Widgets Magazine


Much ado about eating meat

At the debate on the health and ethics of eating meat last week, John Mackey and I argued that Stanford students could not ethically defend meat consumption and that eating meat is unhealthy.

Stanford student Ken Qin wonders why the topic is being debated and suggests that the discussion itself smacks of implicit bigotry.

In fact, the opposite is true: A fair-minded discussion of whether we should eat meat simply acknowledges that there are elements of meat production that are not immediately obvious. Upon closer examination, we find that raising animals for food violates at least three basic ethical precepts held by most (or perhaps all) members of the Stanford community.

First, eating meat is vastly wasteful. I imagine there are many readers who are concerned about the amount of food that is thrown away on campus, and yet eating meat is far more wasteful. In fact, eating meat entails throwing away 90 percent of the calories that went into its production, because the process requires at least nine calories in corn, wheat, and other feed to produce one calorie of meat. So each time someone consumes meat, they are essentially throwing away 8 calories for every calorie consumed.

This was my point in the article cited by Mr. Qin: Eating meat actually contributes to global poverty. As global hunger group Oxfam America explained, “eating less meat is a simple way to reduce the pressure on global resources and help ensure that everyone has enough to eat. To say it simply, eating less meat helps fight hunger.”

Second, eating meat is also extremely harmful environmentally. The United Nations looked at the process of meat production and came to the conclusion, which was spelled out over more than 400 pages, that meat production is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

On the issue of climate change, the U.N. study notes that meat production produces more CO2 than all planes, cars, buses, semi-trucks, and other forms of transportation combined. A study in the journal Nature points out that the most efficient meat produces 40 times more CO2 equivalent per calorie of protein than legumes, including soy. So each time any of us eats meat, we are doing exponentially more damage to the climate than if we were to choose plant-based foods instead.

Finally, eating meat causes animals to suffer and die. While it’s true that factory farms are especially egregious and that animals from such farms are treated in ways that would warrant felony charges were dogs or cats similarly abused, at the end of the day, there is absolutely no difference between eating a dog or a pig, a cat or a chicken.

For the same reason most readers would balk at the idea of eating Fido, no matter how well-treated he was, we should be similarly revolted by the idea of eating any animal. In short, eating meat entails eating an animal who has interests and a personality, and ethologists tell us that chickens and pigs outperform both dogs and cats on tests of behavioral and emotional complexity.

And for what?

Eating meat is linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. According to the American Dietetic Association, plant-based diets are healthier than diets that include meat, dairy, and eggs. Not only are plant-based diets able to prevent some of the biggest killers in the western world, they can even be used to treat health problems like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

At the beginning of my presentation on the ethics of meat consumption, I asked the audience if they agreed that we should all be making decisions that align with ethical values favoring the environment, equity for the global poor, and kindness toward animals. Every single hand went up in response to all three questions.

So the question of whether we eat meat comes down to this: Should we be supporting a product that involves immense environmental harm, drives up food prices such that more people starve, and kills animals — and all while harming our own health.

That seems like a discussion that’s worth having, and I thank the Stanford community for inviting it.

Contact Bruce Friedrich at brucef ‘at’ thegoodfoodinstitute.org.



  • Sailesh Rao

    Thank you for the simple, evidence-based arguments. Stanford is my alma mater and I’ve met some of the smartest people in the world there. But it is the smartest people who usually have the hardest time overcoming their implicit biases.

    Qin’s logical reasoning is a case in point. He uses the “normal” aspect in Melanie Joy’s “Normal, Natural, Necessary,” framework of justification for carnism and resorts to ad-hominem charges of elitism and bigotry against those who provoke him to examine his choices at Stanford. Having worked with poor people extensively, I can assure him that most poor people are already vegan by default, eking out their existence on cereals and legumes. They mostly sell the livestock they raise to earn much-needed cash.

  • Kenneth Qin

    Please, Sailesh. I’m vegan.

