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The duel: should we ban meat?

Irredeemably cruel—or in keeping with our innately omnivorous appetites? A philosopher and a nature writer ask if eating meat should be illegal
July 10, 2021

Yes—Peter Singer

The commercial production and sale of meat from animals killed for that purpose should be banned for three reasons. First, right now, the most important challenge the world faces is to reduce greenhouse gases sufficiently to limit temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, livestock is responsible for 14.5 per cent of all global emissions. Current trends in meat production make it impossible to limit warming to 1.5C. Banning meat production worldwide makes it achievable.

Second, banning meat is the best way to reduce the risk of another pandemic, perhaps caused by a more lethal virus than the one we are now battling. The 2009 swine flu pandemic came from a factory farm and there have been several bird flu epidemics in recent years. And, of course, we feed antibiotics to farm animals to sustain our system of industrial farming. This causes a rise in antibiotic resistance, making our infections more dangerous and contributing to 700,000 human deaths each year.

As for my third reason, when I became a vegetarian in 1971 I didn’t know anything about climate change or pandemics. It was enough for me that animals reared in factory farms lead miserable lives and that transport and slaughter can also be horrific. (Search online for “Intermarché sow slaughterhouse in Briec” and watch the video.)

Ending the commercial production and sale of meat from animals will give a huge boost to the rapidly growing cellular meat industry. Ninety years ago, Winston Churchill predicted that within 50 years we would “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” His timing was out, but today cellular chicken is on sale in Singapore—real chicken, climate friendly, environmentally benign, virus-free, produced with zero suffering. Cellular beef, fish, and dairy products are on the way too. Let’s give them a boost.

“Bans would be a terrible blow to rural communities”

No—Cal Flyn

No one with a soul could argue in favour of factory farms—but I don’t think it’s helpful to hold up the worst examples from a large and varied industry with the implication this is the norm. Banning the eating of meat is a blunt instrument, and many of the objectives you list can be reached without resorting to it.

In much of the UK, agricultural land is unsuitable for growing crops—90 per cent of farmland in Scotland, for example, where I am. A ban on the keeping of livestock would immediately render my country totally reliant on food imports. In many rural areas, farming is also a longstanding element of the local community. Sweeping in with bans would be a terrible blow culturally, economically and emotionally.

Shifting from an omnivorous diet to a vegetarian one, suddenly and on a massive scale, would also create enormous pressures further down the supply chain: think of the ballooning of the avocado industry, which has seen plantation-style farms spring up on deforested lands in countries like Mexico.

And intensive arable farming is terrible for biodiversity, resulting in huge swathes of monocultural land. In contrast, pasture land for non-intensive grazing is often rich in wildflower species and the insects that go with them.

A mass and abrupt change of diet is a recipe for ill-thought-out arable farming practices, as suppliers race to meet demand. Sudden changes tend to benefit huge companies—which have the resources and manpower to adapt—over the small-scale producer. The crucial point is that animal welfare and environmental standards should be established, respected and policed. Avocados and other vegetables and grains have the potential to be farmed sustainably; so does meat.

Yes—According to Compassion in World Farming, around 73 per cent of farmed animals in the UK live on factory farms. In the US, the Sentience Institute puts the corresponding figure at 99 per cent. So your rejection of factory farms comes more than halfway from the status quo to my ban on the commercial production and sale of meat from animals killed for that purpose.

We agree, too, that intensive arable farming is terrible for biodiversity. But that’s an argument against raising animals for meat, because today we feed grain and soybeans on a vast scale to animals, wasting much of their food value. If we were all vegan, we would need less arable land and could leave more for biodiversity.

Do I really want to stop sheep munching grass on Scottish hillsides? Not entirely. Banning the sale of meat will leave homesteaders free to raise animals to kill and eat. But certainly, if meat cannot be sold there will be fewer animals kept, and that would be a good thing. Most animals grazing in regions unsuited for growing crops are sheep and cattle. Grass-fed ruminants actually emit more greenhouse gases, expressed as CO2 equivalent, than grain-fed ruminants, because they have to do a lot more digesting per kilo of meat produced.

Biologist EO Wilson has called for half the Earth to be set aside for nature; yet the UK is failing to meet its own far less ambitious targets for preserving biodiversity. You have written powerfully about the rewilding that occurs when people abandon villages, regions and islands. Less drastically, removing commercially raised sheep and cattle would help us restore the biodiversity of the natural world.

No—These are all good points, and I suspect we share some common ground. Briefly—intensive farming of animals makes me, and I think most people, deeply uncomfortable. If we are to keep animals for their meat, it’s important to treat them with dignity.

I know a number of people who I would call crofters but you might call homesteaders, who keep animals privately as you describe. Husbanding animals is skilled, hard work, and takes years for people to learn. Those who don’t know what they’re doing can treat animals badly due to their lack of knowledge, so it’s important it is done well. This is why, lately, more than one of these friends has begun to sell their meat. Because now they are experienced and have the specialist facilities, doesn’t it make sense for them to raise animals for other people too—those who don’t have the knowledge, or access to land?

If we implemented your ban on meat sales, we would find ourselves in strange circumstances: urban populations would be confined to restricted diets while their country cousins ate roast beef whenever they pleased. Given the demographics of the average UK farmer or crofter, there are obvious class and race issues here. It’s not a fair proposal.

On the broader ethical issue of eating meat at all, hear me out. I wrestle with myself over my hunger for meat; it’s a source of moral anxiety (and saturated fat). Yes, it is possible to live a vegetarian, even vegan, lifestyle. But it makes me uneasy, this distancing from our animal nature. I feel at my core that I am an omnivore. I crave meat, and during past periods of vegetarianism I have lapsed, suffered from anaemia, and felt dissatisfied. One can take iron supplements, plan meals for complete proteins and so on, but it felt like a complicated response to an uncomplicated problem. I don’t judge dogs for eating meat, nor gulls, nor bears, nor rats. I can’t judge humans either.

“The annual production of 70bn animals wreaks devastation”

Yes—Banning something for which there is strong consumer demand is generally not a good idea. The prohibition of the sale of alcohol in the US put the liquor trade into the hands of criminal gangs. Today, the “war on drugs” has had a similar effect. This “war” has had many casualties. It cannot be won, and legalising drugs is a better policy.

Doesn’t my proposal to ban meat make a similar mistake? When Prospect invited me to take the affirmative in this Duel, I accepted because a world without a vast meat industry would be a much better place than the one we inhabit now. We can aspire to that better outcome, even if we are not yet ready for it.

Given that there are many among us who crave meat, as you do, to ban it now may well put the trade into criminal hands. But once we can produce meat from animal cells, and at a price below that from animals, we can ban raising and killing animals for the purpose of producing meat and still satisfy the meat cravers’ appetites.

You and I share the goal of ending factory farming, to prevent cruelty and save our planet from the devastation wreaked by the annual production of 70bn animals, most of them eating grains and soybeans. Once we achieve that, if we permit skilled crofters with high animal welfare standards to sell a few carcasses, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But perhaps by then no one will want to buy and eat dead animals anyway.

No—I agree a ban would have unintended consequences, likely negative. I’m intrigued by your lab-grown meat plan, though I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace this high-tech alternative quite yet. There’s something slightly uncanny, even dystopian, about the idea. I’ve had it hammered into me that we should avoid processed foods to the greatest extent we can. I’d find it difficult to accept something produced entirely in a lab as a healthy, attractive option. The idea of it makes me rather queasy. But then—so did liver, and I learned to love that. I’m a product of my times, I guess.

So perhaps your plan might offer us a route to compromise. While I can’t imagine “lab slabs” in place of rump steaks, I think I can see some place for artificial meat in our future. It might stand in for the meat in things like chicken nuggets or burgers, say—dishes in which the cut of meat is not so important, and where budget is a key concern.

Grass-fed beef is all very well, but I admit it might be overkill for a late-night kebab. And many of the problems of the meat industry, as I see it, are tightly linked to those pile-‘em-high products—the turkey twizzlers, the chicken dippers—that many of us (myself included) pick up unthinkingly as cheap comfort food, without considering the supply chain.

I don’t believe that it is wrong for us to eat meat, nor for farmers to produce meat commercially—with the proviso that we need strong oversight of animal welfare. But producing animal flesh on an enormous scale, for as little money as possible, only to liquidise it and fry it in batter? Perhaps there’s something dystopian in that too.