Isn’t eating lots of meat bad for the planet? And it’s not fair on the animals - they have rights too. But a lot of farmers would go broke if we stopped buying meat, which would be bad for our economy. Hmmm… this is tricky…
Should we eat animals?
I’m a Gloucester Old Spot - get me out of here!
Consider this - is it ok to kill and eat humans? You’re probably making a face right now, maybe even gagging a bit, and thinking ‘Definitely not!’ And the law’s on your side, thankfully - you have a right not to be murdered and snacked on. But when it comes to killing and eating animals the law sees things very differently - there’s no protection for them. So what’s the difference?
Well, there’s one very obvious difference - humans and animals are different species! But the question is - is that a difference that should matter when it comes to rights and protection under the law?
After all, black people didn’t used to have the same rights as white people - but now we know that a difference in skin colour shouldn’t matter. Women didn’t used to have the same rights as men - but now we know that a difference in gender shouldn’t matter. So should a difference in species matter? Are animals really any different to humans in terms of their value as living, breathing beings?
These questions have caused arguments for centuries, so let’s dive in for a closer look.
Philosophy and animal rights
Ancient philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras was big on respect for animals - he thought that our souls lived on after we died and got reincarnated, from human to animal and vice versa. So he said that all living beings should be considered equally worthy, and he lived a strict vegetarian lifestyle.
But then Aristotle came along a few hundred years later and disagreed, saying that while there were some similarities between animals and humans, ultimately they were simply lower than us on nature’s totem pole. He thought they lacked the ability to reason, think and believe - and if they can’t even understand what rights are, why would they need them?
However, 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham thought that when it came to deciding which beings (other than humans) were entitled to rights, the most important question to ask wasn’t about whether a being could reason - the question should be ‘Can they suffer?’
And he believed that all animals had the ability to suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do and that they could feel pain, pleasure, fear, frustration, loneliness and motherly love. So there’s no moral or logical reason to consider their needs less worthy than a human’s.
In response, many philosophers have argued that it’s ridiculous to give animals rights like humans have because their needs aren’t the same. Are we going to give pigs the right to vote? Cats the right to drive a car? Monkeys the right to get married?
But big thinker Peter Singer thinks that this argument only works if you’re insisting that animals have the same rights as humans - and being equal doesn’t mean being the same.
Imagine if your parents said that you and your sister could each have a present worth £20, so you chose two books and she chose an iTunes voucher. Your presents aren’t the same, but they’re equal in value. Singer says that the same applies here - he thinks that both humans and animals need to be treated like they matter and have an equal right to protection under the law, but they each have different rights depending on what actually benefits them.
Animals and the law
Although there’s still a lot of disagreement about whether or not animals are equal to humans and should have rights, our society is definitely moving in a pro-animal direction. There’s a lot more legal protection for animals now than there ever has been in history. But how did we get here?
The very first law ever passed in Europe to protect animals was in Ireland in 1635 - it made it illegal to pull the wool off of sheep (you had to shear them instead) and to attach farming ploughs to horses' tails (you had to use a proper harness that wouldn’t hurt them).
But things really kicked off in the UK when an MP called Colonel Richard Martin began working to pass a law to protect horses and cows in 1821. At first he was literally laughed out of the House of Commons, but he kept fighting - and in 1822 the Ill Treatment of Horses and Cattle bill was passed, making it an offence to ‘beat, abuse, or ill-treat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle.’
But Martin soon realised that a lot of judges and political leaders weren’t taking the Act seriously, so he and a few other MPs decided to take things into their own hands and form a group that would put a stop to animal cruelty in 1824. It was known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (known today as the RSPCA) and it did things like inspect the conditions at slaughterhouses and other markets where livestock was bought and sold, and try to police the treatment of horses by coachmen.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi
From here on in, animal welfare was taken much more seriously and various different laws were passed to make sure animals were treated fairly.
The most recent of these is the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, which has made it a legal requirement for all pet owners (in fact, anyone who’s at all responsible for a domestic animal) to do things like make sure they live in a good environment, get to eat suitable food and are protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
We also have strict rules for places that raise and kill animals for meat - the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing regulations (2014) from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. And these make sure that animals are killed in the most pain-free way, using methods like stunning which make sure the animal is fully unconscious before they’re killed.
Laws of the future
But is that enough? Our laws make sure that animals live in better conditions and can be spared unnecessary suffering, but we still allow them to be domesticated and kept as pets and we still allow them to be killed for food. We’ve made lots of good progress, but we’re a long way off making sure animals get equal protection to humans under the law. But is that what we should be aiming for? You decide.
What eating meat does to us: the good, the bad and the ugly
- It gives us protein
- Protein is made up of essential amino acids, which act like building blocks that help our bodies make and repair muscles. Without protein, we’d become weak, stop growing and get very sick. Now the kind of protein found in meat gives us all of the essential amino acids we need, while the kind found in vegetables only gives us some of those amino acids. So if you go veggie, you have to eat a large variety of different vegetables to stay healthy. Which is why some nomadic civilizations - like the Mongols, who live in harsher climates where it’s hard to grow vegetables - live almost entirely on a diet of meat in order to get their protein intake and stay healthy.
- It can make us smarter
- The country with the lowest levels of obesity, dementia and heart disease is Japan. And they eat more fish than any country in the developed world - a whopping average of 3 ounces of fish per person every day! That’s a whole lot of sushi. Oily fish contain the world's best source of the fatty acid Omega 3 - and people who haven’t had enough Omega 3 in their diets may suffer from memory loss, slower learning, anxiety, or emotional problems. Basically, no Omega 3 = your brain won’t work properly. But on the flip side, if you get lots of it then it increases synaptic plasticity - which means that your brain’s ability to make new connections is increased, helping you learn faster and remember more stuff.
- It can increase blood pressure
- Research has shown that eating processed meats (meats preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying or canning e.g. hot dogs, salami etc.) on a regular basis increases your chance of getting heart disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease - all things that can kill you. Processed meats contain higher levels of sodium and any excess sodium in your bloodstream will pull water into your veins, which increases your blood pressure (think of it like pumping more water into an already full jar). Sometimes high blood pressure can also damage the walls of the blood vessels. Cholesterol and other fats in the blood can then get trapped in the damaged area and may even give you a stroke. So if you want to live to a ripe old age, you best cut back on the burgers.
- It makes our blood red
- Red meats like steak are rich in iron, which is one of the most important parts of the protein haemoglobin. We use this to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our system. This oxygen then burns to create energy which is used by all our cells and organs, giving them the energy to do stuff - you know, like walk around or digest a big fat steak. So people who are low on iron are likely to feel quite tired and pretty unmotivated to go to the gym. A lack of iron can also affect the immune system, which means the body isn’t able to fight infections as well. Iron can be found in lots of vegetables too, as the crazily-muscled spinach-swallower Popeye taught us - but meat is definitely one of the best sources.
- It helps us to make DNA
- DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, and it’s our genetic code which creates and replicates our cells to make up everything in our body. In order to make DNA, we need the vitamin B12, which is almost exclusively found in meat and animal products. If you don’t get enough of this vitamin you might experience some nerve problems, like numbness and tingling in the fingers and toes. You’ll also feel tired and probably won’t remember things as well. We can actually make a small amount of B12 ourselves as it comes from bacteria - like the good kind we have in our guts. But not enough to stay healthy - for that you either need to eat meat or take vitamin supplements.
Cow farts and pig poo: are meat-eaters killing the planet?
Apparently, cow farts have a lot of methane in them. Sheep burps and pig poo too. And since too much methane in the atmosphere is a big factor in global warming, and we wouldn’t have so many animals producing all that methane if we weren’t raising them for meat, that means meat-eaters are responsible for ruining the planet - right?
OK, it’s not quite that clear-cut. After all, there are many things that humans do that are harmful to the planet.
Like being addicted to our phones - constantly charging our devices uses a lot of electricity, which comes from coal-burning power plants that release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.
