There are a lot of people who believe that it’s not “humane” to eat meat. I get it. On the surface, it can seem that the most humane thing to do is to not eat meat. Avoiding meat can also appear to be the best for sustainability and the “cleanest” way to eat. I understand that having compassion for animals seems at odds with eating them. This is why I don’t support factory-raised meat.
There are some important environmental reasons why we need herbivores.
Recently, I wrote a piece explaining how grazing animals are beneficial for the soil. Their chomping on grass stimulates new growth, their hooves, urine and manure work critical microbes into the land, increasing the biodiversity of life underground, which helps in the carbon sequestration process. I explained how most of the studies showing how much water it takes to make a burger are actually looking at green water (includes rain) and not blue water (water used for drinking by the cattle). When you look at this study, which uses the blue water methodology, “typical” beef production has a similar water footprint to rice, avocados, walnuts and sugar. I also explained that when you look at the amount of land not suitable for crops, and only usable as pasture, that cattle and other herbivores don’t need to compete with vegetables for space. Here’s a great graph explaining the environmental impact of grass-fed beef.
There is another recent study from Tufts University explaining how a vegan diet is not the most sustainable from a land use perspective. Cropping all of the usable land in order to produce vegetables is simply not an efficient use of space. The study looked at land usage, and again, when we consider that much of the earth’s land surface is not suitable for vegetable production, it’s clear that including animal protein in the human diet is efficient from a land use perspective. What the study didn’t consider is pasture-based herbivores as the primary source of protein. It considered “typical” meat intake. Factory-raised meat chickens, which have seen an increase of nearly 400% of global animal protein intake, eat grain. If we swap out chicken meat for grass-fed and finished beef, then the equation would look much different.
The other day, I received the following comment on the post:
“Why is it necessary to eat the animals? I don’t understand why it’s assumed that this is an acceptable part of the process. If the herbivores are to be ‘used’, could they not simply live out their lives fertilising the soil for more effective crop production?”
This comment clearly required its own post, so here are my thoughts:
Is it more “humane” to the animal to let it die “naturally”? What does dying “naturally” mean to people? There are many ways animals die in nature. Natural death doesn’t = painless death. Not all animals simply die in their sleep of old age. In fact, (just as in humans) this is rarely the case.
Being eaten by another animal is a common way to go. This usually involves a stressful encounter and a painful death. More often than not, it’s relatively slow, compared to a quick bullet to the head or a slit to the throat, as is the practice in this short film I helped to produce. Small-scale slaughterhouses that employ humane handling techniques make sure the animal dies quickly and with the least pain possible. The people working there honestly care about this process and take pride in taking the animal to “the next phase of their existence”: feeding lots of people. By contrast, hyenas are not very “humane” when it comes to their treatment of wildebeests. On our farm, sheep are sometimes consumed by coyotes. Does this sheep have rights? If so, did the coyote violate the sheep’s rights by eating it? Coyotes play an important role in nature, and they need to eat too. What about the hawks that eat our chickens, or eat field mice?
Besides violent death, sickness may take over an animal and kill it. This process is also not painless. But let’s say the animal is completely protected from predators, doesn’t die from sickness or infection, and lives out life to a very old age. By the end of its life, its organs start to fail and the animal can no longer eat or drink. Maybe it goes blind. Is this process painless and fast? Is allowing the animal to suffer a better way to go? Life is great when you’re young and healthy, but nothing stays young and healthy forever. When see images of herds of healthy looking zebras or deer in the wild, they are only healthy looking because the sick and old have been culled by predators. Do we then remove the predators? Is this “more humane?”
Let’s say we all decide that we allow herbivores to restore our soils and we don’t consume them as protein. We have to ask, how are we going to control their populations? Is it better to let the wolves and hyenas control their populations and be well fed while we eat tofurky and drink soylent? Should we sterilize a certain percentage of these herbivores so they can’t reproduce? Is sterilization more or less humane than death by hyena? Another question to ask is how is a system of grazing cows to support healthy soils going to be financially sustainable? Cows are worth a lot of money as dairy and meat. They’re not worth as much to a farmer if they are simply “soil improvers.” Responsible farmers/ranchers are treating their animals right and making money at the same time. Who would be responsible for making sure they have fresh pasture, water, and are treated when injured or sick if they’re not getting paid? Systems need to include financial sustainability as well.
“But it’s all about intent.”
It’s important to understand that a meatless diet is not a bloodless diet. Many animals lose their lives in the process of farming vegetables. Birds and butterflies are poisoned by chemicals, rabbits and mice are run over by tractors, and vast fields of mono-cropped vegetables displace native populations of animals that once lived on the land. The farming of vegetables is not humane to rabbits.
I have heard people respond say that as long as they didn’t intend to kill the bunnies for their soy burger, then it’s morally ok. The idea of intent is complex, but If you know that your actions will cause death as a side effect, and you do it, then you are still causing death.
If I drive to a certain store to buy some tofu and on the way I accidently run over a chipmunk, did I still kill it? Yes. But do I have any guilt or culpability? No. It is clear that I had neither foreknowledge nor intention that my driving would kill the chimpmunk.
What if I told you that each time you went to that store to buy tofu, you were definitely going to run over a family of chipmunks on your way, that this was inevitable. If you know that you are going to kill the chipmunks on the way to the store to buy tofu, is it still morally ok to go to the store, even if you’re not intending to kill the chipmunks?
