Debate: default vegetarianism – effective or constrictive?

Image: Christ Church hall.

In December, Christ Church JCR passed a motion to make vegetarianism the default diet, forcing meat-eaters to apply for a diet card to consume meat in hall. Joseph Rosalind Hayat and Rohan Kaya present the cases for and against such a change, which is sure to stir up controversy and may persuade other colleges to follow suit.

The Case For

By Joseph Rosalind Hayat

The climate crisis gains in importance everyday. As someone who quite likes the snow, immediate action must be taken to preserve a relatively hospitable planet. One real way to achieve this is through the reduction of meat consumption by a small change to our everyday lives through ‘nudging’. Christ Church JCR recently voted in a measure of this sort in which vegetarian options are the default, rather than the alternative. The implementation of changes such as these represent a step in redefining how we think about diets.

Currently, meat is the default diet. While it may make sense as the majority of people fit rather nicely into the box of ‘I’ll consume most things’, it needs to be rethought. One dire consequence of this attitude has been the overconsumption of meat. While there is certainly a moral argument to be made for reducing meat consumption, especially within the factory farming industry, the environmental argument is far more pressing. Global livestock represents 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN. The sheer amount of plant calories lost converting them into animal calories on the scale it exists is inefficient and unsustainable. Population and economic growth will only increase demand. Yet eliminating meat as a staple food is a bit too optimistic. Everyone adopting a vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan diet to reduce meat consumption will not work solely because not everyone would be willing to adopt these radical lifestyle changes. More importantly, duck is too good to be axed from menus forever. Some alternatives are also less than desirable; a dear friend certainly failed to convince me of the joys of cricket powder as a protein alternative. When adopting vegetarian style diets, the thing people struggle with most tends to be the absence of a lot of things previously normal to eat. Additionally, the cost that comes with strictly vegetarian and vegan diets prevents many from disadvantaged backgrounds from adopting them. So the main aim should be reducing meat consumption through small steps, and thus promoting a flexitarian diet is the most sensible solution. And this is where nudging comes in.

Changing the prominence meat has on the plate promotes more thought surrounding it, rather than solely relying on habit or convenience.

Nudging as an idea is not a new one. It exists throughout most people’s lives and at its best you would never know it existed. Nudging works through seeking to alter behaviour in a predictable way through targeting unconscious thought and behaviour. On a smaller scale, it can be seen with ‘Meat-Free Mondays’ at school. In Ghent, Belgium, this was put in to practice on a grander scale – Donderdag Veggiedag – with the entire city taking part. One of the major benefits of this over the decision to completely remove meat is that personal choice is retained. You can still choose to eat meat.  The only thing that changes is the single additional step one must take in order to have that steak. In fact, changing the prominence meat has on the plate promotes more thought surrounding it, rather than solely relying on habit or convenience. Another benefit is that nudging works. In the case of hall food, a Cambridge study shows that, when placed before meat options in serving areas, plant-based dishes increased in sales by 25.2 per cent in a week and 39.6 per cent in a month. Though seemingly little, this is a start. 

Christ Church JCR’s decision to challenge the status quo is a step in the right direction. Though people on Oxfess may think of the idea of flexitarianism as nonsense, it presents the best way to reduce meat consumption in our diet. Few will make the choice actively so changing meat to a supplement within a diet rather than the focus is the way to create real, urgently needed change. 

The Case Against

By Rohan Kaya

It is becoming clear to me that moral freedom – now even in our choice of food – is no longer en vogue in the Oxford bubble. No problem: I won’t attempt to argue for meat eating from a perspective of such values as liberty and choice. Instead, I would like to offer some arguments against vegetarianism and veganism from a moral and humanitarian standpoint. I’d first like to point out that I don’t oppose Christ Church College’s following through with the student body’s decision to make vegetarianism the default diet in college catering – a vote is a vote, and if the majority agree on a course of action, they of course have the right to ask that it be carried out. Nevertheless, I am beginning to find the student body’s incessant moralising of meat-eating somewhat overdone. Especially moronic is the idea that vegetarianism is in any way the ‘default’ human diet. 

