Eating is one of the most basic of activities for any animal – and it is one of the most complex things for us. All too often, unfortunately, it’s also one of the activities that are most ‘virtualized,’ at a remove from reality.
One of the most basic battle lines is drawn between proponents of meat-eating and opponents of it.
Arguments about the nutritional advantages of eating meat (Protein! B-Vitamins!), made all the stronger by many a culture’s support for meat as a high-value food, meet arguments about the ethics of meat (Meat is Murder!) and the health benefits of avoiding it (Red Meat Causes Cancer!).
The negative ecological and health impacts of industrialized “meat production” are well-publicized but go at least as unacknowledged (or at least, acted on) as the life-and-death requirements for functioning agro-ecological systems and the luxuries many a modern vegan diet entails.
The ideological and idealistic aspects are the ones that always get the most play, strong, easily oppositional, and well-suited for social media simplification as they are.
In the process, they follow the process of virtualization that is so common today. They become ever more strongly ideological and virtual, removed from consideration of what *is*, in all its complexity and uncertainty, removing us ever further from our being at home in this world.
Both sides like to try and support their positions by what seem like scientific arguments about the biological characteristics of carnivores, herbivores, and, in comparison, humans. Our intestines aren’t as short as those of carnivores, our teeth not as strong, says the one side; we clearly aren’t ruminants with stomachs and intestines made to digest grass, argues the other.
Whether looking at hunter-gatherers or our nearest animal relatives, let alone foodways around the world, it’s pretty clear that we really are potential omnivores. Actual ones, in fact, it just depends on what the relative environment offers.
There’s also the, not small, matter of culture.
Most environments would probably offer more that would be edible than is actually eaten; various aspects of culture shape the very definition of edibility. Not to forget the material-technological aspect of culture, i.e. that we actively grow and raise some foods and actively avoid other potential foods, that we change breeds and varieties, and that we make foods more easily digestible, or even palatable, by ‘outsourcing’ some of the digestive process to processing such as cooking or fermenting.
Some people like to claim that meat-eating can’t be right for us because we can’t really eat it raw, or argue with disgust about meat being stored for longer.
We could eat it raw or very nearly so, though (witness Hadza hunter-gatherers or, for that matter, steak tartare), but it’s an intrinsic (and sensible) part of our food ways that we don’t eat meat overly fresh, let alone raw.
It’s a precaution against disease or parasites (and zoonotic diseases, those that “jump” from animals we have close contact with to us, are a good argument for avoiding animals) and curing of meats is a process similar to the pickling of vegetables.
The raw plant matter so beloved by many a vegetarian or vegan can also be a problem. Animals clearly have feelings and don’t want to be eaten – but neither do plants want to be eaten. They just produce poisons, given that they can’t run away; we breed them into new varieties or process them so as to make them (better) digestible.
(This, by the way, is one of the most common problems in considerations of proper, if not perfect, diets: It makes a difference, for example, whether we are talking about an older kind of grain prepared in a long-time sourdough fermentation or a modern strain of wheat processed into wonder bread.)
The reality of life as part of this world also adds a complication because we keep looking for the perfect diet, ignoring that life is always a compromise.
Reproductive success is all that evolution is interested in, not (necessarily) a long and healthy life. Energy needs have to be fulfilled, quickly; long-term consequences aren’t as important to a body, in a hungry moment.
Eating delivers nutrients, but it also exposes us to toxins – and in fact, what is a toxin in too high a dose may be a beneficial compound in lower doses. Ageing doesn’t exactly make things better, either. Even the perfect diet wouldn’t keep young forever, and the best diet for a young person is probably not the best for an older one (or the same person in old age).
Then, there is the aspect of farming and land use/cultivation.
Twice as much land as is used for farming (annual crops or orchards and vineyards) is used for pasture, much of it probably couldn’t be used for growing crops or fruit, but grazing animals can turn that grass and shrub land into milk and meat (and blood…). An argument for *not* going vegetarian to “feed the world,” perhaps.
Then again, with “industrial meat production” (ugly name for an ugly practice that does not even value animals as living beings), animals are mistreated in ways both ethically and pragmatically bad, for them and us, directly and indirectly (think crops used as fodder, antibiotic use, pollution). And of course, the argument for pasture (and pasture-raised meat) only holds water when the diet is made to fit the availability, not the other way round – and a predominantly vegetarian diet is a lot better in providing calories and most nutrients with less energy (and land) use. In that regard, it’s healthier and better for the world to go vegetarian.
Eating fruit and vegetables flown or shipped in from across the world also can’t be of too good an effect on the world, though, and it’s only possible as long as one can afford that luxury. And sorry, but a luxury it is. I’m still waiting for a strictly locavore and seasonally eating vegan outside of the tropics…
Additionally, animal husbandry is a necessary part of ecological agriculture, given that animals are best able to turn kitchen scraps into animal protein and fertilizer (yep, dung). There’s a reason Eurasian farmsteads would have included freely ranging chickens and have pigsties… and this also applies to aquaponic- or permacultural integrated production. (Which is not to say that it has to be impossible to grow only vegetable food, without mineral fertilizer and without animals, but the nutritional situation, for agricultural productivity as well as for the human eater, is more easily better with them and their use.)
And then, when you have animals, you can’t let them just live as they please, either. Many a breed couldn’t survive in the wild anymore, and even with wild animals, it’s not a natural paradise as long as only we humans stay out of it. Ethics of not wanting to have death be a part of food are a bit dubious, perhaps, if overgrazing followed by starvation, natural predation, or equally natural disease are the alternatives. (Not that I’d suggest “animals want to be eaten” as an alternative world view; they clearly don’t, but it’s normal that they are. When it comes to the vegan rejection of honey, in my opinion, it gets crazy. Without beekeepers, there would be far fewer bees; it’s closer to a symbiosis than a predatory behavior.)
Locally-produced lab meat may get around some of the ethical and maybe even practical implications, but the resources for that also have to come from somewhere, and this would have an impact. Additionally, micronutrients might go missing from artificial food like that, making it equally as dubious in quality for human nutrition as factory-“farmed” protein.
And again, it would be a further removal of our already-removed selves from awareness of the web of life which we are a part of. In making animals less important and less natural a part of human foodways, the effect might be deleterious, not advantageous, even for the welfare of non-human life.
Of course, only some of this is science and experience, much of it could and will change and develop just as it will, a lot of it wouldn’t be able and shouldn’t even convince people to live – to eat – differently from how they have been. But, it’s worth trying to understand and get at home in this world, not deny and avoid the realities of eating but see face-to-face with them, weigh arguments and feelings, and decide accordingly for oneself.
Just as long as you get real…