Why There's No Such Thing as Humane Meat
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Michael Pollan, one of the pioneers of the conscientious food movement, would say I am missing the point when I apply human standards to animals. Pollan argues that animal husbandry isn’t oppression but rather a “mutualism or symbiosis between species”—the very reason domesticated animals exist. But our understanding of nature cannot be separated from human culture and biases, especially because we understand nature through a long and pervasive historical paradigm of human domination over animals.
The distinction that Pollan makes is especially troubling when one considers that slavery and patriarchy were both seen as simply natural at one time. The argument that co-evolution justifies animal exploitation is similar to an argument that patriarchy is justified by thousands of years of history, culture, and genetics. One cannot argue that the domesticated animal chose slaughter any more than one could argue that women chose patriarchy.
Niman uses nature as a justification for animal slaughter in another way, arguing that, since it is normal and natural for animals to eat other animals and humans are animals, we are justified in eating meat. But violent, painful deaths are also “normal and natural” in nature. Would Niman argue that we have no moral obligation to kill animals humanely?
Niman and others have suggested that vegans aren’t helping to change the world’s food production systems, whereas conscientious omnivores are. I’d suggest it’s the opposite. For a movement that supposedly advocates eating minimal meat, the humane-meat movement sure praises and glorifies the stuff. Trendy, socially conscious events serve sustainable animal products, while articles praise the mouth-watering taste, showing glamorous photos of young hipster butchers and “compassionate” farmers.
Of course all of these articles mention that we need to be eating less and better meat, but one doesn’t have to be an advertising expert to see that what is being sold is “delicious” animal foods—not lentils and kale.
A 2008 Carnegie Mellon University study showed that avoiding red meat and dairy one day a week achieves more greenhouse gas reductions than eating a week’s worth of local food. A vegan is also able to easily buy organic and local or, if that’s not possible, to buy fair trade, which, according to the book The Ethics of What We Eat, is arguably just as environmentally vital as buying organic and local, if you are considering issues of global justice.
Studies show that being a vegan or a conscientious omnivore (whose animal products actually come from small, sustainable farms) are about equal in environmental impact.
But I believe we must weigh environmental impact against other ethical concerns, such as the treatment of animals and global access to food and water. The more important question is which diet is more just for animals and more realistic for a planet with nearly 7 billion people and counting? The Worldwatch Institute calls for quick replacement of livestock products with other protein sources. Scientists are not saying that sustainable animal farming can’t be done, but many are saying that it’s not a realistic solution for a planet as hungry as ours.
Another argument is that veganism isn’t realistic—that we can’t grow sustainable food without farm animals. The principal claim is that manure is necessary to maintain soil fertility. But animals do not need to be killed to poop. In fact all of the supposedly necessary effects that domesticated animals have on crops and soil come while the animals are alive.
Even if a practical argument in favor of eating small amounts of meat can be made—whether based on soil fertility or on use of land that can’t support food crops—that doesn’t answer the moral argument against it.