On December 9th 2011, Richard Carrier, a prominent atheist, made an argument against vegetarianism. This is an analysis of his argument.
Firstly, Carrier asserts:
“factory farming” tends to be misreported. When you investigate the actual conditions on most farms, especially those vending major industries like KFC or McDonalds, you find they are not as bad as PETA videos claim. They tend to mix ancient footage with recent (thus representing as current, conditions that have long since been abandoned), overstate the frequency of outlier events (e.g. accidents), and misrepresent farms in violation of existing laws or their own contracts with vendors (farms which then went out of business or underwent severe reforms after being exposed) as being the norm (that’s where a lot of their “horrific” video comes from: gotcha investigations of criminally negligent enterprises, not statistically common farm conditions).”
However, Carrier neglects to provide any citations for these claims. He states that we can investigate the actual conditions on most farms, but the reality is that most factory farms are closed to the public – they do not allow filming or photographs. Secondly, it’s not just PETA who make investigative videos of factory farms. Considering the number of videos produced which are easily accessible on YouTube, testimonies from farm workers as well as documented practices, the weight of the evidence still suggests that it is highly likely that factory farms make life for their nonhuman animals not worth living.
He then asserts, presumably from industry statements, that
“The industry is actually a lot smarter and cleaner than propagandists represent. In fact many of the conditions rights activists complain about are actually so bad for actual production efficiency and profit margin that no rational business would ever engage in them anyway, even if animals were vegetables.”
However, tail docking, debeaking, gestation crates and cages all increase efficiency, not decrease it, as it provides more control over the animals and their actions. Further, fattening up chickens, for example, up until a point at which their bodies undergo severe stress, causing health problems such as cardiovascular problems, is, again, efficient in terms of profit – getting the animals large enough that they are on the brink of death maximises profits, and while there are quite a few deaths judging by investigations of factory farms, would it be rational for farmers to simply increase the fattening period because of a few deaths? Of course not. At this point, my admission that the majority of chickens do not die despite intense fattening regimes may be used against me, but, as I’ve already said, even if the chickens do not die, they still undergo massive amounts of stress due to the fattening.
Next, Carrier asserts
“Animals need a lot less than we do in order to be content and to experience normal stress levels or less (normal being the amount of occasional stress, highs and lows, that they would experience in the wild). Chickens, for example, are not miserable when in large crowded communities. There is a limit beyond which comfort declines (California state law, for example, now recognizes this), but their “personal boundary” space is a lot closer than it is for people, and often chickens voluntarily mass together for warmth and comfort. Thus seeing a hanger full of clucking chickens brushing against each other should not evoke tears. Animal quality of life has to be measured in terms of what is comfortable for that animal, and must recognize such facts as that animals aren’t aware of most things, and don’t aspire to be or do anything, and have no prospect of becoming anything, and thus should not be hastily anthropomorphized in these ways.”
Again, contrary to his self-proclaimed characterisation of the article as a rational analysis of vegetarianism, he provides no evidence for his assertions here.
It should be noted at this point that Carrier fails to mention the suffering that the nonhuman animals endure during transportation, which often involves long trips. He also fails to mention slaughter, apart from another assumption that slaughter is humane. Indeed, he assumes that humane slaughter is something we can engage in, with ease, if we want to. However, the empirical evidence suggests a different story, namely that even so-called humane methods of slaughter such as stunning and electrocution are inadequate in a significant proportion of cases. A middle-of-the-road estimate that I have found comes from a 2013 paper by Atkinson and colleagues, which found that 12.5% of stuns were carried out inadequately, and that even the most experienced shooters would be inaccurate 5% of the time. When a stun is carried out inadequately, the nonhuman animals experience pain and often turn frantic and try to get away from the source of the stun. In some cases, the animal will have to be slaughtered while conscious, which causes significant suffering, while in others, the animal will have to be stunned for a second time. However, other studies, conducted in 2007 and 2012 found that 32% and 35% of cattle were inaccurately shot, respectively. Considering the number of cattle who are slaughtered every year, this is a staggeringly high amount of suffering that is occurring. This is occurring in developed countries in which humane slaughter laws exist and are enforced according to the industry.
