The Ethics of Eating Meat – the New York Times finalists are in

The New York Times has the results from when they posed the question, “is it ethical to eat meat?” The finalists, with one or two exceptions, are quite interesting. Certainly, when it comes to opinions about food, everyone has one, and the judges emphasized the variety of the opinions, and interestingly, the near unanimous belief that CAFOs are unethical (I’m with Pollan on that one). The only other topic at the NYT which seems to generate as much diversity of opinion, and frankly insane commentary, is child-rearing. But what I liked most about these finalists were the three writers who actually participate in making food Stacey Roussel, Justin Green, and the winner Jay Bost. Ethical discussions about food production and the ethics of eating meat never seem to involve enough of the people actually producing food. Here’s some snippets about how these farmers who actually grow food think about the role of animals in farming.

From Roussel:

Production of vegetables without the use of animals requires much larger amounts of energy. In small-scale farming, we use animals to clear fields of vegetation instead of relying only on industrial systems like tractors and herbicides. On our farm, we grow rows of vegetables while green cover crops and weeds fill the spaces in between those rows. After the harvest, dairy goats are grazed to get the land back under control, followed by the chickens that eat most of the remaining vegetation, and then finally with one pass of my tractor, I incorporate what is left back into the soil and plant the next crop. The animals clear vegetation and leave free fertilizer. They build biology in the soil rather than destroy it. Working in the natural order reduces our dependence on outside sources of energy, allowing us to harness the energy that is on-farm. The method leads to a better product, one that is more balanced for my customer, my community, my land, and me.

A farm animal is not a pet or a wild animal fending for itself. The farm animal and the small farmer must cooperate to build a stronger herd or flock; we literally cannot survive without each other. The eating of animals is paramount to the production of food in a system that embraces the whole of reality. This is why eating meat is ethical. To not consume meat means to turn off a whole part of the natural world and to force production of food to move away from regenerative systems and to turn toward a system that creates larger problems for our world.

This brings up a good point. The ethics of farming moves beyond just whether or not killing animals is wrong. After all, you kill tons of animals farming plants. You raze habitat, displace whatever wildlife was living there, you spray pesticides (yes even organic farmers use pesticides), you dump freeze-dried ladybugs all over the place (how organic farmers attack aphids), and when you harvest, clean and transport the food animals, especially insects and small mammals, are going to be killed as a result.

Instead what Roussel is emphasizing is that the costs of not having farm animals participating in the process creates other harms, largely in the form of increased fossil fuel use from farm equipment or fertilizer generated by the Haber process. This is reminiscent of one of Pollan’s strongest arguments against CAFOs, that instead of using animals as a component in the cycle of harvesting energy from the sun, CAFOs have broken the cycle. Instead of cows and chickens and pigs serving roles as producers of fertilizer and eaters of waste, they’ve turned them into producers of waste and eaters of oil. They are fed grain, fertilized by synthetic fertilizer, and their manure, once a beneficial source of nitrogen on the farm, is now an methane-producing environmental catastrophe waiting to happen in some CAFO associated manure lagoon. While economically this appears efficient, this is only if you fail to factor in these other costs, including environmental and work-safety costs of these feeding operations.

These costs I think get factored into many arguments and may be the cause of the rise in vegetarianism. Justin Green’s article, about his transformation from a meat eater, to a vegetarian, then back to a meat-eater after he started farming, emphasizes this point:

Merely understanding these relationships does not provide a sound ethical defense of meat-eating, however. Animals play an essential role in our food system, yet it is undeniable that much of our production has fallen out of balance. It’s not enough to simply ensure the safety and survival of my animals. As fellow sentient creatures with whom I am engaged in a partnership, I have a responsibility to show both respect and benevolence, in life and in death. I can’t think of a moral justification for the industrial-scaled confinement operations that fail to uphold our side of the bargain.

Almost 25 years after deciding it was wrong to eat animals, I now realize that it’s not that simple. There is an ethical option — a responsibility, even — for eating animals that are raised within a sustainable farm system and slaughtered with the compassion necessitated by our relationship. That, in essence, is the deal.

The winner, Jay Bost, also emphasizes the proper role animals have as potential harvesters as solar energy and contributors to the farm ecosystem:

I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.

Every argument I’ve been in about meat-eating inevitably seems to devolve into attacks on CAFOs, and I agree, they’re ethically indefensible. Not for their scale, but for the way they’ve disrupted the cycle, and in doing so create environmental problems and waste energy. The animals’ existence is not only unpleasant, but actively harmful to the ecosystem and to us. Bost emphasizes the ethics of growing plants can be equally problematic as long as it is based on converting fossil fuels into food rather than solar energy into food.

This will be the major obstacle our agricultural system will face in the next century. In the last century, the boom of industrialized farming allowed us to generate more food than has ever been seen in human history. It is economically efficient, and allowed us to feed not only ourselves but to export food all around the world. In the next century we need to address the fact that this boom occurred largely due to cheap fossil-fuel, not improved agriculture. This is ultimately not sustainable or good for the ecosystem. Industrial agriculture separated out the constituent elements of a farm and amplified them on a massive scale. But without co-ordination between the parts of a farm you lose energy efficiency for the sake of economic efficiency. Instead of having animals provide nitrogen, we use fossil fuels. Their waste then, instead of being reintegrated into the farm, is now a problem, for both the ecosystem and for the humans working and living there. The need to separate out the component parts of agriculture for industrial scaling has generated new problems we have to address if we’re going to continue to feed ourselves.

Ethical farming and ethical eating therefore shouldn’t be an argument about meat, or worse accepting Newkirk’s profoundly ignorant article suggesting energy-inefficient in vitro meat as a replacement (how will it harvest energy from the sun?) but rather a return to some of the lessons that humans learned through thousands of years of trial and error in agriculture. That of a cycle, with the sun as the predominant source of energy, and animals reintegrated into our production system as a beneficial source of nitrogen and a source of farming efficiency. We will not be able to return to a pre-industrial state of agriculture, but instead we will innovate some hybrid of the two. Agriculture on a scale to feed the world, but with a design that recognizes the ideally cyclical nature of carbon and nitrogen fixation that we need to harvest energy efficiently from the sun, and not from oil.