Three rational reasons for being vegetarian

Posted on April 17, 2015

I read the most ridiculous article that a friend posted on Facebook titled THE 3 reasons to give up meat (and 1 not to). The article lead with some really strange and more than slightly ridiculous arguments about vegetarian’s getting more light photons or something.

For some reason vegetarianism and veganism tend to attract that particular brand of lefty cynics that see things built on rationalism (such as science, drugs, chemicals!) as a great conspiracy to cover up those overlooked powers of nature, spirituality and the ‘alternative’. As a vegetarian I’ve had to regularly brace my rational self when obtaining vegetarian or vegan goods, whether from a health food shop or a vegetarian cafe, against the overt existence of homeopathy, vitamin supplements, acupuncture, magic water, tarot card reading and every other ridiculousness that prevails these areas of society which most of us manage to avoid.

The original article was obviously from that brand. Which upsets me. I’ve been a strict vegetarian for fifteen years and I like to feel my reasons for doing so are sound and not built on theories as probable as water memory.

My purpose here is not to try to convince people that they should become vegetarian but to support those of us that aren’t insane against the deluge of delusion that people put out there - and don’t believe that eating all those photons will make us glow. So here is a list of three rational reasons for being vegetarian.

1. Ethics

I’ve started with ethics because that is probably the single biggest reason (although I have no evidence for this) that people turn vegetarian. Often due to concern for animal welfare in an industrialised meat industry or being uncomfortable with killing animals for food full stop. Having a fundamental disagreement with the right to kill another living animal unnecessarily is the single reason I gave up meat. It is also, quite probably, the most contentious. Which is maybe why many vegetarians and vegans avoid ethics as a reason when asked. Most of us learn, pretty quickly, that a not insignificant number of people get quite offended when you tell them you don’t want to kill animals and, too often, an aggressive response is the result. The ethics around killing of animals for food or other products (such as clothes) is a personal decision, and vegetarians are often going against the norm in many cultures (with notable exceptions).

All of us already have an ethical framework in regards to what living things are acceptable to eat, regardless of how much explicit thought has been given. For some this might be based on culture or religion (the avoidance of beef or pork), it might be the simplest one (as long as it’s not human) or it might be arbitrary (not dog or cat but rabbit and pig are fine thanks). There are many meat eaters who have a far more considered approach and make their decisions on what animals are acceptable based on reasonable argument, such as avoiding anything that has a significant level of intelligence and consciousness (although there is often an arbitrary cutoff that usually lets pigs in) or nothing in a close biological family tree (apes, monkeys etc.) or perhaps based on farming methods (only organic or free range) or nothing endangered (no whales or north sea cod). Or a combination of the above. Regardless, everyone has applied some sort of reasoning to why they would eat a pig but not a gorilla, even if it did taste delicious.

Generally meat eaters start at the top of the food chain and exclude based on criteria. Criteria which is often arbitrary (see the British reaction to processed food ‘contamination’ with horse meat). I’d like to argue that this is problematic and that it is more coherent to start at the bottom of the food chain and include upwards. This means consume (for food, clothing whatever) things from the Plantae and Fungi kingdoms and you’ll be OK. Once you get to the Animalia kingdom, for each thing you wish to include, some coherent ethical criteria is required. This is pretty challenging; which is why I like to stay at the bottom.

Of course there are theoretical problems with this approach; what if there was a plant as clever as a cow (there isn’t)? This is why some people include criteria such as whether the life form feels pain (which lets in molluscs). It’s also not entirely as black and white as I make out, there are some grey areas. An animal is defined as “a living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli”. That definition could include some of the weird and the wonderful that manage to survive at the bottom of the food chain (sponges). However, for most of us those organisms in the grey area don’t tend to fall on our dinner plate and by sticking to fruit, vegetables and some mushrooms you keep well away of the grey.

Vegetarians (a category in which I include myself) enter a whole ethical grey area with the consumption of animal products. Consuming animal products (for food: milk, eggs, honey etc. or fabric: wool etc.) means moving up from the bottom of the food chain. Whereas theoretically one could consume milk and eggs without ever causing suffering, pain etc. this is not how modern farming works. The reality is that animals are killed (mainly in conjunction with the meat industry) to enable this produce. I reluctantly admit that vegans have the logical upper hand here. So how do I, as a vegetarian, justify my decision to eat eggs and drink milk whilst acknowledging the realities of modern farming?

Here in my argument I pull in an auxiliary: to obtain reduction of overall suffering rather than absolute elimination. This becomes an argument based on balancing benefit and harm. Vegans are the environmentalist who only get around by walking. They never use a train, bus or aeroplane (or horse - animal product). They never buy goods that caused pollution in their construction or they’re supply chain (so they can’t even cycle). Although not impossible - you live in a forest and can cut down your own trees to build your own house with it’s own vegetable patch - it will have a pretty significant impact on your life and ability to exist in modern society. Somewhere you have to create a cut off and make decisions, a significant number of which will be arbitrary (even vegans make arbitrary choices). Flying becomes okay under certain circumstances because you are the head of Greenpeace and the benefit of your presence outweighs the harm. Likewise with the consumption of animal products, keep them to a minimum and choose products that cause the least harm overall. So personally I use soya milk mostly in my tea and cereal but I will still accept a cup of tea, or a slice of home made cake with cows milk from a friend.

The benefit vs harm argument places vegetarians pretty close to those much scathed ‘vegetarians’ who consume fish. It also places them pretty close to those other vegetarians who will eat animals under certain circumstances (special occasions, festivals, in restaurants where there is no palatable alternative) and also those meat eaters who try to keep their consumption to a minimum. I think the key difference is whether you take a top down exclusive approach or a bottom up inclusive one and how many arbitrary decisions you make overall. I argue that inclusion forces explicit decisions rather than the implicit ones that exclusion, by it’s nature, encourages. This approach, while it doesn’t completely remove all personal whim, reduces it overall leading to a potentially higher degree of logical coherence.

2. Health

There are plenty of studies that draw a correlation between a higher life expectancy and non-meat eaters. There are also a number of studies on diseases and cancers that draw a correlation between lower rates of presence, higher survival rates etc. and non meat-eaters. These are not causal however and some argue that vegetarians just tend to be a more health conscious bunch anyway and are less likely to drink, smoke etc.

One could argue that once you remove meat from your diet you have to replace it with something. You could argue therefore that this encourages vegetarians to increase the amount of fruit and veg they eat. A vegetable curry goes that much further to contributing to your five-a-day than a chicken one. However being vegetarian doesn’t automatically make you eat healthy: I’ve met plenty of ‘cheese, vegeburger and chips’ vegetarians whose have never let a green leafy vegetable onto their dinner plate and, the only contribution to their five-a-day is the peas and sweetcorn in the rice burger.

There are also health issues related specifically to animal produce. When yet another meat scandal breaks out (which they do with regularity) I sometimes joke “wake me up when there is a cabbage scandal”. Although this is slightly disingenuous as lysteria, the pathogen responsible for most deaths from food poisoning in the UK, does nestle in brassicas. And vegetables are not immune from causing infectious intestinal disease. However meat and seafood accounts for nearly two thirds of all foodborne disease with salmonella from poultry ranked first in terms of hospital admissions. Also one must consider that, amongst those non-meat related incidents, how many are caused by cross-contamination with meat (using the same utensils for meat and vegetables being a notable risk point). Vegans further reduce their risk further by avoiding cases from eggs and diary (slightly above 5%). To sum up simply the Health Protection Agency states “the foods least likely to cause food poisoning are cooked vegetables, fruit and rice.”. The reduction, or elimination of animal products has a significant reduction in risk of illness and even death from foodborne pathogens.

