This coming January I’ll be participating in Veganuary, a “give veganism a go in January” campaign co-founded by Matthew Glover and Jane Land. I’m planning on writing one or two posts about how easy or hard it is. Before that, however, I want to explain why I’m a vegetarian, and why I think other people should be too.
People become vegetarian for a variety of reasons. I think almost all of them are sufficient on their own to justify a switch from a diet which includes animal flesh.
In this post I’ll talk about animal welfare, in the next I’ll discuss the environment and health issues.
1. Animal welfare
First and foremost is the issue of animal welfare. Unfortunately, the animal rights movement has a bad name, at least among certain groups. They are often dismissed by conservatives (both political (mainly in the US) and religious) as “extremists”, “anarchists”, or even just “liberals” (as if the label ‘liberal’ were an insult).
That kind of labelling is neither constructive nor helpful, and for the most part is nothing more than an ad hominem. It might be true that some vegetarians and vegans are activists who, say, have far-left political views that not many of us would adhere too. But we shouldn’t let that allow us dismiss vegetarianism as an extreme “lefty” position anymore than we should let the merits of a free market be ignored simply because such a market is advocated by most who advocate for, say, minimal gun controls (in the US) or a the repeal of the ban on fox hunting (in the UK).
The issue is really very simple, and can be analysed by considering two questions. First, is it right to impose suffering and pain on a non-human animal for the sake of human pleasure?
I think almost all would agree that it is not. For example, a ComRes poll done for the BBC suggests that the majority of the British public (74%) think that the ban on fox hunting should remain in place (BBC 2015). Why are so many people against fox hunting? It’s not primarily because it results in foxes being killed, but because it typically results in foxes undergoing a large amount of suffering prior to being killed, suffering that is wholly unavoidable and imposed only in the name of “sport”.
Or again, most people would find it abhorrent if you were to take a pickaxe to their favourite dog or cat just because you took some pleasure from doing so. Indeed, no doubt the majority of us find it hard to imagine how anyone could find pleasure from such a thing and we’re grateful that such behaviour is illegal under UK law (UK Government 2015).
We’re outraged at fox hunting (and other activities like cock-fighting, bull-fighting, dog-fighting), and find cruelty to pets abhorrent, because we instinctively know two things: cats, dogs, foxes, and these other creatures are sentient (i.e. they have some level of conscious awareness), and it is wrong to inflict suffering on sentient creatures just for the sake of pleasure. If you agree with that, then the pertinent question is: does the farming process cause animals suffering and pain?
Farming and animal suffering
We’ve all seen the disturbing images on TV of chickens crammed into windowless barns, perhaps each in a single cage, barely enough room to turn around, or of pigs being kept on steel slated floors, little hay in sight. Many of us are very adept at dismissing such images. This is surprisingly easy to do. We might doubt their veracity (especially if they’ve been produced or acquired by those groups we can label “extremist”), or we might accept their veracity and tell ourselves that such images represent a tiny proportion of farms. I know I used both of these excuses when I ate animal flesh; but excuses is exactly what they are. Here’s why.