In his final point on ethics, Carrier writes
“I also find vegetarians irrational in their acceptance of non-vegetarians. Either eating meat is not all that immoral, or everyone they know is a villain, horrifically consuming the flesh of concentration camp victims. And yet they befriend us. Strange. It’s as if we were all serial child molesters, while they refused to have sex with children because it’s wrong, but then come to laugh at our dinner parties, have sex with us, and help us move. Perhaps vegetarians think taking animal lives is no more awful than flouting traffic laws or being mean to street urchins, but that would make little sense. That’s not the rhetoric I hear. The strong drive they have to maintain their lifestyle seems attached to a belief that animal lives are “only slightly less valuable” than human lives and that killing them is a revoltingly awful thing to do. And that makes no sense of their tolerating us as if we were nothing more than casual traffic violators. It would seem vegetarians don’t really believe in their own convictions.”
This is nothing more than a fallacious appeal to hypocrisy and has no bearing on whether vegetarianism is the morally correct diet to adopt. Even then, though, there are significant differences between a child molester and a meat eater. Firstly, the meat-eater is not, usually, directly killing the nonhuman animal and many, in my experience, have admitted that if they had to kill the nonhuman animal, they wouldn’t eat it, which highlights the irrationality of eating meat in the first place. Secondly, meat-eating is widespread: around 95% of the population in the West eat meat, so it’s hard to avoid meat-eaters. Child molestation, by contrast, is very rare. Those who opposed slavery didn’t run into a corner and isolate themselves from the world – they challenged the slave-owners and those who condoned the practice, just as vegetarians often do today (much to the chagrin of meat-eaters who often have a violent emotional reaction to the mere word ‘vegetarian’.)
Carrier then moves onto environmental arguments, and starts this section by stating
“It’s also not rational to be a vegetarian “to save the planet,” for the same reason it’s not rational to vote for third party candidates in U.S. presidential elections. It’s literally the most useless thing you can do to effect any change or prevent harm. As it happens, relying on local produce is worse for the environment. Factory farms are vastly more efficient.”
Firstly, by his logic, even voting at all is useless when effecting change. However, the more people who do it, the less demand there is for animal products and, thus, there is a lower supply. Secondly, he constructs a convenient strawman argument when he states that relying on local produce is worse for the environment. How does he come to the conclusion that all vegetarians rely on local produce, or that a vegetarian diet necessarily entails relying on local produce? Secondly, his citation for this assertion is a blog post with links to other articles and blog posts – no scientific studies. Third, the blog post’s links simply state that local food is not always better for the environment and that food miles should not be considered on their own, but as part of a life-cycle assessment of products that incorporates all greenhouse gas emissions. In short, products should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Factory farms may be more efficient than local farms, if Carrier is correct, which I think he may be, but is the meat product less environmentally damaging than a typical plant-based food? The evidence suggests that the answer is an emphatic no. For example, the Environmental Working Group found that all animal products, apart from 2% milk and yogurt, are associated with more carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions than common plant-based foods, and a 2014 study published in Climactic Change estimated that UK vegans have approximately half the total CO2-equivalent emissions associated with their diet than UK meat-eaters, and significantly more than half for the most regular meat-eaters. Vegetarians had a higher carbon footprint for their diet, fish-eaters even higher still, with low meat-eaters, medium meat-eaters and high meat-eaters having the highest emissions (in order from low to high).
Carrier next addresses the total environmental impact of the livestock sector.
“For example, take the claim that “factory farming (specifically for meat) is one of the greatest contributors to global warming.” That’s simply not true.”
Many do claim that the meat industry is one of the greatest contributors to global warming. Whether or not this is true, however, is irrelevant to whether a plant-based vegetarian diet is going to be more or less environmentally damaging than a diet that includes meat in it. As shown above, a vegetarian diet is most likely necessarily less environmentally damaging than an omnivorous diet. Nevertheless, we can look at Carrier’s analysis of the total impact on global warming that the livestock sector has, however he uses an outdated 2006 FAO report, whereas I will use a 2013 FAO report which states that the livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is still a significant amount. Firstly, Carrier claims that these types of estimates are skewed because the clearing of forests to expand ranches is a one-time effect. I would question this, however – the carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere for use in photosynthesis is an ongoing effect, so clearing forests to expand ranches is detrimental to mitigating global warming in the long-term. Secondly, he asserts that forest clearing goes on a decline as countries’ economies improve, but provides no evidence for this. Third, pasture expansion only accounts for 6% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Carrier then states that nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser used to grow crops for feed would be cancelled out by emissions from fertilisers used to grow alternative plant-based foods. This is questionable, however, as plant-based agriculture requires a lot less land. Nevertheless, even if we grant Carrier this, nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser only account for around 7.7% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Next, Carrier states that inefficient farming practices in third world countries skew the total figure even further. So, using data from the 2013 FAO report pertaining only to North America and Western Europe, we find that, per tonne of protein, roughly 68.4 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions are produced. If we set this as the baseline for South Asia, Latin America & Caribbean, East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, we find that 3901 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent are produced each year by the livestock sector globally, which is a 45% reduction from the 7100 million tonnes originally stated by the FAO report. This is still around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however. If we grant Carrier all of his arguments concerning pasture expansion and nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser, we still find that 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock sector. Of course, this is a minimum estimate, but even this is still significant and, if everybody were to adopt a vegetarian diet, greenhouse gas emissions would decrease.
