Food For Thought: The Future Of Meat-Eating

17 mins. to read
Food For Thought: The Future Of Meat-Eating

The Debate

We know that veganism is on the rise and that a growing proportion of the population feels uncomfortable about rearing and slaughtering animals for food. Vegans eschew all animal products, while vegetarians avoid meat but allow some dairy and other animal-derived products such as milk, butter and eggs.

Then there is a new breed of semi-vegetarians who go by the modern moniker of “flexitarian.” You will even meet people who have given up meat but still eat fish (pescatarians). Even amongst meat-eaters, there are those who will only eat grass-reared lamb or beef and who avoid all processed meats – I am one of these, but my tribe does not yet have a name. Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Meta, only eats animals that he slaughters himself. I don’t know the group name for such people either.

Vegan and vegetarian voices are growing louder – some would say shriller. Almost every day we meat-eaters are bombarded with the message that we must eat less meat and dairy produce in order to save the planet. In the UK, about one in three people claims to be vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian – and yet meat consumption in absolute terms is still rising here and across the world.

There are four types of argument against meat-eating. The first is that it is unethical – we don’t have the right to kill animals. The second is that that meat-eating is unhealthy – it’s actually bad for us. The third argument is that rearing animals is carbon intensive and that we can only get to net-zero carbon if we stop rearing livestock. The fourth argument is religious in character. I’ll say something about each of these arguments in turn.


A new book, The Meat Paradox: Eating, Empathy and the Future of Meat, by Rob Perceval, who is head of policy at the Soil Association, seeks to unpick the arguments around the ethics of meat-eating. The question of whether human beings have the right to kill and eat animals at all was once the preserve of moral philosophers, but now it has permeated our culture and is widely asked by young people in the developed world. Once it was universally accepted that we have to eat to live and that to eat we must kill animals – let’s call this the omnivore view. But omnivores are now on the back foot.

Few of us would wish to work in an abattoir. Yet we know that all meat on the table has been slaughtered – hopefully, as humanely as possible. There is evidence that people who work in slaughterhouses, who are often from immigrant populations, suffer from a form of PTSD. The modern industrial slaughterhouse is a world away from the hunting expeditions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who recorded their hunts on cave walls at Lascaux and elsewhere.

Perceval’s starting point is that eating meat is a form of murder. Killing always carries an emotional toll. But it may not be so simple as to desist. Perceval is an omnivore, though one who is deeply sympathetic to the vegan cause. He admits that we may need to eat animals, even if the ethical challenge never goes away.

We often say one thing but do another – cognitive dissonance is commonplace, as all decent economists know − so there are deep psychological issues to unpack around meat-eating, as with many other things. We have developed all kinds of psychological tools that we apply when we eat meat, to distance ourselves from the act of slaughter – all part of what Percival calls “the tapestry of denial.” That said, his view is that much of the extreme vegan output is a form of propaganda.

Perceval is concerned with the “diet shift” that will be necessary to make a sustainable food system possible. Essentially, he thinks that we will have to eat less, but more ethically sourced meat, reared according to the highest standards of animal welfare.

One of the most prominent modern moral philosophers who has examined the meat dilemma is the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, who has been writing about the issue for nearly 50 years. Over time, he has become more emphatic about the unethical nature of meat-eating. In his latest tome, Animal Liberation Now, Singer follows up on the arguments that he first advanced in Animal Liberation (first published in 1975) which Time magazine rated as one of the 100 most important non-fiction books of all time. But even Singer, a guru of veganism, thinks that meat-eating can be ethical:

“…if farms really give the animals good lives, and then humanely kill them, preferably without transporting them to slaughterhouses or disturbing them. In Animal Liberation, I don’t really say that it’s the killing that makes [meat-eating] wrong − it’s the suffering.i


Regarding the argument that meat-eating is unhealthy, many studies have shown that eating meat – especially processed meat – is associated with diseases such as bowel cancer. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Injuries and Risk Factor Study, published by The Lancet in 2020, estimated that diets high in red meat were responsible for 890,000 deaths worldwide annually. One paper in 2021 suggested that carnivorous mammals were more prone to cancer than herbivores. Apparently, elephants don’t get cancer at all.

Then there is the evidence that meat production can spread pathogens through the population at large. Not least, coronavirus probably first contaminated humans in a ‘wet market’ (that is, a market where live animals are sold for food) in Wuhan, China. However, all meat-eaters I know would argue that such wet markets should not be tolerated. Moreover, there is evidence that antimicrobial resistance has been accelerated by the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry to make animals grow faster.