Vegetarians, at all stages of their lives, are able to get everything they need nutritionally (contrary to popular opinion) from their diet (not vegans however who require supplements). This aligns with the evidence suggesting that vegetarians are overall healthier, less prone to disease and live longer. Whilst being vegetarian or vegan doesn’t automatically make you healthy, for whatever reasons, it does seem to increase your chances. Although one could argue that the majority of health benefits and reduction in risks would be achievable by simply reducing meat consumption overall rather than completely eliminating it.

3. Environment

The meat industry’s impact on the environment outweighs the impact of every other human activity. If you wanted to reduce your environmental impact and you had a choice between either: a) selling your car and then cycling and walking everywhere; or b) giving up meat, you would have a greater impact giving up meat. And it’s not just beef being the single biggest cause of deforestation, the fishing industry too has a significant impact on our oceans, including the devastation to the coral reef.

Meat can be grown sustainably, fish can be fished sustainably. Both could be achieved in a manner that creates minimal environmental impact. However we are just nowhere near that. The harsh truth is that even if the country only bought locally reared, free range, organic meat not only would your environmental impact still be large but you wouldn’t be able to keep to those restrictions without a dramatic reduction in overall consumption of meat based products. It’s a zero sum game: if you maintain your meat consumption and buy exclusively locally reared beef you force someone else to buy beef reared from cleared Brazillian rainforest.

Biofuels caused a great degree of controversy from environmentalists. Fields that would have been used for food crop were instead used for fuel. The result was deforestation in order to balance the crop needed to feed people. There was also evidence that food prices were impacted which affected availability of food for the poorest. The choice, for environmentalists, became between avoiding unsustainable fossil fuels or feeding the poorest. However the amount of crop used for the rearing meat (36% globally - a whopping 67% in the US!) outweighs that used for biofuels by four times. Whilst people were happy to argue that people were getting fuel at the expense of food to the poorest it also has to be argued that cattle reared for meat is metaphorically taking food from the poor to feed the meat for the rich (it costs 100 calories of grain for every 3 calories of beef).

A common rebuttal is that a proportion of land is not suitable for crop where as it is more that suitable for grazing cattle or sheep. This is non sequitur: not every piece of land has to be squeezed for productivity - the very philosophy which contributes to our environmental problems. In fact leaving wild land wild is the best thing, environmentally speaking, to do. But mainly it is a straw man to claim that significant reduction in the environmental impact of animal products require the complete elimination of every doe-eyed cow from the British countryside.

The harsh, harsh reality is that meat is incredibly environmentally damaging (18% of all anthropogenic emissions) and also incredibly expensive and inefficient in terms of resources. Whilst flying bananas from halfway across the world isn’t the most environmentally neutral decision, including the odd faux-pas, your average vegetarian’s environmental footprint is going to be significantly less than the average meat eaters.

This does tie back to the benefit vs harm, bottom up vs top down argument. Whilst being vegan would have the greatest benefit on the environment, and vegetarian next greatest benefit, one could still achieve this by dramatically reducing their meat consumption and only buying locally reared meat.


One thing about a rational approach to animal products is that the only completely coherent position is to become vegan. Yet when employing the benefit vs harm as an auxiliary vegetarian, vegan or meat eater isn’t a binary black and white matter but more a spectrum.

People can still make rational choices that are coherent and sound based on ethics, health, the environment and economics which still allow some consumption of meat. However, in terms of a ‘kill count’ how big is the gap that separates the vegetarian from the person who has the occasional bit of fish or meat? Whilst theoretically one could drink milk and eat eggs without any animals suffering that is not the reality. To sustain a vegetarian diet animals still die. Eggs and dairy still have a higher environmental impact. Arguably the impact is significantly less that a diet with meat. However, what really is the difference on all those scales between a strict vegetarian and someone who eats animals rarely?

If I strictly followed my ethics I, and many other vegetarians, should be vegan. For me, personally, I try to minimise my impact on all counts (e.g. by mostly using soya milk). I acknowledge that rationally little separates a vegetarian and the infrequent meat eater. Yet ultimately it becomes an emotional response. The difference between indirect, implicit and direct, explicit killing. The thought of eating animals disquiets me on a number of levels that means I make the choice to be vegetarian.