A few months ago, a reader of We*Meat*Again named Heather sent me the first email below — a proposition…
I think being vegan is the ideal diet, and you disagree. Therefore, I have a fun proposal if you are up for it.
I would like to discuss the ethics of eating meat with you over email. We can go back and forth for a little while. Then, I’ll post the debate on a blog that I haven’t created yet. You can do the same at your blog.
I loved the idea of letting our ethics play out in conversation form, as it was a long series of conversations I had several years ago that led me back towards meat-eating. It wasn’t an issue or singular decision, so I thought this would be a great way to represent the myriad perspectives on the ethics of eating meat. Enjoy!
I’ll start off with animals. After all, protecting animals is the main reason I am vegan.
I think it is very important to protect animals from harm. They are defenseless, and we have the power to do anything to them that we want. But might does not make right.
Animals raised for food are almost all kept in factory farms where they are confined in tiny cages. Egg laying hens can’t even flap their wings and they stay in those cages for up to two years. Breeding pigs are kept in stalls so small they can’t even turn around.
A lot of suffering goes into producing meat, and it’s not neven a necessary food.
I have a tangential thought, based on what you mentioned below about animals being defenseless. Of course, I know you mean domesticated livestock animals, but I wonder how this view of our obligation to protect animals might impact your views on hunting? Wild animals are certainly not defenseless, and defend themselves against predators all the time. But back to your initial thoughts…
As you mention, almost all animals raised for food are kept in extremely inhumane conditions. I completely agree, and this was the primary reason I had for becoming a vegetarian myself many years ago. I can’t abide those conditions and do not want to be a part of them. However, there is a small, and growing movement of much more small-scale humane conditions for raising animals. I’ve met and befriended many farmers and ranchers who treat their animals with love and kindness, who raise them in healthy, free-roaming conditions and who ensure their deaths are as pain- and fear-free as possible.
My view is that I can affect more positive change in the current food system by choosing to invest my meat-dollars by supporting those new, emerging models of agriculture than I can by opting out or boycotting the existing system.
There’s a lot to explore in the idea that meat isn’t a necessary food, too, but I’ll stay on topic for now…
I don’t think many animals that are hunted are able to defend themselves against hunters. Doves come to mind, as do ducks, rabbits, etc. but that’s a different issue.
I think those farms that don’t use factory farm methods are an improvement, but they still kill the animals. There is still suffering. For example, male pigs are still castrated. I think it’s an improvement, and for people who refuse to go vegetarian it’s a good alternative. But for those willing to go all the way, isn’t it preferable to not have any animals killed for the dinner plate?
Why kill if we don’t need to?
The question at stake for me here is: what system of eating is without suffering? I think a lot of vegans and vegetarians are mistaken in the assumption that by not eating the body of an animal, they are avoiding participating in death or suffering.
A few examples: Most mainstream meat substitute products, including boxed products like Boca burgers, or tofu, are subsidiary brands produced by major multinational corporations. Boca is owned by Kraft, which also owns Oscar Meyer. Yves and Tofutown are owned by Heinz, which also owns several frozen meal brands, made with chicken contracted through Tyson (one of the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to inhumane and pollutive CAFOs).
Even on the smaller scale (for organic, locavore vegans and vegetarians) the very act of growing food often results in death. Even the most low-till farming methods neccesarily kill worms. Even the most natural pest-avoidance will likely cause the deaths of insects. And these are not non-sentient beings (I’ve always hated when people accuse vegetarians of “killing plants” — that’s just not the same thing). These are living creatures, many of which can experience pain, and have an equal right to life as a human, or a chicken, or a pig.
And so, if death is unavoidable in the process of growing and consuming food, I believe it makes the most ethical sense to be honest about it. To acknowledge the suffering I cause (in my case, in the form of an animal’s death) so that I can most responsibly invest my food dollars with producers who I know seek to actively minimize suffering.
I don’t agree that worms are equal to intelligent species like pigs, just like I don’t agree that pigs are equal to humans. However, let’s take your argument at face value. Assume that raising 8lbs of soybeans causes X number of worms and other insects to die. We can eat that 8lbs of soybeans directly and the number of insects dead is X. Or, we can feed that soy to a pig and get 1lb of meat. A farmer feeds roughly 8lbs of feed to a pig to get a pound of pork. So if we ate the vegetarian food directly, it stands to reason there would be 8 times less insects killed than in a form of food production where those crops are filtered through a pig first.
I don’t think buying vegetarian foods from a company that also sells meat is anything like buying meat from a company that sells meat. If anything, buying the vegetarian food shows these companies that there is profit to be made in plant based foods. Those companies are not going away. But if they see there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods, that is a good thing.
So, in closing, one kills less insects that would be harmed in crop production if they eat the crops directly. Also, showing multinational corporations there is profit to be made by producing more ethical foods is a good thing.
I think those points reinforce the argument for vegetarianism.
The flaw in the mathematical equations or soy, or corn, to meat production is that vegetarian food isn’t just soybeans. It, too, requires processing, and a balanced diet requires produce, which takes more land to grow, etc. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest that such a correlation between # of worms killed for one pound of vegetarian food is less than # of worms killed for one pound of pig. Especially because that equation still only takes into consideration animals fed a grown diet, as opposed to free-range animals.
But those small logistics aside, the more important thing is to note that we all — whether we eat meat or not — make a distinction between certain kinds of life. You acknowledge a worm > pig > human hierarchy, and the existence of such a hierarchy suggests that even vegans don’t necessarily have a problem with knowing some life died to create their food. That is much the same as my take. The real question is, why do we consider some life forms acceptable deaths and others unacceptable?
