27 Oct 2022 Practical Philosophy Guest Lecture – Food and philosophy: Three stories

You might be wondering: what does philosophy have to do with food? Does it mean that philosophy is “food for thought”? That’s partly right. The captioned Practical Philosophy guest lecture by Prof. Joe Lau (HKU) did deliver “food for thought” to the 40+ CIE students and colleagues. However, Prof. Lau talked about real, eatable “food”. He invited us to hold a philosophical attitude towards the food that we consume daily. If doing philosophy means pursuing the Truth, the Beauty, the Goodness and meaning, then a philosophical attitude towards food (哲食之道) means that we should realize the truths about our food so that we can act for the greater good.

Meat is a prominent source of food for humans. Some say that meat is too tasty that we cannot live without. However, Prof. Lau showed us a number of inconvenient truths about the meat that we are consuming. First, they come from factory farms around the world, whose practices of raising and slaughtering farm animals are notoriously cruel. The cruel practices are nigh unavoidable due to human’s huge demand for meat. Consider Hong Kong as one of the highest meat consumption cities in the world, where people consume 664g of meat per/day on average (ref: HKU Earth Science 2018 study finds Hong Kong’s appetite for meat causes the city to be one of the world’s highest greenhouse gas emitter). Second, the meat industry is responsible for 15.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (while transport is 15%) that causes climate change; it is also a major source of water pollution. Third, the common use of antibiotics in farm animals and their poor living conditions turn factory farms into hotbeds for contagious (drug-resistance) diseases (e.g. swine flu and bird flu).

(Figure. 1)

At the same time, scientific evidence shows that ordinary human beings can obtain adequate nutrients without meat (see fig, 1 provided by Lau), so meat is not necessary for health.  In fact, excessive meat consumption increases the dietary risks that accounts for the most of deaths in China (see fig 2 provided by Lau). A study shows that the Okinawans who are a hundred or over years old consume very little meat, poultry and fish – up to 2% of their diet.

(Figure. 2)

Put differently, the reasons for not eating (excessive amount of) meat are strong enough: eating meat is harmful to the farm animals, individual and global health and our planet. Prof. Lau also critically responded to many common defenses for eating meat. For example, just like saying that baby’s flesh is tasty does not justify eating babies, that animal flesh is tasty does not help justify eating animals either (see https://philosophy.hku.hk/food/meat-c.html for more). He concluded that turning to a vegetarian (or vegan) diet or cutting down meat consumption brings us closer to the Truth and the Good. This is also how having a philosophical attitude towards what we do and how we live can help shape a better world.

In the interactive session, some expressed that the lecture got them to consider adopting a vegetarian diet, while others said that not eating meat is just too difficult. Prof. Lau replied that if one cannot become a vegetarian, then restricting one’s meat consumption to the minimum also helps.  Some students also expressed in the survey that the lecture make them “think before eat”.