My diet has gone through many incarnations throughout my life, influenced in no small part by where I lived: from Boulder, CO where wheat grass shots were plentiful, to the UK, where breakfast just isn’t breakfast without bacon and sausages. In the last year or so, I have become increasingly aware of what I eat, and have been making a concerted effort to be more deliberate about my food choices. And I don’t take these choices lightly. For example, I have recently put a great deal of research into whether or not I should go vegan. I found it pretty easy to find reasons why I should, but harder to find reasons why I shouldn’t (or at least, harder to find more cogent reasons than “it’s hard” and “meat is yummy”).
Which is why I was excited to discover that the good folks down under at The Wheeler Centre and the St James Ethics Centre hosted an Intelligence Squared debate in Melbourne last year over that very premise: Should Animals Be Off The Menu?
The video is nearly two hours long, so I will recap and review it for you here. But if you are interested in engaging more deeply with some of these issues, I highly recommend it. It starts out a little slowly, as each of the six speakers present their opening statements. But the floor is then opened to audience members who bring a great deal of challenging questions as well as poignant observations of their own, which really enliven the debate. It is interesting to note, as well, that although this video is now over a year old, there is still lively and very current discussion taking place in the comments on YouTube.
The debate is between two teams. Those in favor of the motion that animals should be off the menu were led by Peter Singer (who also appeared in Examined Life), and rounded out with Philip Wollen, and Veronica Ridge. The oppositional team was made up of Fiona Chambers, Bruce McGregor, and Adrian Richardson.
And I’ll tell you right now: the vegetarians win. This is determined by a vote from the audience, who started the evening already in favor of the vegetarians at 65%, though that number had climbed to 73.6% by the end of the evening. McGregor, in the unfortunate position of following up Wollen’s histrionic presentation, noted this bias early on, stating “I’m on a hiding to nothing, aren’t I?” before beginning his own statement.
Singer’s argument was by far the strongest of all the speakers. He presents the case for his whole team, briefly touching on each of a multitude of reasons for taking animals off the menu. He begins by addressing the erroneous claim that it is unhealthy to maintain a vegetarian diet, a stance that has been soundly debunked by institutions such as Harvard and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But he concludes with what is the most important point for him: ethics. What right have we, he argues, to use and abuse other sentient creatures for our pleasure and convenience?His teammates Wollen and Ridge spoke more abstractly (and, to my mind, less convincingly). Ridge’s role was to hype the delicious possibilities of being an “ethicurean”, and she was there, I assume, as a counterpoint to Richardson, the restaurant-owner and renowned chef of all things animal.
But it was Wollen who really stole the show, and who unfortunately (imho) embodies the stereotype of vegans as overly-emotional, dramatic, and radical. A former corporate big wig turned compassionate philanthropist, Wollen lists statistics and numbers of atrocities against animals in factory farms, and delivers a heartfelt appeal to release these poor creatures from their suffering. Personally, I was cringing throughout his speech, and thought I spied more than a few smirks from others in the video as well. But apparently he has a strong following of people are completely swayed by his provocative statements like, “Every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a hungry child.”
The opposition’s argument hinged on two main points. First, that animals are an integral part of the ecosystem, and will be necessary to creating sustainable systems of food production in the future. And second, that many people in many parts of the world rely on animal products for survival. I’ll admit, I got a little lost when Chambers and McGregor started talking about science. It was dense and confusing, and for someone unfamiliar with the jargon, almost incomprehensible. Which is really a shame, because I believe that if their facts are right, then this is a very important aspect of the debate that gets lost merely because it is difficult to understand. (And also, arguably, because advocating on behalf of methane-absorbing bacteria simply doesn’t tug at the heartstrings in the same way a description of abused hens in battery cages does.)
Following the agricultural scientists, Richardson did little to salvage his team’s position. He is a big, entertaining, patriotic personality, but he contributed little of substance to the debate. His main stance was that it is not about whether or not we eat meat, it’s about how we choose meat, and of course he advocates for eating only ethically-raised, environmentally sustainable meat. But Jonathan Safran Foer has noted that the problem with this viewpoint (as popularly espoused by Michael Pollan), is that it is extremely difficult for someone to always eat meat by such exacting standards. It is not always possible to know where you food comes from, especially when eating out, and the temptation to turn a blind eye when it is inconvenient is simply far too strong.
But some of the best contributors to this debate were, in fact, the audience members, who played no small role in poking holes in the arguments of Chambers and McGregor. The most notable example of this was when McGregor declaimed the destruction of Brazilian rain forest in order to make room for soybean crops. I’m not sure what he was going for with that fact (does he think that we should not only eat meat, but also eat less plants?), but he failed to mention that nearly all of those crops are being grown to be fed to cattle in factory farms!
The debate culminated in final statements from each of the speakers, and revealed a sort of meta-debate about what this debate was supposed to be about: was it about factory farms or all farms? Was it about taking animals off our menu, or taking animals off the world’s menu? It also revealed some weaknesses on both sides of the debate. I noticed that the team in favor of the motion tended to be unwilling to think about concrete practicalities, and reluctant to engage with the science of food production, while the opposition were dismissive of arguments about emotion and ethics.
But what also became apparent is that ultimately, both sides were arguing for different means to the same end: sustainability. Our planet is in bad shape, from climate change to imminent food and water shortages. And each side wanted to propose a system that would be able to achieve some drastic and sustainable change within the next 20 years. But with such big blind spots, both sides will be stymied in this pursuit.
What we need now is to combine the efforts of both sides. We need more research into sustainable food production systems, and into the long-term effects of different diets. And each side needs to start thinking in the long term. We don’t need only to address what we can do in the next 20 years, but what the ideal end goal is. Because no matter what, we will need to re-calibrate our cultural appetite for meat. It wasn’t always like this; it is the direct result of the industrialization of food production practices in the 1950s. And at the current rate, it is simply not sustainable. So we must start to shape a picture of our ideal world, and attempt to answer questions that look beyond our immediate future: Must the entire world become vegan? Just the First World? If not, how could more ethical farming practices keep up with the world’s current demand for meat?
We all want sustainability. And in order to achieve that, our appetites must change to some degree.
Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Emma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor. She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research. Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”. Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.