I am a vegetarian but I am often intensely frustrated by the arguments and tactics of other vegetarians. They often seem to betray a twisted idea of vegetarian ethics. I want to put down my opinion on what vegetarian's priorities should be and how best those priorities can be achieved (without recourse to intimidation or criminal damage).
In the past decade there was a significant animal welfare movement arguing for (and eventually succeeding in) a ban of hunting foxes for pleasure. As the house of lords argued vociferously against this the legislation it took an age to pass and received a large proportion of parliamentary time. I argue that, although fox hunting does indeed deserve to be banned, that it was not the right fight to pick and probably set back the animal welfare agenda by squandering valuable political capital.
Lets look at the figures. Fox hunting in its hey day resulted in fewer than 30,000 fox deaths a year. This is less than a thousandth of the number of animals killed for food every year in the UK. Foxes have a frightening time in the chase but the animals raised for slaughter in the UK live in terrible conditions their whole lives. Given all these facts fox hunting should never have been a priority.
Many other animals are hunted for food or pleasure. I think that killing an animal for pleasure or food (a type of pleasure really) is wrong. However, we should note that most such animals are free range and have a longer life than captive bred animals. All else being equal then hunting animals is better than conventional factory farming (and many free range farms for the matter). Overall then whilst I agree that hunting for pleasure and food should be banned they are not priorities for the welfare agenda.
There have been many violent campaigns in the UK against the use of animals in the laboratory. Animal testing for cosmetics is now banned and there are tight rules in place regulating what experiments can and cannot be performed. I argue that the use of animals in experiments may be justifiable and we should not be looking to ban it. Lets look at the figures again (figures from the USA here). Millions of animals are used in experiments every year. This is a significantly higher figure than the number killed in hunts, however, billions are slaughtered for food every year. Much more importantly animal experiments are responsible for saving many saved human lives and for the amelioration of much human suffering. Seeing as the medical industry cannot yet function without animal testing one is not weighing a luxury item against an animals life but a human life against an animals life. I do not think that a human life is worth infinitely more than an animal life but I do think human life is worth much more than most animal lives lost in experimentation.
That does not mean that we shouldn't try to reduce the number of animals used in experiments and reduce the deaths and suffering of those that are. We can certainly fund the development of alternatives to animal testing.
I would argue that ridding this world of slaughterhouses should be the main priority of the vegetarian movement. Eating meat is considered a luxury and marginally improves the quality of lives just as many other unnecessary items do. Both the American medical association and the British medical council say that there is no significant overall risk to a vegetarian diet (although both vegetarian and meet including diets should be varied). It had long been assumed that meat was necessary or beneficial to the health. However, the risks of meat tend to cancel the benefits (which do exist). Here one might argue that a vegetarian diet is easy enough to maintain in the UK but that the developing world needs to raise meat. This is dangerously wrong as meat requires much more water per calorie produced (and also per gram of protein). Almost all land in most developing nations would be best used for crop production and some would be best suited to bio-fuel production (the more marginal land). In fact a very good ancillary argument for not raising animals for food is the dramatic ecological gains and increased food production that would result. Factory farms are the worst form of animal farming around and working to close these should be the first step in our battle against the meat industry.
Despite the growth and power of the vegetarian movement our numbers are still relatively small and we have not succeeded in banning even the worst excesses of meat production. We should concentrate our efforts on making more progress in this area. However, past experience has shown that people are reluctant to give up luxuries even if they result from terrible abuses. This is most true when there is no alternative source of those luxuries. Part of this is no doubt a culture of denial and detachment where people deny the ethical status of animals or mentally detach the act of eating meat from the killing of an animal. No doubt carefully designed advertising campaigns could help here. However, I think a more radical solution is more likely to succeed and offers a greater hope of complete success. This a topic I've mentioned before on this site... "In vitro meat". In vitro meat is animal muscle tissue grown outside of any animal. In vitro meats should eventually become very similar to today's meat products in their texture, flavour and nutrient value. The main problem with this idea is that we lack the necessary technology. However, with the coming biotechnology revolution there's never been a better time to take up the challenge. I think when people have a cheap, tasty and ethical alternative to meat they will stop eating it in their millions and the stage will be set for banning the slaughterhouse and funding retraining for those that are currently involved in the meat industry.
So in conclusion I think that efforts to ban hunting for pleasure are currently a waste of time, that alternatives for animal testing should be researched but that our first priority should be ridding the world of the slaughterhouse. Finally the best way to proceed towards that goal would be to fund and encourage the development of high quality in vitro meat.
The research problems we must solve are difficult but shouldn't be beyond the capacities of 21st century science. It would probably be wise to keep an eye on how efficient any new technologies are in their use of raw materials particularly grain and water. We don't want to be making our ecological problems worse.
See also my posts under the topic vegetarianism particularly "Rules of thumb for vegetarian ethics".