Humans are descended from ancient apes, and like them (and modern apes) we are generally omnivorous. But should we still eat meat and animal products? Animal rights activist Katrina Fox doesn’t think so. It is not an easily dismissed idea – after all, just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s good. Yet I remain unconvinced that veganism is the only ethical way to eat.
Fox checks all the boxes on the reasons-not-to-eat-meat list, citing the sentience and higher-level thinking of animals, the lack of a biological necessity for animal foods, the conditions under which animals are farmed, and the ecological cost of animal farming. She also raises a historiographical argument, which I’ll leave until last.
Animals are expensive, from a natural resources standpoint. I’m sure you have all seen the statistics at some point – one kilogram of beef takes about 15,500 litres of water to produce, counting the water used to grow the grass/hay and grains that cows eat. For sheep, it’s 6,100 litres per kilogram of meat, a litre of milk takes 1,000 litres of water, one egg requires 200 litres, etc. In a world where fresh water is scarce, it’s a sobering thought. Then you have the vast deforestation to gain more grazing land, the use of fertilisers and pesticides on pastures, the degradation of the land and displacement of other species by herds, and the various byproducts of all the fossil-fueled industrial processes used in rearing and harvesting and distributing.
To my mind, this is by far the strongest argument to eat less meat, or go without entirely. If having a smaller ecological footprint is important to you, you really should go vegetarian.
The methods by which animal products are produced is probably the most high-profile of the animal-rights issues. Fox decided to make it the centrepiece of her opinion column, even going so far as to say that the trend towards more humane treatment of animals raised for food is “a giant step backwards”, criticising the RSPCA and Peter Singer for suggesting there can be such a thing as “humane slaughter” and their efforts to improve the lives of chickens and pigs destined for our plates. Fox clearly feels this is letting humanity off the ethical hook, as she would prefer we examine our need to use animals instead of how we treat them before killing them.
It looks like a classic case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Reducing unnecessary cruelty to animals is something to be welcomed, not castigated for not going far enough. Surely even Fox recognises that her project is a very long-term one, and that steps in the right direction are to be supported? I, for one, am pleased that we can bring about positive change in our consumption habits just by convincing people it’s a good idea – it reinforces my view that persuasive power and voluntary action are suitable vehicles for a great deal of cultural progress. If only people allowed them to flourish in other areas as well. But I digress.
Ow, my pancreas!
Vegetarians have long made the case that we humans don’t really need meat to survive. It’s true. In fact, over-consumption of meat (from an evolutionary point of view) is a prime cause of coronary disease, colon cancer, and a factor in several other cancers and degenerative diseases. Protein can be had from other sources, and mineral and vitamin deficiencies are not really an issue- if you are careful, B12 supplements are advised, but that’s about it.
However, there are many things which aren’t necessary for human survival. Chocolate, for starters. You could live healthily on Dozer’s “single cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals” porridge, but is that really living? Here we see another side to the vegetarians who make this argument – an underlying asceticism. To them, eating meat is “pure extravagance”, in the words of aggressive vegetarian George Dvorsk. But that’s not an argument, it’s a philosophical position.
Katrina Fox states unequivocally that animals going to the slaughterhouse are “sentient”. She just slips it in there, without batting a metaphorical eye. While her column bears the signs of having been cut down from an earlier, more substantive piece, I suspect that even in the previous incarnation there was no attempt to expand or explain this claim. Why should there be? By the simple definition of sentience – to experience the world subjectively – all our food animals qualify. Generally it is expressed as the ability to feel pain and pleasure, as Fox does in her second paragraph. I disagree with this formulation (bearing in mind that we can never know for sure what animals experience and can only rely on proxies and inference). It is surely absurd to imagine sentience as being a binary condition that you either have or you don’t. Far more plausible, I feel, is the concept of a spectrum, or sliding scale, of sentience. This is formalised in the sentience quotient.
Given this spectrum, it makes sense that we don’t treat all animals equally. Humans, being the most sentient, deserve the most rights. The most basic animals and insects, with essentially no measurable sentience, deserve none. The rest fall somewhere in between, but I don’t think it’s helpful to declare all vertebrates sentient beings that should therefore be co-equal with humans. It leads, in the extreme, to logical conclusions that even the most vehement vegan would reject – we shouldn’t cut down any trees that house birds; it doesn’t matter if you save the goldfish or the toddler from the housefire; lions should be prevented from eating gazelles. I exaggerate, but it highlights the central problem – differing conceptions of suitable divisions in the world.
Vegetarians shouldn’t delude themselves that they are being moral absolutists in granting food animals the agency we give to certain privileged species but typically deny to others. There is still a dividing line in the vegetarian ontology, it’s simply in a different place to the majority view. There is still a subjective perception of moral worth, it’s just more inclusive in a vegetarian framework.
The Sixth International?
Katrina Fox ends her column on an interesting note. Animal rights activists routinely label their cause “animal liberation”, and Fox clearly subscribes fully to this depiction, declaring this issue to be analogous to “the great liberation movements”, and comparing her strategy of demanding an end to meat-eating with the abolition of slavery. It reminded me strongly of a blog post by Justin George at Left Focus. He wrote:
By ignoring the interconnections existing around issues of animal liberation, we do ourselves a disservice strategically while deliberately marginalizing the suffering of tens of billions of beings.
After all our experiences of struggle, we should have the vision and courage to engage with new struggles for liberation, for in the end we all share common aims. There are many issues here that we can start discussing, to develop participatory means and analysis further in addressing animal liberation.
We on the Left generally, have recognized other forms of oppressions even when misunderstood, unpopular or denied by those in power. Now its time to recognize the rest.
I don’t know whether to be amused or saddened. Amused that people genuinely believe that we can equate emancipation and workers’ movements with the subjective reality of chooks. Saddened because people want to take moral equivalence so far. What’s next, giving dolphins the vote?
As far as I’m aware, all hunter-gatherer peoples held animals in deep respect, with ritual and prayer surrounding and suffusing every hunt, their deaths imbued with great meaning. Animals were a source of life and strength and spirit, both a means of survival and an end in themselves. This is the ethic that I feel our modern society lacks – using animals respectfully. Not worshipping them, not elevating them to human status, but seeing our intertwined lives in a shared world as part of a greater cycle of life and death that deserves respect, not sentimentality.
There are some related points that didn’t fit into the post’s main objective, so I’d like to bring them up here where they won’t interfere.
- Giant pandas had relatively recent ancestors that were carnivores. Their digestive systems haven’t fully adapted yet. That’s why their restrictive vegetarian diet leaves them slow and sleepy, despite eating vast quantities.
- Recently it was revealed that what had been sold as organic pork (which includes being free-range as well as chemical-free) in upmarket restaurants was in fact factory-farmed. There are only two organic pig farms in Australia so far.
- Studies of the lives of plants have revealed some interesting behaviours that might give some pause for thought among people who believe they are eating ethically – ““They respond to tactile cues, they recognize different wavelengths of light, they listen to chemical signals, they can even talk” through chemical signals. Touch, sight, hearing, speech. “These are sensory modalities and abilities we normally think of as only being in animals,” Dr. Hilker said.”
- Laboratory meat may solve all of the above problems in the long run.