Dumb Arguments Against Vegetarianism: A Catalog of Highlights

I have been a vegetarian since approximately 1986, when I finally worked up enough resistance to family pressure to resist my family's many cultural biases and develop a healthy diet that was appropriate to me. Since those early days, I have heard a lot of wacky arguments made against a diet which follows a surprising amount of conventional wisdom (your mother always told you to eat your veggies!) and medical studies. Living in the U.S., in a culture dominated by immigrants from cultures with long histories of cattle raising, most of the arguments made against vegetarianism are purely based on cultural tradition - we raise meat, so we must eat it; we eat it, so we must raise it; it has always been so. Meanwhile, American meat eaters have a stunning 50% rate of cardiovascular disease and impressively high rates of cancer, while those who avoid meat turn out to be the health winners in study after study.

My website has been about my love of food, and I have avoided writing about a lot of the nonsense I have experienced over the years. But earlier this year, my absolute favorite news magazine, The Nation (www.thenation.com) printed an article that managed to encapsulate much of the ignorance I've listened to over the years in one place. While The Nation has provided many educational services to me over the years, producing references to so much nonsense in one place was not something I anticipated receiving. I read it, rolled my eyes, let the article irritate Steven (who is a recent convert to herbivorism), and saved the article to eventually use as the basis for a piece of writing something like this.

The article is called My Beef With Vegetarianism by Daniel Lazare, and it manages to be a good starter catalog of silly arguments. It covers many topics because it is also a review of a history of vegetarianism called The Bloodless Revolution by Tristam Stewart, though it appears from Lazare's article that the book and his view reside solely in the West, where vegetarian is considered a novelty among descendants of the cowherds of Europe. (Asia, with its long history of vegetarianism, is referenced only in the context of its influence on Europeans. Go figure.)

I will not limit myself to the items raised by the article - over the years, I've heard many more foolish arguments, and I'll mention some of the more entertaining ones here.


Misguided statement: Being a vegetarian is unnatural.

If your culture has a tradition of eating meat, this one comes up quite often; if your culture has no tradition of eating meat, this statement looks completely foolish. There are millions of healthy vegetarian humans on the planet, and American scientific literature has stated that the vegetarian diet is a good one. To make this simple, I'll quote the American Dietetic Association's (eatright.org) position on vegetarian diets:

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.
It's a nice position paper: I heartily endorse reading the entire thing.

Misguided statement: Being a vegetarian is unhealthy.

You obviously haven't visited the ADA link I provided above, whose abstract states:

Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.
Mind you, the ADA isn't even a vegetarian organization! Imagine what our own kind say!

This raises another issue: isn't there an ethical obligation of society to live in a healthy way, to avoid burdening society with your illnesses? We scold smokers, but meat eating has a higher health cost to my society because even more people do it. We frown at the alcoholic rock star who wants a new kidney, but look past the people who need multiple heart bypass surgeries because of their meat-filled diets. Or, at least, other meat eaters do, while all of our collective health costs go up. We've decided that some poor lifestyle choices are an inappropriate burden, but that the high expenses of meat eating are a burden we should all share. I don't agree.

Misguided statement: But we evolved to be able to eat just about everything, which means we HAVE to eat just about everything.

I've never met a person who says this who is willing to eat the full range of things that people actually eat around the world. From raw whale meat to roasted cockroaches, even the most dedicated carnivores I know aren't willing to PROVE this one. Just because you can, technically, eat something doesn't make it palatable, or the most sensible choice. My carnivore friends are choosy; I can be, too.

Misguided statement: Cultures that prohibit eating animals that we like to eat, like cows or chickens, are silly.

Americans love dogs, but whenever I propose that they eat them, they become apoplectic. It is completely unimaginable to most dog-loving meat eaters I know that anyone would eat a dog - they perceive this as barbarism. Yet, they can't figure out how other cultures could have similar feelings about other animals.

It happens. Other cultures always have wacky taboos, but OURS are sensible, right? Not really.

Misguided statement: It's not possible for people in some places of the world to eat a plant-based diet, therefore none of us should have to.

My personal brand of vegetarianism assumes that people who live where you can't have successful agriculture will also eat animals, and that this is what their circumstance dictates. From the arctic circle to the Tibetan Plateau, some places provide so few resources for life that people there will likely need to eat things animals make (like milk or honey) or animals themselves. These are not necessarily animals that any omnivores I know would voluntarily eat here! (There are often harsh consequences for people who live in such harsh places that they cannot have agriculture, including shortened lifespans. That is not a desirable outcome to emulate, obviously.)

There is no logic to support the idea that all humans must eat all things that all other humans eat. It is not done in practice in other contexts: you aren't eating snails just because they are eaten in France, are you? There isn't a connection between the needs of some isolated villager to eat animals and the needs of a wealthy westerner in the supermarket who can choose to live on just about anything.

Misguided statement: Domestic agricultural animals live happier lives in captivity to become our meat animals than they would in the wild.

Michael Pollan's generally excellent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (michaelpollan.com) actually investigates the state of the modern beef cow, and finds it to be a vision of hell. Pollan, who doesn't believe in the ethics of vegetarianism, believes it is possible to raise animals for meat humanely, but concludes that this is NOT what is happening on a large scale (or what you are buying, unless you are really going out of your way). The fact that it could be theoretically done doesn't mean it is happening, or justify supporting the existing inhumane system.

Any basic text on the ethics of animal agriculture can provide information in great depth that will disprove this misguided statement. Peta's website (peta.org) can also provide video evidence, if you're disinclined to pick up a book on the subject.

I have never been persuaded that being locked in a pen standing in sewage while being milked by machines is a happier life for a dairy cow than a life in fresh air, being able to raise a family in the wild and associate freely with others of ones kind - even if that could mean a violent end in the teeth of a natural predator rather than by a gun in a blood-filled abattoir. (I don't know anyone who would themselves wish to be milked by machine in a small pen while standing in their waste, or have their lives ended with a gun to the head in an execution room, so this entire argument is suspicious.)

There is also the problem of butchering animals, which is generally done by abused, low-paid labor who work in dangerous and inhumane conditions. The slaughtering business treats people so poorly in the U.S., that concern for HUMAN welfare should be enough to abolish current practices. (But it isn't.)

Misguided statement: If we didn't eat domestic animals that we've bred to eat, they may go extinct; therefore we must continue to eat them forever.

Even nature/god allows some creatures to go extinct - why are we so special? (Must we also always drive cars that use leaded gas, because we invented them?) If some domestic species of animal has no place in nature, perhaps there is no need for it to exist, and extinction is not such a bad thing.

If we are vain enough to decide that our special breeds of cattle, chicken and such must be preserved forever, then we (by "we" I actually mean you, beef cow lover) can establish zoos or sanctuaries for them, the way we do for tigers and elephants, and you can raise them there without eating them. Most animals threatened with extinction are not suddenly introduced into the diet to preserve them - you won't find snow leopard on the menu of your local chain restaurant. Your preferred breeds can be treated the way threatened wild animals are.

Misguided statement: Other animals eat animals, so we should, too.

There are also many animals who eat plants, but those never come up in these arguments to emulate, do they? Animals also kill members of their own kind, and sometimes eat their own children. I don't see THAT being used to justify murder and cannibalism. These arguments are quite selective.

Many animals are evolved to only eat animals; they do not have agriculture and they do not have other options. We do have other options, so we can choose tofu over wildebeest, and reap the appropriate health benefits. For us, it is a choice.

Misguided statement: Nearly every culture has a prohibition on killing, like the Christian Bible's "Thou shalt not kill," but it wasn't intended to apply to animals.

That's a matter of religion and culture. There are plenty of Christian groups that do believe the prohibition on killing applies to animals, and so they are vegetarians. Other religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, have beliefs prohibiting the killing of animals under a wide range of circumstances. Deciding on how a prohibition on killing is applied (when and if it is ever applied) is a matter of choice. Even within religions that prohibit killing animals, some have narrow prohibitions while others have broad ones.

My belief system says killing is wrong. It doesn't have exclusions for animals I might find tasty, or people who have land I want, or people in countries that have natural resources I may covet.

Misguided statement: If killing is wrong, killing plants is also wrong, and so vegetarians have no moral ground over meat eaters.

Meat animals eat plants to grow: if you raise meat animals, you provide them with plants to kill so that you can eat meat. To get a pound of beef, the cow needs to eat several hundreds pounds of plants to grow to a weight deemed suitable to slaughter the cow. Depending on your source, you may find that it takes more than 100 pounds of hay to produce a pound of beef; grains, which have a lot more calories, still require many pounds of to produce a single pound of meat.

So the plant eater kills a pound of plants total; the meat eater kills many pounds of grain, hundreds of pounds of hay or grass, plus the animal. So meat eating involves a lot more killing, by the standard proposed, and so is the less ethical choice.

Misguided statement: If you have to kill plants to eat, then it's just like killing animals, and so it's all the same.

I read some lovely text by a Buddhist monk, who said that any ideal that you attempt to achieve is just that - an ideal. It's something you spend your life moving toward, even if you don't get there. My vegetarian diet results in fewer deaths than a meat-based one, and that is good. I make choices to minimize the loss of life, and that's good, too. I'm not going to give up just because insects are killed when tomatoes are mechanically harvested to make canned tomatoes - I'm still close to my goal, and accept that perfection on this point is beyond my means.

Misguided statement: We can produce more food now than ever before, and so all the grasses and grains that go to cows rather than to hungry people can be justified as the reward of our productivity.

One of the great things about Pollan's book was his look at the energy consumption and waste involved in the production of meat - something like 9 calories of inputs for every calorie output of beef. Many of those calories came from petroleum products, which involve huge environmental impacts. Arguing for the current state of affairs is an argument for all it entails: subsidized oil, subsidized water (thousands of gallons per pound of beef), subsidized pollution, and outlandish health care costs for those who consume the meat, all while hunger is still rampant among politically disadvantaged people everywhere.

The current system of industrial agriculture is hurting us all.

I think the real point of these arguments it to prevent me, as a taxpayer who has to pay for the wars for oil, the water infrastructure to subsidize industrial agriculture, the highways to inefficiently transport subsidized crops huge distances, and all the other inputs from opting out of a system that is only saddling me with burdens - taxes, water pollution, air pollution, bad foreign policies, price supports for crops that should never have been grown in the first place, etc.

Is it more ethical to feed the hungry than to feed cows for overfed people to eat? Of course it is, when it is done correctly. There are people who go to bed hungry every night in this country; there are thousands of children around the world who die daily due to malnutrition. Hunger hasn't been beaten, so this argument is empty. Like a stomach without food, actually.

Misguided statement: Hitler was a vegetarian.

So? Hitler was also a Caucasian, a man, and a Catholic. What are you trying to say? Whatever it is, it must also be true for Caucasians, Catholics, and men - so tread carefully!

If you were trying to get at some sort of ethical jab, it's a rather indirect route: Hitler only ate less meat because he had severe digestive problems, hardly making him an ethicist on the subject of, well, anything. However, if you're trying to score some sort of points, consider that all the tyrants, generals, killers, mass murderers and bomb droppers who were meat eaters in history, and put their cumulative murders on a scale against Hitler's. The meat eaters will win, but not in the way you may have been thinking. But that's because your argument was silly.


I was partly inspired by Lazare's letter to list of few of my favorite dumb arguments, so I'd like to also share other responses that Lazare inspired from the collection of 16 web letters the Nation received in response to his rather silly article. Some of the responses are quite good: I invite you to read them.

There are many other wacky arguments that have been presented to me over the years against vegetarianism (the silliest was probably a cattle farmer saying that I had an obligation to fund him, one way or another, as a fellow American - with no mutual assurance of him supporting any livelihood of mine!). Now and then I'll read something shocking - the Washington Post's website actually featured calls to murder vegetarians, apparently for being too different from other Americans to be tolerated - but I think I've covered the highlights here. If anything novel comes up, I'll try to add it.

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last updated september 21, 2007

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