On the other hand, in a recent issue of Animal Frontiers, an international panel of one thousand or so scientists concluded that it is difficult for a purely plant-based diet to provide sufficient nutrients for adults and particularly children, to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Communities in which meat consumption is zero or minimal, experience stunting, muscle wastage and anaemia as a result of a lack of vital nutrients and protein. Animal products are particularly important during pregnancy, lactation, childhood, adolescence and old age. Similar findings have been produced by a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation meta study.

Meat contains vitamins A and B12, retinol, omega-3 fatty acids and essential minerals such as iron, zinc, selenium and calcium. In addition, it is rich in metabolic compounds such as riboflavin, choline, carnitine, taurine and creatine. All these things are vital for enduring human health. The study also argued that the risks associated with red meat vanished when it was consumed as part of a balanced diet. Dr Alice Staunton of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland went on record to say that the Global Burden’s claim that even small amounts of red meat are harmful was “fatally scientifically flawed.” Further, it is now accepted that not all saturated fats are bad for us – though hydrogenated fats definitely are.

The Animal Frontiers study argues that livestock farming is essential and should not be allowed to become “the victim of zealotry.” Livestock farming uses crop waste which cannot be consumed by humans, as fodder and often uses grasslands that are not suitable for arable farming. Livestock species and breeds are adapted to a wide range of climates. The drastic reduction in livestock numbers advocated by some campaigners would be both an environmental and a nutritional disaster, according to Dr Wilhelm Windisch of the Technical University of Munich.

Plant-based alternatives to meat are often deficient in essential nutrients and high in saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Even though plants are the main source of fibre, many vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds such as polyphenols and glucoinsolates are lacking. The report also found that there was robust evidence that egg consumption among adults does not increase the risk of stroke or coronary heart disease.


What about the view that if we are to save the planet from runaway catastrophic warming, we must stop eating meat? Again, this is disputed. Jayne Buxton, in The Great Plant Based Con,ii argues that removing animal products from our diets will have very little impact on the fight against climate change. In fact, it might even accelerate it. She thinks that the carbon footprint of livestock rearing has been massively overstated due to poor methodology.

One widespread protein substitute is tofu, which is made from soyabeans. Until recently this was something found only in Japanese restaurants; yet today it is hip, especially amongst young vegans. The problem is that a lot of the soya we consume comes from tropical countries − such as Brazil − where virgin rainforest has been felled under the Bolsonaro government to make way for soyabean plantations. The Amazon rainforest has been described as the “lungs of the Earth” and should rightfully be protected from further encroachment.

The relatively recent idea of regenerative agriculture emphasises that grazing animals refertilise land with their dung, and that, in so doing, the land becomes a carbon sink. At the same time, there is good reason for rewilding low-yield agricultural land, to promote biodiversity. Many modern livestock farmers in the UK – such as, amongst others, Jamie Blackett, author of Red Rag to a Bull − are deeply invested in both conservation and animal welfare. Farmers like Blackett care about – indeed love – their livestock, even though they send them for slaughter. That is often difficult for some urbanites to understand.

Land use is coming out of the shadows as a distinct discipline within agroeconomics. Jake Fiennes (Ralph’s younger brother and Joseph’s twin) is the conservation manager of the 25,000-acre Holkham estate in north Norfolk, which has been owned by the Earls of Leicester for generations. In Land Healer, Jake explains how good livestock-farming practices can enhance biodiversity. He has transformed low-yield fields into bird sanctuaries and planted hedgerows, wildflowers and trees. The Holkham estate is thriving under his stewardship. The subtitle of his book is: How Farming Can Save Britain’s Countryside.

Moreover, rewilding is best achieved with the help of cattle. The National Trust is deploying 100 Belted Galloway cattle at the 21,000-hectare Stroud Landscape Project in Gloucestershire to help create a space that is more resilient to climate change. These beasts eat grasses that other animals find unpalatable. With their help, delicate plants and herbs such as marjoram, thyme, vetches and rare orchids are thriving, as are butterflies and bats.


The religious arguments for and against meat-eating are best considered by religious authorities. But I would just observe that there are differing teachings. Judaism and Islam abjure the eating of pork because they regard pigs as unclean. Pigs are omnivores (notoriously so), whereas bovines and ovines are herbivores. Hinduism, on the other hand, abjures only the eating of beef because the cow is held sacred. That belief is deep-rooted in ancient Hindu texts. Christianity is relaxed about meat-eating – although, historically, at least until Vatican II (1962-65), Catholics abstained from eating meat on Fridays. I would not be the only Catholic-educated boy who has reverted to this custom in his sixties.

All these practices I entirely respect – even if they are inconsistent. The one religion that generally leans towards vegetarianism is Buddhism. But my experience of travelling in east Asia over many years is that purist vegetarians and vegans are the minority in most majority-Buddhist countries. I also note that meat-eating is on the rise in Hindu-majority India and in Buddhist-majority Thailand as these countries become more prosperous.

