The Secular Case for Vegetarianism

Guest Post by Rob Schneider

[Editor’s Note: In my third anniversary post, I mentioned that I wanted to have more guest essays on Daylight Atheism, as well as more posts exploring issues where atheists don’t all agree. This post accomplishes both those aims. Please welcome Rob Schneider (not that Rob Schneider) and his first appearance on Daylight Atheism.]

Veganism and vegetarianism have a bad reputation in our society. Those who identify as vegan or vegetarian tend to receive odd looks and questions like, “doesn’t that burger look good?” We get labeled as “tree-huggers” and “extremists.” It’s remarkably similar to being out as an Atheist. I hope to answer some common questions and present a secular case for vegetarianism as a sound ethical choice.

I’ll start by clarifying my terms. Vegan means refraining from the consumption of anything that contains animal products, especially things that come from animals with nervous systems. Yeast is ok, but a Vegan will avoid eating any food containing dairy, eggs or meats, and will carefully check ingredient labels to avoid additives from animal sources, such as gelatin (from hooves) or certain enzymes. Vegans also avoid any products containing animal hide, bones or other bits. Most vegans will use life-saving medicines made from animal components. The Vegan Society has a comprehensive list of animal products commonly found in food here.

Vegetarian covers a broad range of consumption choices. Strict vegetarians will use the same food guidelines as vegans, but use non-food products made from animal parts, such as leather shoes. Ovo-lacto vegetarians will consume eggs and dairy, but not meat. Some people will use the term vegetarian to mean that they avoid red meat, so they will eat fish and sometimes chicken. For this post, vegetarianism means the removal of all chicken, beef and pork from the diet.

I myself am a vegan, although I will be defending vegetarianism in this post. Without going into the animal welfare issues (which are well-documented elsewhere), my argument will focus on the environmental disruption and social justice issues caused by most large-scale farming practices.

Large-scale farming, also known as factory farming, is by far (pdf) the source of most animal products consumed in the West. Factory farming emphasizes size and concentration by confining a large number of animals into a small space. This causes numerous problems with waste management, greenhouse gas emissions and diseases.

Factory farming is often criticized for waste-management issues. Feedlot waste has been shown to have negative effects on the environment. The standard factory farm uses waste lagoons and spreader fields to hold the large amount of urine and feces generated by the animals. As you can imagine, the stench from a small lake of poop is vile, and has adverse effects on those who live nearby. Several studies (pdf) have shown that the fumes from feedlots cause health problems for those living nearby. Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide, Volatile Organic Compounds such as Methane and particulate matter are commonly found in the fumes coming from feedlots.

The feedlot lagoons and spreader fields often lack adequate runoff controls, so heavy rainfall or snow melt can cause direct leakage of the feces and urine into natural bodies of water and potable water sources for humans. This most commonly results in fish kills, but has also been shown to cause a long-term issue with mutated fish in streams.

According to The New York Times, “an estimated 30 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases — more than transportation.” The amount of fossil fuel needed to grow meat is also considerable; “…if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius.” According to Ulf Sonesson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, roughly half the diet-based greenhouse gasses come from meat production. Replacing 50% of the protein from meat with protein from soy in the western diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “on the order of 70%.”

In addition to the pollution issues, industrial animal farming is an incredibly inefficient food source. The grain fed to cattle in the USA alone would feed 800 million people. Livestock are also water-intensive sources of food. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, a kilogram of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic meters of water.

Thus far I have primarily talked about the environmental problems with using meat as a food source. There are numerous social problems with our modern meat industry as well. The modern US slaughterhouse industry has a history of food and worker safety violations, with the now-closed plant in Postville, IA, being just one example. Other abuses are regularly uncovered. Workers in US slaughterhouses are expected to work nearly twice as fast as workers anywhere else in the world. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, “…they [slaughterhouses] cut wages, they cut benefits, broke unions. And now it has one of the highest turnover rates of any industrial job.” The modern US slaughterhouse has a turnover rate between 75% and 100% per year. The workers, mostly poor and many recent immigrants, are also working in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the most dangerous job in America. Injuries are common due to the frantic pace of the work, the fact that power cutting tools are involved, and the amounts of blood and fat that end up on the floor while workers are moving around.

The modern industrial animal farm has many environmental and social costs that are not reflected on the in-store price tag. Our water and air are poisoned and our poor work in a dangerous job for little pay. While the modern steak is easier to buy than ever before, it is far more expensive than we as a society realize. We need to carefully re-think the true cost of our diet before we discover the bill is far more than we can afford.

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