Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, laureate professor at the University of Melbourne and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal Liberation, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (with Jim Mason) and The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically.
Vegans are suddenly everywhere. Restaurants that serve meals completely free of all animal products have opened all over New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in Britain, the number of vegans more than tripled in the decade from 2006 to 2016. But most surprisingly, Germany – where not so long ago, meat-heavy cuisine made the country a hostile terrain even for vegetarians – has Berlin showcasing itself as the European center of vegan fine dining.
Canadian consumption of beef and pork peaked in the 1980s, and has dropped sharply since. For a time, this drop seemed to indicate nothing more dramatic than a preference for chicken, but Canadian consumption of all meats has been falling since 2007. Today, restaurants that fail to offer animal-free meals risk losing millennials as customers.
The business pages, too, signal that meatless is the future: Canada’s biggest meat producer, Maple Leaf Foods, has bought plant-based food company Field Roast, known for its vegan sausages and vegan cheeses, for $120-million. Investors are flocking to startups developing plant-based alternatives to meat and other animal products. Fast-food restaurant A&W is aggressively pushing its plant-based burger, struggling to keep up with intense Canadian demand. Other companies are putting money into cellular agriculture, which produces cultured meat, fish, dairy and other animal products, all grown from animal cells but not involving the raising and slaughtering of a living animal.
With celebrities such as Beyoncé, Oprah and Pink, all singing the praises of reducing or eliminating meat consumption, veganism is undoubtedly having a moment.
There are two distinct threats that could indicate that yes, meat is on the way out. One is that a continuation of present trends against consuming meat will make it socially unacceptable for a large segment of society, as tobacco is today. The other is that a technological revolution will make producers of live cattle, pigs and chickens as irrelevant as Kodak became when the once-dominant camera and film manufacturer failed to embrace the digital revolution.
Meat – or at least meat as we have known it – may be cooked.
If large-scale, commercial raising of animals for food is on the way out, that will be a very good thing for our climate and for our environment more generally. Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, found that livestock are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector – all the cars, trucks, planes and ships put together – and second only to the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity.
Modern meat production typically involves growing grains or soybeans – crops that we could eat directly – and feeding them to animals. The animals then need to burn much of this food energy simply in order to live and keep their bodies warm. The proportion of the nutritional value of the crops that we get back from eating the animals, or their eggs and milk, varies with the food and the species of animal. For beef, it is less than one-10th, but even for the more efficient food converters, such as laying hens and dairy cows, it is no more than one-third.
Loss of the energy from plant food is the most basic reason why meat creates more emissions per unit of food energy than plant-based foods, but the methane produced by cattle and sheep is another significant factor. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, tonne for tonne, warms the planet about 30 times as much as carbon dioxide. Ruminant animals produce it as part of their digestive process. Moreover, the idea that grass-fed beef is more sustainable than beef from animals fattened in a feedlot is a myth – in fact, as far as climate change is concerned, grass-fed beef is the worst meat you can eat. That’s because cattle fed on a rich diet of grains and soybeans put on weight faster than cattle fed on grass, and so do less digesting per kilogram of meat produced.
Some people believe that eating locally produced food is the best way to make their diet sustainable. If they are eating meat, it isn’t. One study found that the average American would do more for the planet by going vegetarian just one day a week than they would by eating an entirely local diet.
Another study compared the climate impacts of what we drive with those of what we eat. It found that by switching from a standard North American car, such as a Toyota Camry, to a fuel efficient hybrid, such as a Toyota Prius, the average American driver would save about one ton of carbon emissions a year. But anyone changing from the average American diet to a vegan diet would, over a year, save about 1.5 tons of carbon equivalent. Moreover, that change needs no new technology and, in contrast to buying a new car, installing solar panels, or building wind farms, it has no upfront costs. On the contrary, plant foods such as dried beans and lentils are, per unit of protein, cheaper than meat. It is something we could all do, now.
