Vegetarianism is an increasingly old-fashioned affectation, fading from popularity like trouser braces and Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. There are many still around, but the idea of someone going vegetarian is, frankly, a bit quaint. Nowadays someone with serious qualms about what human beings are doing to other animals proceeds directly to Veganism. As we say goodbye, it is worth considering a noble history, and the compelling case for those remaining Vegetarians to embrace Veganism.
In an excellent history of Vegetarianism, spanning three millennia, The Heretics Feast: A History of Vegetarianism (1993), Colin Spencer describes it as one of the signs of a radical thinker: ‘the individual who criticises the status quo, who desires something better, more humane and more civilised for the rest of society.’ This he says: ‘makes meat-eaters uneasy and they often react aggressively’, leading ‘to persecution, suppression and ridicule’, in the West.
Thus a sign of the Cathar ‘heresy’ – a religion that grew up in Europe during the Middle Ages – was abstaining from consuming another animal’s flesh. They were suppressed unmercifully in a thirteenth century Crusade lasting twenty years. Ridicule became the dominant idiom of opposition in more recent times, when even an otherwise enlightened figure such as George Orwell described a vegetarian as: ‘a person out of touch with common humanity’.
The term itself is of relatively recent provenance, dating from the foundation of the Vegetarian Society in 1847 by William Horsell and others in London. Up to then, those who renounced eating flesh were known as ‘Pythagoreans’ in Europe, after the fifth century Greek mystic who also laid the mathematical foundations for Western music. To some extent there was no need for the term until that point as meat was usually a rare commodity for anyone outside the nobility, at least until the Second Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century.
Nineteenth century vegetarians also encountered Indian approaches to food inspired by Hinduism and Buddhism. Unlike in the West the highest Brahmin caste in India had always refrained from eating meat. Thus, immigrants from the sub-continent brought a refined ‘vegetarian’ cuisine from East to West, whereas in Europe plant-based dishes had generally been associated with the poor. But North Indian cuisine also included dairy produce, especially ghee or clarified butter, from cows that were considered sacred. This allowed an animal foodstuff to fly under the ethical radar of Vegetarian where the humane treatment of cows was not a religious imperative, giving rise to the ethical confusion of modern-day Vegetarianism.
In Europe during the middle ages milk products from cows and other ruminants were recognised as equivalent to meat, and referred to as ‘white meats’, or ‘bàn bídh’ in Irish. Their artisanal production of dairy, beloved of the organic-obsessive middle class consumer today, required a high level of brutality to function efficiently. In the 1st century AD the Roman poet Ovid compares the love-sick groans of the god Apollo to those of a young cow when ‘she sees the hammer come crashing down into the rounded skull of her own suckling calf.’
The necessity of exterminating male calves, or raising them in cages for veal meat, imports a level of brutality into the dairy system that was recognised by the Ancients. Modern agriculture, creates suffering for cows on an industrial scale, with calves swiftly seized after birth to prevent bonding with their mothers’. Relief is only found in the abattoir for mother and child. But modern agriculture is mostly out of sight and out of mind.
Dairy cows find themselves in a uniquely horrific system of agriculture. According to John Webster Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol: ‘The high-yielding dairy cow is, by some distance, the most hard-worked of any animal (including human animals) and it is little surprise that so many succumb to a number of production diseases and have to be culled after a working life that can be nasty, brutish and far too short to make sense even by the crudest of economic measures.’
He continues: ‘The cow must consume an amount of feed six times that required for bodily maintenance and her work load (heat production) exceeds twice that of maintenance’ The only animal species he found that used more energy were certain birds while feeding their chicks. Overworked and unloved, dairy cows suffer an array of ailments and most are slaughtered after three lactations. Lameness afflicts 25% of ‘high genetic merit’ dairy cows while mastitis is a recurring problem.
Not all of Ireland’s dairy farms are as brutal as the intensive farms in the US or UK, but many of the larger ones are. Moreover, all farm enterprises operate under an economic imperative of economic growth, and increased yields and efficiencies are mainly achieved through cruel methods, including automation.
There are also significant hidden costs to society. Cows are treated prophylactically with antibiotics, which has emerged as a serious problem for human health with antibiotic-resistance passing into the food chain. According to the UK’s chief medical officer it poses a ‘catastrophic threat’, and up to 25,000 patients are dying from antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains in Europe each year. A cut knee could lead to untimely death. In Ireland veterinary antibiotics are used without veterinary oversight, with as many as 100 tonnes sold each year.
Cows are also fed genetically modified feed, which may damage human health as 85% of the worldwide cultivated crops are tolerant of ‘Roundup’, a herbicide containing glyphosphate. One percent of the glyphosphate remains in the body a week after exposure, and according to a report by the Heinrich Boll foundation: ‘There is evidence that glyphosphate affects the human hormone system, which can cause irreversible effects at particular life stages, such as pregnancy.’ A convenient loophole in EU labeling allows meat, dairy and eggs to be sold without a GM labeling.
Some vegetarians are wary of renouncing dairy for health reasons, despite its novelty in the human diet. Its purported benefits are usually ascribed to a high content of dietary calcium, recommended for reducing the risk of osteoporosis. But a Harvard study of male health professionals and female nurses showed that individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than those who drank two or more glasses per week.
The Harvard School of Public Health cite lactose intolerance, high saturated fat content, possible increased risk of ovarian cancer, and probable increased risk of prostate cancer as reasons for avoiding dairy produce altogether. They say that dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and collard greens, and dried beans and legumes are healthier sources of calcium.
By eating dairy produce we consume a foodstuff intended for calves that grow to a weight of almost a tonne. That explains why the protein content of cow’s milk is twice as high as that contained in human milk, the ideal food for infants up to two. The consumption in infancy of high protein cow’s milk also correlates with childhood obesity.
The wider environmental damage of the dairy industry in a country such as Ireland is difficult to quantify, but environmental scientists are making headway. As Stuart Miekle writes: ‘A broader audience is going to become aware that intensive grass production in wet climates may, on the surface, seem to provide cheap dairy products, but add in the externalities, and cheap they are not.’
The good news is that a range of faux dairy products are taking the place of dairy products – an increasing number of plant-based cheeses – despite the best efforts of the industry to insist that without their elixir bones shatter like glass at the slightest impact.
Vegetarians are generally conscientious people who instinctively reject the inherent violence of animal agriculture. Over the coming years, it seems likely that many will accept the moral logic of that position and go all the way to Veganism.