Vegetarianism: Fashion Trend or Remedy for Global Problems?

In recent years, the number of people who have stopped consuming animal products in Europe and the US has been rapidly rising. The Vegetarian Association VEBU estimates that 4000 people become vegetarians every week in Germany: four out of five of which are women. It didn’t take long for the food industry to pick up on this trend. In most UK restaurants, for instance, vegetarian options appear in a separate section on the menu or are clearly labelled with a green “v”. Even supermarkets follow suit. Sometimes I wonder if it is really necessary to label products like apple juice “suitable for vegetarians.” But why are so many people deciding to become vegetarians (or even vegans)? Is it a hipster fashion trend embodying the new organic health craze or are ethical, economic, and agricultural considerations involved? Is vegetarianism really more sustainable and does it carry the potential to solve some of our current global problems?

Image courtesy of Michael C. Berch, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Michael C. Berch, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Health reasons are undeniably one of the key driving forces behind the vegetarian movement.  The media frequently confronts us with scandals such as antibiotics and other chemical residuals in meat, dioxin pollution, unknown consequences of genetically modified animal feed, Mad Cow Disease, and the recent horse meat affair.

A vegetarian diet can significantly increase life expectancy by avoiding increased risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, rheumatism, osteoporosis, and digestive problems (Risi & Zürrer, 2011). So if eating animals can be unhealthy, does the human body even need fish and meat? Would it develop calcium, iron, and protein deficiencies without? The answer is no. All substances the human body needs can be found in a vegetarian diet. The six-times iron man champion Dave Scott is a proud vegetarian. Drawing on 16 years experience, I can also testify that I never had any diet-related health problems. Case studies of communities in India and China which have abstained from meat consumption for centuries show that even negative long-term health consequences are unlikely.

A further reason for vegetarianism can be found in the promotion of sustainability to counteract the wastefulness of meat production which is characterized through vanishing rainforests, topsoil erosion, water depletion, pollution, exploitative mono-crop farming, loss of biodiversity, global hunger, and land grabs (ibid). These are all developments which re-enforce structural violence and global warming, rendering the already marginalized most vulnerable. However, by becoming a vegetarian, an individual can reduce his carbon footprint by 50% (Spiegel, 2011). A  2007 UN Report confirms that 18% of global warming emissions are due to meat production, compared to only 13% for transport.

FAO (2012) statistics state that “70 per cent of all agricultural land, almost a third of the earth’s entire land surface, is used for rearing farm animals.”  Furthermore, “one hectare of land, producing vegetables, fruit and cereals can feed up to 30 people. The same area, if used to produce meat, could only feed between five and ten” (ibid). In the US, a country that annually consumes two billion animals, 80% of corn produce and 95% of wheat produce is used purely for animal feed (Foer, 2009). The extensive need for land to mass-produce meat, most of which is discarded before it even lands on our plates anyway (FAO, 2012), leads to unsustainable, chemical-intensive, groundwater-polluting, monocrop-farming, and the depletion of very significant ecosystems such as the Tropical Rainforest, centre for biodiversity and the lungs of our planet. In this territorial quest, indigenous populations are forced off their land, robbed of their livelihoods and frequently turned into refugees who have to move to the slums of large cities. Consequently, an extensive body of knowledge about plants and agriculture is lost. Crop diversity diminishes, which impacts not only our diet, but also its medical potential, as over seventy species on average die out daily, a majority of which remain undiscovered.

Furthermore, the unsustainable depletion of fresh water reserves causes a drop in global ground water levels, leaving the poor without access to clean water and unable to cultivate fertile land. For instance, 849 cubic meters of water are needed to produce a ton of wheat, 702 cubic meters to produce a ton of barley, whereas 13,193 cubic meters and 14,190 cubic meters are needed for a ton of beef and a ton of leather, respectively (UNESCO Institute for Water Education, 2013).

Ethical motives such as the promotion of animal welfare must not be neglected as a primary motive fuelling the growth of vegetarianism. Our current economic system removes most consumers from the roots of production which frequently operates as a moral alibi. As processed meat and fish does not resemble the animal it came from, no immediate stimulus evokes feelings of guilt. However, this concept goes for almost all consumer goods: clothes, electronics, chocolate; the finished product rarely reveals its history of environmental and human exploitation.

One might consider it arrogant to elevate oneself above nature and the food chain, but, in fact, we have already done so through industrialisation. In nature, the predator-prey relationship is somewhat fair as the prey usually has the chance to escape. On the contrary, our relationship to animals is one of total control; through breeding we determine their genetic characteristics, decide when they are born, how and where they live and when they die. The capitalist quest to reduce production costs wherever possible has made animal cruelty a necessity to remain competitive on the market. Through large-scale factory farming, we have turned living beings into a product: a commodity. Even organic companies often only adhere to minimum standards. Unfortunately, more than 99% percent of farming is cruel, inhumane and unhealthy (Foer, 2009).

So if we accept that meat consumption is unethical, what prevents us from becoming vegetarians? Taste? Societal conventions? Medical misconceptions? Distance to the production process as a moral alibi? Avoiding cognitive dissonance? Whatever the reason, we have to face the consequences of our actions for the sake of future generations, the environment and animal health to avoid continuing to brutally stuff animals to death while large sections of the human population slowly starve to death for lack of access to the same food. Moreover, if demand for meat in threshold countries keeps rising, we will soon run into a major global crisis. So what else can we do to address the issue? Should we introduce heavy taxation of animal products on a global level or will that turn meat consumption even more into a status symbol?