  • Kenneth Qin

    Dear Bruce,

    Did it ever occur to you that I agree with all of the stances that you present in this article? Maybe we should talk in person sometime, since it seems like you still misunderstand the point of my article, or at least pretend to. I’ll be free in about two weeks or so – please understand that it’s the week before finals. Also, please understand that the whole point of my article was that I’m tired of having a debate on the ethics of eating meat because I’ve heard so many, and now I’d much rather debate the ethics of meat-eating rhetoric.

    Send me another email if you’d like.


  • Alumnus

    Whether your arguments are valid is beside the point. If you believe them, then you may choose a vegan lifestyle. But don’t make my choice for me. Or is your opinion that you should get to make my choice for me if you’re really really sure you’re right? What if I were really really sure about something else — would that mean I could impose my will on you?

    Freedom of choice, my friend. You choose for you, I’ll choose for me.

  • Sailesh Rao

    Correct. But you seem to be missing the point that Bruce is making, which is that for those who have choices, eating meat is not a personal choice, but an intensely political and therefore, a moral choice.

    There is no elitism or bigotry involved in pointing that out.

  • Kenneth Qin

    Of course not. But in crafting some of the language that we as a society use to argue for (or against) veganism, we tend to use rhetoric that propagates certain ideas – as you say, implicit biases. These implicit biases feed in to societal norms that some may consider “elitism.” (Don’t get me started on some of the pro-meat rhetoric…)

    Earlier I gave Bruce the example of the mantra that you can “vote with your dollar,” or alternatively, “vote with your fork.” At first glance it seems fine, even empowering, until you remember that this furthers the implicit idea that those with more dollars should have more votes. Whether or not that is right is a subject of another discussion.

    But it’s interesting how the language of food and meat can intersect with other social issues, isn’t it?

  • Sailesh Rao

    Of course, these problems are all systemic. I know that indigenous communities whose forests are being destroyed for animal agriculture, etc., are expected to join this system as paupers, with zero dollars to their credit. Because they don’t have “titles” to that forest land, as per the “Doctrine of Discovery”!!

    The current hierarchical system uses its debt-based currency structures to promote competition, unfairness and unsustainable growth. At Climate Healers (climatehealers.org), we are working on a blockchain-based new system in which cooperation, equality and environmental sustainability are structurally built in for all people, not just for those who had a leg up many centuries ago.

  • Thanks Ken–I would be delighted to chat. Call me when things slow down for you. I’m at 202.306.2020. Cheers, Bruce

  • Thanks Ken, I ran a shelter for homeless families and the largest soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., for six years, and I taught in a dirt-poor school in inner city Baltimore for two years.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever used “vote with your fork” or “vote with your dollar,” but I think you have to work pretty hard to turn either of those into elitist concepts, since plant-based foods are actually cheaper than animal-based foods. I def. think that food deserts should be addressed, but that’s an issue that is distinct from the issue of whether we should be eating meat.

  • Alumnus

    No elitism? So who decides what is a personal choice vs. “an intensely political and … moral choice”? You?

    If I feel so strongly about something you disagree with, does my opinion hold sway? For example, if I were strongly pro-life, which I viewed as an intensely political and moral choice, could we simply vote to eliminate others’ access to abortions?

    Our country is based on the idea that we can try to convince each other of our views, but we are each free to choose in the end as long as it doesn’t violate others’ rights. Trying to eliminate the choice of meat from Stanford goes against that truly liberal ideal.

  • Sailesh Rao

    My reading is that Bruce’s column made a compelling, science-based case that eating meat or for that matter, animal foods of any kind, does indeed “violate others’ rights.” This case has now been made time and again.

    I don’t expect Stanford to eliminate the choice of meat, but I expect Stanford to facilitate the ready availability of vegan options, so that the Stanford community can make that choice.

  • I open and close by supporting discussion of the topic…

    What in my piece causes you to feel like I’m imposing my will on you?