The increasing popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets may be putting the lives of animals at greater risk, research suggests.
This unintended result – which may impact species as diverse as cows and dolphins – arises not from anything inherent in a meat-free diet, but from the hardening attitudes of people who view it as a threat to their way of life.
Although the majority of omnivorous humans regard vegetarians and vegans as perfectly normal, a degree of hostility towards them does exist in some quarters. A US study published in 2015, for instance, found that some survey respondents evaluated plant-eaters “more negatively than several common prejudice target groups,” including African-Americans.
The bias was most prevalent among people who held right-wing ideologies.
It is unlikely that people who adhere to such opinions would view the generally acknowledged increase in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets in developed nations as a welcome development.
Figures are scarce, but one estimate made in April 2017 suggested that between one and 10% of people in the European Union, the US and Canada are vegetarians. In the US, between four and 10% of people self-describe as plant-eaters.
This is probably good, or neutral, news to most people, but for some it is highly disturbing. Vegetarianism and veganism are regarded as threats to the stability of modern life.
When this type of dietary prejudice coincides with another highly debatable moral position – a belief in the superiority of humans over other animals – problems arise.
That’s the conclusion of a team of researchers led by Ana Leite of the University of Kent in the UK, and published in the journal European Journal of Social Psychology.
Leite and her colleagues conducted a 16-month study among 219 people in the US, seeking to drill down into their views on vegetarianism and human supremacy. Both of these positions were expressed by individual values regarding moral responsibility for the welfare of animals.
The researchers discovered that the types of animal included in each respondent’s welfare concerns were determined by positions on human superiority and the threat of vegetarians.
Pets were, perhaps predictably, high on most people’s moral agendas. Some 90% of people felt the need to look out for the welfare of dogs. Food animals didn’t fare so well, with only 51% of participants expressing moral regard for pigs.
Other categories in the survey included “appealing” wild animals, such as chimps, and “unappealing” ones, such as snakes.
Leite and colleagues found that stronger beliefs regarding human superiority and the reality of the threat of vegetarianism were linked to larger numbers of animal types being excluded from moral welfare responsibility.
The subsection of people who thought vegetarianism was a threat but that humans weren’t necessarily superior to other species yielded a surprising result. This group felt they had little or no responsibility for the welfare of food animals – but also little or no responsibility for the welfare of appealing wild animals, such as chimps and dolphins.
“These findings demonstrate the importance of both human supremacy and perceived threat in explaining moral exclusion of animals and highlight potential paradoxical negative consequences of the rise of vegetarianism,” the study concludes.
And while the new study unavoidably paints a proportion of dietary omnivores as bad guys, it would be a mistake to assume that the plant-eating community is either united or free of its own moral bias.
A 2014 study examined the inter-group judgements made by four subsections of non-meat-eaters: vegetarians and vegans whose diet was predicated on health reasons, and those whose choice was a consciously ethical one.
The research, by psychologist Hank Rothgerber of Bellarmine University in Kentucky, US, found significant “horizontal hostility” between the groups.
Rothberger found that “ethical vegetarians gave unfavourable evaluations to health vegetarians” and “vegans gave relatively more favourable evaluations to ethical vegetarians than health vegetarians”.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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