Disclaimer- I am, as of now, non-vegetarian.
I was doing my residency in another state. One of my colleagues casually remarked that it was the natural state of human beings to be vegetarian. I contested this claim immediately. I had to, since I was not a vegetarian.
Now, I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have argued; I mean. If it was a close friend who was a non-vegetarian like myself, maybe. Otherwise- No.
Everyone basically rationalizes their beliefs and practices. That is one of the important functions of our brain. Rationalize our gut feelings and prejudices. It is extremely difficult to get out of this trap. Yet one has to try.
It is almost certain that humans ate meat for a million years. We know because we looked. Primitive people had camping sites. The excavated places have bones, fish bones, mussel shells and evidence of fireplaces. Bones show signs of having been carved with stone axes. It is there always and everywhere you look. Then there is the fossil-poo. Ever heard of fossil poo? They are called coprolites. Fossilized shits of our ancestors speak to us across the eons about the grilled living things that our predecessors ate, presumably, with relish. And the green house gas laden farts that they, without any conscience, sent up into the atmosphere.
Existing hunter-gatherers are all non-vegetarians. From Kalahari Bushmen to the Yanomamo. Eskimos are almost entirely meat and fish eaters, out of necessity.
Human physiology reveals that we are omnivorous. Our guts are not long like the largely vegetarian Gorilla. Look at its phenomenal intestine ridden paunch. Our brains consume thirty percent of the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. Experts say that we could never have been able to sustain it with naturally occurring plant foods. We have a separate mechanism for absorbing Heme iron- the iron that occurs in the blood of other animals. Iron from plants is absorbed by a separate mechanism. Vegans don’t eat egg or milk. They are sure to get Vitamin B12 deficiency, unless they take supplements. Milk is not a natural product, in our evolutionary history, except during infancy.
Non- vegetarians must be rejoicing. They shouldn’t. This is precisely how one shouldn’t argue. The naturalistic fallacy.
What is natural is not always good. It is natural to kill members of out- groups, in our evolutionary history. Men killed other males in battle and took the women forcefully, as a matter of course. This still goes on. Is it good? It was natural in many societies to trample on women, children, the disabled and the downtrodden. That doesn’t make it look good.
Now we are not living in our ‘natural’ state. Our refined and agriculturally superior grains, legumes and enormously swollen fruits and vegetables are more than adequate to maintain our brains. Not to speak of milk, milk products, refined oils and supplements.
Let us look at health. The long lived Japanese and the Chinese still think fish is vegetarian. They mostly find it an incomprehensible concept. The famed Mediterranean diet is a quintessentially non-vegetarian diet.
If you look at studies, there is evidence that red meat is not that good. Chicken looks okay, and fish even looks healthy. Direct comparison between vegetarians and non-vegetarians among western populations shows a 15 to 25 percent less mortality from ischemic heart disease among vegetarians. The association is only with heart disease. No other disease. The association is still far less than that between, say obese and non-obese people. But remember that, in the west, vegetarians are a cohort of people known for their healthy habits overall.
As regards health, there is some marginal evidence for vegetarianism, but not enough. Not by a long shot. As a population strategy, it is more prudent to suggest a Mediterranean style diet that is easier to comply with and concentrate on weight reduction, rather than vegetarianism.
But there are two more issues to look at. Kindness and Carbon. These change the scenario completely.
Throughout our history, especially recent, the respect for individual rights has been increasing. We agree, at least in principle, that all humans are equal. Women have the same rights as men. Homosexuals and trans-genders, reviled throughout history, have their voices heard, for the first time.
The realization is dawning, that animals also have rights. By farming them en masse, and massacring them for meat, we are being cruel.
Meat is much more difficult to make. The carbon foot print is higher. If you are vegetarian, you are treading that much kindlier on the Earth. But that is easily offset by driving a SUV.
These two arguments are valid. With these, I have to agree, that from an idealistic vantage point, vegetarianism wins fruits down. I really admire those, which with these two points in mind, and without the coercion of family tradition, caste or community habits, have switched to vegetarianism. It is a big sacrifice. Salute.
But it should not be more about beef, less about meat, lesser about health and least about carbon. I also believe it should not be more about purity and moral high ground than about principle.
There are ways to improve the stakes in favour of non-vegetarianism. Why should I try to do that?
Human nature being what it is, it is better to have practical solutions than idealistic ones.
Fish and marine products, at least to me, appear much more acceptable. I wouldn’t want to write another big essay about brain development and apparent suffering to justify this. You can disagree.
Carbon foot print difference is much less with fish. (Like two is to one, rather than five or six is to one for beef).
Another one is insects. Fried grubs, anyone? Maybe we can develop cashew nut sized termites. Umm…juicy… grasshoppers and caterpillars could be good in pickles and curries. Remember- right now, so many of our people do eat them. It is a definite possibility that future will see more of these.
The real breakthrough will be synthetic meat. First, there will be products derived from plants that will feel and taste just like the real thing.
Then there will be tissue engineered meat. It has already been made. It is just that a single hamburger costs something like a million dollars. But that will change. Once that happens, the abattoirs and beef cattle farms are going to disappear.
When horse drawn carts appeared, the slaves cheered. When the engines appeared, the slaves disappeared. Similarly, Science and Development is going to be the salvation of the Holy Cow.