Environment

Is It Possible to Be a Conscientious Meat Eater?

The "new meat movement" is against industrial meat production, but not against eating meat. Their thinking is problematic.

You may have noticed an onslaught of articles recently on what is being coined as the "new meat movement." The most recent is an article in Newsweek, "Head To Hoof: A butcher helps lead a new carnivore movement."

These articles almost all support the idea that cruelty to animals is wrong and that factory-produced meat is unjustifiably bad for the environment. However, they are not opposed to meat in and of itself, they are simply opposed to industrial meat.

These "conscientious omnivores," believe it is possible, and preferable, to eat meat the old-fashioned way -- on small, sustainable and local farms, with farmers who love their animals and perhaps even have pet names for them.

The backlash against industrial meat has been brewing for many reasons. Ever-increasing knowledge of the industry's effect on the environment, human starvation and animal welfare, is making it harder for even the most ardent omnivore to consume meat without guilt.

The much-quoted report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, "Livestock’s Long Shadow -- Environmental Issues and Options" (Nov. 29, 2006), did a lot to raise awareness about the animal industry's devastating effects on the planet and global warming.

More and more, people are also realizing the troubling connections between human starvation and eating animal products. It takes approximately 16 pounds of grain and 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat (thus feeding one or two people on meat versus approximately 16 people on grain). Much of this grain is grown in developing countries, where a large percentage of their land is used for cattle-raising for export to the United States, instead of being used to grow staple crops, which could feed local people directly. In a world where a child starves to death every 2 seconds, it seems impossible to justify such waste.

The animal industry is partly responsible for the destruction of the Amazon and other forests, for our world's diminishing water supply, for the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases, and basically every other environmental problem. People are also more readily accepting that the animals themselves deserve a life free from cruelty and that factory farms give them anything but.

Vegans and vegetarians have been saying many of these things for years, but it seems that people have only started listening now that there is simultaneously a proposed solution to this problem: "happy meat."

"Local," "grass-fed," "sustainably produced," "humanely raised" and "free-range" are just a few of the benevolent-sounding phrases that greet conscientious shoppers in the meat department. Animal-rights activists jokingly call these products "happy meat."

Many of these products tout pictures of smiling pigs, happy farmers in green pastures and stickers that say "humane." For many people who care about the environment and animal welfare, choosing to eat "humanely raised" meat seems like an option that honors traditional farmers and diets while also solving the ethical problems of environmental degradation and animal suffering.

But it solves neither of these problems. This meat is high-priced, and its production is an even less-efficient use of land and resources. It is often marketed as luxurious, an indulgence to be lingered over. It is inherently not adaptable to a national or international solution. Local organic meat is for an elite few, and not a practicable alternative to the massive crisis of industrial meat production.

For the first time in history, an entire civilization consumes meat as a staple. How can America truly produce enough of this "happy meat" (not too mention happy milk and happy eggs), to feed this country even a fraction of the animal products we currently consume?

Truth be told, this meat is a marketing gimmick, an ideological pose, which assuages the ethical compulsions of those who consume it even though it does nothing to kick America's cheap meat habit, and perhaps contributes to the growing international fetishization of meat as a class signifier.

Articles on the "new meat movement" never pose questions like, "could all of America's animal products be grown locally?" And they never mention what the vast majority of Americans who can't afford the prized local animal products will be consuming if all factory farms shut down -- they'd be vegan.

These farms are described as ethical because of the fact that they are small, sustainable and have kinder animal-husbandry practices. As many people have pointed out, these farms can individually produce meat in a way that is arguably just as "green" as eating vegan.

However, it is an inherent part of the ethical foundation of these farms that they cannot produce on a massive scale. As we've seen numerous times, the organic farms that do try to do this, very often become virtually no better than factory farms, despite the labels they often still get to keep.

For example, many cage-free or free-range chickens still live in devastating conditions -- they simply aren't technically kept in cages in the first case, or, in the latter case, are kept in huge, crowded and perpetually dark buildings, with a single opening leading to a few square yards of bare earth.

The question of methane pollution may also make it hard to raise animals on a massive scale, regardless of whether the farms could be sustainable in other ways.

The question is not, "are a few people eating local, sustainable, free-range pork worse environmentally than a few people eating vegan?" The question needs to be, "can we feed the world's entire growing population sustainable animal products?" I have never once seen this question addressed in one of these "new meat" articles.

But all of this is in many ways ignoring an even more complex question. Do humans even have the right to make other living beings into objects of production that we can kill even when it is unnecessary to do so, merely for our pleasure?

The words "animal rights," "vegetarian," and "vegan" are some of the most mocked and emotionally loaded terms in our language, even in very liberal circles. One has to wonder if a multibillion dollar meat industry hasn't had a part in making these words and the ideals behind them seem so laughable to so many people.

Soy has become the new evil food, and it is often said that vegans and vegetarians are hypocrites because they eat processed foods that are bad for the environment, and their diets are pretentious.

In fact, many of the studies that show negative effectives of soy are funded by the meat industry, and it is often ignored that the reason soy is so damaging environmentally is because the vast majority of it is grown to feed factory farm animals -- this is the soy that is destroying the rain forest.

It's flattering that people think that the demands of vegans could be the cause of such huge global effects. However, it is not the small number of vegans and vegetarians who are misusing soy -- it is the meat industry and the millions of omnivores who eat their products.

Eating vegan and vegetarian does not mean you eat processed food. It also does not mean you eat soy (many vegans simply do not like soy products or are allergic to them). There is nothing pretentious, hard, unhealthy or processed about eating vegetables, grains and legumes grown locally.

If people could put aside their biases against these terms, they'd see that the animal-rights position is based on very rational argument. The concept of equality itself rests on the ability to feel suffering. There is no other standard by which to base equality that does not leave out some subset of human being. If equality is based on intelligence or ability to plan for the future, than babies and many developmentally disabled people would not be included.

However, if the concept of equality is based on suffering, then it is impossible to not include animals in our moral framework. This does not mean that animals are equal to human beings in every way, it simply means that we all have an interest in not suffering, and so to cause unnecessary suffering is unethical.

Oddly, this is something that the vast majority of Americans already agree with -- it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to animals. Rutgers University Professor Gary Francione calls this a "moral schizophrenia." We see that unnecessary suffering is wrong -- which is a large part of why there even is a movement of "conscientious omnivores" -- and yet we refuse to see meat eating as unnecessary, even though nutritionists agree that the consumption of animal products is not necessary to our health.

Some people argue that equality should only include human beings, for no other reason than for that fact that they are human. Historically, this is very similar to sexist and racist philosophies that argued that only white men should be treated equally for no other reason than the color of their skin and their gender.

Physiologically and neurochemically, we are all very similar to the chicken killed at the local farm. We all exhibit similar signs of distress and fear. Chemically, our brains are mostly the same, obviously with differences in physical scale and complexity. Why not assume what appears to be pain is pain and that fear is fear? There is no reason, except for pride, to doubt animals have a rich inner experience.

Many people within this "new meat movement" argue that it is suffering, not killing, that is unethical. Can unnecessary killing ever be completely separated from suffering? Besides the obvious difficulty in assuring a life and death free from trauma, there are the FDA regulations, which send all larger meat animals to the same slaughterhouses that are used for factory-farmed animals -- facilities notorious for the suffering of both the animals and the employees.

Even if the animals die quickly on their home farm, what justifies this killing? Having foreknowledge of death is not a prerequisite for the right to live, or else killing an infant would not seem unethical. How are we justified in ending a life of happy contentment to satisfy a passing craving?

Meat is deeply American, connected to our culture, tradition and comfort. Many of these articles on the "new meat movement" emphasize a returning to historical practices. They romanticize the idea of the family farm of 100 years ago. I have even seen many references to getting in touch with your inner caveman through local meat.

Culture and tradition are never sufficient justification to continue unethical practices -- if they were, we would still have slavery and public torture. Traditions have to adapt with our changing values and ethics, although these changes may be uncomfortable and unwelcome.

If we agree that institutions causing animal suffering are wrong, they shouldn't be maintained merely to avoid the potential effects their abolition will have on ranchers, butchers and small farmers.

"But animals eat other animals. Eating meat is natural," some say. Appealing to nature as a justification for ethical belief is a fallacy, and it has been used historically to justify every conservative power structure. Other animals, with no alternative sustenance, having no language and being isolated in themselves, do not seem to be appropriate role models for our ethical lives.

We are animals that have evolved to recognize other beings' subjectivity, to experience empathy, and who have advanced beyond the necessity of violence to supply ourselves with food. We, uniquely, choose what we eat.

Veganism versus vegetarianism is about minimizing suffering. It is impossible to produce eggs and milk without vast amounts of killing. Veganism is about nonviolence. Veganism is more broadly sustainable, less economically divisive and less cruel than eating local meat and other animal products. There is no truly sustainable and humane way to feed all Americans even a fraction of the amount of animal products they currently consume.

An acre of land used for grass-fed beef could feed 10 times as many people if used for crops. Animals will always be bad protein converters, and the world’s population will continue to grow and be hungry. Veganism recognizes that compassion is not a limited resource. Veganism is not an asceticism. It is not a form of self-denial. Vegans do not claim to be ethically perfect.

Agriculture is, and always will be, a messy business -- there will most likely always be some level of exploitation and misguided or inefficient methods. Perhaps, as the cynical jibe goes, even the plants feel pain. That is not an argument for the continued exploitation of animals, who demonstrate clear analogs to the states which in humans recognize as indicating suffering. Vegans actively try to stop as much known suffering as possible.

Veganism is humanitarian. Becoming vegan is good for the planet and for hungry people around the globe. It is perhaps the only practicable solution to the global food crisis. It does not indicate a preference for animals over people. It is egalitarian as it does not create a class system of food access.

"Conscientious omnivores" may believe that they are eating in a radical and ethical way. However, if one really examines the issues and thinks beyond their taste buds, it has to be agreed that animal products are dangerous for the planet and always cause unnecessary suffering.

What is radical is kindness and nonviolence. We hope most people would agree that these are certainly worthy things to work toward.

Sunaura Taylor is an artist, writer and activist in Oakland, Calif. Alexander Taylor studies philosophy and ethics in Athens, Ga.