Recently I’ve been reading the rants of militant vego’s. While wildly inflammatory, I love the intellectual and moral confrontation. And I confess they’ve driven me from ‘light vegetarian’ to a much higher level of adherence.

Whether it’s killing giraffes or whales, or eating dogs (versus bacon), few things upset humans more than killing animals, or at least the species we favour for various reasons … an arbitrariness termed ‘speciesism’. Indeed, the most common motivation for vegetarianism is the welfare of the animals.

That’s certainly true for Donna, the local contact person for both vegetarians and vegans. Donna is a vegan, avoiding eggs and dairy as well as meat. She’s no urban idealist though. “I grew up on a lifestyle block where we raised and killed our own stock. I watched my father home-kill sheep when I was young and my dad is a hunter.”

Donna has, if you’ll excuse the pun, a beef with speciesism. “We need to have some compassion for the anonymous species and what’s going on with factory farming. The demand is for cheaper and cheaper food and that’s often to the detriment of the animals and their ability to live natural lives.”

It’s difficult to conclude that man is simply at the top of a Darwinian food chain. What we do has little in common with what happens in the wild. When a carnivorous animal kills its prey, it’s often taking the old, the weak and the sick, thereby strengthening the population. In factory farming there’s no natural selection going on.

Nobel prizewinning author, and vegetarian, Isaac Bashevis Singer described modern meat production as ‘an endless Treblinka’. While that may seem a highly inflammatory statement, you’d probably get his point if you visited a factory chicken producer.

Vegans like Donna often argue that ethically it’s worse to eat eggs and dairy than meat. At least with meat the male and female of the species have some sort of a life before gracing our plates; but with milk and egg producers, the fate of 50% of the species is grim. Bobby calves get the best of it; their meat and skins, having some value, get a few days of life. Male chicks in the egg industry are ‘liquidated’ as soon as they can be sorted.

Vegan’s oppose the exploitation of ‘sentient animals’, that is, those that have a central nervous system and can feel emotions. They believe these species have intrinsic and moral value, while lesser species, like plants, have only instrumental value. They oppose treating these sentient animals as commodities. While this is also speciesism, it does seem more rational and consistent than the emotional or aesthetic speciesism we’re usually confronted with.
Health concerns are another factor motivating vegetarian diets. Denis is a good example. He lives in Havelock North and is a recent retiree with three stents and ongoing rheumatoid arthritis. On the advice of his specialist, he’s now a vegan, excepting the occasional serving of fish.

A considerable and growing body of evidence indicates that a vegan diet is healthier. It is usually higher in fibre, lower in fat and more nutrient dense than a diet based on animal protein. It also seems to reduce the risk of many types of cancer.

Most powerful of all is the evidence that a healthy vegan diet almost eliminates the risk of heart disease. “Plaque does not develop until the endothelium, or the lining of the arteries, is injured — and it is injured every time people eat meat, dairy, fish, and chicken,” Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, a leading advocate of a plant-based diet, states emphatically. Esselstyn believes the evidence is clear in vegetarian cultures in Africa, Asia and Central America, where heart disease is almost unheard of. For these people a vegetarian diet is completely natural and therein lies the challenge in New Zealand.

Better than boiled

The typical dinner when I grew up was the kiwi ‘meat and three veg’. The meat was clearly the star of the show. The vegetables were mostly boiled – and boiled for a long time. Seemingly the only flavour they had came from the salt we liberally applied. Thankfully we imported some people who could make veges taste better. First the Chinese, then Malaysian, Thai, Cambodian … and their veges taste wonderful. Once it was difficult to be vegetarian or vegan, but now the supermarkets are packed with options that make it appealing.

The health arguments are not just about avoiding disease. Vegetarian and vegan diets are increasingly common amongst endurance athletes. Campbell is a local runner and has gone veggie “to reduce the risk of injury and improve recovery times”. The science to back up these ideas is inconclusive at this stage, but Campbell insists he’s seen enough. “I run with this young vegetarian and he’s just a machine!” he says.

We have a misplaced confidence in the healthiness of our traditional meat and dairy based diet. Thirty years ago the prevailing urban myth was that eating butter was important to our wellbeing and that it contained vitamins you couldn’t get from other sources. Today everyone believes that consuming milk is the best pathway to maintaining healthy bones – except that the evidence doesn’t quite back this up.

The big milk consumers are found in North America, Scandinavia, UK and of course, New Zealand. Oddly these countries also have some of the highest rates of hip fractures, a key measure of osteoporosis. One of the key causes is the acidification of our blood. The human body needs to maintain pH balance and in order to neutralise acidity, it leaches calcium from our bones. A key cause of blood acidification is the consumption of animal proteins, including milk. Countries like Japan, Singapore and South Korea don’t have a culture of regular milk consumption, yet they seem to get plenty of calcium and have much lower rates of hip fractures.

If you don’t find the ethical and health arguments compelling, then the coup de grace is the environmental argument. “I respect those people that don’t want to kill other living things; it’s very noble. But surely the environment is the critical issue,” says designer and environmentalist David Trubridge. There are many startling facts that back up Trubridge’s concerns. The UN calculates that the climate-change emissions from animals bred for meat makes up 18% of the global total. That’s more than all the cars, trucks and aeroplanes combined. Environmentalists wage war on fossil fuels, but if you had to choose between giving up your car or giving up meat, which would it be?

The global population is growing rapidly, as is the purchasing power of the emerging world. Demand for meat has doubled in the last 30 years and is forecast to double again in a similar timeframe. “The trend is for the emerging world to copy the excesses of the first world. For them we have a seductive and exotic culture and they don’t see through the gloss,” says Trubridge. “We need to set the trend; to present a vegetarian diet as an attractive option. Right now they’re clearing native forests in South America to produce soya beans to ship to the US as stock food to produce beef. It’s an unbelievably wasteful use of resources.”

Meat production is much more demanding of land, water and fossil fuels than are plants. Studies indicate that meat production takes between 10 and 20 times as much land as do field crops, and in some cases 100 times more water. The key way to make meat production more efficient is to intensify factory farming. If you cramp your livestock up indoors, keep them warm and bring the food to them, they put on weight more efficiently. This is the giant flaw in the popular idea that free range and organic meat production is the future. Such systems simply can’t produce enough meat to feed the demand for meat that is forecast.

The only good arguments for continuing to eat meat are that it provides vitamin B12, for which vegetarians need to take a supplement, and that it tastes good. Many people would give vegetarianism a go if it wasn’t such a cultural challenge. In some ways it’s like changing your religion. The Sunday roast and the BBQ snarler are part of our heritage, part of our way of life.

To become a vegetarian is to swim against a strong current; but sometimes the current is going the wrong way and it has to be done. It’s clearly the healthy choice – healthy for the animals, healthy for our bodies and healthy for the planet.

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