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Does ‘ethical omnivore’ beat ‘vegetarian’?


There are many reasons to reduce our meat consumption: the extra land needed to produce livestock rather than crops, the impact of meet on climate change, the poor conditions livestock are often kept in… This has prompted many people to go vegetarian, but have they really found the answer?

As a teenager, vegetarianism interested me. However, this interest was dealt a blow when I learnt of the contribution of cheese production to climate change. Vegan maybe?

Diets in the western world are high in animal products, often at an unhealthy level, and this has negative environmental consequences (this Nature Communications paper has an interesting discussion of how reducing animal products could allow us to feed the population without deforestation). Seems like a vote for veganism.

However, I know that I will never have the discipline to be a vegan, though I admire people who do. I have also sometimes wondered what people are achieving with a 100% strict vegan diet – I have seen vegan friends let food go to waste rather than eat something with animal products in.

Today I spotted an article on Twitter which struck a chord with me: Why It’s More Important To Be An Ethical Omnivore Than A Vegetarian. Some vegetarian foods can be just as bad for the environment as meat/dairy products. And sometimes mixed farming systems with livestock and crops have environmental benefits.

It’s definitely worth a read, but it reveals how difficult the choices are. Whilst the premise is an important one, I disagree with some of her assessment of alternatives. For example, she points to tofu as a choice which isn’t necessarily better for health or the environment because it is often made using glyphosate-resistant soy (no space to go into this now, but it’s a big topic in my book!).  Also, the article appears on OrganicLife, and as we’ve already discussed, organic isn’t necessarily best for the environment.

Choosing an ethical diet is hideously complex, and can sometimes mean you have to make value judgements – if one food item is better for animal welfare and another for environmental impact, which do you choose? Rules such as no meat would be easier, but all meat is not created equal, and all vegetarian products are not created sustainably.

And, let’s not forget that being vegan 98% of the time is 98% as good as being vegan all the time. Even if we only change one meal a week from beef to lentils, we’re doing our health and planet a favour.


Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I studied for my PhD with the University of York and spent my time chasing migrant butterflies. I have trained bees to detect explosives, written a novel, organised Biology Week for the Society of Biology and visited universities round the world with Nobel Laureates. I am collecting friends to help me save the world. My website is:

2 thoughts on “Does ‘ethical omnivore’ beat ‘vegetarian’?

  1. Yes, I agree. For example, eating meat from animals grazing on land that is not suitable for arable makes sense.

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