Vegetarianism – a critical moral choice and a new manifesto

One day in sunny August last year, I was getting a bus back from Toronto Zoo to Toronto downtown where I lived.  I’d had a beautiful time admiring different species in this huge zoo. Fitting then, that later that day I made a choice that supports the view that our planet is not just for humans, but for animals, for plants, for all living things.

I met a lady on the bus who was a member of the Toronto vegetarian society. She said a line about meat that still resonates with me today:

“No matter how much you dress it up, put nice sauces on it, it’s basically the rotting flesh of another creature”

I have been a pescetarian for nine or so months now. Despite the fish intake, I remain a staunch supporter of vegetarianism and have even more respect for vegans, and my goal in this article is to outline a new manifesto for vegetarianism which is based on the following pillars:

1-     Vegetarianism is a logical moral choice and it is a morally superior position to being non-vegetarian. The debate should not be framed predominantly as a matter of taste, preference or opinion. There are facts, and the facts show one side is better. Period.

2-     Because for some people it is an impossible goal (perhaps myself included?), we need to stop seeing vegetarianism as a binary choice. Even cutting back meat consumption significantly helps the world and your health, and cutting back different types of meat consumption helps e.g. not eating red meat goes a long way towards our environment and your health.


1)   Vegetarianism is a morally superior position to being non-vegetarian

A) So do we have the right to make the choices for those who have no voice or intellect?

 Another experience I had in Toronto was once when I was on my way to get a vegetarian take-away, I walked past two people, one dressed as a cow and one as a butcher and the cow had blood on it and a sign around her neck saying ‘Meat is murder’. They would have walked past many people that day and the sad thing is that people would have been entertained and thought of these people as ‘hippies’ and carried on without any significant thought. Her sign, as extreme as it may sound, is actually the truth in my eyes. The Oxford dictionary, however, chooses to use your definition:  murder is “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another”. The crucial differences? That killing an animal is not unlawful. Mainly because they did not have a say in making the law, because they cannot represent themselves for a lack of human-like intelligence. Laws are a bullshit moral reason to do or not do anything. As humanity, we’ve lived through laws where women could not vote, coloured people could not be served in the same place as white people and where in many countries, it’s still illegal to be homosexual. These things have been and will be fixing themselves over time because members of these groups have a voice and human intellect. Animals, I worry about. Because only we can save them.

This would not be acceptable. Yet packaging the dead body parts of the voice-less and intellect-less in a systematic way with total disregard for how they are raised is. Because we are desensitized to it from a young age.

B) The cruelty of modern meat methods

 The way creatures are raised and killed these days is horrific. You will see this if you do some basic research as I have done. Animals are bred to grow unnaturally fast, and fed what they’d never eat naturally and kept in crowded conditions – makes for a short and miserable visit to Earth.

‘Compassion in World Farming’ did an investigation into poultry farming called ‘Live fast die young’. Hens usually have a life of several years. The ones used for meat farmed industrially are bred to grow to unnatural sizes in a matter of several weeks after which they are slaughtered.  Please check it out for yourselves, the factory scenes are worth watching: At 4.03 is a great visual where they compare the growth rate of a normal chick to that of a meat chick. If you’re in a hurry watch 4.03 until end of the video.

Most cattle are corn-fed even though evolutionarily they are meant to be eating grass. Seventy-five years ago, it took a cow 4 or 5 years to reach a weight of 1,200 pounds. Today, cattle can be slaughtered at just 14-16 months of age, thanks to massive amounts of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics, and growth hormones (John Robbins, The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World).

You can also see the crowded conditions animals are raised in in this video sent to me by a friend:

C) The huge cost meat (esp. red meat) puts on the environment

Here let me start with an unedited excerpt from a report from Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2006 report ‘Livestock’s long shadow’:

“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. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity”

About 30% of the surface of our planet is dedicated to livestock pastures. And this has come at the cost of rich forest which would have been absorbing the carbon dioxide our other activities put out into the air. In this same report, the FAO states that 70% of land that used to be forest in the Amazon is occupied by pasture, and a good proportion of the remainder is occupied by crops grown to feed the grazers! Instead, we could be growing crops to feed ourselves directly. So that’s one major efficiency loss already.