First, almost all food is produced by “factory farms”: large, industrialised commerical operations which raise animals for food. In the US, 99% of all farm animals are raised on factory farms (Foer 2009: 12). In the UK things are only a bit better: e.g. 95% of all chickens are raised on factory farms, 60% of all pigs are raised on factory farms (Foer 2009: 1).These industrialised operations exist to produce as the largest amount of food possible for the smallest amount of money. Such operations are why, for example, we consume produce from two main kinds of chickens: our eggs come from layers, chicken flesh from broilers. The layers have been bred to lay often and quickly. Layering hens typically start laying between 16-20 weeks old (RSPCA n.d.) and lay roughly 300 egg a year (this compares with a figure of around 80 eggs per hen per year in 1900) (Dáil 2014: 118). The productivity of these specially engineered hens reduces as time goes by. In some cases their egg laying can be reinvigorated by force moulting the hen. That is, the hen is tricked into thinking it is winter, often by the complete removal of food (and sometimes water) for 7-14 days (thankfully, this particular method is banned across the EU). Food is then reintroduced, the hen thinks it is spring, and so starts laying once more at an increased rate. In 2003, an article in the academic journal Poultry Science stated that approximately 75% of farms in the US use force moulting to increase production (Bell 2003). Travelling or living in the US and eating eggs? Chances are your supporting this. Whether or not forced moulting is used, the number of eggs laid drops off so quickly that hens are quickly slaughtered; in the EU most often after two laying seasons, in the US after one. This is simply because it’s cheaper to raise new hens who produce more eggs than it is to keep “older” hens alive producing less eggs. Bear in mind that chickens would normally live for 14-16 years.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the male chicks would be fattened up and used for their meat. Back in the day this used to happen but not anymore. This is because it costs too much to fatten up chickens which have been specially bred to lay eggs. Thus the male chicks of laying breeds are simply “destroyed” when 1-3 days old. Sometimes they are thrown alive in to mincers, whereupon they might end up as food for other farm animals. In some countries, such as Germany, where there are laws against killing vertebrates without undue cause, these male chicks must be fed to other animals, because that’s the only reason that can be given for killing them. Where they don’t become feed, they might simply be dumped in landfill. Other methods of “destroying” the chicks include having them “sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified plate”, or put into plastic containers where “the weak are trampled to the bottom and suffocate slowly … [while] the strong suffocate slowly at the top” (Foer 2009: 47).
The broiler breeds have been designed to put on as much weight as possible as quickly as possible. Hatch-to-slaughter times are around 6 weeks, something which is possible because daily growth rates of broilers are now 400% more than what they were sixty years ago (Foer 2009: 47). Again, bear in mind that chickens can live for 15-20 years.
Because so many animals are kept in such cramped, unhealthy conditions, they have to be fed huge amounts of antibiotics just to survive long enough to be slaughtered. This is true not just of chickens but of almost all animals kept on factory farms. And this is part of the reason why of all the antibiotics used in the world each year, 80% are given to animals (Renton 2014) (the other part of the reason is that the antibiotics actually help the animals put on weight quicker).
These practices are commonplace in factory farms. There simply is no arguing that the distressing images occasionally seen on the TV depict only isolated incidents.
If you accept these two points, then you are committed to the idea that if one is going to eat meat, one should source it only from non-factory farms. You are what food writer Jonathan Safran Foer calls a “selective omnivore” – you only eat meat from sources where the animals are treated well. That means that if you know the meat has come from a factory farm, or if you simply don’t know where it has come from, you should not eat it. I became a selective omnivore before becoming vegetarian, and it’s hard. Most restaurants, for example, do not state from where they source their animal flesh, and so, to be consistent, the selective omnivore should refuse to eat such meat. Why? Because chances are the flesh does come from a factory farm, simply because that’s where most meat comes from. Of course, this also rules out eating flesh from most street food vendors, flesh filled sandwiches from cafes, flesh filled sausage rolls from bakeries, and so on.
In the coming posts I’ll outline (more briefly) some other arguments for vegetarianism, and detail why the standard replies aren’t satisfactory. For now, I will leave you with a rather uncomfortable watch, a video which Matthew Glover (founder of Veganuary) has described as “the video the meat industry doesn’t want you to watch”, the official “glass walls” video introduced by Paul McCartney:
Post updated January 01, 2016 with some images, a number of clarifications, and some tags added.
Bell, D. (2003) ‘Historical and current molting practices in the U.S. table egg industry’, Poultry Science, 82/6: 965–970.
Dáil, P.v. (2014) *Hard living in America’s heartland rural poverty in the 21st century Midwest*. Jefferson: McFarland & Co Inc.
Foer, J.S. (2009) *Eating animals* 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Renton, A. (2014) *Planet Carnivore*. London: Guardian.
RSPCA (n.d.) ‘Laying hens – farming (egg production)’. URL:
UK Government (2015) ‘Caring for pets’