Peter Godfrey-Smith recently wrote an article in the Guardian about his experiments with a “near-vegan” diet and the effects it had on him. In the article, after concluding that a plant-based diet didn’t “agree with him,” he attempts to resolve his unease about eating animals by discussing which are the most ethical alternatives.
“Suppose a person is very concerned about the ethical issues around food and farming, especially animal welfare, but for whatever reason finds that a wholly plant-based diet does not work for them. What is the most defensible step away from veganism – the best compromise to make, if it is a compromise at all?” says Godfrey-Smith.
The three options he has in mind are humanely farmed meat (especially beef), wild-caught fish, and conventionally farmed dairy products. He proposes that if a plant-based diet isn’t working, adding in one of these options would only be “one step away” from a wholly vegan diet.
Aligning actions with values
Godfrey-Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney. He spent a lot of time studying questions about animal minds and wrote a book about the intelligence and consciousness of the octopus and other sea creatures. He says this prompted ethical questions for him about food and animal welfare.
As a vegan, and a nutritionist, I actively encourage people to try a plant-based diet. I applaud Godfery-Smith for attempting to address his conscience and unease around eating animals. Many people don’t think about this, or try not to think about it, having become accustomed to meat and dairy as foods.
However, while Godfrey-Smith’s intentions are encouraging, the reasoning in his article is contradictory. Further, it highlights the cognitive dissonance of mainstream society. Cognitive dissonance is a state of inconsistent thoughts and beliefs, especially relating to behavior or attitudes. For example, claiming to be an animal lover while eating a steak.
Godfrey-Smith notes that while comparing the three options, “incommensurability” should be acknowledged. This philosophical term, he says, means you can’t measure or compare alternatives using a common standard that is fair to all of them.
He then goes through the moral and ethical aspects of meat and dairy farming, trying to come to a conclusion about which choice a person should make if their “constitution resists veganism.” At the end of the article, he’s left with an indefinite conclusion and asks the reader what they think.
An uncomfortable truth
Here’s what I think. Killing is killing. It may be a harsh fact to some, and not one that sits comfortably while they tuck into their meat. But however “humane” farming methods claim to be, the animal is still slaughtered at the end of it. Godfrey-Smith arguing that humanely farmed animals “have a good life overall” and wild-caught fish would die naturally at some point anyway is not a good reason to carry on eating them.
Ask yourself how you would feel if people started killing their dogs and cats to eat, with the reasoning that they’d given them a good life and they would die naturally someday anyway. Animals who are considered pets highlight society’s speciesism, believing that one kind of animal is more important than another. Just as we shouldn’t discriminate against gender, race, disability, or sexual orientation, we shouldn’t discriminate against animals who are considered food and deny them the right to live.
The Guardian author is concerned that if plant-based foods dominate human diets, the result will not be a “happy cow” scenario as promoted by some animal rights organizations. In contrast, he anticipates a “no more cows” scenario. “If we want there to be happy cows, in any numbers, that entails a continuation of farming of some kind,” says Godfrey-Smith. To use veganism as a possible reason for species extinction is ironic. Namely because animal agriculture and eating meat is the single biggest threat to the world’s biodiversity.
Godfrey-Smith does highlight the appalling and cruel conditions in dairy farming. But he states that the “body count” for dairy is lower than the other two options. Further, he notes that calves are killed quickly, and their bodies are put to some use. Does that make it okay then?
Is ‘seafood’ ethical?
While discussing fish and other “seafood,” Godfrey-Smith notes cruel practices such as boiling lobsters alive and the huge numbers of fish who are killed each year. But he maintains that “deaths involved in commercial fishing are probably not especially awful.” And, that fishing is our “historic position in natural food webs.”
Fishing is considered a peaceful pastime by some people, but fish are able to recognize themselves and feel pain. Additionally, some nutritionists are quick to point out the benefits of eating fish. But there are excellent vegan omega-3 supplements available now that provide the same beneficial nutrients. Just because we have killed animals historically, it doesn’t mean that we should still do that. Should we really be basing our morality on the actions of our primitive ancestors?
It may not happen in my lifetime, but I truly believe that my vegan kids will live in a society one day that considers the atrocities of animal farming and non-veganism in the same light as previous atrocities humans have been capable of.
Is a plant-based diet healthy?
Let’s address Godfrey-Smith’s claims that eating vegan didn’t agree with him. Over the years, I’ve seen countless clients benefit from my plant-based dietary recommendations as a nutritionist. Research indicates that an animal-free diet has health advantages for weight management, energy metabolism, and systemic inflammation.
Further, experts agree that well-planned vegan diets are adequate for all stages of life and may help prevent diseases.
Godfey-Smith’s experimental diet was not, in fact, vegan. It was near vegetarian, with fish oil supplements included. He states that he experienced symptoms such as headaches and feeling cold. And, that he was reluctant to continue this (nearly) plant-based diet during the Covid pandemic. However, some of his symptoms may have been due to a virus and not the switch to plant-based. (In fact, some research suggests that plant-based diets are protective against the severe effects of Covid.)
Nutritionally complete diet
By his own admission, Godfrey-Smith suggests that he should have stuck with a mostly plant-based diet to allow his gut ecology to make a shift and for his body to get used to it. It’s difficult to determine the reasons why consuming only vegan food didn’t suit him without knowing exactly what he ate and more about his overall health. However, it’s always important to plan a vegan diet to include all the essential nutrients the body needs to thrive. And this is easy to do as long as you do your research first.
I encourage anyone to adopt a more plant-based way of eating, even if they are not planning on becoming vegan. There’s a general consensus that plant foods such as vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses, and nuts have numerous health benefits. People can speak to a Registered Nutritionist to help them plan a healthy vegan diet. There are also plenty of online resources for extra support, such as The Vegan Society website.
In summary, the attempts of Godfrey-Smith and anyone else who wishes to try veganism or mainly plant-based are encouraging. People may wish to do this for environmental or health reasons. However, if, like Godfrey-Smith, they are motivated by animal welfare issues, then there are no half-measures.
At the end of his article, Godfrey-Smith says he doesn’t know where the discussion leaves him, and that he lacks a definite conclusion. I would suggest that’s because there is no defensible ethical choice apart from veganism.