Intelligence Squared: Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Most audience members for Tuesday night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, murmured to each other that they were clearly in the majority company of vegetarians, vegans and animal activists.

But a pre-debate poll taken as the audience filed in from Swanston Street proved that, while passionate animal rights supporters were indeed in the majority, the audience was more divided than you might think. Well, sort of.

A majority of 65% supported the proposition that Animals Should Be Off the Menu, while 22.5% were against and 12.5% were undecided.

Peter Singer: Livestock worse for climate change than transport

singer Internationally renowned ethicist Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, began, arguing on the grounds of health, the best use of the food we produce, environmental considerations and animal ethics.

‘We can live a healthy life with animals off the menu,’ he said, citing the long and healthy lives of lifelong vegetarians – and of second or third generation vegetarians – to prove his point.

It was an argument that opposing speaker and chef Adrian Richardson (author of the cookbook Meat) would later support. A vegetarian as a child, with vegetarian parents and grandparents, he said that he has vegetarian relatives who lived ‘well into their nineties’ – as did his omnivore relatives on the other side of the family.

‘Even small portions of red meat are likely to increase your chance of dying, including from cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,’ Singer said, citing a recent much-discussed study from Harvard University.

‘Animal production is a major factor in climate change,’ said Singer. ‘Livestock production is a bigger contributor to climate change than all transport.’ He said that 20 years worth of methane production is 72 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

And he delivered sad news for advocates of free-range beef: cattle fed on grass produce 50% more methane than grain-fed cattle. ‘There is no way to have ecologically sustainable cattle,’ he concluded.

Fiona Chambers: Animals a vital link in global ecology

FFR_Fiona_Highlight Fiona Chambers, the first speaker against the proposition, has been farming organically on her Daylesford property since 1990 and was the first person in Victoria to have certified organic pork.

‘Animals are a vital link in global ecology,’ she said, arguing that breeding rare animals for consumption is a way of preventing them from becoming extinct.

Yet, she argued that ‘animal welfare and sentience are not at the centre of this debate; ecological welfare is’.

The best way to achieve sustainability, she said, is through methods like rotating the use of paddocks.

‘Animals are important just as the earth and the sun are important, but they are not the central issue.’

Philip Wollen: If slaughterhouses had glass walls

wollen While Peter Singer was the primary crowd-puller for the evening, it was Philip Wollen, a former vice president of Citibank turned founder of the Kindness Trust, who attracted a partial standing ovation on the night, with his passionate, emotive arguments.

‘Animals must be off the menu because tonight they are screaming in terror in slaughterhouses,’ he began, going on to detail what he witnessed when he visited slaughterhouses in his former life; an experience that changed him forever.

‘In our capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear … is a boy,’ he thundered.

Though he cited a litany of damning statistics (by 2048, all our fisheries will be dead; 10,000 species are wiped out every year because of one – us), he did find some hope in the way the internet enables people to come together to address causes.

‘Ten years ago, Twitter was a bird sound and www was a stuck keyboard.’

He concluded darkly: ‘Animals are not just other species, they are other nations, and we murder them at our peril. If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we wouldn’t be having this debate tonight.’

Bruce McGregor: Eating animals means food security

Animal scientists Bruce McGregor was appropriately nervous about following Wollen’s act. ‘I’m on a hiding to nothing already,’ he joked as he began. ‘But being a St Kilda supporter, I’m used to it.’

He argued that taking animals off the menu would threaten the food security of ‘at least two billion people’ – and that these kinds of debates often tend to overlook the natural losses (or deaths) that occur in every system.

Veronica Ridge: Making the crowd hungry

The Age’s Life&Style editor (and former Epicure editor) Veronica Ridge spoke like a true foodie; arguing that taking animals off the menu doesn’t mean saying goodbye to inventive, delicious meals.

‘There has been a revolution in vegetarian and vegan cooking in the last decade,’ she said, before going on to describe some of those meals in salacious detail. Refrains of ‘you’re making me hungry’ briefly filled the active Twitter feed (#iq2oz).

Like Singer, Ridge concluded that ‘there is no such thing as humane slaughter’.

Adrian Richardson: ‘If it has a pulse, I’ll cook it.’

