far from true. Crops grown in the field are enticing to many animals, and many kangaroos, wallabies and rabbits need to be shot, trapped or poisoned to protect even the innocent lentil. Many hundreds of thousands of mice need to be poisoned to protect cereal crops in plague years, and this is all before we look at slugs, snails and aphids killed to protect vegetable crops. Evans argues that vegetarians that eat dairy products and eggs should also eat veal and chicken to make use of the male calves and chickens that are killed at birth or soon after.
There is a belief among vegetarians and vegans that by avoiding eating meat they are protecting the environment. Evans questions this. Growing monospecific crops – cereals, lentils, soybeans – involves cultivating the land using fossil fuels, damaging soil structure, and reducing soil carbon. Soil fertility is then restored by using nitrogen fertilisers manufactured from fossil fuels, or by applying animal manures. In fact farming is difficult without animals. We depend on the ability of ruminants to digest crop residues and to make use of vegetation growing in areas not suitable for cropping. Yes, ruminants produce methane, a highly potent but relatively short lived greenhouse gas, but Evans argues that we may have to accept this as a by-product of their ability to digest fibre.
Evans’s main concern is animal welfare, and he suggests the possibility of a joint action by vegans and meat eaters in this cause. While vegans tend to protest raucously in the streets, ethical omnivores can make their beliefs felt even more strongly at the checkout by refusing to buy animal products produced without at least minimal animal welfare practices.
“What we need is less discussion of arbitrary person choices,” writes Evans, “and more talk about animal welfare, about lives won and lost, about a definition of suffering.”
“The way forward is filled with light, not dark, with love not hate. It involves compromises and the recognition that your own personal moral compass isn’t the only one in the world.”
Surely a Quaker concept.
On eating meat by Matthew Evans is published by Murdoch Books, Sydney and London, 2019.
David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting
I’m surprised to see a Quaker making a sarcastic comment about the actions of concerned activists as your contributor does with the claim that, “… vegans tend to protest raucously in the streets.” I thought Quakers were supposed to be supportive of social activism? Or perhaps your contributor is only supportive of action on behalf of his own species?
Sarcasm aside, the fact remains that with 7 billion plus people currently overwhelming the planet’s ability to support life, if we do wish life on earth to continue, one of the actions human beings are going to have to take is for us all to switch to a diet which is primarily plant-based, at least until meat created in the laboratory becomes widely available, a fact which is becoming increasingly acknowledged by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To attempt to muddy this obvious fact with spurious arguments like the environmental damage caused by growing soybeans suggests to me that your contributor has some kind of agenda he is not being open about – only a person who is incapable of logical thought wouldn’t realise that the most environmentally sustainable method of eating is a plant-based diet, for the obvious reason that, up until the time they’re murdered (to satisfy the palettes of people like your contributor), animals have to eat too, so it means you’re having to grow far more crops to keep the 20 billion plus animals that are slaughtered each year alive, then you would if you were growing crops to feed humans alone. And to suggest that farming is difficult without slaughtering animals en masse is surely something very close to nonsense. Human societies have been practicing various types of farming for millennia and the vast majority of them ate largely plant based diets supplemented with limited amounts of meat.
Anyone who wishes to eat meat is of course free to do so, and should be able to do it free from harassment by apparent hordes of noisy activists lining our streets. But there’s surely no need for carnivores to attempt to occupy some bizarre moral high ground by spreading illogical arguments which attempt to disguise the huge environmental cost that our addiction to eating diets that contain excessively high levels of meat is currently causing the planet, or by making unwarranted criticism of vegans, many of whom have chosen to turn their back on the gluttony so readily available as one of the debauched excesses upon which modern Western society is based, in order to eat the most humane, respectful diet possible. It’s also worth remembering that it’s only through the committed work of animal activists, many of whom one can assume are vegans, that some of the worst excesses of the mass cruelty caused by intensive animal agriculture has been exposed (and, in some cases, slowly addressed). Actions that, to my mind, should be applauded, not ridiculed.
Thank you very much for your comment. In my review I was trying to represent the views of Matthew Evans, but I will admit these views largely correspond with my own. I will admit, however, that the word “raucous” probably does not represent the action of most vegans. And yes, I do support social activism and have engaged in it from time to time.
I think you, I and Matthew Evans can agree on many things. We agree that global warming and population growth are going to make difficult decisions inevitable in the future. We agree that we omnivores will have to eat less meat. We agree that it is more efficient to produce food directly from plants than by feeding the plants to animals. And we agree that animals should be always treated humanely.
But it is a fact that large-scale cropping, particular when the land is cultivated when the soil is dry will damage soil structure, leading to wind and water erosion. Modern farmers are turning to non-cultivation farming, but this depends on the removal of plant growth before the crop is sown, either by grazing or by herbicides – safe, but petroleum based.
Much land is climatically of topographically unsuited for crop production, but can be used for grazing animals. As the Earth’s population increases, we will need to make use of as much of our land as we can to produce food sustainably.
And perhaps we need to look again at our concepts of “animal welfare” and “cruelty”. Causing pain or distress to animals throughout their lifetimes is cruelty, but is it cruel to kill an animal humanely with minimum stress, after a life in which all its basic needs have been supplied?