Debates are usually a playground for fast thinkers — for people who can be convincing and give clear-cut, black and white answers on the spot, who depict the world in absolute terms and reduce it to well-defined categories. However, these types of discussions are usually criticized for not leading to solutions, and for creating more opposition and polarization.
Through the choice of speakers and attendees, and the way it was organized, this debate left room for analysis, comebacks, and a reshaping of perspectives. It managed to bring forward the complexity of the topic and give rise to multiple questions and possible scenarios.
The debate started with the majority of the audience already convinced that animals should be off the menu. After the debate, the number of people supporting this motion only grew higher. Nevertheless, a series of nuances and scenarios were brought into the discussion: what would happen with the animals if everyone stopped eating meat? How would we preserve biodiversity and soil quality? What would be the solution for remote communities in areas unsuitable for agriculture? And more importantly, if it weren’t for intensive farming — would this debate still be relevant?
The debate covered a wealth of areas and only touched on the health implications briefly. For more details and scientific studies about the impact of meat consumption on health, please check out the article section on our website.
As part of the Intelligence Squared debate series, two teams came together to debate the proposition that “Animals Should Be Off the Menu.”
Members of the Team Defending the Motion
Members of the Team against the Motion
- Peter Singer (philosopher, published author, and supporter of animal rights)
- Philip Wollen (former vice-president of Citibank who gave up his finance career to support over 500 social projects)
- Veronica Ridge (award-winning writer, health, and lifestyle editor, and co-founder of Issimo publishing platform)
- Fiona Chambers (lecturer, animal health specialist, nutrition and genetics researcher, and supporter of sustainable animal farming)
- Bruce McGregor (animal scientist and environmentalist)
- Adrian Richardson (head chef of an Australian bistro and cohost of a teen cooking program)
After the presentations, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions and vote for or against the motion.
00:03:38: Detailed presentation was given by the six participants in the debate.
00:09:56: Peter Singer’s talk covers several aspects related to health, food waste, and environmental protection, and he stresses that ethics is the main reason to support the motion.
- Health: second-and third-generation vegetarians show that people eating a meatless diet can live healthily for many generations. On the other hand, the scientific evidence that covers the negative impact of meat on health is overwhelming. Singer cites research conducted by the Department of Nutrition at Harvard on approximately 100'000 people over 20 years, which shows an association between red meat consumption and health problems such as colorectal cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.
- Food waste: 750 million tons of grains are fed to animals each year. Nevertheless, only one-tenth to one-third of the soy and grains fed to animals return to us in terms of food value. This makes animal farming a waste of resources and deprives developing countries of access to food.
- Environment: a significant factor in climate change, the pollution produced by factory farms is higher than that generated by the transportation industry. Methane has been shown to be more dangerous to the climate than CO2 (grass-fed cattle produce more methane than those fed grains).
- Ethics: other beings shouldn’t be used for our pleasure and convenience, and confining them and forcing them into unnatural behavior is a form of speciesism and abuse.
00:19:41: Arguing that animal welfare is not the point of the debate, Fiona Chambers states that taking animals off the menu would destroy the agricultural biodiversity and would threaten our existence as a species. Her solution to the issues raised by the opposing team lies in ecologic and sustainable farming.
- The extinction of several types of animals (cattle and pigs) can prove to be an ecological disaster. Because of symbiosis (different organisms living in closer proximity together to mutual advantage), animals are part of the agricultural biodiversity and a vital link in our ecology.
- As a counterargument to the methane produced by grazing animals, Chambers shows that bacteria living in the soil have the potential to remove methane from the atmosphere (1 ha of pasture has enough potential to extract the methane produced by 162 cows), making the space methane-neutral.
- Sustainable agriculture can only be achieved by alternating arable land with pastures to allow for the buildup of the soil and reach an ecological balance.
- From a social and cultural perspective, people in countries such as Vietnam depend on animals in many ways: “People need the buffalos to work the rice plantations, they eat pigs to survive, while ducks and chickens eat the larvae and bugs on the plantations. If these animals would not exist, erosion could not be stopped, the regions in the valley would be flooded, and crops would be destroyed.”
00:28:50: In a very emotional and passionate discourse that is full of vivid descriptions of animal suffering, Philip Wollen argues that animals should be taken off the menu because of unjust suffering. Creating a strong association between human distress and the trauma experienced by animals, Wollen suggests treating animals not as other species but as other nations. He goes the extra mile by challenging the opposition to share the movie Earthlings with their clients and friends and to name at least one disease caused by a vegetarian diet.
- Wollen names meat “the new asbestos” and depicts it as being “more murderous than tobacco.” The fact that 90 % of the small fish are grouped up into ballots to be fed to livestock makes vegetarian cows one of the world’s largest predators. By killing 2 billion sentient living beings every week and wiping out 10'000 species every year, humankind could be easily compared to a virus and its actions—to a crime against humanity.
- Other points touched on by Wollen include high medical costs due to lifestyle diseases, the large amount of water needed to produce one kilogram of meat, and the fact that poor countries are deprived of grains and resources so that Western countries can feed their animals.
- Here are several memorable statements:
- If everyone ate a Western diet, we would need two planets Earth to feed us—we only got one, and she’s dying.
- We can produce enough food for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.
- Knives and forks are weapons of mass destruction.
- Meat is like 1 and 2 cent coins—it costs more to make than it’s worth.
- If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we wouldn’t be having this debate tonight.
38:40: Advocating economic sustainability, Bruce McGregor argues that taking animals off the menu would threaten the food security of at least 2 billion people who live in remote areas that are not suitable for agriculture and would deprive vegetarians of milk and milk products (which in his view, are essential elements of a diet).
Animal farming is presented as:
- an efficient solution to balance the use of resources and to address the natural loss that occurs in every ecosystem. Taking animals off the menu would leave farmers with a lot of male calves, which can’t be used for milk or in any other way. This would overwhelm the world with aging and diseased animals.
- an essential resource for countries facing poverty, an aspect illustrated by projects such as Women and Livestock that educate women in areas not suited for agriculture to manage herds of animals and provide food for their families.
- a strong cultural and traditional symbol representing a currency as well as a family’s inheritance and wealth.
- a way to use the land that is not suitable for crops and agriculture.
- a way to protect endangered species (e.g., American bison in North America)
00:48:15 Veronica Ridge discusses the revolution in vegetarian cooking and describes the world full of color, flavor, texture, and richness found in vegetarian cuisine.
- No amount of beef, lamb, chicken, or veal could improve a dish such as: “Warm terrine with lightly steamed Nichola potatoes, layered with aged Comté cheese, and then sealed to a golden crispness top and bottom. It’s paved with crunchy tempura and Ueki mushrooms, a clean green sage and nettle puree, and chopped poached nectarines for contrast, and there’s a lovely heat from wasabi granules that are a bit like sand, using a molecular gastronomy cooking technique.”
- Apart from examples from Indian cuisine, Ridge talks about Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes and a large number of great thinkers in the history of those who have advocated a vegetarian diet. She brings up the blind test comparison conducted by the New York columnist Mark Bitman, who couldn’t tell the difference between chicken and plant-based chicken based on its taste, chewiness, and texture.
- Along the lines of ethical reasoning, Ridge says that people shouldn’t accept the sense of complacency that arises from the idea that animals were slaughtered humanely. She points out the double standard people have when they treat their pets with love and respect but do not treat other species this way.
00:57:29 In a very bold and shocking approach, Adrian Richardson starts his discourse with “I love meat. I love cooking meat, I love eating meat, and I love serving meat to other people. If it has a pulse, I can cook it.”
- He relates the habit of meat-eating to tradition and to ancestral practices and stresses the fact that it’s not eating meat that kills people, but that the problem is eating too much of it.
- Building upon the idea that his father’s side of the family was vegetarian and his mother’s side ate sustainably produced meat, Richardson talked about their long and healthy lives. His upbringing led him to embrace the idea of informed choice, moderation (with just three meatless days we can have a high impact on the planet and our bodies), and respect for other beings’ lives (don’t waste food, use as many parts of the animal’s body as possible, kill animals in a fast and painless way).
- His solution to the environmental issues raised by the opposition is to “put your money in the hands of farmers.”
01:08:00 People in the audience have the chance to speak for one minute for or against the motion. Here are the main themes brought into the discussion:
- Chamber’s arguments related to methane-neutral spaces are challenged for not being peer-reviewed and not taking into consideration the multiplying effect in the atmosphere.
- The relevancy of nutritional studies is questioned, based on the fact that usually the comparison is made between vegetarians and people who eat substantial quantities of meat and processed foods but not with cohorts who eat a balanced diet (with small amounts of meat). Many people don’t follow a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet, and that can lead to nutritional deficiencies. A vegetarian diet in third-world countries could be a death sentence, and aflatoxins (chemicals produced by plants) can also lead to cancer.
- McGregor’s case that people need to consume meat to preserve certain species such as the American Bison was refuted based on the argument that extensive animal farming is precisely what causes the extinction of other species.
- Eating meat is a way to feed our ego and a display of wealth and power. The fact that something has been done in the past doesn’t make it “natural.”
A pool was conducted at the beginning of the debate as well as at the end. In the beginning, 65 % of the attendees were for the motion, 22.5 % against, and 12.5 % undecided. After the debate ended, the undecided group was reduced to 6.9 %, those against were down to 19.6 %, and the pro side won with 73.6 %.