It seems to me that if you’re aware that your actions cause a known effect, then intent is present.
I am now officially stating again that in order to produce vegetables, animals are killed in the process. Is it still morally better to eat vegetables?
If you equate the life of a rabbit or chipmunk as equal to that of a cow, and are truly looking to kill the least amount of lives to feed your own, then I would argue that killing one cow that lived on pasture is actually causing less death than the number of animal lives that are lost by modern row cropping techniques. The principle of least harm may actually require the consumption of large herbivores (red meat.)
Here are a few more responses I often hear from people looking to do “least harm.”
“I only consume dairy and eggs.”
Ok, I get it. You don’t want the animals to die, but you’ll consume their milk and eat their eggs. This may seem better from a moral perspective. Is the milk you’re drinking from 100% grass-fed cows? If it’s not, then did you know that those cows are likely not moving much and spend the majority of their lives indoors? Do you know how you get a cow to produce milk? You need to get it pregnant. How do you think this happens? Naturally? Do you know what happens to the babies of these cows? What about your eggs, are they from 100% pasture raised chickens? If not, those chickens, just like dairy cows, are not really living the life of a “natural” chicken. What do you think happens to the male chickens, the ones that don’t produce eggs? I think it’s certainly healthier to consume dairy and eggs than to eat 100% plant based, but there are many more considerations that need to be questioned if you have a moral issue with death.
“Ok, I’ll eat fish, and maybe chicken, but definitely not red meat.”
I wonder why it’s “better” for those eating “clean” to think fish and chicken are superior to red meat on a moral level. Is it because the flesh of fish and chicken is white? Is it easier to eat it when there are no bones and you can’t see “blood?” (Actually, the red juice in those steak packages isn’t actually blood, it’s myoglobin.) Is it easier to buy smaller pieces of white flesh rather than large red hunks of beef on the bone? Are chickens and fish somehow less of an animal than a cow? Is it because beef has fat on it? Is everyone forgetting that saturated fat is no longer a bad guy?
Nutritionally, are all of our health woes really caused by our “increased” consumption of red meat? Again, when you look at what people are actually eating, red meat consumption has not increased in 50 years, but our chicken consumption has increased nearly 400%. We eat a whole lot of fish as well. Studies that vilify red meat consumption are observational, using self-reported data. People might remember the burger they ate last week, but they tend to “forget” to report the deep fried apple pie, 72oz soda, and large fries they had along with the burger. It’s not the meat that’s so damaging, it’s how we raise it, how we prepare it, and what we eat it with.
“I feel more (virtuous, clean, pure, etc.) eating only plants.”
Here are some other questions to consider. In addition to the animals that are dying during the tilling and harvesting of your crops, there are also many animals harmed in the production of many vegetarian products. Palm oil is a great example. I’m not sure that palm oil should really be considered “ok” on a vegan diet when you consider the impact this industry has on orangutans. What about the humans that are harvesting your vegetables? I see very little attention given by those in the plant-based world to human social justice issues. What about the 400,000 children that are migrant farm workers? Do you eat bananas, chocolate or drink coffee? There are so many issues going on within the food industry well beyond whether or not it’s “ok” to eat meat.
What’s the most “moral” way to eat?
If you truly are looking to cause the least harm to animals, be the most sustainable and ethically responsible with your food consumption, then your lens has to open a bit to include some other questions. If you know animals will die for your soylent, is it ok to drink it? If you know that the spraying of non-organic bananas also means schools and local homes are also sprayed with toxic chemicals, causing incredible illness and birth defects, is it still ok to eat them? Is it ok to eat tomatoes when you don’t know who harvested them? If you knew that a 12 yr old girl had worked a 12 hr day instead of going to school so that you could have red tomatoes in January, are tomatoes more virtuous and cleaner than lamb? If you don’t see “blood” or bones in your plastic wrapped package of chicken, does that make it easier for you to eat it? Is white meat “cleaner” to eat? Are birds less of an animal than a cow? Is it ok to drink milk from a confined dairy cow but not ok to eat the meat from a cow that has spent its entire life on pasture? Which process allows the cow to live a good life, (ok, maybe a grass-fed cow has one bad day, but that dairy cow will also die.) Which system is better to support? Are Meatless Mondays changing how cows are treated?
By opting out of the system entirely, and not eating meat at all, are you changing how meat is produced?
Factory farming is not the answer, but in my personal opinion, if we all had more exposure to sustainable food production, then there would be far less confusion about what is right. If everyone had the experience of working or living on a small-scale organic farm that integrated pasture-based animals (like I do) then the answers to these questions would be much more clear. We are part of nature. As much as we like to avoid the thought, life is not possible without death.
If we agree that cows are critical for soil health, then we should also eat them.
Further reading: Caroline Watson wrote a great post on the morals of meat eating. The Vegetarian Myth, written by an ex-vegan, also does a good job explaining the moral argument to consume meat, and I just purchased Vegan Betrayal, by Mara Kahn and am looking forward to diving into. On the flip side, I also recently purchased The Humane Economy, by vegan and head of The Humane Society Wayne Pacelle, to better understand where animal rights activists are coming from. I believe it’s critical to explore both sides of a story in order to understand it fully. While I appreciate the “intent” of those who choose not to eat meat, I simply disagree with their logic.
What are your thoughts?