Student - November 30, 2006

Will the world be vegetarian by 2050?

In fifty years nobody will eat meat or fish anymore. This prediction appeared in New Scientist as part of the scientific weekly’s 50th anniversary celebrations. By then it will be possible to 'read' animals' emotions, and this will lead to an irreversible rejection of the bio-industry and fisheries, according to the scientist who made the prediction. Resource posed the question, will we all soon be vegetarian?

Carcasses of cattle in an abattoir.
Professor Kees de Graaf, Professor of Eating Behaviour
‘Eating is about emotions, there’s no doubt about that. In the Netherlands we have become estranged from meat. Abattoirs used to be found in the town centre. Now meat in the supermarket is hardly recognisable as such. With a Spanish ham you can see the rump and the foot, but a Dutch ham is just a lump of meat. If technological advancements enable us to make the emotions of animals visible, it might influence some people’s behaviour. But we should not forget that our attitudes to animals are to a large extent culturally determined. We find it difficult to wring a chicken’s neck, but I don’t think the Chinese do. In a large part of the world people have a very different attitude to food, what is taboo and what not when it comes to eating.

Humans are by nature omnivorous, but whether that means that consciously not eating meat is unnatural, I wouldn't like to say. What does seem to be universal is the structure of a meal. Throughout the world a hot meal consists of three components: a starch-rich part, vegetables for taste and a protein part. This meal structure is unlikely to change. If we want more vegetarians, there’ll have to be more protein-rich alternatives available. We won’t be able to manage with the meat substitutes we have now. I’m not vegetarian myself, but my wife is, so I know from experience, it’s possible to live with it.’

Professor Johan van Leeuwen, Professor of Experimental Zoology
‘I’m not very optimistic about being able to ‘read’ animals’ emotions. We already make use of derived indicators of an animal’s well-being, such as body temperature, hormone levels and certain behavioural expressions. This is pretty difficult, so if we really want to get to the emotions we'll have to go directly into the neurological network. And the relation between neurological signals and feelings is completely unknown territory, even in humans. It is still impossible to measure what is going on inside another person, never mind being able to do it for other animals.

‘That everyone will be vegetarian in fifty years’ time would seem to me to be out of the question. Anyway, there are already enough arguments why we should eat less meat. Meat production requires more inputs from scarce natural resources and eating less meat is known to be healthier. There’s a lot to be said for doing something now to ensure that there is a more fair distribution of protein consumption in the world. I am not vegetarian myself; I would describe myself as a frugal meat eater.’

Peter Heikoop, organic dairy farmer and meat eater
‘It’s a ridiculous thought that if you are closer to animals you can’t eat them. I would say the opposite applies. My wife and I were vegetarian for years, but since I took over my father’s dairy farm we eat meat again.

‘If you raise animals it makes you think. I used to be vegetarian as I didn’t know how meat was produced. Now I have my own farm it’s a different story. If you drink milk it’s natural to eat meat as well. You could even say it is unethical not to eat the animals. A cow only gives milk once it has had a calf. You can smash the brains of a calf in immediately after it is born, or you can make sure it has a good life for a year and then eat its meat. Accept this and eat meat, or become totally vegan, and that means not eating any dairy products at all. Vegetarian cheese is made using non-animal rennet, but it’s still contradictory because the cheese is made from milk, for which a calf was produced. I am totally against the bio-industry. But if you choose to produce milk or eggs then I think you should eat up the animals as well. If you eat eggs, eat a soup chicken once a year. After a year a laying hen is past its best for eggs. It’s totally unethical to throw the chicken on the rubbish heap.’

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