Being rational about meat-eating

Everybody is free to choose his poison. But one thing is certain, both from a medical point of view and our overall experience as human beings: vegetables can provide all our nutritional needs

The onset of ‘carême’ (fasting period) among the Catholics, when some of my acquaintances told me they would abstain from meat-eating as part of their ‘sacrifice’, and the Ugaadi’ and Ram Navmi celebrations in the Hindu calendar beginning earlier this week which are similarly attended by abstinence from meat-eating, led me to some reflections on that age-old habit of mankind. The consumption of meat, and the preference for or avoidance of specific meat sources are matters that have religious, social, cultural, emotional, economic and industrial, medical, ethical, biological and other scientific, and even political dimensions.

In all these aspects the proximate driver is the human tongue, which is the primary source of many of our troubles that fall into two categories within which all the other debates can be subsumed: medical and relational. Our taste buds can demand more than we ought to be satisfied with, leading to health problems. A forked tongue – speaking ill about others and things – has landed the peoples of the world in conflicts, often violent and deadly, that persist to this day. And probably will as long as there are human beings. I know of no better expressions that capture these two poles of the debate than two local Creole ones: ‘So la langue longue’ (‘s/he is greedy’ – for food); ‘La langue pena lezo li batte couma li content’ (‘s/he says any bloody thing’). Please note that these are not translations but transliterations – that is, only the meaning is rendered, instead of translating each word which would make no sense to those not familiar with Creole.

I have wondered for some time whether one could make some headway in the fog that clouds debate about meat eating, and came to the conclusion that it is possible to be more rational than is currently the case about the issue. The starting point of the discussion is a reality-check of the situation globally and across historical time, which will make us take note of certain well-known facts as follows:

– All peoples all over the world eat all kinds of meat, by which I mean any food of animal origin, including for example insects such as ants.

– A significant segment of humankind are vegetarians, a trend which is growing both for ethical and medical reasons.

– There are religious proscriptions about eating certain types of meat.

– The growing needs for meat of the increasing population of the world have led to its production on an industrial scale, by methods of breeding and slaughtering that have been condemned as being intolerably cruel to the animals by ethically minded activists worldwide. Despite that, these practices continue.

– Such production is an important economic activity, generating employment for millions of people amongst other ‘benefits’ in the primary production and in collateral sectors such as the processing of the product.

– Industrial production of meat necessitates the ablation of immense areas of agricultural land, as well as diverts such land towards growing food e.g. corn that is needed by the animals. The amount of vegetables that could have been produced instead could easily feed the hungry billions of mankind.

– There is also the huge environmental impact of meat production in terms of climate change.

Scientists are seriously pursuing research to source alternative sources of proteins for humans, learning from customs that prevail among peoples who live close to nature and who consume various kinds of insects and bugs, such as crickets, ants, locusts. The issue now is to adapt these practices in industrial societies, as also how to scale up production to the quantities required. Further, it is considered that these sources will allow more environmentally friendly practices.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence through well-conducted studies to the effect that the eating of red meat, especially beef, is associated with a statistically significant higher incidence of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular diseases, as well as being of significance in the whole range of non-communicable diseases besides cancer, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and so on. Hence the recommendations for eating more plant-based diets, and for more of ‘pink’ (pork) and white meat such as chicken and sea foods in lieu of red meat.

An interesting perspective has been emerging in the past few years, that of regarding certain higher forms of animals e.g. chimpanzees as having ‘personhood’, and hence the movements for animal rights. Some recent studies have demonstrated that certain animals, cats for example, can appreciate beauty, as I heard during a radio programme on the BBC. Further, it has been clearly established that the genetic difference between humans and e.g. chimpanzees and such primates is of the order of 2-3%. Another aspect worth mentioning is that animals do possess faculties ascribed to humans in various degrees, sometimes even surpassing us, and are capable of expressing emotions too. Among such similarities are love, sadness, intelligence, speech (parrots), consciousness (‘Koko’ the chimp who died some time back).

Some people talk about the ‘sacredness’ of ALL life, and yet find justification to rationalize animal consumption, shifting the onus to a creator from higher up, which to any reasonable mind would smack of hypocrisy.

As somebody remarked, no Englishman would eat his dog – except under duress, such as the Antarctic explorer Scott; afterwards, it was established that he had died of hypervitaminosis from excessive consumption of dog liver. The Englishman’s love for his dog contrasts with the love of dog meat by the Chinese (and the Koreans), and there is even a dog festival held in a region in China, which the government in Beijing unsuccessfully tried to halt a couple of years ago. When I told some friends in the UK that we routinely eat octopus in Mauritius, they were appalled – and that after we had just been talking about how they had enjoyed eating squid laden paella during their recent holidays at the Costa del Sol in Spain!

Given all these facts, we can factor in some rationality and commonsense into the practice of meat eating, and I think that we can assert straightaway that despite all the medical evidence, mankind will never give up eating meat altogether. On the other hand, our choices must be guided more by reliable scientific and medical evidence than on prejudices of whatever nature, divine or otherwise. This is because, from a biological point of view, any source of animal protein is as good as any other. Disease in animals can be diagnosed and treated to make their flesh fit for human consumption, as is routinely done; for example, the worm Taenia solium is a parasite in pigs that grow up in unhygienic conditions. When they are properly bred, then the objection to consumption of their meat in not valid. In other words, any proscription must be rooted in some plausible reasoning based on human reason and overall experience rather than a nebulous metaphysical injunction.

I would like to end up with an exchange that took place almost three decades ago between myself and late Guy Felix, who was the Chief Physiotherapist in the Ministry of Health, and was working at the PMOC. He was also known to be a gourmet, and had authored books on Mauritian cuisine.

He used to stand in the doorway of the physiotherapy department in the morning, arriving earlier than most others. And as I would drive in, many a time he would guide me to park my car in the quadrangle outside the department, as we had become good friends. And of course we would engage in some light banter, or discuss some case, after I’d have gotten down and we’d shaken hands.

It was on one such morning that he told me, ‘Eh Doc, mone manze ou Bon Dieu hier soir!’ (‘Hey Doc, I ate your God last night!’). The allusion was to Hanuman of the Ramayana, erroneously referred to as a ‘monkey’ god. And this is what I replied to him, ‘Be a cause ça meme to si intelligent Guy!’ (‘And that’s why you are so intelligent Guy!’). There followed a hearty laughter as only two Mauritians can share about such a joke without feeling in any way offended, knowing the spirit in which the remark was made.

And that spirit I ‘diagnosed’ much later when a very senior colleague and friend in his turn told me about a repartee that Sir Veerasawmy Ringadoo gave to Raymond Rault in the Supreme Court when they were sparring about a case, and Raymond Rault had remarked to His Lordship that ‘my learned friend is so small that I can lift him up and put him in my pocket!’ To which Sir Veerasawmy apparently retorted, ‘In that case, Your Lordship, my learned friend will have more brains in his pocket that in his head!’

Those were the days when wit held sway over vulgarity. In any case, to come back to our subject of meat eating, everybody is free to choose his poison. But one thing is certain, both from a medical point of view and our overall experience as human beings: vegetables can provide ALL our nutritional needs. It may be that during the early stages of evolution, we had no no option but to chase after animals, but increasingly, from a health point of view and especially a humane and ethical point of view, we can certainly at this stage of our development, spare non-human species of animals their lives to a very large extent.

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