We should remember that the three Abrahamic religions were founded at a time when animal sacrifice was normal practice. Where they all agree is that meat, indeed all food, is a blessing for we should give thanks, and therefore should never be wasted. I am amazed that faith leaders do not have more to say on the scandal of modern food waste which Tim Lang, in Feeding Britain, argues is “systemic.”

The Eggs-And-Bacon Conundrum

There can be few things more British than a breakfast of bacon and eggs. But think again. Much of the bacon we eat has sodium nitrate injected into it. And avian flu has been sweeping through our poultry farms, so a lot of those “free-range” hens have spent much of the last year cooped up. What’s more, the price of both bacon and eggs has risen by between 25 and 50 percent over the last 12 months in the UK.

In fact, food-price inflation is at its highest level for 40 years. This is partly the result of supply-chain bottlenecks arising from the pandemic lockdowns and to the soaring cost of energy since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine. But, even before the pandemic there were signs that food policy in the UK was failing.

According to the former ‘Food Czar’, Henry Dimbleby, in his new book, Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape, about 57 percent of all the food we consume in the UK counts as “ultra-processed.” That is one reason for the UK’s embarrassingly high obesity numbers − not to mention damage to our microbiomes. Poor diet and resulting ill health are becoming a huge drag on economic growth and UK public finances.

In July 2021, Dimbleby published the National Food Strategy, having been charged by Michael Gove to deliver it a year or so previously. This complex analysis tried to unravel issues around land use and farming systems, as well as social inequality and its influence on diet and public health. This document was hailed not just by the medical profession, but also by public figures as diverse as King Charles and Jamie Oliver.

The Strategy proposed 14 concrete and supposedly achievable recommendations. One was to tax salt and sugar used in processed foods. This was resisted by the Johnson government and its successors because it was deemed – correctly, in my view – to put an additional burden on the least well-off households during the cost-of-living crisis. Curbs on the advertising of junk food are still under consideration – but this entails more cack-handed regulation. Is ice cream junk food?

Ravenous is a plea for a coherent food policy. The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s made food abundant and affordable by industrialising agriculture, establishing monocultures (those 100-acre fields which are, happily, now much rarer) to generate economies of scale. But globally, industrialised agriculture is belching out carbon and our overly processed diet is making us ill.

The developed world has exported its junk-food habit to the developing world. There is a slew of attendant crises: poor soil health, over-fishing, animal welfare and food waste amongst them. These issues are the remit of numerous government departments including, in the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Dimbleby is right that government food policy is too fragmented.

Moreover, few food commentators think that the slew of trade deals that the Tory government has concluded with counterparties such as Australia and Japan will be good for British farming or for animal welfare.

The Inexorable Rise Of Cellular Agriculture

Perhaps the only way out of the ethical and environmental challenges of meat-eating is if we were able to grow meat from cell cultures in factories. This is already happening and is the subject of our Chairman, Jim Mellon’s book Moo’s Law, first published in 2020.

Jim foresees that we are at the beginning of nothing less than a new agrarian revolution which is going to transform the agricultural industry and the way we eat. The book’s title is a reference to Moore’s Law which states that, empirically, the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles about every two years.

The UN estimates that, at the current rate of increase, the world is going to have to produce 50 to 100 percent more meat to satisfy demand by 2050. It is doubtful that there is enough land or water to make that possible. Even given intensive agricultural technology, at some point demand will be unequal to supply.

But will lab-produced meat taste and smell and have the same texture as the real thing? Well, Anthony Chow of Agronomics – an investment fund Jim sponsored to direct finance in this direction – tells me some of the most recent products are remarkable. The challenge is the economics. At the moment, it is more expensive to grow a chicken breast in a lab than to nurture a chicken. But that is changing – fast. Chow thinks that the point where synthetic meat is cheaper than the animal could come as soon as at the end of this decade.

I am entirely open to Jim’s vision of a new agrarian revolution where most people will be regularly consuming lab-grown meat protein – and far fewer sentient animals will suffer. Hopefully, those awful, intensive, poultry factory-farms will disappear altogether within a few decades.

My concern, however, is the impact that this will have on traditional livestock farmers who operate according to best practice, as well as the impact on our rural landscape which has been shaped by grazing animals. I asked Jim about this during our ‘fireside chat’ at the Master Investor Show on 15 April. What Jim told me was interesting. He envisages that most fast food will be produced from cultivated meat in the first instance, while grass-fed regenerative beef and lamb will continue for some time. And I for one will continue to buy it.

I’ll have much more to say about cellular agriculture and how to profit from it in future articles. It is a rising technology that we cannot ignore.

