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Essay
Last Updated: 10/06/2008
Discourse on the violence of eating meat
David Chalmers

Non-violence and vegetarianism have a long history together -- perhaps best articulated by Leo Tolstoy's observation that "As long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields".

In this essay, David Chalmers argues that food politics are directly related to issues of human security, through land use policies and greenhouse gas emissions, above and beyond the inherent violence of raising animals for slaughter. For these reasons, Chalmers argues, reducing the amount of meat in our diets should be a natural point of agreement in the peace movement.


Although the peace movement is an influential agent of social and political change, it faces many challenges.  The most serious is that in many places in the world direct violence remains a daily reality and positive peace—the absence of structural and cultural violence—is for many just a dream.  Yet the peace movement is not challenged only by the fact that violence is still considered to be inevitable by many and desirable by a few; it also faces many challenges that are internal to the movement. 

The internal challenges confronting the peace movement arise from disagreements between its members over how both positive and negative peace can best be achieved. These disagreements threaten both the cohesion and effectiveness of the peace movement.  Consider, for example, the issue of armed interventions as a means of protecting lives.  Many peace activists argue that violence is never justified under any circumstances, but others suggest that the use of violence is justified when used in response to horrors such as genocide.  Similar divisions exist in regard to globalization, food security, acceptable means of protest, governance, and numerous other areas where there is little broad agreement over how peace can best be realized.   This brings to bear two questions of fundamental importance to the peace movement: What issues are most important for global peace and around what issues might peace activists be able to coalesce? 

In this paper I seek to provide partial answers to each of those questions by showing that the extent to which humans currently consume animal products in general, and meat specifically, is a significant impediment to peace and an issue around which we can come together in relative unity.  My argument is not that the human consumption of animal products is in and of itself a main conflict driver, nor that animal product consumption is the only issue around which peace activists can or should unite.  Instead, my argument is that the current extent to which humans kill other species of life for our own use is one important source of conflict and one issue around which peace activists from many walks of life and of widely differing opinions on other important issues related to peace and conflict may be able to find common ground.      

Humans kill other animals for food, for use in constructing shelters, for human-health related research, for clothing, for use in making tools, for use as beauty products, for pleasure, and for many other reasons.  The extent of killing, ways of killing, and justifications of killing vary tremendously between places, cultures, and individuals, but very few humans have never been directly or indirectly responsible for the killing of another animal.  Sometimes human survival depends on killing an animal, but often it does not.  This paper is about the many instances when animals are killed for human use but survival is not at all at stake.   

At the most basic level, the killing of another animal is, just like the killing of another human, an inherently violent act.  Whether the end-use consumer of a given animal product—a steak, for example—actually kills the animal it came from or not, someone somewhere surely had to.  To the extent that consumption drives animal killing, end-use consumers are just as culpable for the killing as the actual killer.  In many societies, the majority of animal product consumers will never pull the trigger (or swing the axe or push the button or utilize some other means of violence to kill), but their demand for animal products is quite surely the reason that somebody else did.      

There are, of course, those who argue that violence directed against other species is very different from violence directed against other humans.  I agree to an extent, but the fact remains that the killing of anything (human or otherwise) always requires some form of direct violence.  There are important differences between direct violence against humans and direct violence against other species, but there are important similarities too. 

It is difficult to define when killing an animal is “necessary” for survival.  One could argue that it is only truly necessary when one is so hungry or desperate for shelter that they are willing to kill the animal themselves.  But such a definition is, I think, too extreme to be of much use.  To kill another animal only if one absolutely has to is to be as non-violent as possible (in an all-species inclusive sense of the term).  But who among us has never killed a mosquito?  Moreover, who among us has never used an animal product when it was not absolutely necessary?  Although applying non-violent philosophy to all species of life plainly has an important role to play in peace activism, I think that the concepts of human need and survival are simply too subjective and complex to play an essential role.  

What is needed is a far greater appreciation for the concepts of limitations, moderation, and balance.  Few of us are willing to take the many challenging steps that would be necessary to entirely eliminate our use of animal products, but all of us can seek to seriously limit our use of them.  And all of us can seek to drastically reduce or eliminate our consumption of one of the most environmentally destructive and obviously violent forms of animal product consumption: the eating of meat. 

Meat comes from livestock that typically have to be killed by humans before it can be eaten and, as discussed earlier, the killing of any species, human or otherwise, is inherently violent.[1]  As far as I know, there are no studies that attempt to quantify the extent to which the psychology of killing and eating other animals causes violence.  The theoretical underpinnings of such a possibility have, however, been thoroughly considered.[2]  While the links between the psychology of meat eating and violence are largely speculative, the ways in which livestock contributes to conflict by driving environmental degradation are much more clear-cut and quantifiable. 

In 2002, the world consumed 209 million tons of meat.[3]  If current trends continue, that number is projected to rise to 296 million tons by 2015 and 373 tons by 2030.[4]  How much does this really matter for the environment and for peace?  It matters a great deal because livestock’s environmental and social impacts are massive and often have the effect of exacerbating many existing conflict sources.  

One of the most important ways that livestock contributes to conflict stems from its occupation of vast areas of land.  The total land occupied by livestock amounts to 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet.[5]  Cattle grazing and feed-crop production are responsible for a large proportion of that land use and a major driver of deforestation in the tropics.  In Latin America, .3-.4 percent of forest is lost to pasture annually.[6]  This has obviously harmful effects on biodiversity but also significantly impacts the landless by monopolizing land they might otherwise be able to use.   Many studies have pointed to landlessness and inequitable land distribution as major sources of conflicts.[7]  Others have suggested that deforestation can exacerbate the poverty for the poorest even as it lifts others out of it.[8]  Thus, meat production is rarely a direct causes of conflict but clearly contributes to it by magnifying existing inequities and other conflict sources vis-à-vis land use.

Livestock also contributes to conflict through its impact on environmental problems such as diminishing water supplies and nitrification.  In fact, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”[9]  Climate change, considered by many to be easily the most ominous long-term environmental challenge to global peace and security, is perhaps the most alarming of those problems.  The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of net global greenhouse gas emissions—a significantly higher share than the entire global transportation sector.[10]   Many of those emissions stem from livestock’s contribution to deforestation, but a significant percentage come directly from ruminant livestock whose manure and biological processes (specifically burping and flatulence) release large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.[11]  If greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, the long-term implications of climate change for global peace and well-being may be truly catastrophic.  Much harm has already been caused.  A report released by The World Health Organization estimated that in the year 2000 climate change had already caused the loss of over 150,000 lives and 5,500,000 disability adjusted life years.[12]  The environmental and socio-economic impacts of climate change are growing rapidly as greenhouse gas emissions rise and some of them—forced migration, for example—clearly contribute to conflict.[13] 

Peace activists who eat meat on a regular basis generally advance four main arguments for why a meat-heavy diet is compatible with their desire for a more peaceful world.  The first is that that meat eating is simply not much related to peace and conflict among humans.  Given livestock’s relationship to land use and climate change, that claim is evidently false. 

A second argument set forth for why high-quantity meat consumption is consistent with peace activism is that even if the livestock industry as a whole threatens human peace, small-scale local meat production does not.  This argument has two fatal flaws.  First, even small-scale meat production usually involves much larger areas of land per unit of food produced than does grain or vegetable production, and land is very much a finite resource.[14]  Second, livestock drive climate change by burping, farting, and defecating methane whether they are locally and “sustainably” managed or not.  This explains why Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in a recent speech that cutting down or eliminating one’s meat consumption is one of the simplest and most effective ways for one to reduce their personal carbon footprint.[15] 

A third argument in favor of meat consumption is that it is necessary to good health.  There are peer-reviewed arguments for specific health benefits on both sides of this issue, but most studies do not lend much support to the conclusion that we have to eat meat to be healthy.  Some studies, in fact, argue that recent scientific advances suggest that a vegetarian diet may be healthier than a meat-based one.[16]  What is clear is that excessive consumption of red meat is bad for both human health and the environment.  It is equally clear that, while certain forms of meat eating may offer some specific health benefits, meat is certainly not an essential component of good health.  Thus the perceived healthful impacts of eating meat do not provide a good argument to justify its violence. 