Now let’s compare the efficiency of different meats: how much feed does it take to generate 1kg of meat from various sources? See the chart below which I made from data from mainstream Canada.  Red meat is an incredibly inefficient way of getting nutrition.


The carbon footprint associated with diet types shows what a difference you can make just by diet! Just study this graph, it’s rich with insight. FYI ‘t CO2e/person’ means Tonnes of Carbon dioxide equivalents per person – a unit of volume of Greenhouse gas emissions.

A ‘Carbon dioxide equivalent’ is a unit that measures carbon dioxide emissions and emissions of other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxides but in a way that normalizes their impact on global warming (e.g. methane is a much more potent gas than CO2, around 25 times as potent, so every tonne of methane is equivalent to 25 tonnes of CO2).

 Notice eating chicken instead of beef cuts your food-print roughly by a quarter.

My opponents

The smugness of staunch non-vegetarians and their humorous approach in trivialising the issue drives me crazy. Yes, you eat a lot of meat and it’s your choice. But at least be educated enough to recognize the inferiority of your choice. It’s actually like being proud of smoking when little children are around or being proud of littering. It’s a fundamentally bad thing and a WEAKNESS in your character that you are more addicted to the taste of a food-type than you care about the world or ethics or even your own long-term health in the case of extreme red-meat eaters.

I have a dream too – for a world in which vegetarianism is not a minority position and a point of difference when in restaurants with the awkward ‘she’s vegetarian’ whispers but the norm. Why is doing the responsible thing not the norm right now??

2. Vegetarianism should not be thought of as a binary choice, everyone can make a difference

 We’re obsessed with binary choices in life. But binary choices are tough and restrictive and stop many people who do believe in the right thing from supporting it. They’re actually detrimental in many cases to the choices that the do-gooders want to encourage. Here are the dimensions of choice that all matter:

i)  Volume of meat consumed

If you buy one packet of sausages a week and if you buy one packet of sausages a month or a quarter makes a difference in how much demand is being registered in that cash register and being passed down the supply chain and how much land is deforested and how many animals are bred for slaughter.

I greatly encourage non-vegetarians to just cut back meat consumption. Next time you’re in a restaurant, order the vegetarian option. I have colleagues who order vegetarian whenever possible, even though they are not vegetarian. I respect them enormously for it.

The purpose of my argument 1 is to make the point that vegetarianism is a morally superior position. As I said, I eat fish. I can’t even attain the morally superior position so I’m very much in the same boat as most people, but I try more than not to order the vegetarian option.

ii) Type of meat

Organic, free-range, red or white meat matters. Red meat is worse than white meat for the environment and for your health. Free-range chickens are allowed to roam freely and have somewhat of a normal life before being killed. Moreover, you can download apps for your phone that tell you which species of fish are rare and to avoid, and which are still in reasonable quantity in the world. We need to all make informed choices.


Vegetarianism is good for YOU

Unfortunately no pitch to the world without a ‘what’s in it for you’ section is as effective as one with one. I know people who’ve visited slaughter-houses and have continued eating meat afterwards. Beats me, but we all have different levels and types of empathy.

But there are lots of things in it for you. According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), vegetarians are at lower risk for developing:

  • Heart disease
  • Colorectal, ovarian, and breast cancers
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

The link with bowel cancer is something that’s known but not quantified exactly. According to UK dietary surveys, four in 10 men and one in 10 women eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day. The NHS recommends not consuming more than the average of 70g a day for no good reason other than that’s the average right now. Hopefully better research will follow.


Let’s shift the debate from one where vegetarianism is entirely a personal choice, with few moral connotations, to one where vegetarianism is the recognized best path. We can’t all meet that path fully, but we all support (rather than mock!) those who do and do the best we can ourselves. This is not a ‘Your favourite colour is green, mine is red’ issue. This is a BIG DEAL.


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