The de-meatification imperative

To what end?


  • Tony Weis The University of Western Ontario
  • Rebecca A Ellis



meatification, industrial livestock production, vegetarianism, veganism, conscientious omnivory


Meatification describes a momentous dietary transformation: the average person on earth today consumes nearly twice as much animal flesh every year as did the average person just two generations ago, amidst a period of rapid human population growth and with marked disparities between rich and poor. Further, meatification is projected to continue in the coming three decades, at the same time as the world adds another 2 billion people, with growth concentrated in fast-industrializing countries. There is overwhelming evidence that meatification bears heavily on a range of problems including climate change, biodiversity loss, food consumption disparities, mounting risks of antibiotic resistance, increasing rates of non-communicable disease, and growing realms of animal suffering. The basic implication is inescapable:  the de-meatification of diets is an urgent environmental and social priority, and must be part of any project of providing critical food guidance. There are many signs this recognition is growing in environmental and public health advocacy (including pressure to reform dietary guidelines, most notably in China), calls for a ‘meat tax’, and in rising levels of vegetarianism and veganism in some of the countries that have long been at the forefront of meatification. After briefly summarizing the course of meatification and the de-meatification imperative, this chapter focuses on its 3 primary possibilities: conscientious omnivory (which has various hues, as in calls for ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ meat); vegetarianism; and veganism.

The first possibility, conscientious omnivory, recognizes the need to reduce 'meatification' from levels of consumption in industrialized countries, but resolutely upholds the need for some livestock products in human diets and for small livestock populations in mixed farming systems, due to their role recycling some wastes, returning condensed nutrients to land, and providing some labour. From this perspective, necessity makes some meat consumption (but less than in industrialized countries today) a 'benign indulgence' in Simon Fairlee’s terms, with the challenge to source meat, eggs, and milk from sustainable mixed farms where the animals have lived decent lives.

The second possibility, vegetarianism, accepts the functional necessity of small livestock populations in mixed farming systems, which includes their ability to generate useable nutrition along with providing beneficial on-farm services (augmented, for some, by pure palate pleasure, as in the love of ice cream, cheesy pizza, or scrambled eggs), but seeks a non-violent resolution. But unlike conscientious omnivory, the need for animals on mixed farms does not justify killing them for food, much less make it ‘benign’, and it is seen to be desirable and possible for animals to have good lives with only reproductive outputs (i.e. milk and unfertilized eggs) and wool taken, rather than flesh.

The third possibility, veganism, rejects all use of animals in production and consumption, arguing that the place of livestock in mixed farming systems for most of agrarian history does not justify its continuance in the present age. This position holds that livestock production is an inherently inefficient way of meeting human nutritional needs for two basic reasons: first, there is compelling evidence that it is not only possible to be healthy with plant-based diets but that they often lead to improved health and lower risks of non-communicable diseases; and second, it is clear that plant-based diets tend to command much less land and resources, on average, than do either omnivorous or vegetarian diets. Along with improving population health, meeting human nutritional needs more efficiently is seen to have the potential to enhance distributional equity. Finally, the case for veganism insists that vegetarianism cannot escape some level of systematic killing of animals, as most males are not productive in this conception and because females become unproductive short of their natural lifespan.

In spite of key mutual objections to the current scale of animal consumption and industrial production, there are often heated debates between conscientious omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans. Observing this, some might assume that these groups should just aim to get along, submerge their differences, and focus collective energies on confronting the big, urgent need to build momentum for de-meatification and undermine industrial livestock production. In such a few, debates about the end point of de-meatification appear as unnecessary distractions, to the extent that these groups discredit one another, and are best left (or at least strategically moderated) for that future day when industrial livestock production is eradicated.

This paper suggests that thinking critically about different end-points is necessary to recognize the challenges of alliance-building and constructively communicating the de-meatification imperative.




How to Cite

Weis, T., & Ellis, R. A. (2022). The de-meatification imperative: To what end?. Canadian Food Studies / La Revue Canadienne Des études Sur l’alimentation, 9(1).