The fourth and final argument most commonly set forth in favor of meat eating is that it is culturally, and sometimes spiritually, valued by individuals and societies and therefore justifiable.   With this argument I fully agree.  Having lived within cultures where meat is accorded a high spiritual value, I am fully aware that meat eating is personally and culturally important to many individuals and I would never judge someone in another culture (or for that matter my own) to be violent in any way besides having contributed to the killing of an animal simply because they eat meat.  There are many meat eaters who are generally very peaceful, just as there are some vegetarians who are very violent in many ways beside their eating habits.  All of our personal views on meat eating are in large part culturally constructed and my own are just that—my own.   But while no one including least of all me (disclosure: I only recently entirely stopped eating meat) has the right to tell anyone else what they have to do to make the world a more peaceful place, we all have an obligation to suggest to each other what we think we can do to make the world more peaceful. 

My main purpose in writing this paper is to suggest one constructive avenue for peace making.  The consumption of animal products in general, and meat eating specifically, is certainly not the only or even necessarily a primary cause of human conflict and violence.  It is self-evident, however, that meat eating is inherently violent and there is strong evidence that the environmental degradation it fuels sometimes contributes to human on human violence.  As peace activists (I use this terminology because this paper is primarily written for those who seek a more peaceful planet), we are obligated to think critically about the influence of our own actions on peace.  And although we ought never to tell someone what they must do because such language is itself violent, we certainly can talk to others in a respectful manner about conflict, its causes, and solutions.  In so doing, it may be highly constructive to talk about why the consumption of animal products causes so many problems and what can be done about it. 


Notes

[1] The FAO defines livestock as “any domestic or domesticated animal including bovine (including buffalo and bison), ovine, porcine, caprine, equine, poultry and bees raised for food or in the production of food. The products of hunting or fishing of wild animals shall not be considered part of this definition.”  http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/Y2772E/y2772e04.htm 

There are many ways in which livestock can be used for human use without killing them, but the acquisition of meat almost always requires it. 

[2] For theoretical discussion of the links between meat consumption and violence see, for example: Patterson, Mathew. 2001. Understanding Global Environmental Politics: Domination, Accumulation, Resistance. Palgrave Macmillan.   

[3]Steinfeld et al. 2006. “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options” http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See, for example:  Macours, Karen. 2006. “Relative Deprivation and Civil Conflict in Nepal” http://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/conferences/2006-EOI-RPI/papers/gprg/Macours.pdf or

Deininger, Klaus. 2006. “Incidence and impact of land conflict in Uganda.”  Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 60, (3), 321-345

[8] Angelsen, Arild and Sven Wunder. 2003. “Exploring the Forest—Poverty Link: Key Concepts, Issues, and Research Implications. Center for International Forestry Research.”  

[9]Steinfeld et al. 2006. Op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] According to the FAO, methane reduced form manure totals around 18 million tons per year and methane from “enteric fermentation” (burping and flatulence) totals around 86 million tons of methane per year.  See: Steinfeld et al. 2006. Op. cited.

[12] Campbell-Lendrum, Pruss-Ustun and Covorlan. 2003. Climate Change and Human Health: Risks and Responses. WHO/WMO/UNEP, Geneva, 133-150.    

[13] For a good overall overview of current and projected climate change impacts and human security implications see: IPCC. 2007. “Summary for Policymakers”. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

For an analysis specific to human and national-security implications of climate change see: Campbell, Kurt et al. 2007. The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change.  

[14] Steinfeld et al. 2006. Op. cited.

[15] Dr. Pachauri is quoted on the Grist website as having stated that “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about [greenhouse gas] reductions in a short period of time, it [eating less meat] clearly is the most attractive opportunity."  Importantly, Dr. Pachauri also suggested that a global carbon price could reduce meat consumption by raising its price, suggesting another avenue of opportunity for peace activists.  http://www.grist.org/news/2008/09/08/unhumane/index.html  

[16] Sabaté, Joan. 2003. The contribution of vegetarian diets to health and disease: a paradigm shift? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 78, No. 3, 502S-507S, September


David Chalmers is a Master's degree candidate at the University for Peace.
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