The Ethics of Eating Meat

Slaughtering sucks. I don't like killing animals, but I guess I like eating meat more than I dislike killing. Over the years I've grappled with whether I should eat meat at all, and for a while I was a vegetarian. These days I accept that my actions have ripple effects far and wide no matter what I choose to do and to eat. I believe that eating humanely raised meat produced with environmentally sound methods is OK and pushes the world in the direction I like to see it go.

My belief that eating meat is ethical is informed by several concepts I hold about the world, namely, that humans are a part of the world and dependent upon it, that human choices affect the natural world for better or for worse, and that partnering with animals under a rubric of holisitic management is the best way to achieve maximum health for livestock, humans, and the environment we share.

Human history is inextricably linked with the consumption of other animals.  Building and fueling large brains required the concentrated source of calories that animal flesh and fat provides. Animal products are nutrient dense, readily, digestible high quality foods. The last few decades of so called “nutrition” research is bedeviled by bias and shoddy work. Thankfully the tide has finally begun to turn. Thousands of generations of meat eating shaped our guts and metabolisms to be optimally healthy with meat, offal, and animal fats as a part of our diet. Despite what vegans argue, the digestive physiology humans carry points to omnivory as the ‘natural’ state of affairs for homo sapiens. And the fact that no human society or culture, excepting a small minority of contemporary people, has every been shown to survive longterm on a vegan diet, augers for an historical perspective too. Today’s vegans must supplement with B vitamins, presumably because the ability to synthsize one’s own fell by the wayside since animal derived foods are rich in them.  I want to be as healthy as I can be, and I want the same for my neighbors. I believe this requires that we eat some meat. The absolute amount can vary from person to person and locale to locale, but I believe that a little bit, twice or thrice per week at a minimum, allows for full health to easily blossom.

By no means are all steaks morally equivalent, and certain parameters must be met for eating flesh to be acceptable. The animal that makes up my meal must have led a life free of inescapable manure, pain, or noise, and had little exposure to fear inducing structures or machines. This mandate indicts a huge proportion of the meat raised in the United States. CAFOs (confined animal farming operations) produce most of the pork and chicken raised in the US and most cattle spend a few months in a feedlot to fatten right before slaughter. CAFOs are fetid, horrid places. When I can smell a “farm” from a mile distant it strikes me that the poor animals forced to live in or over their own muck therefore suffer under a form of abuse. Animals in our care must be able to find a clean place to lie down, escape the odor of their own manure, and interact with plants growing right out of the soil. I recognize that my dietary choices affect the living situations of the animals that end up on my dinner plate. They must be free to express the full range of instincts that move pigs, cattle, and poultry.

Environmental ethics also come into play in this discussion. Meat eating has been variably blamed for all manner of environmental ills, often with good reason. Poor range management is one of the greatest of humanity's failings.  But improper application of grazers and wholesale disruption of ecosystems by poor grazing management in the past is not a reason to foreswear the many ecological benefits that can be gained from good management. I take it as an unalloyed good that streams run clear and cool, the air smell clean, grass grow lustily and green, wild animals have space to meet their needs, that carbon is sequestered and soil made more fertile, and that we all - humans, domestic animals and wildlife, enjoy access to these environmental "services".  All of these goods can be affected for the better by grazers, increasing overall carrying capacity and thereby enabling more life, of many different forms, to live.  Partnering with herd animals is the only way to achieve the high level of ecosystem vitality I currently see in a few small areas and easily envision on a much wider scale.  The missing link in most cases is proper management. With judicious action and appropriate humility farmers in my eco-region can work with nature to call forth much more life than nature provides on her own. To put it in a more precise and lingo loaded way, I think net primary productivity, and therefore total fauna can be increased by proper human management of herbivores. With judicious inputs of mind-power, hoof action, and fertilizer the total amount of life each acre of land supports each year can be increased well past what mother nature puts forth on her own. To fully create this type of world requires that some of the herd be culled each year, and cycling their bodies into the larger whole as meat makes sense to me.

I eat meat because I see it as an integral piece of the larger puzzle we need so desperately to solve.  Our healthcare crisis could be dramatically attenuated or even reversed by eating as our ancestors did.  The potential reduction of morbidity and suffering is mind-boggling.  Many of our ecological problems could be solved with the help of large herds of grazers. The members of such herds lead full lives when they have the space and time to act on all their various drives.  Cutting short the lives of some animals that the others in the herd, the range itself, and we humans can all achieve greater health is a difficult choice, but it is the way of the world and one that life demands. Ultimately I hope I can lead my life in much the way I try to provide for the animals in my care. I want to live in an environment where I can express myself as I wish and meet my basic needs in a fulfilling way. When my time comes, I hope I drop dead as quickly as my animals do when their number comes up.

Edmund Brown

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