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RS31 - Vegetarianism

Release date: March 27, 2011

Vegetarianism is a complex set of beliefs and practices, spanning from the extreme “fruitarianism,” where people only eat fruits and other plant parts that can be gathered without “harming” the plant, to various forms of “flexitaranism,” like pollotarianism (poultry is okay to eat) and pescetarianism (fish okay). So, what does science have to say about this? What is the ethical case for vegetarianism? And, is it true that vegetarians are more intelligent than omnivores? Not unexpectedly, the answers are complex, so the debate will rage on.

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "WARNING: Physics Envy May Be Hazardous To Your Wealth!"
              "... get your uncertainties right ..."

Massimo's pick: PhilPapers

References (2)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (26)

pescetarianism (fisk* okay). -> fish*
Ha. Just pointing that out. Loving all the podcasts!

March 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoung

I determine right and wrong behavior through the application of the golden rule as the foundation of a social contract in dealing with you people. Sneer. This kinda leaves animals on their own. From an aesthetically pleasing standpoint I'd rather see animals happy but since they can't enter an agreed on arrangement with me right and wrong don't apply for animals.

March 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterseaotter

Most of the arguments made on the podcast strike me as elitist. A person who is wealthy enough can choose any diet he/she wishes -- "organic" or "free-range" food or more or less vegetarian diets. But let us take a humanitarian view, by which I mean one that takes into consideration the needs of the poorest amongst us. The other day in the supermarket I bought a chicken for 79 cents a pound, tomatoes for $2.29/lb, a head of lettuce for $2.19, and some apples at $1.89/lb. Consider a poor person who needs to meet his/her family's full nutritional needs at minimal cost. What do you think that person would buy? Would pressures that drove the price of the chicken up improve that family's status?

March 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlslerner

Julia, is there a website where I can find farms that have the animal welfare approval?

March 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNeal W

Thank you so much for this, there is so much woo in this area, that it is refreshing to listen to a rational podcast about the issue. Really appreciated.

I have an issue with your portrayal about the issue of eating fish, I am not sure how much of the jury is out on the issue see If Fish Could Scream by Peter Singer. But even if this is controversial as you claim, isn't the ethical side to err on being cautious (if we have some reasons to think it might be cruel), until we are sure?

You also state that because fish exist naturally, it is more ethical to eat them because the natural death is fairly cruel and inevitable in any case, and you are not adding to the suffering of the animal. By this logic hunting is more ethical than eating farmed meats I suppose, (something I agree with). There is a problem with this argument however, and that is the assumption that the natural world existing is inevitable or good. Let me be clear, I love the natural world, and spend much time in it, but nature is indifferently cruel. Anyone who has seen a lion rip apart an antelope, or a rhino killing off baby calves of another male, would not be hard pressed to say otherwise. This leads to all sorts of issues, of what sort of natural world should we aim for, (man's history interfering with nature has been very poor), but your assumption of just accepting it seems to be poor too.

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbenjaminsa

I found much of the discussion near the end of the podcast pertaining to factory farms vs. smaller production methods to be highly speculative. Not what I can usually expect out of you two. To be rational is to examine the facts and make a conclusion based on them, regardless of where they take you.

Does large scale production produce more bacterial infection per pound of food produced than small scale? Does it cause more environmental damage per pound of food produced than small scale?

I can just as easily speculate that large scale production is more efficient and produces lower impact per pound of food produced. You may be confusing absolute numbers vs. impact per unit of production.

I think a follow up back-ed up by some prior research would be helpful.

March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I enjoyed listening to the podcast but I think that one main point was missing. The question whether we as humans, percevied other animals on the same scale, all part of evolution, or we believe that we are qualitatively different from them and this warrant different moral values.

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGil

To provide some insight regarding the raw food movement, one of the reasons has to do with starch, which is released from the cell walls of the vegetable when it is cooked.

Avoiding starch has many health benefits to healthy people, and those with immune related illnesses.

So while there are no 'ethical' reasons for the raw food choice, there has been a lot of research showing that avoiding starch can have very positive health benefits for some people.

Dr. Ebringer is the main doctor behind this.

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterE. Ross

I don't get it. What's so hard about understanding that the life of a living organism, any organism, is NOT yours to take. This is undisputedly the highest and best life stance to adopt and is superior to any position espoused by a vegan or vegetarian. I found your rationalizations about why it's okay to kill some forms of life laughable. Your arguments fall flat. Just because plants experience existence differently than we do, and just because they don't have sad eyes/faces, is no reason to flippantly claim their life can be wiped out without the need for a second thought. That's just some screwed up thinking. How about you try thinking twice the next time you shove a healthy stalk of broccoli in your pie hole. We need to do need to do better. And you may want to spend some time reading plant experiential studies rather just pooh-poohing the concept because you think it sounds absurd. It's actually a fascinating field of study.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJack

"What's so hard about understanding that the life of a living organism, any organism, is NOT yours to take. " And why not, Jack? Do sharks get a license before catching their prey? I shall continue to take pleasure in my broadly omnivorous diet without a pang of conscience.

April 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlslerner

I'm an Archevore ( which is basically taking cues from the animal-food centric omnivorous diets of most of our ancestral hunter-gatherer cultures and squaring them with modern science. There is no evidence that vegetarianism (especially veganism) is a healthier or as healthy a way of eating as eating meat.

And regarding the morality of meat eating, as a utilitarian, I want to support small, humane, pasture farms and ranches so that the livestock we consume experience comfortable existences, much more comfortable than they could hope for without us caring for them. More animals living better lives because we eat them is a better outcome than their numbers dwindling down to nothing , with the ones surviving living less comfortably in the wild, as a result of vegetarianism.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterhaig

I am totally not a vegetarian, I do eat veggies and fruits, yet, I, too eat meat. So, how do I call myself? Is that even a valid question? lol!

July 4, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphentermine 37.5

I try to avoid red meat as much as possible without being impolite in social settings, but I have little sympathy for chickens. I agree that battery cages are a bad idea because they are uncontrolled laboratories for the evolution of new and potentially more deadly human pathogens, but IMHO, the chickens have got it coming. Their ancestors, the dinosaurs, ate our ancestors, now it is our turn to eat them. No ethical problem there! :)

A possibly more rational argument for being an omnivore is that we've evolved to be omnivorous and the species we developed over the centuries are new species which have adapted and benefited in evolutionary terms from their association with humans. Cows, Pigs, Chickens etc. would not survive in the wild. If everyone went completely vegan tomorrow, all those species would go extinct virtually overnight.

Eliminating current undeniably cruel meat production practices would also have a downsides in terms of effects on the environment as vastly more land would have to be devoted to meat production. The Amazon rainforest would have to be totally cleared (for example).

The solution is on the horizon: In vitro meat production where we create factories to produce meat from muscle cells grown in vats without the whole animal being involved. This will still ultimately lead to the extinction of the current food species, but it will solve the cruelty ethical issue and the environmental impact issue.

I'm holding out for that solution. Meanwhile, I'll adopt the 5% or so solution and given a choice will take the least damaging options within an omnivorous lifestyle.

I think that this issue is kinda like slavery was a couple of hundred years ago. There were probably educated slave owners who realized that their lifestyle was unsustainable and hugely unethical. They probably treated their slaves better than most, but didn't free them until they were forced to do so by a general change in the moral landscape.

Fifty years from now, once the meat in a vat technology takes over from current meat production methods, people will probably look back on the current situation as a barbaric age with not a lot to recommend it over the prior era which espoused slavery as a valid economic model.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterufo

Respectfully, all vegetarians (and those interested in reading some science on the meat industry) should check out Temple Grandin's web site ( She is not only a university professor, and an ingenious inventor, but she also keeps detailed data on inspections of farms, ranches, and slaughter houses across the country. The picture she paints is FAR different from any you might get from P.E.T.A. or some of the vegan/vegetarian propaganda web sites.

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSheldon W. Helms

could you please give some more information about the mortality rates associated with each diet? what source did you cite?

November 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMicha

It is worth remembering that most of the species of animals humans raise for food would go extinct if we didn't eat them. So it is the vegetarians who are taking the inhumane path.

November 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlslerner

Massimo said that from a labor point of view, the meat and veggie industries are about the same. I think it needs to be pointed out that factory farms feed animals with vegetables! If we ate only vegetables, then we would be decreasing the demand for vegetables as well as meat.

March 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

For those who are interested: a complete and consistent ethical system that implies veganism and animal equality:
Regarding acute diseases (food poisonings), there has been a comparative study (Adak, G. K., Meakins, S. M., Yip, H., Lopman, B. A. & O'Brien, S. J. 2005. Disease Risks from Foods, England and Wales, 1996–2000. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 11) Animal products have higher hospitalisation risks. The E;coli on spinach is mostly from animal manure.
Regarding health of vegan diets: one should compare well-planned vegan diets with well-planned omnivore diets. As omnivore diets innevitably have more saturated fats and cholesterol (and more toxics in fish), I expect that well-planned vegan diets are more healthy than omnivore diets. In any case, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics claims that well-planned vegan diets are sufficiently addecuate for everyone.
Regarding fish consumption: most likely fish welfare in wild capture is highly underestimated, as the fish can experience long death struggles in the nets (compression, decompression, freezing, stripping, suffocation all take several minutes to more than an hour, longer than most predation). Besides, capturing a fish means a decrease of lifetime well-being, because it means an earlier death.
The best scientific summary on fish sentience can be found in EU Food Safety Authority (EFSA), “General approach to fish welfare and to the concept of sentience in fish”, Scientific Opinion of the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare, 2009

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStijn Bruers
I think it basically comes down to what people are able to eat. Should we be eating Animals? Probably no because I think we can be perfectly healthy without consuming any type of Meat. And the Animals would be able to live their lives and die Naturally by whichever course their life takes them.

