Back when I was a kid, aeons ago, there was a series of comics books called the Amar Chitra Katha, which had, as one of their self-proclaimed goals, educating Indian kids about “spirituality” and a (highly fictionalised, not to say mythologised) version of history.
Well, in one of the stories I recall from those days, there was this Hindu Brahmin monk who thought he was very spiritual and pure. He never, he said, harmed a living thing, nor did he ever pollute himself with meat. Now he wanted to learn even higher spirituality from the most knowledgeable in the land, and he set out on a journey to find such a teacher.
In the course of his wanderings, he was told by someone to go to a certain village and ask for a certain person. Sure that he was about to meet a great and revered teacher, the monk set out excitedly for the village, and once he arrived there, he asked to meet the great teacher by that name.
The people he asked were nonplussed. “We know of only one person of that name,” they said. “But he isn’t a teacher of any sort. You’ll find him in that shop over there.”
The monk looked at the shop, and recoiled. It was a butcher’s.
Seething with anger, he stormed forward and began upbraiding the butcher for his evil and cruel profession. The butcher, who’d been expecting him, calmly informed him that he earned his own and his family’s living by the profession, and that he didn’t see anything objectionable or shameful in it.
Then he launched an attack on the monk’s own pretensions to venerating life. “Every day, as you walk,” he said, “beneath your feet, you crush thousands of animals which have done you no harm. Don’t you think you’re in no position to accuse others of cruelty?”
To make a long and predictable story short, the monk left, as they say, a sadder and a wiser man, with the knowledge that one doesn’t necessarily have to be a sanctimonious prig in order to be “good”.
I remembered this, basically, because it was so out of character for Amar Chitra Katha, which routinely passed off myth as fact and gave everything it could a Hindu twist. I also remember it because it was one of the very few mainstream examples of vegetarian hypocrisy getting roasted that I could find.
Yes, I do mean “vegetarian hypocrisy”. In this blog I seldom to never mention food, and for good reason – I’m not particularly interested in gourmet dishes; anything vaguely palatable and properly digestible is fine with me. But I do mention hypocrisy, a lot; and when it comes to food, hypocrisy abounds.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: while I follow a mostly vegetarian diet (lacto-ovo-vegetarian, actually), I am emphatically not a vegetarian. In the part of the country in which I live, vegetarianism is culturally alien, and vegetarianism treated like something akin to an affliction. So not only am I not a vegetarian, I have never been a vegetarian. Fine, so I’ve declared my bias and got it out of the way.
I would, actually, be fine with a live-and-let-live attitude towards vegetarians and their dietary preferences, but for three things.
The first is the hypocrisy of “moral vegetarianism”, which I’ll discuss in detail – the idea that vegetarianism is somehow more “moral” than non-vegetarianism; that meat-eating is “cruel” or “unnatural”. The second is militant vegetarianism, where vegetarians are not content with maintaining their so-called moral superiority over the rest of us, but attempt to bully, blackmail, or compel us to adapt to their food habits. The third is the claim that vegetarianism is healthier than non-vegetarianism.
In the following text, unless specifically mentioned, I will use the term “vegetarian” to refer both to vegetarians and vegans. Veganism is more extreme than vegetarianism, and also more hypocritical, but most of the arguments will be applicable to both of them equally.
The hypocrisy of “moral vegetarianism”:
It’s the oldest vegetarian argument, the one every single non-vegetarian has been confronted with at some time or other – that vegetarians are “moral” and non-vegetarians are “cruel”, and that vegetarians have greater “respect for life”. Even at first glance, this seems to be an argument with major flaws somewhere in the structure.
Now, I freely admit that killing animals for food isn’t something that can be called kind – but exactly how are vegetarians better? Let’s take it argument by vegetarian argument:
1. Vegetarian claim: Non-vegetarians destroy life. Vegetarians don’t.
Now, unless one’s almost incredibly ignorant of basic science, one knows that plants are as alive as animals are. In fact, even if one is wholly ignorant of basic science, one can see for oneself that plants are born, grow up, and die, just like animals. So, by accusing non-vegetarians of destroying life, what vegetarians mean is destroying advanced, relatively intelligent animal life, of the order of fishes, birds and mammals – and a lot of self-styled “vegetarians” are actually piscivores, who restrict their respect for life to birds and mammals. [One explanation I’ve heard for this behaviour is, apparently, that fish “have no brains”, so aren’t really animals. That’s news to me.]
