One study from Australia, for example, found that producing wheat and other grains kills up to 25 times more sentient animals (e.g. small mammals, snakes and lizards) per kilogram of useable protein compared to rangelands beef. In the United States, many of the most popular fruits and vegetables could never be harvested without “migratory beekeeping” methods that unnecessary exploit and kill millions of bees.
This isn’t to denigrate anyone’s dietary choices. But it does suggest that the ethics of food is not so black and white. As Monbiot concludes: “Between these poles – kill nothing and kill almost everything – lies the pragmatic aim of maximising the diversity and abundance of non-human life on Earth, while securing our own survival.” We should seek to minimise unnecessary suffering as much as pragmatically possible.
To exist is to eat, and to eat is to inflict suffering (directly or indirectly) on other sentient beings. This is an inconvenient truth — even for vegans.
The story of two rival bagel makers in Montreal who have joined forces to oppose the demands of “anti-bagel radicals” — those local residents and policymakers who want to ban their wood-burning ovens because of the environmental risks they pose — sounds like something straight out of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Seinfeld.” But it’s no laughing matter.
While wood-burning ovens help make Montreal bagels the best in the world (sorry, New York), the scientific consensus is demonstrably clear: Wood smoke, whether from an industrial oven or a home fireplace, is a major health hazard and contributor to urban air pollution.
Because of this unhappy truth, I now know what it must feel like for religious people to be told that their cherished beliefs collide with reality. The alternative — in this case, making Montreal bagels in non-wood-burning ovens — is sacrilege.
I was vegetarian/pescatarian for almost a decade for ethical reasons. However, I started to eat meat again from a growing recognition that the act of eating involves more than just reflexively labelling entire groups of foods as “good” or “bad,” or reductively calculating a food’s associated carbon emissions. It’s much more complicated than that.
Eating is a social and joyful act that carries with it cultural and aesthetic values that cannot be as easily dismissed as many plant-based advocates would have you believe. It’s undeniable that the treatment of animals in the industrial agriculture system is inhumane and efforts should be made to improve their welfare. But I think a plant-based diet is anti-human: it is a denial of the fact that we are creatures embedded within a complex (and messy) social and environmental ecosystem.
Like most issues worthy of deeper reflection and consideration, deciding what to eat isn’t so black and white.
Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in the National Post
“I have rivers but no water; forests but no trees; cities but no buildings. What am I?”
It took a few seconds to realize that the question being asked of me was actually a riddle.
I was in Hong Kong, dining at a cha chaan teng. Literally translated as “tea restaurant,” these humble, retro diners have been serving no-nonsense comfort food since the 1950s. To the uninitiated or unprepared, eating at a cha chaan teng can be a jarring experience. You are made to share an impossibly small table with complete strangers. Servers can be a bit too brisk, too impersonal. Upon entering, one immediately feels the pressure to quickly sit, order, eat, pay and leave. Servers have no time to engage customers in idle chit-chat, let alone issue existential challenges. The fact that this server was bending these unwritten rules to ask me a riddle — so calmly and so nicely — was a surprise.
Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the way things are. We want new, and we want it now. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often goes unchallenged.
This is particularly true for technology. Many people become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies, regardless of their utility or the benefits they actually provide. The latest iPhone can be launched with giddy enthusiasm, and not even a day will pass before people become dissatisfied, asking, “When can I get one that’s even better?” It’s a constant grasping for more, an anticipation of what’s next, a hope for something more fulfilling. It’s a symptom of all human minds.