Thoughtful flesh consumption hard to swallow

The CoveThe shameful practice of Japanese dolphin slaughter was depicted in the documentary The Cove, which was screened in Australian cinemas last month. It focuses on the activities of dolphin defender Richard O'Barry, who was once a tormentor of dolphins as trainer of the '60s TV dolphin Flipper.

We chastise Japan for such barbarity, and refuse to countenance Japanese claims that eating whale meat is integral to their culture. But we hold fast to our own convictions that meat consumption is part of the national character, and rarely question whether it is sustainable at current levels.

We are keenly aware that meat production is a major contributor to the Australian economy. Perhaps unwittingly, we marginalise the vegetarians among us, and treat activists from groups like PETA with scorn because we have justifiable criticisms of some of their positions.

Meat consumption is in fact an ethical issue. We need to look upon our selection of what to eat as a moral choice, not just a working out of how to satisfy our human urges most effectively. We readily understand that sexual desires need to be met in a context of moral probity, or it's likely we will cause psychological damage to ourselves or others. But gluttony aside, food consumption is most often regarded as morally neutral.

The latest Just Comment briefing from the Edmund Rice Centre challenges our preconceptions about eating meat. It argues that food consumption has serious impacts on climate change, environmental degradation, use of resources, and more. For example, the livestock industry accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than the contribution of transport. This is due to the emission by livestock of gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, which are very powerful greenhouse gases.

The briefing paper puts forward eating less meat and animal products as 'one small way for individuals to make an impact on some of the massive injustices facing our world'. It suggests that as little as one meat free day per week can make a difference, and that such an action is readily affordable when compared with other options such as solar panels or a hybrid car.

As the paper suggests, 'our diet is one thing that we have the power to change and make a definite impact with'.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: meat, vegetarianism, flesh, sex, climate change, environment, gases, The Cove, dolphins



submit a comment

Existing comments

Good point and in line with one of the four guides given by Thomas a'Kempis for a happy life which is to do with less rather than more.Sceptics about the human contribution to climate change such as His Eminence George Cardinal Pell might wish to comment.
Denis O'Leary | 14 September 2009

An excellent, challenging and thought provoking article Michael Mullins.
I agree entirely with your figure that 'the livestock industry accounts for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is higher than the contribution of transport.' I would however like to remark on your next sentence. 'This is due to the emission by livestock of gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, which are very powerful greenhouse gases.'

Whilst methane and oxides of nitrogen are as described, a greater contributer to the gigantic footprint of meat is the way in which meat is produced. Long gone - especially in the USA - are the days when cattle grazed on 'captured sunlight' in the form of grasses. Today feedlot cattle are fattened on government subsidised grain ( corn in the USA), and dosed with antibiotics : necessary because of the cattle's hugely unhealthy and unnatural environment. No cattle on PLanet Earth evolved to feed on corn grain. They eat it because there is no choice.

The consequent burden of disease for humans eating this meat is hugely costly to all of society. Vegetarianism is an obvious solution- now - for people with children and grandchildren and a concern for their futures.

A vegan restaurant in Collingwood has a slogan on the wall : 'a vegan in a "Humvee" has a smaller footprint than a carnivore on a bicycle.'

Now there's an image that is hard to shake!

dee jay aitch | 14 September 2009

Thank you for the article on flesh eating. I agree that meat consumption is an ethical issue, but I must declare a vested interest: I have been a committed vegan for almost thirty years.
Nigel Sinnott | 14 September 2009

I am quite pro-choice on the meat-eating issue. Vegetarians should be tolerated by society, as long as they are not permitted to impose their theological doctrines on society at large (translation: are required by law to refer hungry carnivores to the nearest McDonalds on demand).
Rod Blaine | 14 September 2009

Thank you Michael Mullins for drawing attention to the need to think about what we eat in relation to both ethics and the environment. Each year approximately 58 billion land animals are subjected to the terror and agony of the slaughterhouse simply to satisfy our taste for their flesh, eggs and milk. As well, the majority of them are reared in the most dreadful conditions. They are painfully mutilated and subjected to severe deprivation.

Clearly treating sentient beings in this totally callous and bruatl way is unethical. The recent revelation that the livestock industry is causing massive environmental damage to our planet is an additianal reason to forgo animal products.

A plant based diet is humane, healthy and better for the planet.
Jenny | 14 September 2009

As a vegetarian for nearly 33 years, and a vegan (except for shoes) for 7, for ethical reasons rather than health, I welcome public discussion about the morality of what we eat.

After all we are expected to feel guilty about being overweight, and for getting type 2 Diabetes - why not feel squeamish about the institionalised export and domestic slaughter of frightened animals?

As for imposing my views on others, of course I don't:after all I've confessed to needing leather on my feet.
Moira | 14 September 2009

Of course meat consumption is an ethical issue. Any choice is, even choosing to be a vegetarian. And why is the killing of a dolphin ("slaughter", though, sounds much more dramatic) or a whale considered more morally reprehensible that killing a cow or a pig.

And the livestock industry accounting for "18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions", and "higher than the contribution of transport"? By whose figures? Just because the Edmund Rice Institute says so doesn't make it so. Another good urban myth.

And I have yet to meet the sheep or cow or pig or chicken (the mainstays of the livestock industry) that produces measurable amounts of nitrous oxide, nasty though it may be.

Certainly we would all be better off if we all, vegetarians as well as omnivores (there are negligible numbers of carnivores amongst us) ate less - for our general health and wellbeing and not just to assuage some vegan-imposed guilt.
John R. Sabine | 14 September 2009

Michael Mullins is correct. It doesn't make sense to be condemning Japan for slaughtering dolphins whilst we happily butcher and consume other intelligent, sentient beings.

Eating meat subjects billions of cows, pigs and chickens to enormous and needless, suffering and even the harmless looking egg comes at a cost.

Last week US based group, Mercy for Animals released undercover video footage showing chicks being callously dropped into a large grinding machine in an Iowa hatchery. In this facility 150,000 chicks are ground up live each day.
Because males don't lay eggs and will not grow fast enough to be raised profitably for meat, they are regarded as trash. Now whilst this facility is in the USA, grinding chicks up live is also a standard method of disposing of unwanted male chicks in the Australian egg industry.
Other ways such as gassing and suffocating in plastic bags are equally inhumane.

Without a doubt the egg industry is as bloody and brutal as the meat industry and the dairy industry is equally cruel. Each year one million new born 'bobby' calves are slaughtered just so that their milk can be sold for humans to drink.

Adopting a plant based diet will alleviate animal suffering, improve your your health and reduce environmental damage to the planet caused by the livestock industry.
A winner all round!
Jenny Moxham | 14 September 2009

Breaking out my ancient copy of the classic Recipes for a Small Planet ...
Sandie Cornish | 14 September 2009

Killing/eating animals is “shameful”? “barbarity”? What bovine ordure.

I don’t “have criticisms of some of PETA’s positions”. I condemn PETA root and branch and all its works, as an utterly evil organisation in conception and in practice. The Catholic Church has been promoting “live simply” and “one meat free day per week” for centuries. It doesn’t need a bunch of neo-pagan misanthropic vegans to teach it.

Jesus’s teaching (St Matthew Ch 15):

“You nullify the word of God for the sake of man-made tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
"These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men. "
Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'
Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.
Are you still so dull? Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'.”
Peter G | 14 September 2009

Since I was eleven years old I have tried to be a vegetarian, slipping off and climbing back on the vegetable wagon every few years. It's always amazed me that people with pets can eat meat with total indifference to the suffering involved.

There is no need to look to the wider issues of climate change etc. to convert to being vegetarian. Just look at the animals around you. They may not have words, but why wouldn't they feel pain and joy? We evolved on the same planet, after all, with the same basic needs.

Making jokes about vegetarians shows an unconscious unease about the consumption of meat, and a profound laziness of intellect.

And tofu is actually quite tasty...No, really.
Penelope Cottier | 15 September 2009

Being a priest serving farmers and foresters in rural Australia, I just ask that the 'bigger picture' be taken into account.

If there is a shift to eating more non-animal food for the sake of leaving a smaller carbon footprint, what will be the subsequent rise in carbon produced by non-flesh food production that will need to increase in order to cater for such a shift?

Surely the correct question to ask is not one which pits one foodstuff against another, but which asks us to be aware of other more important questions such as - distances from production to market, processes used or not used in production, distribution and marketting, actual relationship between producers and consumers, a just return to producers who rely on the foodstuff for their livelihood etc

PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals proclaim a way of life which is contrary to Christianity in that they deny there can be any interaction between humans and animals. Any religious judgement against PETA is for that reason, not that they espouse vegetarianism.

Food production and consumption is the ethical issue. It is illogical and scapegoating to only question meat consumption and production.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 15 September 2009

Livestock pastures take up over 50% of the Australian continent, causing soil compaction, acidification and erosion. A nationwide
reduction (or elimination) of meat eating would free up vast amounts of this area - only 2% of it would need to be cropped to make up for the food yield, while the rest could be used for: reforestation (thus attracting rainfall and sequestering enough carbon to neutralise ALL our emissions), water catchments (enough to make water shortages a non-issue), and solar and wind energy production (enough to eliminate the need for dirty coal).

Humans have long convoluted intestines perfect for slowly digesting plant matter, but flesh sits there for hours rotting. We also have a small canine-incisor tooth size ratio, weak stomach acid, alkaline saliva, no claws, an inability to detoxify retinol or manufacture vitamin C and a susceptability to atherosclerosis - all features of a total or near herbivore like other primates. Animal protein is toxic for us, taxing the digestion, leaching calcium from the bones, and promoting cancer.

Once we stop dulling our tastebuds with the overpowering flavour of animal foods we can start to appreciate how delicious and varied plant-based cuisine really is - try it and see!
Will | 15 September 2009

There is specific reason why we do not condone Japanese dolphin slaughtering. It is because the dolphin meat is not for eating purposes, as dolphin meat contains dangerous levels of mercury and we cannot consume the dolphin meat without the risk of becoming ill.

When we kill other animals, they are for eating purposes, not just for enjoyment. Red meat also keeps our iron levels up, which means that it is easier for the blood cells to carry oxygen around the body. Of course meat isn’t necessary in our diet, but it makes the body’s job a lot easier if we do eat it.

By not eating meat, you are not only making it more difficult for your body to function, but you are also lowering your protein and fibre levels. This can lead to problems such as amenia, weak tissue and a lower immune system.

Even if everyone in this world became a vegetarian, what’s to say that the animal kingdom would? This is probably a good time to take into consideration that we are not the only species in the world to eat animals. Lions, for example, is a hunting animal and consumes animals such as zebras, buffalo and antelope. If all humans became vegetarians that does not mean the animal kingdom would too.

This is not to say that I disagree with what vegetarians do, I applaud them for there efforts. But not everyone needs to become a vegetarian.

Mikaela | 16 September 2009

One respondent has submitted disparaging comments about the Edmund Rice Centre's Just Comment briefing paper upon which Michael Mullins has based this article.

The Edmund Rice Centre stands by its research and publications. The weblink to our publication provided by Michael above will offer the interested reader two separate versions of the Just Comment publication. One is the short glossy two page version for popular consumption. The second version - freely accessible for every issue of our Just Comment series - is a fully referenced version.

The reference that was questioned is from Livestock's Long Shadow - a 2006 publication of the Animal Production and Health division of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
Edmund Rice Centre - | 17 September 2009

Cool article. Hopefully a film such as The Cove could lead to an international dialogue on current meat production practices. It's impossible to tackle every issue at once, and I think The Cove is a very important film for a very important cause.
Luke | 18 September 2009

Look through the New Testament and count the meat meals that Jesus eats: none! He shares bread, fish and wine, but we never read of him sharing a sheep's legs or a cow sides, and yet we feel complacently good when we do so.

I cannot understand the abhorrence for whale and dolphin slaughter, when goats sheep and cows are raised and then killed in very cruel ways. If we don't agree that killing and eating mammals is wrong, at least we should try to raise these animals as well as we can, free of cruelty. That is not about what comes from the mouth or enters it, but is about our stewardship of the planet.
David P | 18 September 2009

It appears to me that in all the discussion of greenhouse gas emission by livestock that the greenhouse gas emission by human beings is ignored. Having recently eaten in a vegitarian restaurant (consuming a delicious dish of chick peas and rice) I contributed greatly for some days to the greenhouse gas effect through the emission of copious quantities of methane, Hydrogen Sulphide and I presume Nitrous Oxide. We Human beings are mammals and, like it or not, also contribute through the passing of flatus to the greenhouse gas effect. I am carnivorous but in moderation and I think the key word is moderation. Vegitarians have a right to their stance on what they choose to consume but I question the veracity on the effect of livestock on greenhouse gas levels without taking into account our contribution as mammals.
Bruno van Aaken | 22 September 2009

thank you, Michael, for your article on the ethics of flesh consumption. It is good to see more articles of this nature in the non-veg media. However, i have two observations to make - the first is that you describe the scorn heaped on activists from PETA as motivated by 'justifiable criticisms of some of their positions'. It is a matter of personal values whether one believes their positions are justified or not and they are acting because they believe THEY have justifiable criticisms of some other positions and are expressing those.

Secondly the greenhouse gases caused by the meat industry are not caused solely by the 'methane and nitrous oxide emissions of livestock' as you so politely put it, but by the vast infrastructure necessary to supply water, feed, fertiliser, antibiotics and other animal 'health' products to the animals in question, transportation of animals and their flesh, and the activities of abattoirs. the meat industry is huge and energy intensive: the problem cannot be blamed entirely on cow farts.
thanks again for your article
bernice | 30 September 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up