Melbourne debates eating animals

MELBOURNE -- Should animals be off the menu? This was the proposition recently put forward for debate in Melbourne.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE -- At the Melbourne Town Hall, two teams were recently asked to argue for or against the sharply formed motion: “Animals should be off the menu.”

The affirmative side (animals should be off the menu) comprised of controversial philosopher Peter Singer, Citibank vice president and philanthropist Philip Wollen, and newspaper editor Veronica Ridge.

The negative team (animals should be on the menu) was made up of agriculture lecturer and pig farmer Fiona Chambers, animal scientist Bruce McGregor, and chef and author Adrian Richardson.

This Intelligence Squared debate, co-hosted by the Wheeler Centre and the St James Ethics Centre was executed in the traditional style of Cambridge and Oxford Union debates.

What follows is a report of the key points from the live event. Please watch the Wheeler Centre’s video (approx. 1.50 mins) for the full debate.

Philosopher Peter Singer

What's healthier?

Opening up the debate, Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975), asserted, “We can live a healthy life with animals off the menu.”

Citing a recent Harvard paper on red meat, he argued that even the smallest amount of red meat could increase your chances of dying a variety of causes including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

“...People who do have animals off their menu are likely to live healthier and longer life than those who have animals on their menu,” Singer contended.

In contrast, Adrian Richardson, chef of La Luna Bistroand author of Meat (2009), said eating meat was a natural thing, putting forward the view that you can live a long, healthy life if you follow a balanced diet that includes eating meat responsibly.

“You know what kills you? Eating too much meat, too many chips, donuts, hotdogs, pies, and all of the processed stuff that’s offered today,” he argued. “That’s the stuff that will kill you.”

But Philip Wollen, on the affirmative team, posed this challenge to the negative team: “Can you name one disease caused by a vegetarian diet?”

Impact on the environment

“We’re increasingly aware that animal production is a major factor in climate change,” Singer stated.

Referring to the recent report Livestock’s long shadow he argued that “animal (livestock) production is a bigger contributor to climate change than all of transport.”

Singer went far as to say that this report was an underestimation.

“It doesn’t really include the full weight of the damage that methane does to the environment," he said. "Methane is 25 times more damaging to global warming than carbon dioxide.”

Singer also claimed: “there is no way of having ecologically sustainable beef”, and despite being the more ‘humane’ option, grass-fed cattle made the situation even worse for the environment.

“Per kilo of beef produced, cattle on grass produce at least 50% more methane than cattle fed grain because they need more grass," he said, "and it’s the digestion by the ruminant digestive system that produces the methane."

Farmer Fiona Chambers

Singer's argument was counteracted by organic pig farmer Fiona Chambers, who explained that the environment was well equipped to deal with this.

“In a single gram of soil, there are a billion of bacteria, most of them are yet to be named, some of those bacteria are nitrogen lovers, and they make that nitrogen available to plants...others are methane lovers and they take methane from the atmosphere,” she said.

In contrast, Phillip Wollen stated passionately, “If everyone ate a Western diet, we would need two planet Earths to feed us, we’ve only got one and she is dying.”

But Chambers argued that it simply comes back to the management of our soil, our environment and the eco system including our animals.

“A skilled farmer works in harmony with the eco system so that the environment truly stays in balance”, she said.

Food security

Peter Singer argued that we waste “most of the food value” of the grains and soybeans we feed to animals.

“Depending on the species, the animals may return to us somewhere between one-tenth and one-third of the food value of the grains and soybeans that we put into them,” he said.

In contrast Bruce McGregor, the third member of the negative team, said that removing animals off the menu threatens our food security and the livelihood of at least two billion people.

McGregor made several ecological points but the essence of his argument was this: “If all markets were to remove meat…food production would decline, food prices would increase and two million people would head to starvation.”

Fiona Chambers also agreed that taking animals off the menu would pose “an ecological and food security disaster.”

She argued that "animal welfare isn’t the center of this debate", ecology is, and that animals are a fundamental part of cultural biodiversity

“Firstly, animals are a vital link in the global ecological and, as such, are inextricably linked to the environment and the future of our food. Secondly, because they serve many important social, culture as well as biological functions,” she said.

Chambers asserted that ironically to save these breeds and species we had to eat them. This was due to a paradox that exists because of symbiosis –- an interaction that occurs when different organisms live in close proximity and association and typically to mutual advantage.

Ethics of eating

Not surprisingly, the discussion on ethics generated the most passionate responses.

Philip Wollen, second speaker on the affirmative team, delivered this strong statement: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we wouldn’t be having this debate in the first place."

His arguments were unashamedly emotive.

“When we suffer we suffer as equals, and in their capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear is a boy. Meat today is the new asbestos, more murderous than tobacco,” he said.

Singer also argued, “I don’t think we are justified in treating other sentient beings as things for us to use for our pleasure and …We are ethically obliged to give equal consideration to the interest of all sentient beings.”

On the negative team, Adrian Richardson said that it should all come down to choice. “If you don’t eat meat, good. If you do eat meat, which is most of the world’s population, it’s how you choose that meat that’s important, and that’s what the debate should be about.”

Chef Adrian Richardson

As good as the 'real' thing?

Richardson made no secret of his love for eating meat, saying it was a natural thing to do.

“I love meat, I love cooking meat, I like eating meat, and I love serving meat to other people,” he declared. “If it has a pulse I can cook it.”

On the affirmative team, ex-food writer and journalist Veronica Ridge validated her argument with mouth-watering descriptions of vegetarian and vegan recipes.

She contended that taking animals off the menu encouraged innovation and creativity.

“At the world’s top restaurant today, you can have a wonderfully entertaining, inventive and delicious meal made for you without slaughter,” she said.

“There has been a revolution in vegetarian and vegan cooking and eating in the past decade,” Ridge declared. “A new generation of cooks are using vegetable, spices, nuts, seeds herbs in incredible ways. Gone are the mung beans and bland wholemeal pies that accompanied the whiff of 1970s hippydom.”

Using Yotam Ottlenghi as an example, Ridge claimed that much of the pleasures of eating today can be attributed, in part, to the new wave of vegan and vegetarian chefs who have been inspired by an ingredient- and locavore-led agenda.

She also said that meat substitutes can be just as good as the real thing, and used New York columnist Mark Bittman’s blind chicken taste test to support her point that, “you can eat brilliantly without slaughtering animals.”

Join the debate

According to the Wheeler Centre, 65% of the Melbourne audience supported the proposition, while 22.5% were against and 12.5% were undecided.

To our SmartPlanet readers: Do you have a view on the debate? Are you for?  against? or undecided on the proposition: Animals should be off the menu.

Photo: thskyt, Flickr; Wheeler Centre.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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