(In response to EN’s facebook thread about vegetarianism featuring this article: http://bit.ly/mXNGG5
I do agree that it's the multitudes that need the most convincing, not the well-meaning minority. And I do very much respect vegetarians for making a difficult, life-changing moral choice and sticking with it (I was a vegetarian myself for 6 years - and you're right, the common attacks are boring and constant), AND moreover given the options between eating factory farmed meat and eating a (hopefully sustainably produced) vegetarian diet, the latter is the obviously correct choice, and a very reasonable one at that. That being said, my point wasn't about supporting small farmers (though that's a valid cause as well), it was about supporting sensible, sustainable farming with the premise that a farm without animals is a profoundly broken ecosystem.
But that's a short answer that apparently doesn't help anyone, and I've been pretty sassy to vegetarians recently, so let me try and figure out why that might be from the beginning. Okay, this might take a few minutes, but here we go:
Posited: Nearly all vegetarians are vegetarians because of either health reasons or moral reasons. I'm going to ignore health vegetarians for the moment, both because the current state of health science is surprisingly miserable and ever-changing, and because I suspect that most "health" vegetarians are moral vegetarians that just aren't comfortable asserting and defending their moral views before an audience.
So, moral vegetarians. I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of moral stances sum up to either "it's wrong to cause suffering (and animals can suffer)" or "meat is inherently unsustainable/environmentally-damaging and therefore very bad" (or a combination of both views).
The former ("knowingly causing suffering is unacceptable") is a fine objection, but I think must be subsumed (by consequentialists) by the potential (and actual) devastating suffering inevitably caused by unsustainable agriculture (which if not fixed in the next few decades may break civilization as we know it).
So, if we're consequentialists (though we may not be, I admit), we're stuck making decisions about whether meat production is unsustainable (and therefore unethical) or not. A little research tells us HOLY SHIT FACTORY FARMING IS BAD. Plus some bonus things like "oh noes, a calorie of meat can require ten calories of plants to make". Boom. We have decision. I think it's harsh but safe to say that most ethical decisions about vegetarianism (or veganism) WRT sustainability are made at this point.
But here's the problem. We did some research, but maybe we didn't do ENOUGH research. We didn't really look for what a sane alternative system might be like. Yeah, duh, factory farming is bad. Yeah, taking corn that could be fed to starving humans and feeding it to cows cause we like Big Macs seems selfish at best and downright evil at worst.
But I'd like to posit that the system we know, the system we're embedded in and draw conclusions from - that system is so profoundly fucked up that our judgment might be hazy. ...Cows don't eat corn! (Rather, they can't digest it well and need to down a ton of Maalox everyday to survive eating it.) Cows in nature don't even eat anything we eat. Cows eat grass. Last time I checked, humans don't eat grass. In more sensible systems, that's ten calories of grass (useless to us) to produce one calorie of beef (highly useful to us). Doesn't seem all that bad to me.
But wait! Couldn't we use that same piece of land to just grow, like, soybeans, instead of grass? Sure we could. But it wouldn't produce an amount of human-edible soybean calories that is equivalent to the same land's potential cow-edible grass calories. Leaving aside grass growing like, well, grass (i.e. friggin fast), soybean plants have at least as much human-inedible mass as human-edible mass (in fact far more inedible mass than edible, I'd wager). The whole "animal calories require an order of magnitude more resources than plants" as an argument against meat-eating is a straight-up fallacy in most cases. (Though there are
important and notable exceptions where it really does matter, e.g. trying to farm higher level carnivore fish like tuna and salmon.)
Plus, plant farming has byproducts - the stems, pods, and leaves of the soybeans just mentioned, pulled weeds, etc. (not to mention annoying insects). What do we do with them? Just toss them aside? Herbicide their asses? What if we could make use of them somehow? They're passable but not great fertilizer as is...If only we had some magical useless-plant-biomass to useful-food-calorie-and-fertilizer conversion machine... Oh wait, we do. A magical machine that takes in weeds and plant biomass and outputs both useful fertilizer and multiple kinds of human-edible calories. It's called a goat. Chickens convert annoying bugs to delicious eggs everyday. Cows turn inedible grass into milk, meat, and fertilizer. Pigs aerate soil and eat just about anything (e.g. our own food waste) and convert it to delicious bacon. Nature made these awesome magical machines for us and they work better than pretty much any machine we've managed to invent so far, AND they don't run on fossil fuels. Aren't they friggin' sweet?
Moreover, turns out animals fulfill important niche roles in cycling nutrients in ecosystems that are significantly different from the roles plants play. Microbes, bugs, and fungi fulfill yet different roles. An ecosystem lacking any of the above is going to be strained at best, untenable at worst. You tend to need outside inputs (fertilizers, etc.) if you lack one or more category.
