I’ve been writing a lot of posts on personal and spiritual growth lately. I love these topics, but this week I thought I’d go back to my vegan roots! So I’m going to take a look at one of the most common justifications given for eating meat – that it’s natural.
I’m not going to claim that our ancestors didn’t eat meat – we know that they did. But they certainly didn’t eat it in the quantities we do now, or produce it in the same way. So how truthful is it to claim that our behaviour is natural?
The vast majority of the animals we eat are factory farmed. The domestication of farm animals is itself a fairly recent phenomenon, dating back little more than ten thousand years. Compare this to the two hundred thousand years modern humans have been around, and the six million years our ancestors were around.
Factory farming has allowed us to produce huge quantities of meat (albeit at severe environmental cost). Hunting is much harder work than going to the supermarket, and there’s no way our ancestors could have consumed the quantities of meat we do now. It’s believed that some Neanderthal populations were even vegetarian.
Consider the animals we eat now as opposed to then. We have been selectively breeding them for thousands of years to produce more meat, milk and eggs. Some broiler chickens gain weight so quickly that their legs can’t even support them. Factory farmed animals are also fed on grains, which they would not eat in the wild (at least not in those quantities). Typically, a higher percentage of these animals’ meat is made up of fat compared to traditionally raised animals. This is due to their poor diet and their inability to exercise. Factory farmed animals are also routinely fed antibiotics to stave off disease, which runs rampant in the filthy conditions. In some countries, they are given hormones to increase production. To me, it’s pretty clear that meat produced in these conditions can never be labelled ‘natural’.
When this is mentioned to meat-eaters, many do agree. But they may then go on to suggest that the solution is pasture-raised meat, or a return to hunting. However, this is neither possible nor practical. For example, meeting the current demand for beef with grass-fed beef alone would be near impossible, requiring vast areas of land. And besides, research suggests it is as bad or worse for the environment than factory-farmed meat.
It’s pretty obvious that our delicate ecosystems would be destroyed if we were all to begin hunting. The world’s population is much bigger now than it was millennia ago, and we are already losing species at an alarming rate. And as previously mentioned, we eat a lot more meat than our ancestors did. Mic the Vegan found that his diet was nutritionally more similar to our ancestors’ than the so-called ‘paleo diet’! Hunting may be natural, but whether it’s realistic is another matter.
Appealing to nature
Besides, the idea that we should eat meat because it’s natural is a fallacy. It’s an ‘appeal to nature’ – the idea that what’s natural is always best. Should we give up medical care and deodorant an attempt to be more natural? Should we stop living in houses and give up our motor vehicles and electronics? I’m all for living in a simpler and more eco-friendly way, but few would argue we should attempt to imitate our prehistoric ancestors.
Just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. All the longest-lived populations ever studied have eaten a mostly plant-based diet. Our physiology doesn’t suggest we are natural omnivores. Consuming the saturated fats and cholesterol found in meat can lead to coronary artery disease, for example. This is the leading cause of death in the Western world. But it is near impossible for a natural omnivore like a dog to develop this disease!
We have many features characteristic of herbivorous animals – long, complex intestines, jaws that move from side to side in a grinding motion, and short, blunt nails and teeth. Contrary to popular belief, many herbivores do have canines – including hippos, which have the longest of any animal! Additionally, we are repulsed by raw, bloody meat – we have to drain the blood and cook it to make it appetizing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a bear do that.
Humans are also lacking in killer instincts. Small children adore animals, and want to cuddle and play with them. If children do attempt to hurt animals, it’s seen as a worrying sign that they may have mental health issues. The same cannot be said for bear cubs.
Even as adults, most of us are very uncomfortable with watching animals suffer. We love our pets, and would never eat them. There just isn’t any clear evidence that we are built to eat meat.
At the end of the day, whether or not eating meat is natural is a moot point. We don’t need it to be healthy, and it causes suffering and environmental destruction on a huge scale. Our society is continually evolving, and things that were previously seen as acceptable no longer are. In Western societies, for example, we now recognise that women should not be subordinate to men (at least, most of us do!). In the same way, we have the intelligence and moral agency to recognise there is no longer a place for harming animals in our society. That’s what progress is all about.