Pointers For Investors

People eat unhealthy, processed food because it is cheap, they are accustomed to it, and because they often lack cooking skills and are time-poor. I observed in ALDI the other day that a free-range, corn-fed whole chicken was, at around £12, more than twice the price of an intensively reared variety. I don’t mind paying that – but I understand that many people are on tight budgets.

If you were to tell people plainly that by doubling their monthly food bill, we could hugely benefit the natural world and, at the same time, improve their health, well-being and lifespan, would they buy into that? Few politicians of any party would risk proposing that.

But, based on current trends, food prices are going to rise faster than wages, and food consciousness – the debate around the ethics, health and environmental impact of our diets – will only continue to evolve. For more than a half a century, the proportion of their disposable incomes that people spend on food has been declining – until now. That trend is now in reverse. Food – how we produce, package, pay for and consume it, and how we ensure security of supply – will only become more political.

The big supermarkets are going to come under increasing pressure to show that they have understood the ethical and environmental issues in play. In my opinion, it is also about time they did something drastic about food packaging – which fills most of our non-recyclable bins each week – but this will not happen without government intervention.

There will be a sustained upward trend in food prices and that means that the price of agricultural land is likely to rise further. In the UK, investment in agricultural land also confers tax advantages – it is not subject to capital-gains tax, and it is exempt from inheritance tax.

The rise of synthetic animal protein is inevitable and that means the number of animals reared for food will reduce over time, with consequences for the countryside. Perhaps more land could be set aside for rewilding. There will be huge investment opportunities, such as those that Agronomics is pursuing.

We are living at a moment in history when many long-held traditional beliefs and practices – things that our forebears thought immutable and perennial − are being questioned, nay stress-tested, to destruction. This is the post-modern world, whether you or I like it or not. That is not comfortable, indeed it is traumatic; and the downside outcomes could be very damaging for the human race.

If we get the future of farming wrong, we may end up with mass starvation as well as environmental despoilation. But if we get it right, we will be healthier, wealthier and happier – and nature will thrive along the way.

Listed Companies Cited In This Article Which Merit Analysis:

  • Agronomics Ltd. (LON:ANIC)

i Interview with The New Statesman, 26 May 2021, available at: [paywall].

ii To be released on 8 June 2023.

Comments (3)

  • Ian says:

    ” … about time they did something drastic about food packaging – which fills most of our non-recyclable bins each week – but this will not happen without government intervention…”. Government intervention in most Islamic countries of the Middle East and throughout Latin America, Africa, India, requires single-use plastic packaging to be made Oxo-biodegradable to begin with, using a compliant pro-degradant additive such as “d2w”, supplied by Symphony Environmental. The World’s biggest bakery, Grupo Bimbo, headquartered in Mexico City, wraps all its bread in d2w plastic, which also gives anti-microbial and anti-viral protection from Symphony’s d2p, following US FDA authorization early in 2020. Europe and the UK has suffered in this regard due to fierce competition and lobbying from competitors, which resulted in the EU’s unlawful adoption of Article 5 of the Single-Use Plastic Directive 2019/904, which breached arts. 69-73 of REACH, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights and led to Symphony’s claim for very significant monetary damages in the European General Court in Luxembourg. Symphony’s case was heard on Saint Cuthbert’s Day 2023 and was presided over by 5 of the most senior judges present, including the President of the Court, and also the President of the Fifth Chamber, formerly a President of the ECtHR, indicating the degree of seriousness of Symphony’s legal challenge. Those who have studied the merits of the case in some detail will have been left thunderstruck by the EU’s attempt at a defence. Oxo-biodegradable plastic is the only realistic way to deal with waste plastic mounting up in the environment as d2w will rapidly and completely biodegrade in 1/90th the time of ordinary plastics, with no harmful residues and no microplastics in outdoor and marine environments. Long Live The King ! Long Live The Queen! Keep the beach clean – Always use d2w!

  • Garry says:

    If as seems increasingly factual the civil service runs the country and the politicians are just short term, in some cases very short term, snake oil salesmen and women then we rely on unelected opaque blobs. They are happy to be directed by the EU common agricultural policy and other foreign influence – who knows. The system is not working. And a cows wind issue causes global warming? What about 1m extra people’s arriving every year and for the next ten years ad infinitem. If I had land would be rearing lambs, lots of them and have machine guns at every corner.

  • Ken Slow says:

    A good article but not one comment on the [ vegetarian ?] elephant in the room, population growth. We are being pressed into eating less meat by an unholy alliance of lobby groups and, as I’ve said before, this country is run by lobby groups, not the elected government. In the future only the wealthy will eat proper meat. The rest of us will eat highly processed meat substitutes whilst being told that they good for us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *