Meat of the Matter: The Equivalency Argument

One of the techniques that has become ubiquitous in politics is the use of equivalency.

In practice, it’s deployed as a distraction. Criticize a candidate’s positions or behavior, and instead of offering an counterargument on the merits of the opposing position, the opposition candidate points out that his or her opponent also behaved inappropriately or advocated something despicable on some other issue.

Which often isn’t even related to the original criticism.

The problem with equivalency, at least in politics, is that it’s used for obfuscation, not clarity, and that’s never a good thing.

Having said that all that, allow me to indulge in an equivalency argument about vegetarianism.

A should be obvious from even a cursory review of the daily flow of serious news and informed commentary, as well the flood of over-the-top advocacy by animal activists, the anti-industry meme is that meat-eaters are supporting animal cruelty and environmental destruction.

Now, those are loaded phrases, but to deconstruct them a bit, “animal cruelty” refers to both the way farm animals are raised and managed, as well as the fact that in order to obtain meat and poultry products, those animals have to die.

No one wins an argument on the (alleged) cruelty issue. People who believe that animal husbandry is wrong on its face are no different from those who advocate for — or against — outlawing abortions. It’s an emotionally based, belief that no amount of logic or persuasion can change.

Let’s stipulate that a small percentage of the population opposes animal agriculture on principle; a small percentage of the population believes killing animals is right and just; and the large majority of people either don’t know of don’t care which side is right.

Distraction versus reality

It’s the other part of the activists’ twin-edged sword where traction is to be gained, in my opinion.

When the argument is that raising cattle, pigs or poultry impacts the environment, the evidence usually cited to support that position involves land use (too much acreage devoted to cultivating feed crops), greenhouse gas emissions (cattle produce methane), and resource consumption (harvesting, processing and packaging use too much water and energy).

Let’s concentrate on that last assertion: Livestock “waste” water and energy that could be “saved” if only we all gave up eating animal foods.

Although it may feel like the typical distraction politicians love to deploy — hey, what about the water and energy it would take to produce plant-based foods for the anticipated nine billion people global agriculture has to feed by mid-century? — the counter argument to the meat-is-killing-the-planet meme is actually quite substantive.

The one glaring gap in virtually every veggie activists’ anti-meat argument is that they overlook the environmental impact of a wholesale shift away from consuming animal foods, and that’s because there are no vegetarian diets that can be both locally sourced and minimally processed.

Look at what vegetarians love to tout as the wonderful alternatives they eagerly embrace as alternatives to meat, poultry and dairy foods: They’re based on either processed soy or other plant proteins, or on tropical ingredients or out-of-season produce that require millions of “food miles” to reach all those oh-so-enlightened vegetarian consumers who’ve convinced themselves that they’re saving the planet.

For the most part, dedicated veggies believe that “factory farming” is a blight upon the planet and that “processed foods” are an abomination upon humanity’s natural diet. But somehow, they seem oblivious to the reality that virtually every crop that serves as a staple of their vegetarian diet — soybeans, wheat, rice — are also factory farmed, by any definition of the phrase.

Likewise, the impact of shipping produce and tropical foods around the world to supply people in latitudes where farming cannot proceed year ’round would be seriously impactful on the environment that veggies claim (exclusively) to love.

Next time you’re at the supermarket, take a look at the ingredient statement on a package of vegetarian sausage or veggie shamburger patties. Those food formulations are based on a combination of soy, wheat and/or other plant proteins — and those ingredients don’t exist in Nature — and supplemented with exotic ingredients sourced thousands of miles away from where the target audience of affluent consumers in Europe and North American actually reside.

There is nothing wrong with that all that, but such an alternate world cannot be posited as being environmentally benign.

If you’re passionate about local foods, then eating quinoa and cashews cannot be justified. If you care deeply about global warming, you cannot ignore the reality that if the world goes veggie, the downside of modern food systems that involves intensive processing and packaging, coupled with the need to ship foods and ingredients using environmentally negative distribution systems would increase, not decrease.

But in virtually every article or opinion piece I’ve ever read that purports to make the case for the vegetarian lifestyle, the proponents never seem to acknowledge the eco-impact of the diets they espouse.

Pointing out that glaring absence isn’t a distraction, it’s simply reality. 


The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator