The Internet nowadays is full of irrational hate against vegetarians. It really astounds me how some of the arguments miss the point, so I thought I’d write an article to debunk some of the most inaccurate and oft-repeated myths.
Note that the point of this article wasn’t to prove that vegetarianism is in any way better than non-vegetarianism, only to show that many common arguments against vegetarianism are, in fact, complete nonsense.
Myth 8: If we didn’t produce meat, we’d have to use much more land to produce all the necessary plants
That would only be true if meat were produced by livestock grazing on otherwise unusable land. In reality, we use huge areas of land to produce plants that are to be fed to animals. For example, it takes about 7 kg of grains (which contain only about 15% of water) to produce just 1 kg of beef (which is around 60% water); in other words, we need about 15 kg of nutrients in the form of grains to produce just 1 kg of nutrients in the form of beef. Wouldn’t it be a bit more effective to use these 15 kg directly? The statistical fact is, if we didn’t produce meat, we would need several times less land than we need now to produce the same amount of nutrients.
Myth 7: Eating meat is the reason why we are intelligent
I haven’t noticed any lions running around solving difficult mathematical problems. There are a large number of animals eating large quantities of meat and still not developing intelligence greater than most herbivores, so meat is not a magical source of great brains. It is theorized that a meat-enriched diet and hunting played a role in the development of intelligence in early hominids, but it is not known whether we would have developed intelligence without eating meat (and some anthropologists speculate that it was the introduction of cooking rather than meat-eating that was the main cause).
Either way, whether eating meat played a role in the development of early hominids some 2,000,000 years ago is pretty much irrelevant for the question whether there is any link between meat consumption and intelligence in modern humans, and studies have shown that eating meat does not lead to improved cognition in humans.
One important thing to note is that humans, like most other mammals, need vitamin B12 (which is present in meat) for their nervous system to work properly but are not able to produce it naturally in their bodies. Herbivorous animals that cannot produce vitamin B12 obtain it from plant matter covered with faeces and soil (which contain vitamin B12), which is not an acceptable solution for modern humans. Vegetarians can get sustainable (albeit low) amounts of B12 from eggs and milk, but pure veganism used to be live-threateningly dangerous for humans. Nowadays, when many vegan foods are fortified with vitamin B12 (which can be produced industrially by fermentation) and B12 supplements are widely available, this is no longer an issue.
Myth 6: If we didn’t produce animals for meat, they wouldn’t be born at all, so it’s good for them
Following the very same logic, if I had a child and kept it locked in the basement its whole life only to kill it at the age of six, it would be better than not having a child at all. That’s rather bizarre. This is true for most meat animals produced today, which live in a confined space and are slaughtered at about 1/10 of their natural lifespan; however, for organically produced meat (provided the animal lives a normal life and then it is humanely killed), this question is not so simple (and the argument might actually be valid).
Myth 5: It’s normal in nature for animals to kill other animals, so there’s nothing wrong with doing it
Things like trying to rape every female you meet or eating the male after sex are also normal in nature. We don’t do things because they are “normal”; we think about them rationally and then decide whether it is right or not to do them. If we were carnivores (who can’t survive without meat), we wouldn’t be having this debate. The point is that we don’t need meat to survive, eating meat in amounts we do now makes us unhealthy, and by doing so we produce a lot of unnecessary pollution and destroy vast areas of land with important ecosystems.
We simply have quite a few reasons not to produce (large amounts of) meat (at least using our current technology), even if we put ethics aside. That’s why we cannot blindly deem something acceptable just because it is “natural”.
Myth 4: It is stupid for vegetarians to eat plants but not meat because plants are alive, too
If I put a live chicken (clucking and fluttering) and a live potato (doing nothing) on a table in front of you, gave you a big knife, and told you to stab them both with it, where would you hesitate more? I think we all know that there are fundamental differences between a potato and a chicken, such as the ability to perceive pain.
Animals aren’t all equal either. While most insects are basically biological robots with no higher cognitive abilities whatsoever, cows or pigs are in almost every respect (such as capability of feeling emotions and socially interacting with peers) equivalent to humans; they only happen to be less intelligent on average.
Capability of perceiving the world around us, feeling emotions and thinking rationally forms a continuous scale starting from none for inanimate objects and probably ending with humans, if we take into account only the currently discovered living beings. Plants are very close to a rock on this scale; pigs are closer to humans than they are to insects. Where you want to draw the line is a personal decision, but deciding not to hurt organisms that have a nervous system is a well-defined approach—and definitely less arbitrary than considering killing a retarded person wrong but deeming killing a pig with the same cognitive abilities completely acceptable.
Myth 3: If you don’t eat meat, you end up being weak and skinny
Tell that to the vegetarian on the right… On a more serious note, there are many vegetarian athletes and bodybuilders who do not find the diet in any way detrimental to their athletic performance and muscle mass.
The point is whether your diet is balanced, not whether your protein source is meat, eggs, or legumes.
Myth 2: Humans are evolutionarily designed to eat meat
If you take a look at dietary patterns of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and other apes, you will soon realize that we were “designed” to eat mostly plants, with occasional small portions of animal products. Various vegetarian human cultures around the world have shown that we can do well without eating any meat at all, which is not surprising, considering our ancestors were mostly frugivores and only started to hunt out of necessity.
The correct version of the statement above should be that humans are evolutionarily designed to be capable of digesting meat, but that does not mean that we have to, just that we can.
Myth 1: Humans need meat to survive / to get enough protein
In fact, humans can get all the nutrients they need from plants, milk and eggs, including enough protein, of which we don’t really need much (about 60g a day; even professional athletes rarely need more than 120g of protein a day). That plants can’t provide all the necessary types of amino acids (proteins) is another myth. No single plant contains all the necessary amino acids at once, but as long as you eat at least two different kinds of plants, you should be fine. Also, eggs are a great source of all essential amino acids for vegetarians—actually better than meat!
The only nutrient that cannot be obtained from a purely plant-based (i.e. vegan) diet is vitamin B12. This is not uncommon in nature—herbivores that are incapable of producing their own vitamin B12 usually consume it with plants covered with faeces, which often contain vitamin B12 (but I doubt vegans would go as far as to do that). Since we can produce vitamin B12 industrially via fermentation, this is no longer an issue.