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Social, economic, and aesthetic reasons for vegetarianism

Author: Evan Keraminas

While acute famine is more likely to make the evening news, chronic hunger claims far many more lives annually. Currently an estimated ten percent of the human population does not have enough to eat, and an additional ten percent are dangerously close to the brink of hunger. Meanwhile approximately three-quarters of crops grown in the U.S. today and about 33 to 38 percent of the world's total grain harvest go to feed livestock. Since it takes approximately sixteen calories worth of grains and soybeans to produce one calorie of protein from beef, this is an enormously inefficient means of producing human food.

Francis Moore Lappé's breakthrough book Diet For a Small Planet presented an extensive analysis of the waste of food sources in industrialized nations. Grain grown in the countries where humans are starving is often fed to cattle for the export of cheap beef to folks in industrialized nations (who are frequently overnourished as it is). The great Mohandas Gandhi also observed that "the cattle of the rich steal the bread of the poor." Notwithstanding drastic overpopulation there is currently more than enough human food to go around; the issue is one of distribution. Advocates and activists may argue that we could make leaps and bounds toward alleviating world hunger if only we would stop feeding grain surpluses to livestock raised for meat, and instead ship them off to the starving millions. The criticism does not stop at terrestrial livestock: most forms of commercial fishing are depleting the world's supplies of aquatic life, pushing many species close to extinction. With one in six people on the Earth depending on fish and other sea life as primary sources of protein, this practice is further threatening the food security of people in the so-called "Third World."

Hunger, of course, is affected by politics, economics, and numerous other variables, and not all of it is directly tied to meat consumption. Food shortages in different areas of the world may have drastically different underlying factors, and even researchers and experts may disagree on the root causes. Assuming that reduced meat consumption frees up agricultural resources, it would still be up to wealthier states to use these resources to feed areas with food shortages. To that end, however, critics of food aid argue that placing industrialized nations in the perpetual role of providing for the needs of developing countries (including constant food aid) is an unsatisfactory response; the ultimate goal, they argue, should be to help developing countries become self-sufficient. The organization Food First contends that so-called "free trade" is a significant obstacle in helping countries become self-sufficient in their food-producing capacities. Unequal exchange is certainly not limited to meat (or even vegetable) production, and it is evident that poverty and lack of equitable distribution of resources is more often the root cause of hunger rather than an actual food deficit.

Still, the resources of developing countries being utilized for consumption by members of developed countries is certainly a matter of dubious morality. In Beyond Beef, Jeremy Rifkin points out that over 50 percent of the land area in East Africa is used for beef production, most of which is exported. This land could instead be put to use growing substantial amounts of plant foods for human consumption, for those living in East Africa who need food the most. Certainly, humans could make far better use of arable land if more of us would just eat lower on the agricultural food chain, and this would significantly reduce our collective ecological footprint as well (see also environmental reasons). As John Lawrence Hill points out in philosophical work The Case For Vegetarianism, "one need not be an advocate of animal rights in order to see the fundamental importance of vegetarianism. Committment to human rights is alone sufficient."

Parallels between forms of exploitation

As demonstrated in the section on nonhuman animals, some ethical vegans argue that "speciesism" is just as repugnant as racism and sexism, and that all of these forms of exploitation are linked. Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, became a vegetarian in part because he recognized many parallels between the confinement, torture, and slaughter of animals raised for food, and his own experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, founding Dean of Mestivta Torah VoDaath, also became a vegetarian after the Shoah (Holocaust), stating that, "There has been enough killing in the world." Alice Walker made a similar observation when comparing the treatment of nonhuman animals to the treatment of African Americans. Marjorie Spiegel's seminal work The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery also exposes many similarities between the enslavement of humans and nonhumans.

Some feminist vegetarians and eco-feminists argue out that the objectification and exploitation of animals parallels (and sometimes intersects with) the objectification of women and exploitation of natural resources, and that each perpetuates the other. Carol J. Adams, for example, points out in her work The Sexual Politics of Meat the tendency of men to objectify women sexually as "pieces of meat," and that the device for holding female animals for artificial insemination is referred to, without a trace of irony, as the "rape rack." Green economists and proponents of the Deep Ecology movement also cite parallels between animal abuse, environmental exploitation, and various other forms of social injustice. Derrick Jensen, activist and author of a farrago of books on these and related subjects, has noted these similarities and intersections as well, pointing out that these connections are manifestations of the same cultural mindset.

