Monday, May 21, 2012

The Ethics of Eating Meat

The Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, writing in the New York Times Sunday magazine, recently proposed a contest to readers – make an ethical case for eating meat. Thousands of people sent in essays. Five judges, who included Mark Bittman, Peter Singer and Michael Pollan, narrowed the entries down to six finalists, whose main ideas are summarized below. (Readers noted that all these judges were white men; many readers wanted nutrition professor Marion Nestle of New York University to be among them.). New York Times readers then voted on the essays.

*Her Australian father taught her to love hunting and a high meat diet. When her father developed gout, colon cancer, heart problems and stroke, the writer became aware of the ethical problems of killing animals, and took a 40 year hiatus from meat eating. She now looks forward to eating meat again without worrying about health, cruelty to animals or environmental degradation. She thinks that meat will soon be available, grown from cow, chicken, pig and fish cells in laboratories – without manure lagoons or contamination with dangerous bacteria. This essay received the most votes, but it turned out that the writer was a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and had used their mailing list to garner votes. The essay was disqualified from winning under these circumstances.

*The writer is a young woman farmer who says that small scale farming requires the use of animals to clear cropland – goats and chickens – and to nourish the soil with their manure. Animal husbandry teaches her about the natural order of life and death. When you eat eggs or drink milk, you should know that the male roosters or bulls must be culled from the herd, and either eaten or wasted. The eating of animals is part of a balanced system of food production that is regenerative. Without farm animals, food production would require more use of fossil fuels in the forms of fertilizers and chemicals. This is why eating animals is ethical.

*The writer is a vegetarian who returned to meat eating. He feels that animals are raised and killed in cruel conditions, animals receive grain that should be given to hungry people, pasture land leads to deforestation, and eating meat is killing a sentient being. However, in some climates, such as dry grasslands, eating animals is a better choice than trying to grow vegetable sources of protein. Eating meat is ethical if you realize that all life is solar energy stored in an impermanent form, if you choose ethically raised vegetables, grains or meat, and if you give thanks. This was the winning essay.

*The writer is a farmer who became a lacto-vegetarian at age 7 because of love for animals. When s/he became a farmer s/he realized that bone and blood meal, fish emulsion and domestic animals were an integral part of vegetable farming. Animals are essential in a balanced food system. It is not ethical to eat animals raised in industrial-scaled confinement operations. There is an ethical option, even responsibility, to eat animals raised in a sustainable farm system and slaughtered with compassion.

*The writer discusses many moral choices we make, such as spending money on ourselves rather than charities, and having children rather than adopting them. We may choose to feed our family meat because of lack of time or knowledge on how to prepare vegetable protein. We need to rank the reasons for various moral decisions, realizing that the moral world is complex and the quest for any one good thing may require the sacrifice of others. We should attempt to tread more lightly on the earth, and realize that eating meat can be both ethical and tragic.

*The writer feels that it is morally permissible to kill and eat animals, if their basic needs are met in their lives, and their killing is painless. However, the killing of animals for food can be harmful to people, because most of us love animals and are upset by the idea that they are slaughtered for us. We learn to put this idea out of our heads, but it continues to affect us. The author felt a considerable freedom and lightness by giving up meat. As feeling creatures, there is a powerful self-interested reason to not eat meat.

I find these essays to be compelling. As a skeptic, I think the essay on ‘in vitro meat’ to have an element of science fiction, at least for feeding the world’s growing population, or being available in the near future. However, the Dutch have been working on this for years. Scientists at Maastricht University plan to produce sausage and hamburger in 2012. It is probable that animal growth factors and antibiotics will be necessary in the production process, which could lead to serious health concerns.

Here in West Marin, we are fortunate to have many organic farmers who raise animals in a careful way to help with the farming and provide meat, eggs and milk. There is a slowly growing awareness throughout the country of the brutality of factory farming of animals, and its unhealthy consequences for the environment. McDonalds and Target ended their relationship with a company that produced eggs in a factory farm with horrendous conditions for the animals, after an underground video went viral. We all need to eat animal products with great respect, and support our local farmers.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH