I’ve decided to provide a critical analysis of a student essay by the name of “More Pros Than Cons in a Meat-Free Life” authored by Marjorie Lee Garretson, and published in the student newspaper of the University of Mississippi in April 2010. Those who wish to read the essay may do so here.
In her essay, Marjorie makes the case for a vegetarian lifestyle by stating that there are health benefits to adopting it. She also makes a moral appeal, citing the treatment of livestock used as food sources. At some points in her essay, Marjorie makes some statements that are quite emotionally charged.
The title of her article, “More Pros Than Cons in a Meat-Free Life”, is somewhat misleading, as it would lead the reader to expect an enumeration of both pros and cons to a vegetarian lifestyle. Instead, Marjorie makes a one-sided case for vegetarianism that leaves little doubt as to her position. What’s more, the title leads one to believe that the focus of the article would be the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, when in fact much of the article consists of moral appeals, such as criticizing the treatment of livestock used as food sources, even though the treatment of livestock has no direct impact on the lifestyle of a person who is either vegetarian or prefers a conventional diet.
Persons who argue for a vegetarian lifestyle typically begin on a rational-sounding note, though much of the time, their arguments quickly degrade into emotional appeals and ad-hominem attacks against anyone who would dissent. Marjorie, however, wastes little time getting to accusing adherents of the conventional diet of overlooking or ignoring for convenience the multiple benefits that she claims the vegetarian lifestyle provides.
Of course, she was only getting started. She lists the supposed benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, which she says includes:
- lower body mass index
- significantly decreased cancer rate
- longer life expectancy
- avoiding Alzheimer’s disease
- avoiding osteoporosis
There is a problem, however. She provides no citations. Marjorie’s claims are not considered common knowledge. They challenge conventional thinking. As such, citations are important in backing up her claims. Without citations, she is allowing her audience to assume that these claims are conclusions reached as a result of years of study by educated professionals, and it would seem as though she expects that her claims will be accepted by her audience without inquiry.
This is a trend that continues in Marjorie’s writing. She goes on to claim that “It takes less energy and waste to produce vegetables and grains than the energy required to produce meat.” Do you see where this is headed? She goes on to cite the statistic that it takes 16 pounds of grain and 5000 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. This statistic is among the most repeated among those advocating a vegetarian lifestyle. However, the statistic is false. She provides no citations, however, so she is apparently banking on her audience not being particularly inquisitive, and accepting her claims on the basis of “sounds like it’s probably true.”
However, just because something sounds eye-opening doesn’t mean it’s true. A study by the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology in 1999 has found that 2.6 pounds of grain is used to produce a pound of beef in developed countries, while in developing countries the number is 0.3 lbs (for anyone wondering, this is what a citation looks like).
Vegetarians claim that the land that is used to raise cattle and other livestock could be more productive if that same land would be used to produce vegetables and grain. However, not every plot of land is suitable for growing grain. Livestock is typically raised on marginal lands that are not suitable for growing vegetables.
Marjorie goes on to claim that the runoff of fecal matter from meat factories is the single most detrimental pollutant to our water supply. She provides as her only citation in the entire article the Environmental Protection Agency, even if she doesn’t mention a specific study, leaving her readers with the task of verification. Perhaps Marjorie was employing some psychology, intentional or not; people tend toward the path of least resistance, so they’re likely to accept her claim rather than do their own research (such as with a simple web search) to verify.
The most significant source of pollutants according to the United States Department of Agriculture is nonpoint sources. Agricultural pollutants are among the pollutants that fall under this category. However, the EPA lists among these pollutants “Excess fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides from agricultural lands and residential areas”. So, ironically, Marjorie’s only citation in her one-sided case for vegetarianism is for a study that states that runoff from growing vegetables is among the most significant pollutants for water. Other sources of nonpoint pollution include urban runoff, salt from irrigation practices, and other sources.
The following charts show the ratio of pollutants in water supplies. Interestingly, as much as industry is demonized for being a significant polluter, it comes nowhere close to non-point pollutants, to which agriculture contributes heavily:
Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Public Domain
Marjorie goes on to cite inhumane treatment of livestock. While there may be a problem with the treatment of livestock, vegetarians seem to idealize life in the wilderness. Anyone who thinks that life in the wilderness is idyllic has not spent a significant amount of time outdoors. Most people don’t have to. It’s typically done for a refreshing change of pace or to enjoy scenery.
For animals, however, it’s a different story. Animals live there. And for them, it’s a constant battle for survival. Nearly every organism in the wild is surrounded by predators and scavengers, many of which would happily accept them as their next food source, and not care about their objections or opinions on the matter. When animals do die, it’s usually a painful death as a result of predation.
Humans give livestock a pretty sweet deal. Livestock get to live with no fear of predation. They get enough to eat, whether it’s enough to sustain them or plenty to prevent them from getting too lean. When the time comes to make them into our food, we make things much quicker than predatory animals do.
Marjorie also voices objection to the practice of using livestock to obtain dairy products such as milk and eggs. She likens the practice to that of puppy mills, and accuses adherents of the conventional diet of looking the other way when it comes to livestock.
Again, the title of Marjorie’s work is “More Pros Than Cons in a Meat-Free Life”, which leads the reader into believing that the potential cons of the decision to go vegetarian would be considered. However, Marjorie doesn’t list any. It shouldn’t be a surprise by now that Marjorie was not interested in providing an objective analysis of the options. It should be easy to guess what her position is.
If Marjorie were to touch upon the cons of living a meat-free lifestyle, she’d have a fair amount to discuss. For example, those who are strictly vegan have no sources of iodine or essential B vitamins, a deficiency of which can lead to mental retardation and irreversible neurological damage. However, that’s a potential for discussion that she ignored.
Due to the deficit of citations and the overall level of professionalism in this piece, I do not believe that Marjorie’s essay is University-level work. The University of Mississippi should have felt at least a little hesitant in posting it on their web space as representative of their student’s work, and if this work is reprinted in any textbook (as it is in mine), students would be right to critically analyze it to identify Marjorie’s mistakes, and avoid making the same ones themselves.
“CAST Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply.” Publications. CAST, 1 Jan. 1999. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <http://www.cast-science.org/publications/?animal_agriculture_and_global_food_supply&show=product&productID=2836>.
“What Is Nonpoint Source Pollution?” What Is Nonpoint Source Pollution? EPA. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/whatis.cfm>.