The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras remarked, "As long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love." (Before the word "vegetarian" was coined, the meatless habit was often called a "Pythagorean" diet.) Members of ISKCON -- also known as the Hare Krishna movement -- advocate vegetarianism for reasons similar to those stated by Pythagoras, namely, that each form of violence perpetuates the other. Author Mark Warren Reinhardt also points out that in many cases of severe human rights abuse, the oppressed peoples are described as having been "treated like animals." He speculates, "Maybe human rights abuses wouldn't be so prevalent in this world if we didn't have so many animal rights abuses to serve as our models."


Pound for pound, meat is on average far more expensive than vegetables, grains, and legumes. Low-income households may be loathe to spend larger sums of money on pork, beef, or chicken when more economic protein alternatives such as beans and rice are available. Even "economic vegetarians" with a greater amount of disposable income may argue a simple cost-benefit analysis: a meat-free diet gives them all the vitamins and nutrients they need, costs significantly less, and carries with it far fewer health risks than a diet which includes animal flesh. Buying plant-based foods instead of animal based ones could also be seen as investing in one's health.

The issue of "externalities" also comes up; namely, that there are numerous hidden "costs" to meat, milk, and egg production which aren't reflected in the sticker price. These include the environmental effects (favoring fruits, vegetables and grains over meat products could be seen as buying futures in the environment) as well as the pain and suffering of humans (see above) and nonhuman animals caused directly or indirectly by standard practices in modern animal agribusiness. It takes approximately sixteen calories worth of grains and soybeans to produce one calorie of protein from beef, and economic-minded people may argue that this is an enormously inefficient means of producing food.

Culture and aesthetics

Some people opt for a vegetarian diet because they simply do not like meat and/or other animal products. In some cases they were raised in households where they were never exposed to meat; other times, they were exposed to flesh foods but simply never developed a taste for them. Another common occurrence is for a person to give up animal products for moral reasons, and while they may initially "miss" the foods, eventually they may come to find that the idea of eating flesh or other foods they shun is no longer even remotely appealing -- perhaps even outright disgusting. Whether this is a result of mental conditioning or the body physically becoming accustomed to not eating certain foods is a matter of debate, although it is likely a combination of the two factors.

Others folks give up meat or other animal products when they begin to take their food quite literally. Instead of "food," various meats are viewed matter-of-factly as a dead cow/pig/chicken/fish, et cetera. They point out that euphemisms are what allow the typical consumer to eat in peace. As one restaurant owner has thoughtfully observed, "Steak just sounds better than carcass." Similarly, those who cut out eggs may see them as "reproductive matter," or milk and milk products as "bodily fluids." One of my friends refers to milk as "cow pus," because dairy cows are prone to painful udder infections, and there is a fair amount of pus which makes it into dairy products. Some of the afforementioned health risks are also part of the "gross-out" factor. To someone who looks at beef and cannot help but picture a ground-up carcass teeming with bacterial growth, suddenly a hamburger doesn't seem very appetizing anymore.

Bibliography and suggestions for further reading:

Adams, Carol J. -- The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory
Adams, Carol J. and Josephine Donovan (editors) -- Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Explorations
Eldredge, Niles -- Dominion
Fox, Michael W. -- Eating With Conscience: The Bioethics of Food
Hill, John Lawrence -- The Case for Vegetarianism: Philosophy For a Small Planet
Jensen, Derrick -- The Culture of Make Believe
Jensen, Derrick -- A Language Older Than Words
Lappé, Francis Moore -- Diet For a Small Planet
Lappé, Francis Moore -- Hope's Edge: The New Diet For a Small Planet
Lyman, Howard -- Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat
Marcus, Erik -- Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating
Patterson, Charles -- Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust
Rappoport, Leon -- How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food
Reinhardt, Mark Warren -- The Perfectly Contented Meat Eater's Guide to Vegetarianism
Riebal, Linda and Ken Jacobsen -- Eating to Save the Earth: Food Choices for a Healthy Planet
Rifkin, Jeremy -- Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture
Robbins, John -- The Food Revolution
Schlosser, Eric -- Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal
Spiegel, Marjorie -- The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery
Stepaniak, Joanne -- The Vegan Sourcebook

This page last reviewed on October 24, 2006

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