Recently there was a heated debate on intelligence squared over the topic “Don’t Eat Anything With A Face.” Normally I dismiss these debates as only so much huff and puff between ideologues making oversimplified arguments based on emotional pleas rather than some semblance of facts, but this one caught my attention because it included two people I consider to be highly enlightened on the issues of nutrition and ecology–nutritional scientist Chris Masterjohn and farmer Joel Salatin.
What would such a debate look like, I wondered, when the pro-meat faction was adamantly anti-factory farm and CAFO? It pulls environmental pollution arguments, poor animal living conditions arguments, and many others right out from underneath the anti-meat faction’s feet because so many of their arguments are based on the mutually agreed horrors of CAFOs.
Would the anti-meat faction have a leg left to stand on?
Honestly, though, I was disappointed by the debate. Overall my impression was that Gene Baur and Neal Barnard did a good job of simply talking over Chris Masterjohn and Joel Salatin. And while I don’t think Chris and Joel are wrong, they did not present their points well when they actually could get a word in edgewise.
However, conversations like these highlight what talking points we should take into consideration when answering a question like “is eating meat ethical?” and which talking points are red herrings that obfuscate the underlying issues.
What do we even mean when we ask “is eating meat ethical?” and what criteria can we use to decide?
How can we determine if something is ethical?
Merriam-Webster defines ethics as:
an area of study that deals with ideas about what is good and bad behavior : a branch of philosophy dealing with what is morally right or wrong
That is well and good, but how do we judge whether something is good or bad, right or wrong?
In philosophy, most discussions of ethics share some version of the basic principle that ethics must ultimately be based on the nature of the entities involved. In other words, if you are a creature of type X, then ethical behavior towards you and by you must have some basis in your wants, needs, and abilities that are specific to your being a creature of type X.
It also helps to look at the related concept of “rights.” Most people think of rights in terms of having “the right to do something.” Like in the right to pursue happiness. However, in practice rights are better viewed in terms of the right to not have something done to you. You are free to do what you please so long as you don’t cause harm to others, and likewise they are free to do as they please so long as they don’t cause harm to you.
But what constitutes harm? If you are an animal that feels physical pain when your body is damaged, then harm could be done to you by an act that damages your body like cutting off your ear. On the other hand, if you were an uncaring, unfeeling lump of igneous rock, then being cut in two wouldn’t be any harm at all. Whether or not a particular act constitutes harm is dependent on the nature of the entity the act is being done to.
Back to ethics, we might say that a particular act is unethical if it actively interferes with the needs of creature X to live a life appropriate to creature X.
However, it’s not as simple as that either. What if the needs of one creature conflict with the needs of another? Say the needs of predator and prey. Is a wolf eating a lamb unethical? The wolf has no choice but to eat its prey or it cannot continue living, or at the very least it cannot expect to continue living healthy and well. Would PETA charge a zoo that denied its wolves animal protein with animal abuse? If you kill an animal and then give it to the wolf to eat have you acted unethically?
We can’t adopt a form of absolutism that says “action Z is categorically bad under all circumstances.” Doing so is not having honestly thought the issue through.
Ethics and meat
Frankly, there are no easy answers here. Ethics just isn’t as cut and dried as we would like it to be. But a good start would be to answer the question “can humans be healthy without eating animals?”
If humans can be healthy without eating animals, then the case for not eating anything with a face is much more compelling. If on the other hand, humans cannot be healthy without eating animals then denying someone proper nutrition also inflicts harm.
British singer Morrissey infamously declared that he saw “no difference” between eating meat and pedophilia. However, what if your child needs animal foods for proper mental and physical development? Would it not be a much closer analogy to pedophilia or at the very least a clear case of child abuse to deny your child animal foods?
Historically speaking there is no doubt that we–like our closest genetic relatives the chimpanzees–are omnivores that eat both plants and animals. However, we should not leap to the unfounded conclusion this means that we have the choice to eat plants OR animals. Not all foods are created equal, and it could very well be that we need to eat both plants AND animals for optimal health.
Ecology and farming practices
If we simplify the vegan/vegetarian ideal to eliminating animal death, most vegan/vegetarian diets actually fail by that standard.
But how can that be? If you don’t eat animals, how can you be responsible for animal deaths? You have to look beyond the food that goes into your mouth to how it was produced.
Death comes in many forms. Native habitats and the former homes of animals are plowed under to make room for crops. Even in established farms, large scale farm implements and tilling operations leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Field mice and other critters are ripped asunder to the delight of predatory birds circling overhead.
Published figures in Australia actually show that grain farming results in 25 times more animal death per kilogram of usable protein than grass fed beef.
