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Firstly, before I start, part of this debate will always come down to personal belief. You and I may have different personal beliefs, ethics, and morals. And that's okay. No one has to agree with me. This here, this is what I think about eating animals. I'd love to hear how you feel.
It is my belief, based on the scientific evidence I have seen so far, that humans are natural omnivores. We evolved to eat a mixture of foodstuffs, although mostly plant sources. I suspect people in the west eat far too much meat and products from animal sources, but I still think we are meant to eat meat in general. The evidence here is still rather mixed though: we have teeth for both types of food, intestines that are similar to herbivores but still not as long, stomach acid present in carnivores for breaking down meat, a huge variety of enzymes, we have only one stomach, we fail to produce taurine or DHA fatty acid well ... but this may have evolved as a result of us eating meat, as a species we have eaten meat for roughly 2.5 million years according to fossils, and primates are also omnivores.
What has changed much more recently is agriculture, the rise of big farming and that has certainly lead us to consume a lot more grain and animal protein.
Additionally, I'd suggest that humans have become an artificial apex predator. An apex predator is one at the top of its chain, with no natural predator (for example grizzly bears, sharks). Human beings 'in the wild' are not apex predators, but our fast cognitive development and development of technology and society has made us into one in this food chain. Within our technological world we therefore kill and consume many animal species, with no particular fear of a predator ourselves. This is of course not the case in less developed or wilder places, but the issues I'm addressing here are hugely an issue of the modern, developed, westernized world. [ETA: When I looked up the wiki, it turns out that it's a well documented thought, so there you go.]
Thirdly, I am going to state that I, personally, do not believe eating animals is wrong.
But... And its a big but.
I would also argue that the same cognitive development that has driven our free consumption gives us certain moral obligations. One is to lower the suffering of other creatures, including those we use for food. Consider the way they'd live wild. Yes, animals kill one another in variously brutal ways, and humans once did the same with spears and chase hunting. However, these animals before their death had a lifetime of free and natural living. Compare that to the way animals are raised for meat in industrialized nations today. Animals are restricted massively in movement, in establishing their natural interactions and in environment, just to give a few examples. They are fed on foods they would not naturally eat either for cheapness or so they taste better. Animals are removed from their parents artificially early, animals are killed because they are not perfect specimens or the wrong gender (for example culling male chicks). Not all creatures are killed in clean, fast ways when the time to use them for food does come. Some of the more extreme killing methods are indisputably torture.
There is also environmental concern. The meat industries produce an exceptional amount of byproducts and CO2 emissions. Factory farming is not good for the world, apart from for the economy.
I do not believe eating animals is wrong, but I believe the way we treat them for their entire lives beforehand really is.
So, do I begin eating free range meat only? I would, in an ideal world I would eat ethically farmed animals only. I would eat cows that had spent their lives on the fields making cow friends and interacting with their young. I would already never eat one of the infamous 'torture foods' (foie gras and its bedfellows), but I have to admit a certain cognitive dissonance given I'd eat veal, the same veal which is baby cows, ripped away from their mothers young to both contribute tender meat, and to create a dairy cow, as the mother now has excess milk for no baby.
The issue with the current system is that it has very few safeguards. It is near impossible to currently eat those dream ethical animals. A lot of the ethical farming standards currently don't mean very much. For example 'free range' only legally means anything if you're talking about chickens; red tractor labels don't actually require an animal to have access to the outside; in the US 'organic' can go on anything 90% organic or more; the Soil Association label requires the highest standards in the UK there are vegan and vegetarian soc labels, but they're rare. Therefore its impossible to know, unless you know the farmer personally, how their animals are reared, treated and killed. I have no qualms about eating the eggs from my friend N's chickens. I've seen them, I've fed them. They have a nice wee, open ground, well fed time of it. The only reason that they don't get a total freedom bid is that chickens are quite daft and the foxes would get them. I wouldn't even mind eating one of them, although her family don't raise them for meat.
Do I go vegetarian? Seems like a good start, although you're still looking at all of the abuses of the dairy and egg industries. We already buy only free range eggs, but that doesn't account for the cruel disposal of male chicks or the vague boundaries on 'free range'.
Do I go vegan? HUGE step, almost manically difficult- lots of things involve use of animals that you wouldn't think of and wouldn't pass as being vegan. There are animal products in a scary number of things including cosmetics, sweets, plastic bags among others.
So what do I do?
My current plan is to work in stages towards how I want to eat. And this plan is very much inspired by this TED talk and this concept of veganism (the former is a lot more morality based). First few weeks, I will go vegetarian before dinner. Pescatarian would be too little, as I pretty much eat fruit, salad and fish for lunches anyway. It would be too easy essentially. Then, I will start reducing even vegetarian things- like working in non-dairy milks and so on. I've actually already started this, it turns out hazelnut milk is awesome in porridge. Then eventually, I plan to be vegan before dinner- limiting any animal products to being in one meal a day.
Why before dinner? I think a change is better than nothing. Also honestly, dinner would be the most difficult. My SO is a committed carnivore, and whilst he will eat some vegetarian meals, he wouldn't be too pleased with dinner changing forever. Additionally, as I stated before, I don't think human beings are intended to be 100% herbivorous. However, I do want to work on reducing my meaty dinners, and working in more seafood and vegetarian choices. Its easier sometimes to obtain good seafood, firstly because the labeling means more, and secondly because wild-caught sustainable fish address some of my greater concerns (although it poses a threat to other marine life...).
You may think, 'how can you say that's even a commitment if you care about these issues? That's nothing.'. Any change makes a difference, and its hard to change a life overnight. I intend to be doing a lot more research into exactly how specific animals are raised in farming. Much more sustainable to work towards something in increments. If an individual wanted to live an animal cruelty free lifestyle, a lot more would have to change than food too. I completely admit my own hypocrisies and weak points. I'd never wear fur but I own leather boots. I know I couldn't sustain a no meat diet right now, and I know it would do damage to my relationships too. Even the current changes I plan on could be difficult sometimes, I'm already thinking about what will be on offer for lunch when I head to Canada in a few weeks!
If, however, this does work well, I believe I'd keep working in stages. Maybe one day I would end up vegetarian or vegan. At least until the industry changes. The other thing I intend to do is work towards buying the meat I do consume much more selectively. The labels don't mean much, but they are better than nothing, buying meat locally may also help. I also want to work on reducing animal cruelty in other ways- in cosmetics and wash stuff and the likes. Just think about things a little more.
Yikes! Sorry for the total essay.
What are your thoughts on veganism and vegetarianism? Essays and links welcome.