In order to attempt to minimise the effect of giving up meat on greenhouse gas emissions even further, Carrier writes
“You are ruining the environment just as much when you shower as when you eat a hamburger. In fact, if we set an average shower’s greenhouse impact at about 2 units, a hamburger rates about 3…while the impact for a serving of winter tomatoes is 50. That’s right, vegetarians. Perspective is a bitch.”
The first thing to note about this passage is that it is self contradictory – if a hamburger has a higher greenhouse impact than a shower, then it clearly is ruining the environment more than the shower, yet Carrier asserts that you are ruining the environment just as much: this is sloppy reasoning and highlights the desperate attempt to try to minimise the impact on the environment of meat-eating as much as possible. The whole of this passage, in fact, is a specious comparison between different activities, using the logic of ‘two wrongs make a right’. Essentially, Carrier is saying that we should not halt our consumption of meat because its impact on global warming is comparable to that of a shower. This completely misses the point of the whole endeavour to reduce one’s impact on the environment – it’s not about being perfect, it’s about minimising unnecessary impacts. Eating meat is unnecessary for a healthy diet. We do not need to do it. If we adopted plant-based alternatives, our impact on the environment would be lower. And, as for a serving of winter tomatoes, the simple solution is not to buy out of season tomatoes in the first place and adopt some of the strategies suggested in the article that Carrier himself cites for these figures! Perspective is important and, from the perspective of minimising one’s impact on the environment, eating no meat will contribute towards this, as confirmed even by the article that Carrier cites, suggesting he either ignored any arguments refuting his position or simply missed that part when he was writing his piece.
Third, Carrier expresses concern for those working in the agricultural sector in general, stating that we do not boycott food simply because workers are treated badly; rather, we pursue alternatives. Firstly, the fact that there are alternatives allows us to pursue these alternatives (by definition), but, as Human Rights Watch, among others, has noted, the meat and poultry industry is, relatively, incredibly dangerous for its workers simply because efficiency is everything. If we decrease the efficiency, then its impact on the environment will be greater. Whereas plant-based agriculture is mostly about workers’ pay, the workers in the meat and poultry industry are doing a job that is, to a large extent, intrinsically dangerous. If we want to reduce our impact on the environment and improve workers’ conditions (i.e. workers in the meat industry move to other jobs), a boycott is permissible. A world with no meat industry is better than any world that has the meat industry; a world without no agriculture in general is far worse than a world in which ethical agriculture is practiced. Thus, Carrier’s analogy is flawed. Indeed, boycotting essentials is irrational, but boycotting meat, which is unnecessary, is not.
Finally, Carrier moves onto arguments from health. Here, he argues that we should be looking at all-cause mortality, not just specific diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes of which studies have consistently found that vegetarians have a lower risk. Some studies have actually found that vegetarians have lower rates of all-cause mortality, though others haven’t – the difference appears to be in the amount of Vitamin C and fibre in the vegetarian diet. In any case, assuming Carrier has conducted a thorough search of the literature, he states that a vegetarian diet at most might give one two more years. He dismisses this as insignificant, but if I were dying at age 90 and someone were to ask me whether I would have preferred to die two years earlier, I’d almost certainly answer ‘no’. In any case, health-conscious meat-eaters, and pescetarians can probably be just as healthy as vegetarians who are on a well-planned diet, but a vegetarian diet may make it easier to avoid certain diseases and may make it easier to increase longevity.