Meat has nourished our species, homo sapiens, since our beginnings in Africa about 150,000 years ago and fossil records indicate our hominid ancestors had tools, thought to be used for cutting up animal flesh, approximately four million years before that.xvii In other words, it seems highly likely that meat has formed an integral part of our diet, and that of our pre-human forebears, for many millions of years, explaining, perhaps, why we like it so much today.

Humans are omnivores, meaning our diet can consist of a wide range of plant and animal foods. Somewhat surprising then to find what lousy scavengers we are, and how poorly equipped for the task of catching and killing other animals. We are a sort of ‘English gent’ among meat eaters. Our long, convoluted gut is more closely associated with digesting plant material, and should we eat meat that has been subject to bacterial decay, as scavengers do, we become violently ill and can easily die. We lack the strong jaws and teeth of omnivores such as dogs, and we cannot even defend ourselves against a four-kilogram (ten pound) feral cat without a weapon. We are too slow to catch any animal larger than a hamster, except perhaps a sloth, and we would be quite incapable of killing it with our bare hands, even if we did. And should it die of fright, we would be completely incapable of eating it, unless we had the right tools to cut it up, and a fire to cook it on.

Humans are also hopelessly neurotic and hilariously squeamish. Easily put off by bad smells and unpleasant sights, many of us are even afraid of puny adversaries, like mice and spiders. And, unlike genuine meat-eaters, we are capable of empathy and sympathy, both of which are emotional states that can only be a hindrance to a species that must kill others to survive. I don’t think any salt water crocodile is going to spare a person because he or she felt ‘sorry’ for them. And yet, despite our many limitations, we have defied all logic to become the most prolific meat-eaters on the planet, and in so doing, have created a completely unnecessary living hell for billions of our fellow creatures.

In nearly all cultures meat plays a central role, often appearing as the most important food at weddings, religious ceremonies, corporate events, dinner parties, back-yard barbecues, school lunches, family meals and the like. Eating meat has become such a deeply ingrained and culturally-nuanced practice that its ethics are hardly ever discussed and, in my experience, if the conversation does drift in the direction of animal welfare it quickly becomes couched in terms of what people ‘like’ to eat, or what they fallaciously think they ‘need’ to eat, or a claim that it’s ‘natural’ for humans to eat meat—all arguments designed to legitimise one’s ‘desire’ to eat meat—as if all these self-centred red herrings can be successfully substituted for a discussion about the animal suffering involved.

If indeed most people think of meat as an everyday item—like paper, petrol or peanuts— it would be just what we would expect given its linear connection with our evolutionary past. Eating meat is a completely normal activity and I wouldn’t suggest otherwise, but it doesn’t mean we have to remain stuck in the groove of that ever-playing record. The world of people, technology, science and social ideas is moving forward faster and faster and the time to challenge many of our ingrained habits has arrived. Much of what we think of as ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ was proscribed by conditions we have since moved beyond and now technological advances are providing us with improved alternatives; food being one obvious area. We now have the opportunity to develop new ethical bases for our civilisation, not least among them a radical overhaul of our relationships with other living creatures.

In Australia, sports clubs, as well as a multitude of other community groups, raise money every weekend by way of ‘sausage sizzles’, a type of outdoor barbecue. This is considered a fun thing to do and certainly appears to be quite a benign activity if you don’t trouble yourself about the origins of what the barbecue is offering. At sausage sizzles, children and adults wander around eating beef or pork sausages smothered in tomato sauce and wrapped in white bread. This is meat-eating at its most normalised and questioning its morality would be met with astonishment by some, perhaps resentment and anger by others. But question it we should, because the sleep-walking acceptance of meat-eating exemplified by sausage sizzles is right at the heart of the animal welfare debate. The lack of cognisance that allows so many of us to think of sausages and bananas as ‘food’ only, and not distinguish between their origins, is what allows us to subconsciously accept that sausages and bananas are deserving of equal consideration. This may seem like nonsense, because that is what it is, but what it does do is allow us to organise something like a sausage sizzle without having to consider that the bill of fare is constituted from the flesh of living creatures who scream in fear and writhe in pain as they go to their grisly deaths. Bananas don’t do this because they are plants; and plants do not have nervous systems of anywhere near the complexity of those found in animals. If we ever find out plants experience pain and suffering as animals do, we’ll be in trouble, but I don’t think that day is ever going to come.

For those who love sausage sizzles, the good news is: there’s no need to give them up! All you need to do is swap the minced-up animal body parts for vegan sausages, hamburger patties and schnitzels. You can still have the white bread and tomato sauce and even the non-dairy butter. And while it is true, the vegan products don’t taste the same as animal flesh, some of them are already quite good, and as more and more people turn to them we can be sure competition will drive their improvement until they represent what people want.

A particularly sensitive subject, and one that is often ignored, perhaps wisely in some circumstances, is that the decision by one group of people not to eat animal products, out of concern for animal welfare (rather than for reasons such as health), carries within it an inherent criticism of those who do eat meat. This imbedded criticism is unavoidable when two such starkly different viewpoints collide and most of us deal with these potentially uncomfortable situations by pretending they don’t exist, particularly in social situations where food is in the process of being eaten. I know some animal welfare activists disagree with such a display of manners, and say that avoiding the conversation at any time is tantamount to cowardice and an opportunity lost. I’m sure they’re right, to a degree, but isn’t there also wisdom in picking one’s moment, because very few people respond kindly to having their morals publicly critiqued, or having someone else’s ideas thrust down their throat. Besides, despite the evidence all around them, most people have never really thought these issues through and are not equipped to debate the subject on the spot anyway. There is a time and place for everything and when it comes to discussing the welfare of those animals whose bodies are adorning the plates around you, the dinner table, in my view, is not usually one of them.

I get the impression that a lot of people think that becoming vegan would be difficult to do because they would find it hard to give up certain animal products. But in reality it is quite often the opposite, possibly because, besides the core ingredients of a vegan diet—fruit, vegetables, legumes, pulses, grains and so on—there are plenty of processed food options around these days and the range is growing and improving all the time.

For those who enjoy cooking and kitchen experiments, vegan food can be as complex and intricate as any other and you don’t have the problem of things going ‘off’ as you do with animal products. Cities such as New York and London have five-star vegan restaurants, and apparently a good percentage of their clientele are meat-eaters who come for the wonderful food. The point is, don’t think you would be missing out if you adopted a vegan diet. It’s simply not the case and if your veganism is driven by a desire to do something about animal welfare and the environment, then any desire to eat meat quickly fades into the background anyway.