To Eat or Not to Eat Meat

With flexitarianism on the rise throughout the developed world, and everyone from Bill Clinton to Beyoncé endorsing the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet, it can sometimes seem as though meat is just a bad habit that the majority of us are too weak-willed to kick. But is giving up meat morally superior, healthier, and better for the planet, as its advocates insist? This episode, we fearlessly dive into the long, tangled history and surprisingly nuanced science behind those claims. Listen in now for the truth on Pythagoras, cow farts, and more.

The ideal of a non-violent diet goes back to the origins of most world religions. Adam and Eve's pre-lapsarian diet was plant-based, while in the East, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all embraced the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence toward living things—even if many Hindus and Buddhists aren't necessarily vegetarian themselves. We speak with author Colin Spencer, Gastropod listener and Jain Purvi Shah, and theologian Jo Ann Davidson to understand the genesis of these beliefs and their evolution throughout human history.

In the 16- and 1700s, new scientific discoveries were employed to adjudicate the question of whether eating meat was morally wrong: author and activist Tristram Stuart explains that, while vegetarian advocates held up the similarity of human and animal nervous systems to condemn the suffering inflicted by meat-eating, their opponents used the newly invented microscope to demonstrate that even the most rigorous Jain is still killing untold quantities of microbial and insect life every time they sit down to dinner. Today, the debate over animal rights and an animal's role as a potential source of food still rages.

But the claims that giving up meat will reduce heart attacks and save the planet—they must be much easier to prove, right? Not so fast: we speak to nutritionist Frankie Phillips, epidemiologist Corinna Koebnick, rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman, and researchers Gidon Eshel and Marco Springmann to understand the science behind a meat-free diet's reported health and environmental benefits—and figure out its flaws. As we discover this episode, nothing about eating meat or not eating meat is as clear cut as it seems.

Episode Notes

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Jo Ann Davidson

Jo Ann Davidson is professor of theology at Andrews University and the author of the article "World Religions and the Vegetarian Diet."

Colin Spencer and The Heretic's Feast

Colin Spencer is a novelist, painter, playwright, and cookery book writer, as well as the author of The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism.

Tristram Stuart and The Bloodless Revolution

Tristram Stuart is author of The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, as well as a food waste activist. You can watch his TED talk on the subject here, and then learn more about the campaigning organization he founded, Feedback.

Frankie Phillips

Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and author of this briefing paper on vegetarian nutrition published by the British Nutrition Foundation.

Corinna Koebnick

Corinna Koebnick is an epidemiologist with Kaiser Permanente of Southern California. For this episode, we discussed her research paper on the implications of a long-term vegetarian diet for a healthy pregnancy.

Marco Springmann

Marco Springmann is a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, based at Oxford University. His paper, "Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change co-benefits of dietary change," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Nicolette Hahn Niman and Defending Beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman is an environmental lawyer, rancher, and author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, as well as Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.

Gidon Eshel

Gidon Eshel is a professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College. Our discussion was focused on his 2014 paper, "Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States."


For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.