Then, plants aren’t just alive, there’s enough evidence to clearly indicate that they are, in some manner, aware. They respond to stimuli, conduct slow-motion chemical warfare among themselves and against browsing animals, and react to damage. Therefore it’s perfectly possible that they feel pain, in their own fashion, and if they can’t scream and writhe in agony in a manner we can easily distinguish, it’s certainly not their fault. Yet vegetarians see no moral quandary in condemning non-vegetarians’ alleged disrespect for life while themselves killing life.
Who’s the real hypocrite here?
Then, as the Amar Chitra Katha pointed out, vegetarians are far from innocent of killing animal life. It’s not just the accidental murder of tiny animals they tread on – just how many vegetarians are willing to let mosquitoes feast undisturbed on their blood? If they’re infested with lice or roundworms, will they refuse to have these parasites eradicated? Of course not.
At least non-vegetarians have the honesty to admit that they kill animals.
2. Vegetarian claim: Non-vegetarians kill animals for food (or, to be quite accurate, the majority have animals killed for them for food). Perfectly true. Vegetarians don’t have animals killed for them for food. Completely and absolutely false.
I don’t know whether vegetarians have an idea that their food appears on their greengrocers’ shelves by a process of immaculate conception, but in reality that food has to be, you know, planted in soil, watered, and grown to harvest. Now, as anyone can see for themselves by taking a walk in a garden sometime, plants have pests. In fact, plants have one hell of a lot of pests, including a lot of animals of different types, from caterpillars to aphids to beetle larvae. Plants have pests from root to stem to leaf to fruit; they’re riddled with pests. And do you think those pests will politely stand aside to allow vegetarians their food? Of course not.
So what do you think happens to those pests, exactly? They’re poisoned out of existence, that’s what. Modern vegetable farming is exactly as much factory-farming as the much-derided meat industry, and if anything far more chemical-intensive. In any but the most basic subsistence-level vegetable-farming, the crops are dosed routinely and with massive doses of pesticides, designed to murder all manner of animals, quite indiscriminately, including those which not only don’t harm the crops but would normally help the farmer by eating the pests – such as centipedes, spiders and praying mantises, to name a few. But modern factory-farming has no time to spare them.
Even if the chemicals aren’t used, what are the alternatives? Suppose, now, a particular vegetarian person decided to grow, say, something like cabbage. Now, cabbages are also eaten by a particular kind of caterpillar, which would, of course, dramatically reduce the value of the harvest, or even eliminate it altogether. Now let’s assume that our vegetarian farmer was too tender hearted to poison the caterpillars to death – and also had a lot of time on his hands, enough to remove the insects one by one from the leaves and put them on something else, a mulberry bush, let’s say. Now, these cabbage caterpillars can only eat cabbage leaves. They aren’t silkworms, and can’t eat mulberry leaves. Therefore, by putting them on a mulberry bush, the compassionate, vegetarian farmer is merely condemning them to death by slow starvation. Right?
Then, what happens to the food after harvest? It has to be stored on the way to market, hasn’t it? And there are a whole lot of other pests which attack stored grain, not just primitive creatures like weevils, but quite advanced and intelligent animals like mice and rats. So, you know, they’re gassed, and poisoned, and trapped out of existence – just so those grains can actually survive to appear on market shelves. So, just how, exactly, does vegetarian food not involve killing animals?
Then, what about the animals vegetarians eat along with their food? Not all animals are large and easily discernible. The vast majority are very, very small – some too tiny to be seen except by the microscope. And I am not talking about bacteria, or fungi, neither of which are plants, either – I am talking about animals, creatures comprised of eukaryotic cells without cell walls. Do vegetarians assume they can rid themselves of all of these while washing and chopping their food? Dream on.
At least non-vegetarians openly admit to eating animals. Who is the hypocrite here?
3. The hypocrisy of many vegetarians (not all, that’s true), who will refuse to eat meat, but have no problem wearing leather or silk products. Do they imagine, you know, that all those fancy leather items and those shimmering silk dresses come from cows which have died of old age, or moths which have broken out of their cocoons? Because if they do, they need a little education.
Opposed to them are those vegetarians who do not use leather or silk, but prefer, say, wool or cotton garments – wool being, of course, sheared from sheep who are raised for the purpose and slaughtered when no longer productive. I’m not even going to go into the uglinss of practices like “mulesing” which are inflicted on these unfortunate animals. As for the cotton crowd, they can congratulate themselves on having a perfectly humane, non-violent fabric – so long as they don’t admit to themselves that cotton is one of the most pesticide-dependent crops on the planet. Ever heard of the boll-weevil? If not, rest assured, the cotton farmers have.
4. The so-called “moral superiority” becomes particularly hollow when it comes to criticism of the meat industry. Of course the meat industry has bad practices – show me any industry which doesn’t. So, do we, you know, try and reform those other industries, compel them to adopt environmental safeguards – or do we shut them down altogether? Show me a vegetarian who is willing to do without clothes rather than reform the textile industry, for example, with its horrible slave-labour sweatshops and exploitation of the poor. Right. Yes, the meat industry inflicts unnecessary suffering on animals. Perfectly true, and completely reprehensible, as well as subject to correction, with sufficient pressure – if anyone is willing to bring it to bear. Also, of course, the vegetable industry is no better than the meat industry. It’s not just the pesticides; there are a lot of other sharp practices, like applying chemicals on produce to keep it appearing fresh longer, something which is extremely common. And, of course, we’ve all heard about Monsanto. Should we then demand the closing down of the big vegetable farms, across the board? Are we then prepared to deal with the inevitable famines?
Yet, when it comes to the meat industry, and only the meat industry, the vegetarian crusaders demand the baby be unceremoniously thrown out with the bath water.
5. The vegetarian denial of our meat-eating heritage. We are omnivorous creatures – capable of eating both meat and vegetables. Vegetarians often mention this as “proof” that we are perfectly capable of living on vegetables. But we aren’t herbivores – and this simple fact has had profound effects on who we are today.
Simply put, human society is a result of human evolution as pack-hunting animals. All pack hunting animals, from driver ants to orcas to hyenas and wolves, have had to evolve a complex interactive social structure. Only by cooperating can they be successful. Without our ancestors’ hunting behaviour, we’d have at best loosely connected social units with little cooperative coherence, like our purely vegetarian relatives the gorillas. Also, as a general rule, carnivores and omnivores have larger brains than herbivores – any dog or pig is more intelligent than a cow or a rabbit – since a large brain is necessary to track down and capture active prey.
Therefore, it’s only because our ancestors hunted meat in cooperation that vegetarians have the intellectual ability to, you know, condemn meat-eating. How’s that?
6. The claim that “non-vegetarians are cruel”; in fact, the word “butcher” being used as a synonym for cruelty. Actually, there are many ways of killing animals humanely, and the meat industry actually uses some of them – like the captive bolt pistol used by organised meat factories to stun cattle prior to slaughter. (The informal meat industry is actually far more cruel in its slaughter methods, to say nothing of the traditional Muslim or Jewish slaughter techniques.)
Vegetarians, of course, are fine with ripping up plants and poisoning pests, but will always be careful to point to the worst of the meat-production practices as representative of all. Like all generalisations, this is not true.
Going by this logic, in fact, vegetarians should have no problem eating roadkill or animals which have died of old age. No cruelty of any kind, whatsoever, is involved in this.
Years ago, I posited that meat would be grown from laboratory cells, which again would not involve any kind of cruelty. Nor would it affect the environment, as I’ll mention next. Well, guess what? They have actually grown such meat in the lab. Will vegetarians eat said meat, as they should, since it involves no cruelty? Don’t bet on it.
7. “Meat-eating is environmentally destructive”. Now, any food cycle is roughly pyramidal – in other words, a certain base, say grass, goes to feed and nurture a smaller number (in terms of weight) of herbivores, which in turn go to nurture a still smaller number of carnivorous predators, which then feed a still smaller number of apex predators, until these die and are broken down by scavengers and bacteria to the base nutrients which go to feed the grass again. Therefore, the higher you rise in the food pyramid, the lesser the sum total of energy, packed as it is into fewer organisms. Ergo, to produce say one kilogram of meat, several kilograms of feed are required – feed which could otherwise have fed humans directly. Therefore, vegetarians – who stick to the base of the food chain – are more environmentally friendly than meat eaters. Is that right?
Well, even if we ignore all the aforesaid pesticide use, this is a hollow argument. Vegetarians typically base their arguments on eating large animals, like cows or pigs, which are actually highly energy-inefficient. It takes much more feed to produce a kilogram of beef, for instance, than it takes to produce a kilogram of, say, chicken or rabbit – and the latter require far lesser facilities, in terms of housing and labour, than large animals. Just as not all vegetarian food is the same, not all meat is the same.
In fact, one of the most environmentally-friendly meats is also right at the bottom of the totem pole – insects like grasshoppers and crickets, which a staggering number of people already eat. A lot of people, worldwide, depend on insects for their protein, and there’s absolutely no reason why food that’s good enough for poor Africans shouldn’t be good enough for rich Westerners. Entomophagy is the diet of the future – or should be.
The hypocrisy of militant vegetarianism:
As I said earlier in this article, I’m not particularly concerned about vegetarians who keep their vegetarianism to themselves. I am, however, very, very strongly against the vegetarian crusaders who will lie, invent “facts”, and otherwise bully and blackmail people to try and get them to renounce meat or all animal products.
Some of this is quite remarkably crude. I recall one Indian restaurant which was compelled to close because vegetarians in the locality began to abuse and pelt patrons with rotting – what else? – vegetables. There are entire Indian residential societies which prohibit denizens from eating meat (or, more correctly, from eating it within the premises, thus directly compelling those who want a taste to eat it outside) – and the courts have upheld their “right” to do so.
There is the right-wing Indian politician called Maneka Gandhi, whom I prefer to call Maneek!a Gundhi. This female, who was once environment minister, has been known for her “animal rights” campaigns. Once, for instance, she raided a government laboratory with her cohorts, forcibly took the experimental monkeys away, and released them into the wild. The monkeys had all been hand-reared and never had to fend for themselves; within a week, of course, every single one was dead of starvation. On another occasion, she had jungle mynahs released from captivity – in the centre of the city of Guwahati. Apparently, being “pro-animal rights” means not actually having to know anything about animals.
Well, this same Maneek!a Gundhi used to write a weekly column which the local paper used to reprint. One of her pet claims was that eggs were a “chicken’s menstrual blood” – a term not only misleading but actively meant to make people swear off eating eggs, which is actually one of the most complete foods known to humans. Eggs contain just about everything, except Vitamin C, that humans need, and are available in one package – instead of having to eat multiple different items to get the same food nutrients. In fact, trying to stop people from eating eggs (which doesn’t involve killing anything, since virtually all eggs in the market are unfertilised) is anti-humanity; a fairly typical instance of, in this case, vegan hypocrisy. Like a lot of other hypocritical things, it seems to me, that this is something only the rich can afford.
The “vegetarianism is healthier” argument:
There can be little doubt that a potato is healthier than a fat-streaked chunk of beef or pork; but again, this is selective argument. For one thing, as I said, not all meat is the same, and rabbits or chickens – or insects, or lab meat – are far less fat-laden than beef or mutton or pork.
Then, nutrients are much easier to assimilate from animal tissue than plant tissue, for the simple reason that plant cells are surrounded by cellulose cell walls. Vegetables are actually a poor source of nutrition. It’s for this reason that herbivorous animals are either huge, with enormously long intestines, like hippos or elephants, or have elaborate stomachs like bovines, or have to “reprocess” food by swallowing their own dung, like rabbits, or have to eat almost constantly, like mice. Carnivores, who digest more concentrated nutrients in the form of animal tissue, have shorter digestive systems and typically have to eat much less frequently than herbivores of their own size. Omnivores fall in between the two, and are a compromise in body plans; but omnivores are far more able to digest animal than plant tissue.
While, of course, this is partly negated by the act of cooking, which softens and breaks down cell walls, it still means that a much larger amount of vegetable tissue is required to produce the same amount of nutrient as a given amount of animal tissue. Especially when it comes to poor people, such large amounts of vegetable tissue can be simply unaffordable. If the choice is between eating termites or locusts, which one can trap for oneself, or buying – possibly multinational-marketed – vegetables, what do you think is the right thing to do? And trying to stop people from exercising the logical choice in such a case is morally reprehensible, don’t you think?
Then, some of the nutrients in vegetables can simply be impossible for some of us to utilise. I, for instance, can’t digest gram or beans, which means that vegetable protein is to a large extent nonexistent as far as I’m concerned. What would someone in my position do then? The choices are either eat animal products (mostly egg in my case; as I said, I fairly rarely eat meat), or buy extremely expensive protein supplements, or suffer from protein starvation. What would a vegetarian or vegan suggest I do?
Again, I have no quarrel whatsoever with those who are vegetarian from personal preference, cultural or religious reasons, or just because they feel queasy at the thought of killing animals. You have your reasons, and I’m prepared to respect them.
Just don’t pretend you’re better than the rest of us.