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OPINIONSocietyOctober 6, 2022

I have 80 billion reasons to not eat meat – health and the planet aren’t among them

Does this look like lunch? (Photo: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal)
Does this look like lunch? (Photo: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal)

One-time carnivore Richard Meadows on why he no longer lets meat cross his lips. 

A butchered pig swings from the washing line, while I play with a bucket of still-warm intestines. I am four or five years old.

Later I’m tasked with trapping and shooting feral cats and possums. My mum keeps a tally of her own kills taped to the fridge. Animals come and go. I am under no illusions as to the origins of the cling-filmed pieces of flesh neatly displayed behind the supermarket counter.

I love meat as much as the next true-blue Kiwi; maybe even more so. On trips overseas, I munch my way through my own personal Noah’s ark, sampling everything from barbecued rats to dog ribs dipped in chilli sauce.

Then, six years ago, everything changes. I stop eating meat almost overnight, and it’s hardly passed my lips ever since.

My health was not the motivating factor. Netflix “documentaries” notwithstanding, there is no evidence that vegetarian diets are better for us, once you adjust the data for other lifestyle factors. You can be a vegetarian and subsist solely on white bread and hot chips. You can be an omnivore and live to a ripe old age.

Not all vegan diets are healthy diets.

I wasn’t trying to save the environment either. Even if you buy the argument that we’re each responsible for our own carbon footprint, it’s trivially easy to purchase offsets.

Instead, my conversion came about in the nerdiest possible way: by reading moral philosophy.

Jeremy Bentham laid out a coherent moral system in which we can judge our actions by the net pleasure and suffering they cause. Peter Singer convinced me to expand my circle of concern to non-humans. And Hannah Arendt demonstrated that moral progress is far from inevitable.

Throughout history, people who consider themselves “good” blindly go along with the social consensus, no matter what horrors it leads to: if you and I happened to be born in Nazi Germany, we’d be goose-stepping along with the best of them. One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is “what will future generations find barbaric about our own time?”

My answer is the way we treat animals, and specifically, factory farming.

It’s not just the 80 billion animals that are slaughtered each year – too big a number for our brains to really make any sense of. Much worse is the fact that many of these lives are not worth living. They are confined in tiny cages or crates. Their body parts are amputated. Their infants are taken from them. They die without ever seeing the sun or touching grass.

Most of us already have the right moral instincts here. We correctly think it’s sick to beat a dog for fun, or to relieve stress after a long day. All we have to do is be consistent with our preferences: there is no fundamental moral difference between a dog and a pig, except that we are willing to torture the latter for our (gustatory) pleasure.

The passion for animals in our culture is seldom reflected in our dietary choices.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to legally recognise the sentience of animals. We know that some species can plan for the future, grieve, experience joy, and feel pain. I’m not saying they’re just as important as humans. There are probably “bigger” and “smaller” consciousnesses, deserving of more or less moral consideration. But even if we only assign the tiniest scrap of importance to a pig or chicken’s wellbeing, the sheer scale of suffering is so vast that it quite possibly becomes the greatest moral tragedy in all of history.

Unless moral philosophy suddenly gets a whole lot cooler, careful arguments are not going to solve this problem. Personally, I don’t actively try to convert others to my cause (I was asked to write this article!). I think the big shift will only happen by changing incentive structures, and making it easier to do the right thing.

The good news is that this is already happening. It’s never been easier to not eat meat! We have a bounty of plant-based meat alternatives, with new products popping up every time you visit the supermarket. We have better cookbooks and general cultural competency. There are more vegan and vegetarian-friendly restaurants and fast food chains. Animal welfare laws are improving. And we’re on the cusp of some major technological breakthroughs.

As soon as we can get ethical meat cultured from stem cells – say, marbled Wagyu ribeye, or a blend of alligator and giant panda – I’ll be pulling my steak knives out of storage. I hope it happens in my lifetime, but if not, that’s OK too. For me, not eating meat is no great sacrifice. For the animals that didn’t have to suffer on my behalf, it makes all the difference in the world.

Keep going!