I’d first like to point out that humans are, without a doubt, meat-eaters, and that vegetarianism – practically synonymous with excessive grain consumption – is a perversion of our natural diet that has led to uncountable health problems in the global population. Meat (in small quantities) and fish (in large quantities) are essential for a healthy hormonal profile, bone health, gut health, joint health, and mental health. This applies to men and women of all ages and backgrounds – although it is worth noting that some people require much less protein and find meat digestion much harder than others, and thus the amount of meat that any one human needs varies greatly. However, to prioritise and render default a vegetarian or vegan diet over a natural human diet is to render default unbalanced eating, hormonal imbalance, and weaker bodies. Having been vegetarian for much of my adolescence, I appreciate the numerous physical and psychological (or spiritual) benefits of reducing meat consumption – but here I would like to focus on the word ‘reduce.’ 

We ought all to reduce our meat consumption; many of meat’s health benefits are lost when over-consumed, and I wouldn’t for a moment deny the severe environmental consequences of animal farming. I nevertheless take issue with the move to make vegetarianism the (normative) default. Weston Price’s seminal study, ‘Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,’ along with countless other historiographical and anthropological studies have highlighted the fact that agriculture, grain-consumption, and the shift from a protein-based to a carb-based diet is but a blip in human history and has led to the development of an immense number of severe health and societal defects in the human species. Vegetarianism is not the default because agriculture is not the default – it is agriculture and industry that have destroyed our environment, not hunter-gathering or nomadic pastoralism. I do accept, however, that there is much conflicting nutritional evidence and healthy debate about what truly constitutes the ‘right’ human diet, and it seems increasingly likely that the ‘right’ diet is highly individualised and varies across the world. I would therefore like to offer some normative arguments against defaulting vegetarianism.

To make vegetarianism the default is to remove an essential moral facet of diet choice. That is to say the ability to take ownership of your diet based on your own values and principles rather than those of your college. It is certainly clear to me that many vegetarians enjoy the feeling of adopting a new moral identity that allows them to separate themselves from the pack to form their own herd. Why remove this option? To label and single out meat eaters as the guilty and unenlightened? Is it not clear to everyone, after thousands of years of experimentation, that human beings change through their own consciences and discovery of what they believe to be right, rather than top-down, not to mention exclusive, assignments of guilt or difference? 

To make vegetarianism the default is to remove an essential moral facet of diet choice. That is to say the ability to take ownership of your diet based on your own values and principles rather than those of your college.

I am not sure that we, in 2020, need another reason to feel guilty about our food choices – so many of our mental and physical health problems come from a poor, guilt-ridden relationship to food, where both young and old are incessantly encouraged to self-abnegate, binge, and regret in a vicious cycle of diet and indulgence. Oxford’s student population does not need another form of dietary restriction to increase the culture of guilt surrounding what we put into our bodies. Measures like those implemented by Christ Church will disproportionately affect those who already struggle with guilt and shame surrounding what they eat, and I have no doubt whatsoever that students will find a way to ignore such problems in the name of vegetarian ethical principles – many of which I wholeheartedly agree with. 

Not all these principles, however, are as clear-cut as is assumed. The problem with the ethical presumption in favour of vegetarianism is that it is not unequivocally true or ‘better’ in the first place. We accept that eating red meat counts as a ‘micro’ contribution to global warming and the death of farm animals. It would be disingenuous for me to deny this; it is certainly true, and for this reason we should all consume less meat, take other measures to ‘live green,’ and purchase meat from the best sources we can find – and I believe strongly that Oxford University and college catering should be held to a similar standard. 

No one is quick to mention the exact same environmental effects caused by increase in certain vegetarian staples. Not only are avocados caught up in the Mexican cartel system – not exactly known for strong ethical principles –, but they also carry one of the highest average water footprints of any crop in the world. They contribute to deforestation, nutrient depletion in soil, and biodiversity destruction in Central and South America. Soy is the second biggest agriculture driver of deforestation in the world, after beef. It is also destroying the Amazon. It is not clear to me that replacing beef with soy is an obvious ethical win – especially not for the people and animals living in the lungs of the world. Here I would like to clarify that I am not claiming that we ought to eat whatever we want, given that almost everything we eat has a negative environmental impact. My recommendation is to lower consumption of both of these (and other) damaging agricultural products, without lying to ourselves about the fact that the new ‘default’ option is not a clear win for animals, humans, and the environment. 

To have ethical standards and principles is to be honest about what we believe the world should be like, and to have integrity in our speech and action. This no doubt includes a commitment to leave the world better than we found it, and excessive meat consumption is not in line with such a commitment. Nor is excessive bean, grain or nut consumption. And I am quite confident that labelling those who refuse to accept ‘2nd place soy over 1st place beef’ as a strong action-guiding principle. Our moral integrity, in the end, has to come from within, and Christ Church JCR has failed to secure this.

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