Or throwing out batteries instead of recycling them - batteries have small amounts of mercury and other toxic chemicals that can leak into the ecosystem and damage wildlife and sea life.
Or buying jeans - we use up about 3,000 litres of water to make just one pair!
But are those things as bad for the environment as eating meat? Let’s find out...
What kind of damage does eating animals really do?
The process of raising animals for food - which isn't just about meat, but also includes dairy products like eggs and milk - has a huge effect on the quality of the soil in the areas where those animals are farmed. And at the moment, that’s just over ¼ of all the land available to us on earth!
The soil gets heavily trampled on, not to mention covered in animal dung and urine, which can stop grass and other plants from growing. It can also make the soil less likely to drain well, causing flooding.
We also need to use huge chunks of land to grow crops to help feed those animals - every year 13 billion hectares of forest are lost because we turn them into pastures or cropland.
And the loss of the forests is really bad for the fertility of the soil and for animal and plant life in the area. It also makes it harder for people in those regions to get the fresh water they need. In fact, livestock farming uses ⅓ of the world’s fresh water.
Then we come to the cow fart thing. Because of the huge demand for beef, there are around 1.4 billion cows grazing the day away on Earth right now - and they eat a heck of a lot. And, just the same as humans, eating means that gas builds up inside of their guts and has to be released.
So they burp and fart pretty much all the time. (To be fair it’s not just cows - sheep, chickens and pigs do their fair share of burping, pooping and farting. But cows are definitely the worst.) And their bodily gases contain a huge amount of methane - in fact, an individual cow lets out between thirty and fifty gallons of the stuff per day! Which isn’t great, since methane is a ‘greenhouse gas’ that’s unfortunately good at trapping heat from the sun inside the Earth’s atmosphere, which causes global temperatures to rise. It’s even better at it than CO2 - so it warms the world 20 times faster.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, farming is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases around the world - that’s more than the whole transportation industry!
To put it in context, every time you eat a burger you’re putting the same amount of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere as if you’d burned a lightbulb for 2 ½ days or driven a car for 20 miles.
How’re those things hurting the planet?
The fact that temperatures all across the world are steadily rising is changing a whole bunch of things about our environment. And those things aren’t just bad for the planet itself, they’re bad for us.
Farming is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases around the world - that’s more than the whole transportation industry!
Higher temperatures are causing sea levels to rise and slowly but surely swallow up more and more land - so lots of people are losing their homes.
We’re also experiencing more extreme storms and cyclones which cause huge damage to land, buildings and people.
Changes in temperature are having an effect on the types of plant life and vegetables that we’re able to grow, which will impact our diet as well as the feeding habits of many different animals. And climate change can also affect humans directly, as higher temperatures can have a bad effect on our health - making things like heart attacks, strokes and heart disease way more common.
And it’s only going to get worse, as humans are eating more meat and dairy products every year. Experts think that global meat production is going to more than double - from 285 million tonnes (which is how much meat the world currently produces every year) to 465 million tonnes in the year 2050.
Same with milk - we produce 580 million tonnes of it per year at the moment, but by 2050 it will probably be more like 1043 million tonnes. At least, it will be if we don’t change our eating habits.
What should we do now?
Well, for a start we could try eating different kinds of meat, opting for the most planet-friendly types. For example, beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more water than pigs and chickens, plus they require much more food. So if we ate mainly chicken and pork, and had a lot less beef, we’d be doing the Earth a favour.
There’s also a possibility that we could make the animals themselves less of a threat to the environment.
Scientists have experimented with cows’ diets to see if feeding them something different would help reduce the amount of methane in their farts and burps, and they’ve had quite a bit of success with garlic - apparently, it targets the organisms in the gut that produce methane.
Geneticists have even begun playing around with the idea of tweaking some animals’ DNA to try and get a lower methane-producing type of sheep- although this raises ethical questions as some believe that genetic manipulation is exploiting animal rights.
But ultimately, we probably do need to think about adjusting the amount of meat and dairy products we eat - all the evidence suggests that it would be one of the best ways to reduce our personal CO2 footprint and have less of a negative impact on the environment.
However, does that mean we should give up eating animals altogether? Or should we just have fewer burgers and cooked breakfasts? Well, that’s up to you.
A Californian woman broke world records for meat-eating by chomping her way through 363 chicken wings in 20 minutes, 26 hamburgers in 10 minutes and three 72-ounce steaks in 20 minutes.
A Californian woman broke world records for meat-eating by chomping her way through 363 chicken wings in 20 minutes, 26 hamburgers in 10 minutes and three 72-ounce steaks in 20 minutes.
9 of the weirdest animals eaten around the world
The culture you grow up in has a huge effect on what animals you think it’s normal to eat - whether you agree with the ethics of it or not, we’re all used to seeing adverts for hamburgers, bacon rolls, or a nice Sunday roast. But what if on your next trip to McDonald's you got handed a guinea pig kebab?!
Shark meat- taken near Bjarnahöfn in 2005. Image credit: Chris 73, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Sharks may not be friendliest creatures on the planet, but Icelandic people certainly think they’re one of the tastiest! To get this deep sea delicacy ready for eating, the carcass of the shark is buried underground and weighed down with heavy stones, so all the poisonous fluids drain out and make the meat safe to eat. Then it’s hung out to dry before being cut into strips and served.
Fried grasshoppers in Bangkok. Image credit: Thomas Schoch, CC-BY-SA
If you ever decide to holiday in Thailand, be prepared to snack on one of these bad boys. Once the speedy little hoppers have been caught, they’re nicely seasoned with salt and pepper and a bit of chilli… and they’re certainly juicy!
Horse meat Sashimi in Japan. Image credit: Igorberger, CC-BY-SA 3.0
In Japan they call this dish of raw horse meat ‘cherry blossom meat’ and it’s served either on its own or as part of a sushi dish. It’s said to be low in calories and low in fat, so at least if you brave it you’ll know it’s doing you some good.
Southern-fried rattlesnake is a favourite in the bottom half of the United States. You’re supposed to boil the meat before dipping it in egg and covering it in a seasoned salt mix, flour and breadcrumbs. Then you just pop it in the deep fat fryer and you’re ready to start crunching away.
5) Guinea pigs
In parts of South America, particularly in Peru, guinea pig (called ‘cuy’) is a delicacy. It’s often served whole, roasted and accompanied by salad, but it can also be used in casseroles. Apparently, it’s got a similar flavour to rabbit.
Chinese turtle soup in Singapore. Image credit: Chensiyuan, CC-BY-SA 2.5
A favourite of the Chinese, turtles are most commonly eaten as soup - they chop up and boil the meat, skin and innards of a soft-shell turtle as a snack or starter for a meal. At least they’re not wasting anything, right?
Fried spiders for sale at the market in Skuon, Cambodia. Image credit: Mat Connolley, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Generally, people don’t like spiders in their houses… unless they’re Cambodian, and then they welcome them onto the kitchen table. A regional delicacy, popular in the Cambodian town of Skuon, fried spider is prepared by marinating it in sugar and salt and then frying it in garlic.
Balut. Image credit: Maxmajestic, CC-BY 2.5
Wander through any street food market in the Philippines and you’re likely to be offered this snack - a developing duck embryo that’s boiled alive in its shell. Commonly known as 'Balut', this is definitely not for the faint- hearted!
If you visit Japan and anyone hands you what looks like a chocolate chip cookie, just take a closer look before you bite down… because apparently, the digger wasps in this ‘wasp cracker’ have a pretty mean sting.
Meat and money: it’s a failure
We might think about the morality of eating animals, or perhaps the effect on the environment - but what about the impact of meat-eating and other food services on our economy?
Meat makes humans mighty: has hunting helped humans evolve?
A 50 kilo chimpanzee is at least twice as strong as a 100 kilo human. A dog's sense of smell is 10,000 times better than ours. A cheetah can run at a speed of 70 miles per hour, compared to the measly human record of 23. Almost every other animal is better than us at something. Yet, somehow we’re still at the top of the food chain. So how did we get there?
It's easy to say that the thing that makes us different is our intelligence, but that answer might be too simple. Of course, we're smarter than all other animals - but why? Why did humans, out of all the animals on the planet, evolve such high intelligence?
People have thought about this for centuries and one of the most common answers might come as a surprise - we're smart by accident.
From grunts to ABCs
A lot of scientists reckon that our intelligence is a by-product. We didn't evolve intelligence so that we could do maths, build bridges, or study history. We’re only smart because we needed to communicate with each other. We needed to communicate so that we could work together to hunt and kill creatures that are much stronger, bigger and faster than us. Just the same as every other animal, we have the drive to survive!
And amazingly, we actually cooperate better than any other animal. Of course, many animals work together - ants, termites and bees all live in massive groups and cooperate to perform complex tasks - but unlike these social insects, humans can cooperate flexibly. We can react to circumstances, instantly work out a new plan and tell each other what we need to do. We're the most dynamic and communicative of all animals, and this need to communicate in order to hunt was probably the main evolutionary driver for human intelligence.
But why did the need to hunt become so important? Humans are and always have been omnivorous - we can eat both plants and animals.
We can hunt or scavenge. So why did we go down the meat-eating route? The answer probably lies in the relative amounts of energy we get from different types of food.
A cow spends 14 hours a day eating or chewing. A giraffe spends even more time - up to 20 hours a day. Herbivores (plant eaters) need to spend this much time eating because, compared to meat, greenery doesn’t contain much energy. By eating meat whenever they could, early humans were able to take on a lot of calories in a short time - meaning they got to spend more time in the safety of their caves and less time outside in a hostile, dangerous environment.
We're the most dynamic and communicative of all animals, and this need to communicate in order to hunt was probably the main evolutionary driver for human intelligence.
So these early humans then found themselves in a very interesting situation. Evolution had pushed them to develop high intelligence in order to hunt, and their success at hunting had allowed them to feed themselves quickly and efficiently (it's been estimated that early human hunter-gatherers needed to spend about 6.5 hours a day finding food, compared to the average 8.8-hour workday of most people in our industrialised society today!)
This left early humans with big brains, complex societies and plenty of spare time - time they needed to fill. These were the perfect circumstances to promote the further development of language, art and imagination - the things on which our entire civilisation is built.
So it looks like the relationship between eating meat, intelligence and communication is one giant positive feedback loop:
- We begin to eat meat
- Our digestive system evolves to be better at digesting meat and less good at digesting plants
- We begin to rely on meat, and to do this we need to communicate
- The need to communicate drives higher intelligence
- Higher intelligence requires a larger brain
- A larger brain requires more energy
- To get this energy we need to eat meat
Once started, this evolutionary spiral led to the development of modern humans. It could be argued that without the evolutionary pressure of needing to hunt, kill and eat animals, you wouldn't be sitting here reading this article.
Food in the modern world
Of course, since the times of the early humans, things have changed - the invention of both farming and cooking revolutionised our ability to feed ourselves.
Instead of spending time hunting (with no guarantee of success) we can put our energy into farming, which will always result in some food. Whether we farm plants or animals (or both) isn't really the point - farming has made the food supply more predictable and given us food security. And by cooking food, we make it more digestible. Humans aren't very good at getting energy from uncooked vegetable matter, but by cooking it we're effectively starting the digestive process - we're breaking down the food and making it easier for our stomachs to extract nutrients.
So getting hold of food is more straightforward and turning that food into energy is much easier - and these things give us a choice that early humans didn't have. We can choose either to eat meat or be vegetarian. We're able to create perfectly healthy diets with no meat (around 40% of Indians eat no meat and they do just fine), or with almost no vegetables (Mongolians and Inuit people live almost entirely on meat and dairy products), or something in between. We don't need to rely on meat anymore.
So it’s clear that we need to be grateful that our ancestors ate meat, or else we wouldn’t be as smart and developed as we are today. But should we carry on eating it now? Well, that’s for you to decide.
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