Meat-loving chef Adrian Richardson opened his argument with a resounding bang. ‘If it has a pulse, I’ll cook it,’ he declared.

Rebutting Singer, he declared that, yes, too much meat kills you. ‘Or too much chips, donuts or processed crap.’

‘A few meat-free days and lots of leafy greens will do wonders for the planet and your health.’

In a burst of Mars/Venus humour, he declared that he needed to say, for his wife and ‘for the ladies’, that chocolate is part of a balanced diet.

art_MEAT-Cover-200x0 ‘If you want to stop factory farming, don’t eat supermarket meat,’ he said. ‘Go to your local butcher: remember him? I’m sure there are some ladies here who do. As long as death is quick and painless, eating animals is okay. Fiona’s pigs are delicious.’

He said the proposition that Animals Should be Off the Menu is ‘ridiculous’.

‘Don’t you think we can all enjoy a tender, juicy, grass-fed steak occasionally? Eat meat responsibly.’

Audience input: schooled by a kid

As the votes were counted to decide who won the debate, the audience got their chance to speak, for one minute each, for or against the proposition.

One of the last speakers was a 12-year-old schoolboy.

He said, ‘I am for taking meat off the menu. I don’t think it is appropriate to throw meat on a grill and smother it with barbecue sauce. How would you feel if that was you? Or your children? Or your siblings? Or your mother?’

One tweep quipped in reponse, ‘We borrow the earth from our children. Sorry negative team, but you just got schooled by a kid.’

Changing minds

No one was especially surprised when the debate was resoundingly won by the ‘for’ side, who argued that Animals Should Be Off the Menu.

The post-debate statistics read 73.6% for the proposition, 19.3% against, and 6.9% undecided. So – a significant number of audience members were evidently swayed by the speakers.

But the movement wasn’t all one-sided. One tweep told the Wheeler Centre they started off on the ‘for’ side and moved to the ‘against’. Why? ‘I didn’t like the FOR team’s emotional manipulation and black and white thinking. Sustainable and humane farming is the way forward.’

Surely, that’s a mark of success for an exchange of ideas: people left with new ideas and changed convictions, on both sides of the argument.

The video for this debate is now online; watch it here.

Anna Krien will be speaking about her Quarterly Essay on our treatment of animals, in Us and Them, at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 4 April at 6.15pm. The event is free, but bookings are recommended.

Back to Dailies →

14 comments so far:

Why do you label Phil Wollen's arguments emotive but not Bruce McGregor's or Fiona Chambers'? Both make highly emotive claims, one invokes the spectre of mass starvation and the other rests on that beautiful "buzz phrase" ... global ecology. Both are highly emotive. If anything is part of "global ecology", it is wildlife and putting animals on our menu has all but wiped wildlife off the face of the planet. A 1966 study put the ratio of livestock to wildlife (biomass) at over 18 to 1

and its only gotten worse since then. E.g., between 1988 and 2008 Queensland cattle producers cleared over 400,000 hectares EVERY SINGLE YEAR.

Food security of the poor is worsened by having animals on the menu. Animals have to be fed and in poor countries their stripping of crop residues leads to soil loss, carbon loss, and poorer crop productivity. There is a word for it ... "Boverty" the induction of poverty by bovines.

Geoff Russell
23 March at 09:10AM

Was a very interesting debate. While I agreed with the negative team that some people in developing countries are as yet unable to take meat off their menus (which Peter Singer also acknowledged), I think those of us in Western countries definitely have an obligation to reduce or end our consumption of meat, dairy and eggs.

A WELL-RESEARCHED vegan diet, with adequate attention paid to nutients like zinc, iron, B12, calcium and omega-3, is a viable option for many of us.

23 March at 10:20AM

A great debate. A couple of claims from the 'against' side slipped through the net. Firstly that Oxfams provision of animals to those in the third world is a good thing. feeding people is certainly good and it is ironic that the very thing which contributes so much to mass hunger, ie the feeding of cattle and to a lesser extent pigs, sheep, chickens and fish on food which humans can eat such as soy, wheat and corn or the usage of alnd and water for these animals was ignored. Giving one animal to each family does no more to decrease the environmental harm and land and water wastage than it does when a farmer or multi national owns them. Hungry people need a sustainable food source, provide them with wells and show them how to irrigate and grow plant based food and provide them with a real future.

Biodiversity of soil and certainly of all flora and fauna is not achieved by cutting down trees, killing or destroying habitat of the native animals there, hooves breaking up top soil and farm animals pulling grass out instead of chewing the top off as native fauna does and excrement flowing eventually into water ways, then killing the farm animals and eventually killing us with ehart disease, bowel cancer etc. This ultimately turns forests into desert. The only living things this is good for are flies and dung beetles and if Ms Chambers is correct some bacteria and fungus. Note: native animals also produce excrement to facilitate bacteria.

Don't take my word for the above, consider the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisations though

Is a vegan diet healthy? We are less lilely to die from the big killers in the west and many elite athletes such as Carl Lewis, Martina Navratilova, Murray Rose etc are or were vegan athletes. Considering vegans represent only 0.5% of the population only 1 in 200 elite athletes should be vegan if that diet is no better than the SAD, we are disproportionately represented in elite sport. See

Claims about farm animals becoming extinct if we don't eat them are absurd. Ofcourse we can keep these animals alive without eating them.

Like many changes in life which initially seem big but we afterwards wish we had made them earlier, you won't look back if you become vegan.

23 March at 12:53PM

@Doug, re. your comment about domesticated animals destrying the environment.
Firstly, you do realise that the production of vegetables also requires the cutting down of forests. Just because you are not eating animals it does not mean that the food you eat does not harm native animals. Vegetables are generally grown in a monoculture that requires huge amounts of chemicals to grow, hence creating all kinds of environmental issues. The production of crops such as soybeans has also led to huge deforestation, particulary in important areas such as the Amazon. I am not saying that the productionof meat does not cause deforestation but you have to remember that the production of vegetables is associated with similar issues.
Secondly the production of meat only damages top soil when it is done badly. It is possible, and the presence of this type of management is increasing, to farm animals in a way that is beneficial to the soil. If animals are rotated frequently on the pastures so that pastures experience short periods of grazing and long periods of rest they will promote the production of grass (diversity and biomass). This stores carbon in the soil, reduces erosion and creates healthy pastures. Also if animals are moved often then they will not pull grass out of the ground. This is only done when they are not moved and have to try and find some food in limited pastures. As for the excretement argument. If animals are moved on pastures then their manure will act as a fertilizer and will be beneficial to the soil and hence the whole landscape.
I just think you should be careful when you make broad sweeping statesment about meat production. I think that you can improve the environment through meat production if it is done properly. This type of meat production I talk about is increasing and could have huge benefits across the Australian landscape. I beleive in supporting that type of meat production instead of backing away from eating meat completely.
As for the argument about us getting heart cancer etc. We are all responsible for what we put into our bodies and we can do a lot of damage if we don't take things in moderation. Large amounts of meat may be bad but so is large amounts of many other types of food. I would recommend that you read Holistic Management by Alan Savory. It really highlights how farm pastures can be managed sustainably for meat production.

23 March at 02:13PM

Great debate and it is obvious who won from the stats. What surprises me are some of the points made by the speakers: farmed animals becoming extinct if meat eating stops? How ridiculous can you get. And the comments later: does not growing plants require clearing of forests? No - the land already cleared for growing corn and grain (to be fed to terribly inefficient convertors to meat to be then cruelly killed and eaten) will be more than sufficient to produce healthy food for all. And to Adrian Richardson, I will only ask: "Do your family members have no pulse? Or have you cooked them already? "

Dr. S. Chinny Krishna
23 March at 07:00PM

Thanks Tolly. firstly the majority of the soy, wheat and corn grown in the world FEED CATTLE. You correctly said "The production of crops such as soybeans has also led to huge deforestation, particulary in important areas such as the Amazon" So, stop eating the animals and they will stop cutting down the forests etc to feed them or to put them on directly. and many others.
Please refer to the UNFAO's Livestocks Long Shadow 9link provided). Chemicals are used on these crops grown to feed cattle. The chemicals on vegetables are not good, i agree, more reason not to eat cattle fed on them, same applies to all arguments about how bad crops are. Simply between 4 and 60 times as much land is needed if we choose to feed animals then eat the animals instead of just eating the plant food, so any harm caused by that is multiplied by 4 to 60. One can also choose to eat organic plant foods.

Rotating animal and crop use and fallow time is better for soil than having cattel, sheept etc all year round, i agree but its still vastly inferior from an enviro view than leaving forest (as that land is not needed to grow food to feed to cattle and turn over 90% of it to excrement) and using only a fraction of the land to grow food. Cropland can also be left fallow but as its not being damaged by hooved and grass being pulled out this is less necessary. the production of grass is a very poor substitute to revegetating or not destroying forest. needless to say trees store much more carbon that having cattle and some grass ever will. Forest are better for the whole landscape than some grass helped by cattle manure. Even this optimistic scenario you present, as poor as it is, is a long way from what is happening in most of the world.

you say "I just think you should be careful when you make broad sweeping statesment about meat production." Are you suggesting that forests are not being destroyed to grow cattle, that cattle do not destroy topsoil etc? What I have presented is reality of where the vast majority of our meat comes from. What will have huge benefits across Australia and the world is the ending of meat consumption and the immediate reforestation...if its not already too late.

re heart disease. there are many other diseases which are also related to meat and dairy. as the harvard study singer referred to said, even a small amount of red meat increases chances of bowel and related cancers. i can make this generalisation because of the vast epidemiological evidence connecting meat to these diseases.

Problem is even if cattle farm can be managed sustainably (and by that we are just talking about maintaining grass) this is still light years away from reforestation which simply cannot be achieved while cloven hoofed animals are on it.

You say "Large amounts of meat may be bad but so is large amounts of many other types of food" how much fruit and veg and beans and nuts and grains would i have to eat for it to be bad? Nearly all harmful things can be sold to us by saying 'eaten in moderation its fine' this applies to coffee alcohol chocolate etc i bet even a cigarette a day would be okay.

The planet hasnt got time for excuses and half (and much less than half) measures. Thanks

23 March at 08:00PM

THE AGainst side was clearly the FOR side for the individuals arguing against. They were so clearly self interested and invested financially etc in the animal production line industry it was not funny. That is the position of governments and most people who rubbish vegan consciousness in the world as the only sustainable ethical way to live. it is purely financial greed that motivates these people as was made so clear by the empty arguments of the against debaters.

Whoever criticised Mr Wollen for being emotive was so unthinking. Why do people really persist in eating animal products and ignoring the fact that it involves torture and murder? Why, simply because, as has been said so many time "it tastes good". So basically it is a pleasure seeking activity and isn't the experience of pleasure a sensational emotion? of course it is.

The q

23 March at 09:13PM

Re, the reply above to Tolly. Thanks for the reply.
So I think that you sort of missed the point of my above comments. Most of the figures that you stated above are in relation to cattle that are grown in feedlots. That is cattle who are fed soybeans, corn etc.
My arguments above were not in relation to this type of meat production. I was talking about 100% grass fed cattle. I do not agree with feedlots and agree with the arguments you presented above. But they were not really relevant to my point which is that the right type of cattle management cab be good for the land.
In relation to your comments above. You have to remember that the whole earth is not naturally forested. In fact 2/3 of the earth are naturally grasslands so what we do with this landscape is extermely important. Your comments were suggesting that you dont think grass can do much but this is not true. Grasslands hold approximately twice as much carbon as the forests in this world. The management practices we have used on them to date has released alot of this carbon so finding a way to sequester it, like the holistic management grazing I was talking about could do, is really important. It will make a big difference.
So to make my point absolutely clear. I am against you making broad sweeping statements against the meat industry because I think that we are all asking the wrong question here. The question shouldn't be is meat production or vegetable production better. That question could just go round and round in circles because in reality producing meat and producing vegetables can be environmentally detrimental if it is done badly. I think instead we should be seeking to promote sustainable forms of agriculture. This includes both meat and vegetable production that is done well and, in my opinion, excludes management that focuses on mass production such as feedlots and monocultures.
I think that doing this would be much better for the planet than fighting about whether meat or vegetables is better.

25 March at 09:12PM

The main problem for our environment is that there are far too many people and we continually want more.resources. Fewer people means less damage to our planet and less pressure to produce food of any type in a detrimental way. But few of us are prepared to acknowledge this, and even fewer to try to do something about it.

Eve Banks
26 March at 07:51PM

I applaud Phil wollen 'emotive or not emotive "animals should be off the menu

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to get an education

Kerri Murdoch
26 March at 08:11PM

Thanks Tolly. i think you have not considered all i have said. Irrespective of whether you put the cattel in feedlots or leave them on grass the enviro damage is the same, it is just relocated. If you feed them grass then you need multiples more land than you would need to grow equal protein from plant food and ofcourse you have excrement producing methane, a much more potent global warmer than Co2, excrement in water, deforestation and the inability to reforest and eventually salination, soil erosion and desertification. If you put the cattel in feed lots then the deforestation etc simply occurs elsewhere (where the corn, soy, wheat) is grown to feed the cattle in the feed lots. The excrement etc problems are still the same. Simply there is no way to grow food humans can eat (and which is healthier) and give that to cows can be anywhere near as efficient as just giving that to humans or using the land to grow other plant foods for humans...not even with selective breeding, growth hormones, growth inducing antibiotics, vaccines, pesticides, herbicides etc (which meat eaters end up eating with the cholesterol, adrenalin etc). If grasslands are important as yopu say then clearly it is best not to put an animal which destroys topsoil and pulls grass out by the roots (unlike soft footed native animals who chew the top off grass). While the ideal you suggest is an improvement Tolly it still falls a long way short of what is needed now as I am sure you know. We need to be reforesting. This applies to all of your sequestering carbon in a forest is obviously hugely more effective than doing so in grass, much more of the earth was forested and most of this deforestation has occurred to put farm animals on it and it is still happening,

you said "The question shouldn't be is meat production or vegetable production better. That question could just go round and round in circles because in reality producing meat and producing vegetables can be environmentally detrimental if it is done badly." i dont agree, the evidence is clear, vegetable production is vastly less harmful to the environment even if done badly.

27 March at 11:59AM

The argument that we should eat rare breeds of farm animals because breeding them for consumption will prevent them becoming extinct is so ridiculous and childish I am speechless.

Yes, describing what goes on in slaughterhouses is emotive. So is describing what went on in the Holocaust. Emotive issues deserve attention as much as any other issue. Emotions, especially negative ones such as terror, fear, misery, frustration, and boredom, are important to anyone who experiences them. To be dismissive of emotive arguments is to dismiss reality.

Lisel O'Dwyer
01 May at 03:46PM

I stopped eating animals January 23, 1973, when someone said, "You love animals. Why kill to eat?" Since that time, I've learned a lot about the other reasons to not eat animal bodies. At a talk given by John Robbins (author of "Diet for a New America"), I learned about the environmental harm caused by livestock. The amount of water needed to grow a pound of beef is astronomical compard to the amount to grow a pound of grain. The energy costs are likewise far out of proportion to the amount of nutrients in flesh compared to nutrients in plant matter. The air and water pollution caused by animal husbandry far exceeds that caused by plant production. The diseases caused by eating animals cause more suffering and death than any other source. And of course, there's the incredible suffering caused to farmed animals before their actual death. That talk and my reading of the book were many years ago. The facts have not improved. And today we are living in a world with a much larger human population and a climate that is changing in a startling direction. Large parts of the US are facing serious drought and the increasing temperatures are causing massive crop failures. Predictions for this year are that food prices are going to rise sharply. Pictures of scorched corn fields appear on television and record setting fires are burning huge portions of the south western part of the country. All of these factors may have a connection to the livestock industry, and will certainly have an effect on the costs of raising animals for consumption. Meanwhile, public awareness of the health problems associated with eating animals have created a demand for healthier and more humane alternatives. Undercover investigators have exposed some of the horrendous treatment of animals raised for their flesh, milk and eggs. Laws are being proposed and the livestock producers are trying to stifle the investigators by criminalizing their films and reports. It seems that our society is slowly moving toward a time when flesh eating will be far less common and a plant based diet will become the rule. I, for one, have never regretted my choice to stop participating in the killing of animals. I used to love the taste of meat, and now the smell of it makes me nauseous. Sort of like the way I used to be a heavy smoker and now the smell of cigarettes makes my wince.

Maureen Koplow
15 July at 01:56AM

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05 May at 02:16AM

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