We need to take the bull by the horns !
Illustrated by Paul Massouillié

We need to take the bull by the horns !

What’s interesting is that we call someone « bovine » when they look stupid. For, in Westerners’ imaginary bestiary, the cow gets the short end of the stick. The sheep and the snake have a biblical status, the lion and the horse sound mythological, the owl or the elephant are reminiscent of renowned philosophical or literary works, whereas theses poor cows get nothing… But they do look stupid after all.

Nonetheless, today, they are in the spotlight thanks to the revolution – dare I say it – in the way the same well-off Westerners that mostly live in cities consume food, choosing to become vegetarians [1] or, worse, vegan. Let’s get it straight: we’re not going to lecture you about the morality of it all or insidiously try and convince you to join a movement that many unfortunately view as a sect, even though this article is clearly partisan. First and foremost, we’ll try to refocus this debate that gradually shifted and was poorly dealt with by the media. Indeed, even before opting for a vegan lifestyle, what is at stake is our health, ethics and, above all, environment. Moreover, the revolution is not only a question of politics, because it’s a matter of choosing the kind of society we want, but also a question of civilisation, because the way we treat animals reflect the state of our humanity.

So, no longer meat at the canteen? Let’s see!

First of all, we must note that the number of ethological studies showing that animals can have emotions and feel pain has increased recently[2]. Thus, the Cartesian assumption of animals being akin to machines as they are unable to feel and think can no longer be defended: the unbearable videos shot in slaughterhouses that sometimes pop up in our Facebook feeds is a reminder for all of us. These videos, for which organisations such as L214 in France (named after the Article L214-1 of the French Code Rural that says “As sentient beings, animals must be put by their owners in conditions compatible with the biological imperatives of their species”) fought hard, as well as the trauma of slaughterhouse workers, make us question our relationship with animals and, ultimately, act as a mirror of our humanity. What link do we want to maintain with these creatures that have accompanied us for millennia? Why kill animals if we can eat differently? Let’s not oversimplify the subject: the lawsuit filed in 2016 by the organisation L214 and the NGO Écologie sans Frontière (Ecology without borders) against a farm with over 1,000 cows was initially rejected because this farm, in spite of prejudice held against it, thoroughly respects all European norms. There may be errors and abuses with factory farming but it remains a (well-)regulated sector.

Health risks add up to these ethical considerations: everyone has heard about the WHO reports that declare meat as carcinogenic[3] (“The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%”[4]). Moreover, a no-meat diet seems beneficial to our health: after Terra Nova[5] issued a report calling French people to halve their animal flesh consumption in the 20 years to come, Serge Hercberg, president of the French Health and Nutrition National Programme, said “Hundreds of epidemiological studies conclude that a mostly plant-based diet does not present risks nor deficiencies, but protect from the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, diabetes or obesity.”

Finally, and it’s about to become one of the major reasons why people become vegetarians today[6], factory farming is an environmental disaster. Meat, more than any other type of food, pollutes a lot. The FAO last report[7], issued in 2013, estimated that worldwide livestock farming was responsible, in 2005, of 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions on Earth linked to human activity: it emits around 7 billion tons of CO2 per year, more than the United-States and France combined. Producing and transforming food to feed livestock amount to 41% of the emissions caused by livestock farming; enteric fermentation (burps) 44%; and 10% by manure storing and processing. What’s left comes from transporting the meat produced.

Meat production is highly consuming in terms of water and cereals (around 40% of all cereals farmed and harvested in the world is used to feed lifestock), but also in terms of land. The FAO estimates that 70% of all agricultural lands in the world is used either as grazing fields for livestock or for the production of cereals to feed it. Now imagine that the same fields could be used to cultivate cereals for the 1.5 billion people that still suffer from malnutrition! Finally, the lack of agricultural land leads people to gain it on the forest: 91% of the land created by clearing the Amazonian forest is now dedicated to grazing or producing soya that will later feed livestock. And less forest means less emission of greenhouse gases absorbed.

See below a graph to complete these statistics:

In this context, which utopia, which horizon should we choose?

Changing demographic structure makes it nearly impossible not to resort to intensive livestock farming, at least if there’s no significant change in our eating habits. Without demonizing it (see above the example of the farm of 1,000 cows), factory farming creates a dehumanised relationship with the animals and intensifying it isn’t possible for the 3 reasons mentioned before: health, ethics, and environment.

However, abolishing livestock farming altogether isn’t possible either, because it would bring about the disappearance of farmed species. Indeed, these animals are pray and depend on humans to protect them. A. Finkielkraut explained it decisively: “What I know is that I really love cows and that all vegans that take pride in their moral superiority do not love them. They do not like peasants either. They want a world […] where animals that have accompanied us for millennia have totally disappeared. I can’t tolerate it […] because politicizing animal condition is changing our relationship with animals, not making them disappear” [8].

We must find alternative ways to farm livestock, more responsible or, even, more extensive, and at the very least more respectful of the animals. These farms will have to take into account the risks entailed by coming back to pasture based livestock farming: for example, Avian influenza came from free-range fowl reared in extensive farming that was contaminated by birds carrying the disease.

We can nonetheless envision the fact that consumption patterns are gradually changing in our societies. A last figure to sustain the hope: in France, as well as in other Western countries, meat consumption regularly decreases, meat used to make up 23.7% of the average French food basket in 1960 whereas it only represents 20.4% of the same food basket today, according to an Insee study[9].

“OK, but I love meat to much to stop eating it!”

In the end, what remains against all these reasons? Leaving the realm of logic for the, less logical but maybe as valid, realm of taste: “I love meat to much to stop eating it, I would never be able to become vegetarian or vegan”. To what we will answer by borrowing the words of Corine Pelluchon: “We’re not even close to a debate between a vegan or not vegan lifestyle: we’re talking about ending a development system that is faltered and dehumanising. It is embarrassing us, because of the pain it imposes on animals, the destruction of resource it involves and the fact that (farmers’) work is losing its purpose” [10].

Holy cow! The tone is turning moralizing; we should stop here, even though we could keep on talking till the cows come home!

Sources and footnotes

[1] « Un tiers des ménages français sont « flexitariens », 2 % sont végétariens » Le Monde, Audrey Garric, 01/12/17 [in French] [2] « La science moderne associe à l’animal une faculté d’alerte appelée nociception : sensibilité aux stimulations excessives de l’environnement qui nuisent à l’intégrité du corps et qui, chez les animaux les plus évolués, prend le nom de douleur ou de souffrance. L’animal est donc, scientifiquement parlant, un “être sensible” », écrit Georges Chapouthier dans “Qu’est-ce que l’animal ?” (Le Pommier, 2004). [in French] [3] The label “carcinogenic” reflects the level of certainty that the scientific community holds on this specific threat, but is not telling on its severity.
[5] [in French] [6] Cowspiracy, a Netflix documentary, is surprising in its sincerity and methodological rigour. I recommend it to you.
[8] Alain Finkielkraut, Des Animaux et des Hommes, Stock, 2018 [in French] [9]; the Insee is the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies in France
[10] Taken from the radio debate transcribed in Des Animaux et des Hommes, Alain Finkielkraut, Stock, 2018 [in French]

Sarah Pergentini

Sarah Pergentini

Alexandre Denis

Alexandre Denis

Étudiant français en Master in Management à HEC Paris (Promotion 2022).
Membre de KIP, intervieweur et contributeur régulier.

French student in Master in Management at HEC Paris (Class of 2022).
Member of KIP, interviewer and regular contributor.