Vegetarianism and Veganism

Posted on September 2, 2010 at 11:23 pm,

Vegetarian Symbol
Following various conversations, I’ve been thinking about the issue of vegetarian and vegan food. Whilst I have dietary restrictions that would make a vegetarian diet difficult and a vegan one impossible, many of my fellow Greens follow one or the other on a point of principle. I thought I’d explore the common reasons that people give for following such a diet, and considering which of these reasons are consistent with Christianity.

Before starting on the reasons people give, though, it’s worth noting that the New Testament’s teaching on food (such as Romans 14) is that Christians are free to eat whatever they want, within the bounds of your own conscience, but that you should respect the consciences of other Christians with regard to what you eat.

Is killing animals for food wrong?

This is the most principled reason of the three reasons I’ll be covering. Many vegetarians consider that killing animals for food is simply wrong, and some vegans with this perspective take it further by arguing that exploiting animals for our own benefit is also wrong. Having said that, most people who take such a position will acknowledge that there are some circumstances where somebody has no choice.

This is a perspective that Christians can’t really share. Whilst you could point to the early chapters of Genesis – saying that Adam and Eve were vegetarians – a few chapters later, God tells Noah that he can eat meat. And, of course, Jesus – the Christian’s supreme example of morality – is recorded as having eaten meat on several occasions. So a Christian is not free to say that eating meat is sinful in and of itself, or even that it is sinful except when you have no alternative.

Animal Cruelty

This is, to some degree, a toned down version of the first reason. The meat industry as a whole inflicts horrible cruelty on animals, and this is very much at odds with the Biblical principle that human beings are stewards of creation – responsible to God for looking after the Earth and everything on it. This is also the case with many other industries that produce animal products.

Of course, this isn’t true of every sector of the industry. Farms that are properly certified as free range and organic almost always treat their animals well, and there’s a strong case to be made that eating animal products from such sources will increase animal welfare standards, whilst buying animal products from battery farms will decrease it.

There are, of course, a host of other reasons to avoid battery farmed meat wherever possible. The film Pig Business highlights a shocking range of environmental damage done by battery farming of pigs, as well as the fact that this industry causes serious ill-health amongst those living near to pig factories.

So whilst animal cruelty isn’t a compelling reason for a Christian to avoid meat altogether, it is a reason to be careful to buy responsibly farmed meat (or responsibly-caught fish) in preference to any other kind whenever possible.

Sustainability

This is the most pragmatic of the three main reasons, and the one that would make me consider cutting meat out of my regular diet if I was able to do so. Eating large quantities of meat is simply not sustainable in the long-term.

The most obvious example of this is fish (and if you’re one of those people who thinks that fish is a vegetarian food, then go and read some basic biology). There are plenty of parts of the world where overfishing has put species in danger of dying out in that region. Buying fish products that are overfished is to abandon our responsibility to be good stewards of creation. Buying farmed fish is also not a solution, as they will be fed wild fish, which may – in turn – be overfished.

With other forms of meat, and animal products, there are two sustainability issues. The first is the use of land. It takes a lot more agricultural land to produce a given number of calories from meat or dairy products than it does to produce those calories via vegetables, as you need to grow things to feed the animals. Of course, there is some agricultural land that is suitable for grazing but not for growing crops, so this isn’t entirely an either/or issue. But there certainly isn’t enough agricultural land for everybody to enjoy the meat-heavy diet that most Westerners enjoy, and with the global population predicted to grow to a peak of around 9 billion by 2050, this is going to be an increasing issue. If we want everybody to be able to get a healthy diet, then we must ensure that agricultural land is put to the most efficient use. Part of that means fewer cash crops, but part of it also means less meat.

The other issue is energy and climate change. It takes a lot more energy to produce meat than it does to produce the equivalent amount of food in crops (the energy output comes from modern farm equipment and transport). Plus, animals produce some greenhouse gases (notably methane) as well. In addition to this, in some parts of the world the meat industry contributes to environmental destruction. The beef industry in Latin America (which supplies a lot of the USA’s beef) is a major factor in the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest which is, in turn, a factor in climate change.

This reason is probably the most compelling for a Christian – the impact on both the environment, and on the food security of the poor demands that we at least try to reduce our consumption of meat in favour of more sustainable alternatives. However, this is still a matter of conscience – much like the food issues Paul was writing about in Romans, so we should be sensitive towards those Christians who don’t share this perspective. Whilst we may seek to persuade them, we should not force them to abide by our conscience when they are not convinced themselves.

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