My issue with buying vegetarian foods from a company that also raises meat is that I don’t separate all those forms of suffering out. I accept that much destruction (of the earth), death and suffering (of animals, farmworkers, etc.) comes along with the process of any species attempting to feed itself. I try to minimize my participation in that suffering, because I look at the whole picture. I would rather buy a free-range, antibiotic-free, humanely-slaughtered side of beef from a local farmer who treats his workers with respect than a box of industrially-produced, long-distance, GMO-based meat substitute product from a parent corporation responsible for labor rights, clean air/water, and animals rights, violations.
If some people are vegan or vegetarian because they simply cannot stomach the idea of eating the flesh of a dead animal, I can wholeheartedly accept that. I just think it’s a personal choice, not one that, when judged in terms of the food system as a whole, is in and of itself morally superior.
Ok, I had not thought about produce requiring more to grow. But how could tree fruit affect worms in the ground? I don’t think it can.
Plus, there is no question people have lower rates of heart disease as vegetarians.
It’s certainly true that people have lower rates of heart disease (and many other chronic health conditions) as vegetarians. But that’s because the only studies up to this point have compared a diet without meat to a diet of industrially-produced meat (even including processed meat like bologna or spam. ick.).
I’m all in favor of reducing our meat consumption as a nation dramatically. Americans far over-eat protein in general, and are especially fans of red meat, which is especially bad for the heart. But I think a diet that emphasizes fresh, whole foods and produce can include some meat and still be very healthy. In fact, the studies that have been done thus far suggest that many of the health issues associated with meat are a uniquely-industrial problem. So if we are supporting sustainable, chemical-free sources of meat, we can avoid many of those health problems.
Ok, that’s an interesting rebuttal.
We agree meat consumption should be reduced.
Basically I think there are 3 main reasons to be vegetarian, and they are:
1. There is no question that animals suffer greatly in factory farms. Anytime one buys a chicken sandwich, they are supporting that. Even when people say they eat free range meat, if they go to a restaurant or eat meat at a cookout, they are likely eating factory farmed meat. I don’t believe that people who say they exclusively eat free range meat really exclusively do. If they are telling the truth then they must eat vegetarian meals most of the time.
Even with free range meat, an animal is still killed for something unnecessary. Of course we are talking about animals like pigs, which are as intelligent as dogs. Chickens, turkeys, cows; they all are intelligent enough and aware enough to suffer and to be aware of their misery, pain and fear as they go down the slaughter line. I don’t think we can say that about worms. In fact, you can even cut a worm in half and it becomes two worms. Slice a chicken in half and she is dead.
Lastly, with grass fed cows, if we were to eat as much meat tomorrow as we do today, and all the cows are grass fed, we’d use half the country for grazing.
2. Clearly a vegetarian or vegan diet is healthier than eating meat. You did a good job of refuting my heart disease argument, but vegetarians do live longer than meat eaters on average. We have lower rates of stroke, lower obesity and all the problems that come with that, etc.
3. Meat production is an environmental catastrophe. So many more resources go into growing feed to feed to animals, and then raising, transporting and slaughtering the animals than if one just eats crops directly. There is also the issue of manure run off contaminating soil, water and air in rural communities. So much petro fertilizer has to be used to raise feed crops. It’s just a mess.
The three points together make a strong argument for being vegetarian.
I have some responses to your three points individually, and then to the underlying assumption.
1. You’re absolutely right that choosing not to eat factory-farmed meat means absconding from meat in many situations (thought not at all restaurants), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “most of the time.” Most of my meals are eaten at home, cooked by me. But to assume they are lying, or misinformed, isn’t necessary. You don’t have to believe they are always eating sustainable meat any more than they need to believe you are always reading ingredients list and never accidentally eating chicken fat or beef byproduct in your soup, crackers, etc.
The idea that the animal is being killed for something “unnecessary” is part of the problem I have. If an animal dies in any process of growing food (and somehow, somewhere along the line, I do believe that happens, whether worms and insects or animals slaughtered by parent companies of vegetarian products), then what kind of death is “unnecessary.” They are all, in some way, going towards a person’s eating. Couldn’t we take the next logical step and say it’s not “necessary” for humans to live any more than animals? Of course, such a position wouldn’t work. If death is inevitable, no death is unnecessary — but there is such a thing as an inhumane death or a death that happens in a way that isn’t necessary.
2. My response to the argument that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is the same as my response for heart disease — only because the only available data matches vegetarian against modern-day, red-meat-heavy, industrially-produced-meat eater. Vegetarian versus low-consumption, sustainable-produced, chemical-free meat-eater would look different. They may well be equal.
My response to your third point, about the environmental consequences of meat production, is similar to my response to your note about grass-fed cattle. Along with agreeing meat consumption should be reduced, we both agree on all the negatives of the current factory farming system. But if you add reducing meat consumption to attempting to reverse, undo, or change the industrial system, you can create a small-scale, sustainable system that produces less meat on less land using integrative practices that feed and fertilize the land, without the massive pollutive consequences of a factory farm. I’ve chosen to invest in the creation of that system, rather than just boycott the existing one.
At this point in our exchange, Heather threw in the towel, and admitted I had successfully rebutted all of her reasons for strict vegetarianism. I’ll close with my final response to her, which is the most important take-away:
My intention is never to get people to stop being vegetarians — just to start being more conscientious of the fact that the line between ethical/unethical eating doesn’t necessarily fall along vegetarian/meat-eating lines.