Updated: May 15, 2021
To think that our food has caused the suffering of an intelligent, thinking and feeling animal is morally troublesome for many of us. Yet, giving up meat is not easy. Meat is a great source of pleasure for most people and bears huge socio-cultural importance. Rather than change our behaviour and in a bid to resolve this conflict, we may instead attempt to defend our decision to eat meat with pro-meat justifications.
Typically, these pro-meat justifications tend to fall into four common categories, the arguments that meat is: necessary, natural, normal and nice and have come to be known as the 4N’s of justification.
The first of the 4N's is the argument that eating meat is necessary. Appealing to the nutritional content of meat, people argue that meat is necessary for human health and survival. Most commonly, this involves an appeal to the protein quality of meat, in a bid to defend it's position on the dinner plate. In fact, meat has become almost synonymous with protein - a google image search for the word "protein" evidences just that.
So, to what extent are we dependent on meat for protein?
While it cannot be denied that meat is a protein-dense food product, it is not true that we must depend on meat for protein. In fact, protein is naturally synthesised in plants and farmed animals simply acquire the proteins in their meat, from eating plant-based foods. Which explains how some of the world's strongest animals; elephants, rhinos, gorillas and hippos, eat only plants.
The list of protein-dense veggie foods is endless: asparagus, avocado, broccoli, peas, beans, kale, lentils, quinoa, nuts, seeds. And, plant-derived meat-alternatives like seitan, often contain as much protein as staple meats like chicken. In fact, seitan pips chicken to the post, containing 25g of protein per 100g serving, a slight edge on the 24g per 100g serving of chicken!
What's more, we know now that the industrial rearing practices of our modern day animal agriculture industry have had a detrimental impact on the nutritional quality of the meat that we eat. The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, as well as genetic modification and growth hormone cause farmed animals to grow so rapidly that they are often unable to stand and hold their own body weight. The resultant near-stationary lifestyle, means that meat today contains dangerously high levels of saturated fat and less and lower quality protein.
It seems that some of what we think about the health benefits of meat is based largely on myth.
And it not just protein that we got wrong. We also know that dairy milk isn’t all that good for our bones, neither. Scientific research has started to debunk the common misconception that dairy milk is necessary for humans to build and maintain strong bones. How so, you might ask. Well, the theory is as follows. Because dairy is highly acidic, when we drink milk our bodies draw calcium from our bones in an attempt to neutralize the acidity – in turn, depleting our bodies of this essential nutrient. Today, we can get our calcium intake from almond milk which is both naturally alkalizing and high in calcium.
Fortunately for, and exemplified by, the plant-based consumers among us, a vegan diet is sufficient enough to provide the recommended daily intake of nearly all essential nutrients. And I say nearly, because there is one important outlier. B12. Vitamin B12 is an incredibly important nutrient, essential for optimal cell health. The Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board recommend that we consume approximately 2.4 micrograms of Vitamin B12 each day to avoid the negative health consequences that comes as a result of low B12.
Importantly, B12 is naturally present in foods of animal origin, for example, fish, meat, poultry and eggs. And so, for this reason, many people revert back to the argument that meat is necessary for optimal health. However, this argument overlooks a very important piece to the puzzle. Not only is B12 found naturally in animal-derived food products, but also abundantly in fortified foods like breakfast cereals and plant-based milks. So, getting your recommended daily intake of B12 is as easy as eating just one bowl of cornflakes, topped with almond milk!
So, to what extent are we dependent on meat for optimal health? It seems that the answer is: not all that much.
Another common pro-meat justification is that eating meat is natural, part of human evolution. So, is eating meat written in our biology?
Well, arguably, no. In reality, our biology is more like that of a herbivore. For example, our intestinal tract is incredibly long, it is bumpy and pouch-like with lots of pockets that hold food for nutrient absorption. So, when we eat meat, it can sit in the intestine for much longer than is natural and can cause harmful bacteria to grow. In comparison, the intestinal tract of a carnivorous animal is much shorter, smooth and pipe-like - built to ensure that meat passes through their system quickly.
In fact, a meat-based diet is so unnatural for our human form that it's consumption has been linked to a number of serious health consequences including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. In research published by the World Health Organisation it was found that processed meats, like hot do the WHO found evidence to suggest that swapping processed meat for a plant-based alternative may even protect against cancer. In their research, they show that swapping 50g of processed meat (or two rashers of bacon) with a plant-based alternative, each day, can reduce our risk of colorectal cancer by as much as 18%.
People also appeal to this idea that eating meat is natural, because as humans we dominate the food chain. But, this argument is problematic for two reasons. First, it is factually incorrect. In truth, fierce meat-loving predators like killer whales sit at the top of the global food chain. Humans sit quite a way down, alongside animals like pigs and anchovies. Our sense of supremacy is inflated because we have developed the tools to exercise dominion over these animals. And, this takes me onto the second fundamental flaw of this argument: just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should.
Even if eating meat isn’t all that necessary nor natural, it is at least normal. This is of the 4N’s of justification that we can’t argue with. It is true, a great majority of the population do eat meat. And, alot of it! It is estimated that approximately 73% of the global population maintain an omnivorous diet consuming on average 41.90kg of meat each year.
Meat is such a normal part of our daily lives and wider cultural context that for many, a main meal simply isn't considered as such if there is no meat. During traditional cultural events, meat is often the center piece of our food sharing practices, for example the Christmas Turkey and the Sunday roast dinner. Meat is also a way in which we are able to draw conclusions about who we are as people. That meaning, it is important in informing our social as well as our cultural identities. It is a product that ranks at the top of universal food hierarchies and is symbolic of strength, power and masculinity.
When a behaviour is socially normative and so widespread, it becomes routinised and feels almost unnatural to question it. No one asks if we believe in eating animals. It is a given. And so, we purchase and consume food in a state of mindlessness, without thinking about the ethicality of our actions.
And when all else fails, people simply justify their consumption of meat by appealing to the pleasure that it brings, because it is nice. And on that note, I leave you with some food for thought. When we fall into this trap, of defending our consumption of meat with the argument that it tastes good, it is important to ask ourselves whether we value the pleasure that we get from eating meat, more than the life of an animal.