Humans are smart enough to set up their Food-Systems without the need for Meat in their diets. I think this whole debate is just pretty much about people's sense of their own Superiority over other Animals. I guess we feel like we can decide who should Live and who shouldn't when we should be letting Natural Laws "make" those decisions.
October 20, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
I enjoyed the podcast but, as a livestock farmer in NZ, I thought it was a bit naive in the respect of animal husbandry, and biased to the way livestock is raised in the US.

Thee are no CAFO's in NZ and our meat is economic on a scale that we do well shipping to the US for sale, sans subsidies. I can only speak for sheep and beef, but they are all pasture raised and finished. Good lives, reasonable last day and plenty of good protein, fat and Omega 3.

Two things were blatantly missing in the discussion. Well managed pasture is a carbon sink, arguably better than forests; much of the carbon in the atmosphere is from cultivation of soil that has been built over millennia by ruminants. Rotating crops with pasture and animals is common practice, retaining nutrients, building fertility and helping to sustain the farm financially'

The other is the idea that not consuming animals directly for food is saving any lives. Harvesting, cultivating or drilling kills a lot of furry animals. Run over Mrs Rabbit with a machine and her ten little ones starve to death under the ground. There is always plenty of blood on an arable farm.

I am a new listener and may have missed some more discussion.
November 23, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlonely moa
Lonely moa:
-about the carbon footprint of pasture products: the carbon footprint of beef and dairy products from pasture land is often higher than from intensive farming, due to higher methane emissions from cows on a grass diet.
-about killing aniamls in farming: More than 90% of animal products in US and Europe have cropland footprints higher than plant-based alternatives, so they involve more killing of small animals on croplands. Most people also make a moral distinction between killing someone by accident on the one hand and killing someone on purpose in order to use the body of that individual as food. Sometimes human children die by accident for our food, e.g. by a truck that transports our food. So if we eat food, we are indirectly responsible for the death of a child. But that doesn't justify breeding and killing children in order to eat them. Imagine that I kill and eat a child, and you accuse me of doing something wrong. I argue that your food also implies the killing of a child by accident, so that you are not in a position to judge me. I'm sure you will not be convinced by my argument.
November 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterStijn Bruers
You miss the point that animal husbandry is essential for sustainable agriculture. Most animals here are raised on land not suited to arable cropping and trying to balance footprints is a fool's mission. Research has shown the carbon footprint of lamb exported to the UK from NZ has a smaller carbon footprint than lamb grown in the UK... so what. I support the view that good pasture management sequesters carbon and provides food to humans that would otherwise not be available. In many parts of the world animals are essential for human existence.

I think your argument about cannibalism is totally specious. You needn't resort to eating children as Swift did but maybe focus on the fact that agriculture is a very hazardous occupation; the most hazardous in NZ, actually, and accounts for many on farm fatalities and serious injuries.
November 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlonely moa
There are several studies that indicate that we can feed the world on a vegan diet using all available arable land in use today. So we don't need pasture land. See
The carbon footprint of lamb from both UK and NZ remains an order of magnitude higher than the carbon footprint of plant-based protein sources. Your remark only means that the carbon footprint of transport can be relatively low compared to the carbon footprint related to the production phase of livestock.
At this moment most and in the near future all people live in regions where animal products are not essential. As a developed country, people in NZ no longer need livestock products.
My cannibalism argument follows from antispeciesism: the moral rule that we should not arbitrarily discriminate. Species membership is not morally relevant.
It is true that especially livestock farming is one of the most dangerous professions, next to fisheries and forestry. So yes, farmers, and especially livestock farmers, face higher risk of fatalities. However, one could reply that those farmers who are accidentaly killed are not as innocent as children, lambs or field mice, because being well informed they voluntarily chose that profession.
November 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterStijn Bruers
When you come to visit this topic again, I would like to see the understanding of suffering replace pain. There no human need for animal products other than pleasure or convenience. The the holdouts that allege some micronutrient is essential to thrive comes from animals, I will side step that argument by pointing out they can be made synthetically. The rationalization otherwise would be interesting.
February 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Blott
It makes sense that pure vegans die younger than omnivores and vegetarians. Humans need a good source of animal protein, B-12, and calcium, and the vegan diet generally lacks these.

We probably just need to eliminate the nastier aspects of factory farming.
February 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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