If, however, we maintain our current levels of meat consumption while people in newly prosperous countries in Asia continue to narrow the gap between their lower levels of meat consumption and ours, we can abandon all hope of meeting the climate goals set at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015. Changing Climate, Changing Diets, a report from the highly respected London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs summarized the situation this way: “Even with best efforts to reduce the emissions footprint of livestock production, the sector will consume a growing share of the remaining carbon budget. This will make it extremely difficult to realize the goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
That goal, remember, was considered necessary to implement what every major country, including the United States, pledged to do at the 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro: to stabilize greenhouse gases at a level low enough to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Some scientists, as well as the leaders of low-lying Pacific island nations, argued at the Paris conference that a temperature rise of 2 C was already too high. The conference resolved to seek to limit temperature rises to as close as possible to 1.5 C. There is general agreement that a rise exceeding 2 C could lead to feedback loops such as the release of additional large quantities of methane from the thawing Siberian permafrost. That will cause still more warming and release yet more methane. Global warming will then be beyond human control and unpredictably dangerous to the future of humanity and the other beings with whom we share this planet.
Climate change is the greatest environmental harm for which meat consumption must bear a significant share of responsibility, but there are many others. The concentrated manure of tens of thousands of intensively farmed animals pollutes rivers. People living near factory farms suffer from odours and flies. Crops fed to cattle compete for water with crops eaten directly by humans, and the need for water for cattle, for drinking, cleaning and other uses, has led to the severe depletion of underground aquifers that took millennia to accumulate.
The eminent Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil has written that for everyone in the world to eat as much meat as people in the affluent world now eat would require 67 per cent more agricultural land than the world possesses. It is difficult to justify a wasteful diet that demands so much agricultural land and water that it necessarily denies the majority of the world’s population the opportunity to eat a diet that is anywhere close to what we are eating.
When I became a vegetarian in 1970, I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Oxford, with a particular interest in ethics. But I had never thought that, by eating meat, I might be complicit in a moral atrocity on a gigantic scale. Today, such ignorance may seem culpable, but it was shared by almost everyone. The term animal rights did not exist, and very few would have known what vegan meant. There were so few ethical vegetarians that I had never met one until that fateful day when I chanced to have lunch with a Canadian graduate student in philosophy, Richard Keshen. As we entered Balliol College dining hall, Richard asked the person presenting the food if the sauce on the spaghetti had meat in it. When told that it did, he took a salad plate. I took the spaghetti, and later asked Richard why he was avoiding meat. He answered that he didn’t think we ought to be treating animals in the way that the animal whose flesh I was now eating had been treated.
That simple response, along with some things Richard told me about the development of intensive animal raising, or factory farming, led me to consider, for the first time, the moral status that we should accord to animals, and whether the various uses we make of them, including raising them for food, are defensible. I decided that I ought to stop eating meat, at least from animals raised in the usual commercial systems, and before long, I became a vegetarian.
In Animal Liberation, published five years later, I set out the basis for this decision. The boundary of ethical concern, I argued, ought not to determined by the boundary of our species, any more than it ought to be determined by the boundary of our race or sex. There are, of course, differences between humans and members of other species, especially in the capacity of normal humans beyond infancy to reason and to use a complex language. But a being does not have to be capable of reasoning to be able to suffer, as anyone who has spent time with an infant knows. There is good evidence that cows, pigs, chickens and fish are all capable of suffering, and so, most probably, are some invertebrates, such as the octopus.
Factory farming inflicts severe suffering on a staggering number of animals. The United States alone produces more than nine billion factory-farmed animals each year. Professor John Webster, formerly head of the school of veterinary science at the University of Bristol and a towering figure in animal-welfare science, has described the industrial raising of chickens as “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”
There are many grounds for this dire judgment. To anyone entering a chicken shed, the overcrowding is obvious, as is the polluted air, which contains enough ammonia from the accumulated bird droppings to sting the eyes and burn the throat. Only a more expert eye would know, however, that these birds have been bred to grow so fast that their immature legs cannot support their grotesquely large bodies, with the result that, Mr. Webster says, a third of them show signs of arthritis-like pain for the final weeks of their lives. They cannot sit down on the litter that covers the floor, however, because it contains so much ammonia that it burns their thighs. Some birds suffer the still-worse fate of having their legs collapse under them. Then, unable to move to water, they slowly die from thirst. (The birds are not worth enough to justify the extra cost of hiring sufficient staff to pay attention to individual birds.)
I could describe equally bad conditions for other industrially raised animals, but you can find plenty of videos on the websites of animal-advocacy organizations. It is no wonder, then, that one powerful motive for going vegan is the desire to cease supporting the factory farming of animals. One could decide instead to be an “ethical omnivore,” eating animal products only when one has adequate assurance that they were raised under conditions that gave them good lives. There are also fish: They, if not raised in confined aquaculture tanks or nets, lead natural lives until they are caught. Horrible as their deaths usually are, that might be a lesser evil than a lifetime of miserable confinement. But many of those who become aware of our ruthless exploitation of animals find it simpler and better to make a clean break with all animal exploitation.
It is a sad but true commentary on human nature that if the vegan movement were driven solely by ethical considerations, it would not be as large as it is today. When Bill Clinton appeared on television in 2010, looking trimmer and fitter than he had for years, and attributed the change to going vegan, people paid attention. Beyoncé recently invited her 112 million Instagram followers to join her in going vegan for 44 days as she prepared for the Coachella festival. Oprah Winfrey isn’t vegan, but has pledged to observe Meatless Mondays and urges her tens of millions of followers to do the same. In the sports world, too, proof of veganism’s health effects are rampant: Novak Djokovic, winner of this year’s men’s Wimbledon championship, is vegan, except for some occasional fish. Venus Williams went vegan after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and Serena joined her in sisterly support and has since become passionate about vegan eating. English footballer Jermain Defoe says his vegan diet has helped him keep his career going at 35, when most other footballers have retired.
When movie stars, actors and pop singers talk about how great they feel on a vegan diet, and vegan athletes win tennis championships, boxing titles and long-distance races, many more people are motivated to cut out animal products.
Once people appreciate that they don’t need to eat animal products, and that they feel better without them, they will be more receptive to the ethical arguments against eating meat. Scientists told some subjects that they were about to be given a consumer test that required them to eat beef, while other students were told that the test required them to eat an apple. Both before and after they were given this information, all the subjects were asked to rate the mental capacities of cows. Those who had been told that they would be eating beef rated the mental capacities of the cows lower after they received this information than they had rated them before receiving it. Subjects who were told they were about to eat an apple did not change their rating of the mental capacities of cows. In other words, it’s easier to see cows for the sensitive beings they are when you are not about to eat one of them. And the same goes, I expect, for seeing the strength of an ethical argument against eating cows.
So will meat go the way of tobacco? If you associate a vegan diet with activism for animals or for the environment, you may think that drawing an analogy between meat and tobacco is a stretch. After all, the campaign against smoking was based on the truth that smoking sharply increases the risk of dying from lung cancer or other smoking-related diseases. Although the consumption of processed meat and red meat is associated with higher levels of colorectal cancer, this does not apply to all forms of meat, and the health risk appears to be lower than it is with smoking. If, however, people find that they feel good on a vegan diet, the ethical arguments will be more widely accepted, and it could become unacceptable, at least in some circumstances, to eat animals.
In 2015, Charles Krauthammer, the conservative Washington Post columnist who died earlier this year, asked, in one of his columns, what present practice, universally engaged in and accepted by people of great intelligence and moral sensitivity, will be seen by future generations as abominable, in the way that we now see slavery as abominable? Mr. Krauthammer’s answer was: our treatment of animals. “I’m convinced,” he wrote, “that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded and slaughtered them on an industrial scale – for the eating.”
Perhaps it won’t take three generations for people to see the industrial raising of animals as an abomination. That day may be closer than we think.