The Ethics of Eating Meat
The question, whether it’s ethical to eat meat or not, is the most leading question raised in the food industry. Most people who argue against eating meat do so for various reasons ranging from concern for animal welfare, health considerations, the environmental impact of meat production, and religious reasons.
But the arguments against eating meat are fairly modern. They can be attributed to the rise of the animal liberation movement championed by Peter Singer, a University of Melbourne and Princeton University professor. Singer, a long time opponent of eating meat, came to the limelight in 1975 when he published his book, Animal Liberation.
So, what are the arguments on the ethics of eating meat? Let us dig deeper to understand more about it.
Least Harm Principle of Meat-Eating Opponents
Singer argued that non-human animals feel and sense, and if it’s possible to survive without eating animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy, or fish, we should choose that option instead of inflicting unnecessary harm to these sentient beings. His work has widely been built upon by philosophers, animal rights advocates, ethical vegans, and vegetarians. His book has been cited as one of the 100 best non-fiction books ever published.
Ethical vegans and vegetarians often abstain from animal products arguing that it’s morally wrong and unjustifiable to inflict suffering on animals solely because people enjoy the taste of meat. According to these vegetarians, killing or hurting animals is similar to killing or hurting humans and can only be justified in extreme circumstances. But consuming meat out of convenience, habit, or for its taste is unjustifiable and unethical.
But what’s ethical in regards to eating meat? Animal-centered ethics use the animal’s suffering to justify not eating meat, arguing that it’s unethical if there isn’t any crucial need to cause suffering. But other ethicists like Timothy Hsiao believe that although animals experience pain, their experience of it isn’t in itself morally bad, and it’s therefore not wrong to eat meat.
It’s undeniable that there will always be death and exploitation of animals for humans to live, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or a carnivore. The difference here and the basis of most animal ethics arguments stems from the amount of suffering animals undergo. However, these arguments fail to consider the massive amount of harm done to animals in the course of producing plant-based food.
Production of most crops requires multiple field operations, including harrowing, plowing, disking, planting, cultivating, and applying herbicides. These field activities negatively affect the animal populations living in the fields, such as rats, mice, opossum, wild turkey, rabbits, and numerous amphibian species.
This article by Dr. Stevens David explores the argument that vegan diets result in many field animals’ deaths. In the article, Dr. Stevens examines data from various studies on plant-based agriculture’s effect on the field animal population and found that the estimated mortality rates for rodents in a single operation (harvesting) were 77%.
Another concern that isn’t addressed in arguments against meat-eating is the effect of pesticides used in plant-based food production. Historically, some of the most persistent and toxic pollutants released into the environment have been pesticides. They have played a key role in the degradation of biodiversity, habitats, and natural resources prevalent today. According to a UN report, pesticides’ toxicity and ability to accumulate in the environment for decades pose a global threat to the entire ecological system.
The use of agricultural pesticides in crop production is one of the leading causes of amphibians’ worldwide decline. Runoff from treated soil and plants have to go somewhere, and in most cases, they go into nearby rivers, lakes, canals, and streams, contaminating those waters and exposing marine life to toxic pesticides. To make matters worse, it turns out that the safe doses of pesticides like carbaryl aren’t safe at all and are contaminating waterways causing frogs to die at Forty six times the rate they usually would in the wild.
An article published by the Pesticide Action Network Europe shows that the number of farmland birds is now half that of 1980 in Europe, even among formerly abundant bird species. This decline is far greater in countries with more intensive agriculture. Pesticides poison birds and negatively affect bird populations by reducing their food sources by killing off insects and reducing the abundance of weeds. Studies show that insects’ global decline has reached a critical 75%, with climate change and habitat loss cited as reasons for the deterioration. This is highly concerning since birds play a vital role in several processes, including pollination and nutrient cycling.
Furthermore, common pesticide use has been linked to collapsing bee colony disorder where bees abandon their hives. This has resulted in the loss of up to 90% of bee colonies since 2006. The loss of pollinators is one of the biggest ironies of plant-based food production. Intensive farming, coupled with pesticides, is destroying the very pollinators this system relies on to produce crops. It’s evident that the least harm principle of meat-eating opponents doesn’t live up to the hype.
Livestock Farming is More Ethical
Animal farming, on the other hand, is highly beneficial to the environment. However, meat-eating opponents like to point out that livestock production contributes to climate change, causes pollution due to animal waste, and is the leading player in biodiversity loss by causing land degradation. So let’s address these claims.
Ruminants like cattle can thrive where irrigation isn’t viable, and crops can’t grow, and on land that would otherwise stay barren. Their waste is a fertilizer that’s organic, free of fossil fuels, and an absolute gold necessary for farms. The uses of livestock waste are endless. For example, it can be used to feed black soldier flies to then reefed farmed fish or livestock, turned into nutrient-dense compost, or turned into biogas.
Proper management of livestock grazing through timely rotation can improve soil quality and encourage healthy plants and grass regrowth. As they graze, livestock disperses their natural manure, ensuring a healthy ecosystem that creates fertile soil that sequesters carbon and holds rainwater allowing all sorts of animals like birds, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and insects to flourish. Livestock can also graze on harvested lands like cornfields, consuming left-over husks, cleaning up the land, and replenishing it with nutrients through their organic manure.
Livestock farming also causes less harm to field animals than intensive crop production systems. There’s also the added benefit of less need and demand for pharmaceutical products resulting in decreased toxicity on the environment. Overall, animals can help increase crop yields without depleting resources, reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, and improve biodiversity.
So is it Ethical to Eat Meat?
As we’ve seen, the vegan diet is not as bloodless as ethical vegans would like you to believe. In fact, eating meat does the least harm than eating plant-based food. An average carnivore will eat about 2 pounds of meat per day. This provides approximately 3,000 calories and is enough to sustain an adult. A cow provides an average of 430 pounds of meat, and if you divide that by 365 days, it translates to 1.18 pounds. This means as a carnivore, you only eat less than two cows per year, and if you supplement with other animal meats and products, this figure can significantly reduce.
Eating grass-fed beef of cows who have had access to the outside, eating grass, and socializing with other cows is more ethical than eating plant food whose production wrecks havoc on the planet. Jay Bost, an agroecologist and winner of New York Times’ essay contest on the ethics of eating meat, believes that how the meat was raised is a determinant on the question of meat-eating ethics.
Bost argues that it’s ethical to eat meat raised in specific circumstances like using animals to cycle nutrients and preserve the biotic community’s stability, integrity, and beauty. At the same time, it’s unethical to eat meat raised in other circumstances like factory farms. In fact, in a recent interview with Vogue, Singer said that he has fewer problems eating meat if the animal lived a good life and is humanely killed.
Although eating meat means some animals will die, this is part of the circle of life. The principle of least harm, which plays a central role in the argument against eating meat, is more closely adhered to by carnivores than those that solely eat plant foods.