You can’t simply assume that meat production is synonymous with factory farms and CAFOs, just as you can’t simply assume that a vegan/vegetarian meal is death free. If you argue from either standpoint, then your arguments hold no water.
Or perhaps more disastrously, what if your green-manure grown kale from a small scale farm has aphids on it? If you wash them off have you committed mass murder? What happens if you miss one and you eat it? Are you less complicit because you didn’t know? Does it not count since it’s not a mammal? But still, that aphid unmistakably has a face and feels pain. It would prefer not to be ground to death between your molars in a violent death.
No doubt I’ve now offended any vegans/vegetarians who have read this far, but if you take the “no killing” rule seriously then these are questions that you have to take seriously or you aren’t honoring your own rules in good faith. The edifice of your moral absolutism crumbles under the truth of your moral relativism.
The upshot here is that death at human hands either directly or indirectly is inevitable in food production. Just saying “don’t eat things with a face” is over simplistic.
Any discussion of the ethics of food that ignores or oversimplifies how food was produced and the wider ecological impact is not having honestly thought the issue through.
Animal foods, nutrition, and the food chain
Popular blog posts often get circulated about nutrients essential to human health that can only be found in animal foods. Several encyclopedias of books could be filled on this topic, but I will discuss just one here to highlight relevant points: omega-3 fatty acids.
We often hear about how Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to our health. However, this is an oversimplification and widely misunderstood to mean that we need this generic omega-3 substance in the same way that we need something like vitamin C.
Omega-3s are actually a family of different fatty acids with different uses in the body and required in different amounts by the body. It would be more correct to say that the body has DHA and EPA (types of omega 3s) requirements.
The best sources of DHA and EPA are fish. But how do fish get theirs? Small fish eat algae that produce DHA and EPA, medium sized fish eat small fish, and larger fish eat medium sized fish. The concentrations of DHA and EPA thus get concentrated the further up the food chain you go. This is the very epitome of a food chain in action.
We humans come in at the top of the food chain when we eat the large fish and get a naturally concentrated source of DHA and EPA. The food chain has in effect acted like a processing plant for converting a previously inaccessible source of nutrients into a highly dense source of those nutrients that we can readily consume–the body of a large, predatory fish. If we try to consume the algae directly to get adequate DHA and EPA, it just doesn’t work.
Not, of course, that this is the only way to get omega 3s. Grass fed beef is also a good source. Cows convert grasses that are inedible to humans into cow bodies, which are consumable by us. Another example of the food chain in action.
So then what of flax seeds and chia seeds widely promoted to be rich sources of omega-3s? These contain a form of omega-3 called ALA and not DHA or EPA. The body has no ALA requirement, and it is not useful unless it can be converted into DHA or EPA.
Studies have been conducted on this and the human body does have some limited ability to convert ALA into the useful forms of omega-3s. But at a measly 0-10% conversion rate, this makes flax and chia very nutrient poor sources for fueling your DHA and EPA requirements.
So what are we to make of this?
Broadly speaking the point is this:
For at least some nutrients, humans are designed to take advantage of nature’s food processing plant (the food chain) and get nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible to us from eating plants directly by eating animals that have processed them into a dense, consumable source (their bodies).
These nutritional shortcomings in the vegan and vegetarian diets are not denied by their proponents and supplementation is often recommended to overcome them. Frankly, if we could identify all nutrients necessary to the body and the cofactors necessary for absorption and bioavailability–and appropriate supplements actually became available–then smart supplementation on top of a plant based diet would be an alternative worth considering.
We might look to meal replacement drinks as an indicator of how well science is doing on coming up with formulas that keep people healthy and well nourished. Based on the results so far, however, we are naive to think that we have a definitive map of human dietary requirements.
We also can’t ignore individual differences. Sticking with our omega-3 fatty acids example, it might also be the case that some people are genetic geniuses capable of converting a very high percentage of ALA to DHA and EPA. It is very well possible that the genetic stars align in such a way in some people that they can do very well on an all plant diet. We are, of course, necessarily talking about the outliers here and you should immediately discount any argument that goes “look at this one single athlete (among thousands) who is doing great on a plant based diet.”
However, the opposite is also true. Some people no doubt have genomes that line up firmly against ALA conversion as well as many other bodily processes that would better enable them to extract the nutrition they need directly from plants. Such people should be considered obligate meat eaters.
The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. Based on what we currently know about human nutritional requirements and the food sources of those nutrients, including animal foods in your diet is probably the safest bet for most people.
Ultimately you are left with a choice.
Do you take the moral high ground and play Russian roulette with your health? (while still probably failing to eat a death free diet despite best intentions and not eating meat)
Or do you accept animal death as an inevitable part of your place in the food chain? (while still allowing for the possibility of minimizing suffering of those animals while they are living)