If we care about our environment, should we all be vegetarians?

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The fact that human beings can be found in all corners of the globe is due to their flexibility when it comes to food and also their ability to adapt to even the harshest environments. In fact, the human being is the only species living in all of the continents (cats and dogs live also everywhere, but this is due to their dependence on humans). Humans utilize different resources in different areas, for example, colonizing cold regions became possible by changing to a diet based almost exclusively on meat. The best example of adapting to extreme climates is the Inuits of Greenland. Cold regions also necessitated clothing which also utilized animal resources, fur and leather.

Human being has the physiology of an omnivorous[1] animal

The change away from being exclusively vegetarian fruit consumer took place so long ago that it influenced profoundly human physiology. It is difficult to obtain the necessary protein[2] from a purely plant-based diet. There are also difficulties in obtaining sufficient amounts of certain vitamins and trace minerals (the clearest example is vitamin B12, moreover fish consumption is essential for vitamin D intake). Therefore the present human being is not “responsible” as an individual or even as a species for the kind of nutrition his/her body and health requires. Human adaptation to a mixed diet took place 1 to 2 million years ago. Even our closest relatives, the chimpanzees are not purely vegetarian fruit eaters; they also eat termites and small animals.

Too much meat

It is a completely different issue, if one considers what is the best ratio of plant-based and animal-based food in our diet, as far as our health is concerned. Nutritionists have tried to convince us for a long time that food from animal sources is an excessively large part of our diet, in particular we eat too much of hard animal fats (dairy products included). The correlation of the diseases of heart and blood vessels as well as cardiac deaths with consumption of hard fats has been very convincingly proven, and it seems that consumption of red meat is also associated at least with colon cancer, and perhaps other cancers.

Today, there is little argument over the belief that increasing the share of vegetables and fruit in diet can decrease the total cancer risk. In fact, the increase in the diet-related cases of cancer may be much greater than those attributable to all synthetic cancer-causing chemicals combined. We do not understand in detail which factors are involved here, and therefore there is no easy way to compensate by using multivitamin or mineral tablets. The factors thought to be involved include vitamins, trace minerals, antioxidants and perhaps the more favourable fat species of plants as compared with animal fats.

In the same way, fish seems in many ways to be a better source of animal food than meat. A much greater proportion of fish fats is polyunsaturated, and within this group, a large proportion contains so called omega-3 or n-3 fatty acids (often called EPA and DHA[3]). These are very important for the health of blood vessels and thus for preventing deaths from heart diseases. They are also important for the development of the nervous system. Therefore children, adolescents, and pregnant mothers, younger or older, should eat much more fish than is customary in our present societies.

How about the environment?

It is a common argument that vegetarianism is an ethical question, because feeding animals with corn and barley consumes many times more valuable food resources than we are able to obtain from meat. The same holds for energy resources, and the “ecological footprint” of a meat diet is larger than a vegetarian diet. Therefore a meat diet is wasteful and destructive from the point of view of sustainable development.

On the other hand, the world is full of diversity – providing living space for tigers, pandas, seals and antelopes, in other words, both plant-eaters and meat-eaters. As such this is not a question of sustainable development. Ecology is a continuous circle: the antelope eats plants, the lion eats the antelope, the maggots of corpse flies eat the dead lion, the swallow eats the fly. Likewise plant plankton is consumed by animal plankton, this is consumed by fish, fish by seals, and seals by polar bears or Inuits.

In principle, one could claim that ethics have nothing to do with the circulation of resources by Mother Nature, and there is no difference between plants and animals in this sense. The real problem is the sheer number of human beings. If the human population were a mere ten million, as it probably was toward the end of the Stone Age, rather than today’s six thousand million, there would be no problem with sustainable development even if man only ate meat just like lions or tigers. Thus, one can state that vegetarianism allows us to maintain a greater population of humans than one with omnivorous food habits; it is a matter of debate if this is particularly ethical.

Efficiency is also not always easy to assess. Ruminants, i.e. cows and sheep, are able to utilize cellulose in contrast to humans – people cannot live on hay and grass. Therefore areas suitable for pasture but not grain production can also provide human food. So by using the above ethical reasoning, one could claim that it is more ethical to eat beef or mutton than pork or chicken.

Optimising the requirements of health and sustainable development

Given the fact there are too many of us, what would then be the best route to sustainable development? As in many other issues, extremism may not be the most reasonable solution. As long as the majority of the population in rich and industrialised countries are consuming too much meat and too little fish and vegetables, the most effective way would be to change the habits of the main body of the population. It remains somewhat uncertain to what extent the situation is improved if a small minority takes the issue to the extreme. It is not beneficial for health, and with respect to ethics, one can present arguments both for and against their diet.

The situation in fact is similar to that with alcohol. Is it better for the whole society to promote moderation or total abstention (teetotalism)? In promoting moderation, some individuals may become problem drinkers without realising the dangers, because moderate alcohol consumption is socially acceptable. If promoting teetotalism, a large part of the population considers this unrealistic and unfair, and it is not psychologically or politically acceptable. Then it may not be possible to achieve even what progress could otherwise be achievable.

Tolerance is important on both sides. The main population should understand that for some individual vegetarianism may be an absolute ethical question, and it is only polite to accept their standpoint. It is certainly also possible to live a happy life as a vegetarian and maintain health if it is done sensibly. On the other hand, a vegetarian would probably benefit from making it clear to himself or herself, if this really is a matter of principle, or if it is a question of quantities. This might help to prevent embarrassing situations and save a hostess with good intentions from panic.

In the traditional European diet, the emphasis was on plant products, especially grain, edible roots and later in history on potatoes. Meat was a more expensive part of a meal, carefully rationed by the housewife and not necessarily eaten every day. This is very different from the present Americanized consumption of a huge steak every day as the main part of the meal.

Extreme vegetarianism is not beneficial for the health of the population. On the other hand, we eat too much meat in the rich “developed” countries. Therefore a return to wholemeal bread, porridge, fruit and vegetables should be favoured. From the viewpoint of the environment, population-level consumption changes would be more important than the extreme vegetarianism of some minority groups.

Notes and references

  1. Animals are classified as herbivorous eating plants, carnivores which eat meat, and omnivorous which consume both plants and animals in significant amounts.
  2. Basic nutrients or so called macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates (such as starch and sugars), and fats. These provide the building materials of our muscles, skeleton and internal organs as well as energy for motion and work.
  3. Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid

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