Do cows know they're suffering? Should I care that they are suffering? If they're not meant to be eaten why are they so plentiful, fat, and stupid? In terms of efficiency, is it a viable plan to shift production away from livestock and towards agriculture? Is it "unhealthy" to eat red meat and can we adequately supplement a meatless diet with vitamins and supplements and what not?I've had the vegetarian conversation several times and there are several things that can be said. There are several elements to the discussion. The first concern (#1) is an ethical one. Is it cruel or evil to eat animals? Another concern (I'll call #2) is the healthiness of it. The final (#3) is a more global concern for food supply.
#1 - Morality
I believe animals have souls but not spirits. They are capable of feeling emotion and pain, but not of communing with God. Thus, my opinion is that cruelty towards them is bad. Nevertheless, they were created for our sustenance and we are given explicit permission to eat them (Gen 9:3).
The Bible exhorts: "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds" (Proverbs 27:23) and that "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal..." (Proverbs 12:10).
There do seem to be horrific living conditions for animals in some of the mass farms out there, and I would prefer it if my meat came from a more humane setting. However, it is not a moral evil on the same level as murder or torture of a human would be.
Making a moral argument from a secular perspective (from whence most vegetarians argue) is rather difficult mostly because of relativism. Why do you try to impose on me your beliefs about cows? The only basis for morality could be consensus, but there is clearly not consensus for vegetarianism.
The other primary problem with the secular perspective is the lack of a spirit. There is no categorical difference between a cow and a man. Usually it is argued that it is for the difference in intelligence that the man is superior to the cow, but then stupid people seem still to be of more value than smart apes.
My point is that it is very difficult to have any reasonable opinion on animal rights without believing in some sort of Morality and Spirit.
#2 - Health
I do believe it is probably more healthy to be a vegetarian than an omnivore. However, to be a healthy vegetarian, it takes quite a lot of work to actually eat right.
Bibilcally, it seems that some of the healthiest people were vegetarians. Adam was a vegetarian, though he had free access to every tree in the garden. So in his perfect state, Man did not need meat. Daniel refused to eat the meat of Nebuchadnezzar and was the healthier for it (Dan 1:15).
"Red meat is legitimately bad for you." Except after I tried to find references to back up that, I was surprised to find controversy. Among others, this AHA editorial talks about it being more complicated, and the official 2006 AHA recommendations (you can follow the link if you're at UCLA) make no mention of limiting meat intake. It seems that it is high saturated fat/cholesterol which is the culprit, not the meat itself.
I found another study on bone-breakage. If you adjust for calcium intake, vegans break their bones as often as meat-eaters. If you don't, they break them 30% more often. In other words, if vegans ate the same amount of calcium, they would break their bones as often as meat-eaters, but they don't. Interestingly, vegetarians were statistically equivalent to meat-eaters.
Vegetarianism seems to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer (here), and may increase lifespan a bit (here). However, it seems clear that vegans are not healthy people. You could argue that they could be, but the fact is that they aren't for all their hard hard work.
This has sparked interest in me; I hope to pursue this further later. I always assumed vegetarianism was much more healthy, but it's not clearly the case. Stay tuned.
#3 World Food Supply
It has been argued that we should not eat meat because it is an inefficient use of land. More calories could be gown on the same land as is required to raise and feed cattle. This is true. I was taught in Biology that each step up the food chain is a 90% loss. The Economist stated that to produce a pound of beef, it takes 8 pound of grain.
That's why a pound of hamburger may costs $3 and a pound of flour $0.50. But when the per capita GDP of the country is $44,000, we can afford to eat hamburger. It may be that we won't have cheap food for much longer (according to the Economist). Nevertheless, we do now. And as Americans and members of the global economy, we can choose to buy what food we want.
We're not running out of food. It will soon be expensive because we want to burn it in SUVs, but we're not on the brink of worldwide starvation. There have even been some very interesting propositions to solve this distant problem. The Vertical Farm project claims it is possible to make an office building into a farm anywhere. Then it would only take electricity to produce food; the land element is satisfied.
It does seem likely in our lifetimes that meat will get more and more expensive as we do run out of land. People who are concerned about the lack of land in 50 years can ease their conscience by not eating meat. The market will make the transition a gradual one, and I plan on changing my dietary preferences then.
I do not believe that eating meat is wrong, though some of the worse mass-farms might be. It is not unhealthy to eat meat, though there may be benefits to abstaining. I do not think that world food supply is yet a concern that ought to be seriously considered in deciding to eat meat or not.
In conclusion, I believe that cows are so plentiful, fat, and stupid because I'm supposed to eat them. They are very tasty.
And that is why I eat cows.