Ok, so enough on that. What is our alternative to factory farming? Where are we getting our vegetarian-friendly plant-based foods? Traditional industrial agriculture's massive monocultures? BZZT, bad answer, almost as unsustainable as factory farming. (And here's the worst kind of vegetarian/vegan - the one who thinks they're doing what's best for their health and the planet, and yet spends all their time buying heavily processed, industrial corn-and-soy based foods that are miserable for both. Tofurkey can go to hell.) Whole Foods and Trader Joe's? Eh, industrial organic is better than traditional industrial, but not that much better. (It's still monoculture, still gigantic, still tractor-powered, still mining the soil.) The local farmer's market? Cool, that works. Local farmer, maybe doing some permaculture, delicious fruits and vegetables, great. Maybe some of them even only raise plants and have no icky blood on their hands. ...but they still need fertilizers (see ecosystem comment above). Where do they get them? If they're not fossil fuel-based, they probably get them from a livestock (or horse) farm nearby. So even the best vegetarian decisions still don't escape the livestock farming.
Here's something worse: Okay, so you say let's have the goats (and chickens?) to make fertilizer -- but we won't kill and eat them. Maybe we'll just have dairy and eggs (or maybe we'll abstain from that too and be vegan). We'll just let our goats grow happy and old, slip some birth control pills in the weeds when we start overgoating, it'll be all good... Well, maybe we could do that somehow in an ideal world...but our world isn't ideal. We'll be having to feed 9 billion people soon. I don't think we can afford to give up any source of sustainable calories that we can get our hands on.
So we come to the suspicion that actively supporting the way (reasonable, not excessive) animal husbandry (and hence meat-eating) fits into sustainable agriculture may be one of the only ways to fix our own agricultural system, and moreover a key way to feed the world. This hypothesis might not be right. But it's not obviously wrong either, and therefore a serious (practical and moral) argument against any claim that vegetarianism is THE morally correct course of action.
Ok, so why does vegetarianism get me all hot and bothered these days when there are hordes of ignorant masses I should be shouting at instead. Well, it's... a sharp and significant moral stance. In fact, I'm tempted to describe it as a "loud" moral stance -- not because all vegetarians are necessarily loud about their beliefs, but because the moral beliefs in question tend to come up glaringly in everyday life. It's not the same as say, being against the death penalty or abortion where you can be quiet about your moral beliefs during 99.9% of daily life; your being vegetarian is something that the people around will bump into nearly every day they interact with you.
So as a "loud" moral stance, it's incredibly important that the statements it makes further deep knowledge of the issues at stake and don't further fallacies, pop science, and pointless black-and-white arguments. But I'm afraid to say that most of the vegetarians I've talked to do exactly what this guy in the article is doing - furthering fallacies, easy answers, and shallow understanding. And the worst of them eat Tofurkey and Cheetos and pretend like those are ethical, healthy, and sensible choices while calling their meat-eating neighbors immoral idiots. Not to mention just a dash of experience with vegetarians being fairly closed to the possibility there might be viable moral arguments against (this might understandably have something to do with it being a fairly major, life-changing ethical decision that one would tend to not want to rethink too much). Lots of best intentions, lots of bad results.
Do I think vegetarianism is a bad choice? Heavens, no. In fact, it's probably a great choice, given how messed our current meat production system is, to just give up on meat completely, because in most cases you just don't know where the meat comes from. It can even put the spotlight on how bad factory farming is. But the best answer to why you are a vegetarian is "because factory farming is horrifyingly bad and this is the best way to avoid it", not "because eating meat is bad, period" (presuming again that we're vegetarians for sustainability reasons, not for karma reasons).
And the best answer to "but I don't think I could give up meat" (because most of us aren't made of as firm fibers as you and might not be able to just give it up) may also be "then it's really not so bad (and could even be good) to go buy meat from the local small-scale sustainable livestock farm, *and here's why...*" (which might be a hard thing to say if you're a strict vegetarian, but is just as an important lesson for the people around you as "Factory farms are bad, m'kay").
In short, y'all are very visible ambassadors/spokespersons for the huge agricultural issues of our time. It's actually vitally important that you can not only defend your views, but also that the message you offer is deep, nuanced, informed, and educational, one that provides viable alternatives for sensible skeptics, and not one that polarizes audiences and furthers fallacies and shallow understanding of agricultural issues and earth sciences. Have confidence. You're making a reasonable moral choice. But defend well, know the issues well, and be open to alternatives so that we can build a better society together. Otherwise much of the point of making a statement like being a vegetarian is lost.