What ethical obligations do we have to the animals that provide our meat, eggs, milk and other foods?
When a pride of lions track down and eat an antelope we don’t believe that they’ve done something wrong. This is just what carnivores do. When Homo erectus began hunting in groups cooperatively with the aid of more sophisticated tools it was one of the bigger steps in our evolution. Cooperation communication, according to one theory I’ve read, gradually molded our distant ancestors into more intelligent and social beings.
Should we be held to a different standard? If it’s ok for an animal, even a primate, to eat meat why wouldn’t it be ok for us as well?
Once again I hold a series of conflicting views on the topic. Here is what has been rolling around in my mind:
Objections to Eating Animal Products
Pigs, cows, chickens and other factory-farmed animals are kept in absolutely brutal conditions. I’m ethically uncomfortable every time I support this industry (even as I acknowledge that in certain situations it’s difficult to find alternatives.)
Raising animals for our consumption is resource-intensive. It takes less water, land, fuel and time to raise and distribute grain or produce that we eat than it does to water and fertilize corn or wheat, feed it to cows or pigs, and then slaughter and transport those animals and feed them to us.
The average person living in the west consumes far more protein that he or she actually needs. Even if we agree that a good diet can or should include animal products protein is also found in beans, grains and certain vegetables and as a whole westerners are not deficient in this nutrient.
But What About…
Land that is only fit for grazing. Some geographic areas are more conducive to farming than others. In certain climates the land can sustain grazing herds but is too cold, dry, or otherwise unsuited for vegetables or grains.
Ethically raised meat and eggs are often far more expensive than their factory-farmed competition. Sometimes the extra money can be squeezed out of a food budget but at other times it cannot. What should people with fixed or low incomes do? Do the ethics of this change based on what a family can afford? If the same ethics apply to everyone, should someone who cannot afford free-range meat or other products never eat them? If it doesn’t apply, why are there different rules for different groups? Does having more choices in life lead to the ethical obligation to choose the less harmful option?
Veg*n failures. Some people thrive on a vegan diet and I genuinely wish I was one of them. Every time I try it, though, I become sick much more easily and start to feel lethargic. What works best for me: animal products a few times a week when healthy and a little more often when I’m sick or injured. Often all I need is a few scrambled eggs or a handful of shrimp tossed into a stir-fry. If I weren’t allergic to milk products I could easily be vegetarian or pescatarian. The B-vitamins, iron and protein in foods like eggs, cheese, and the occasional bit of seafood would suffice. Until we find a cure for allergies, though, I’ll continue to eat meat occasionally.
Tradition. Every fall a few family members buy hunting licenses. If they are successful everyone feasts on venison for months. In unsuccessful years some family members will buy a quarter or half of a locally-raised cow (which, in some cases, they’ve actually met!) or they may decide to pick up their meat at a grocery store for a while instead. I never ask where the meat they serve comes from, though, as it feels odd and a tinge ungrateful to do so in a culture so reliant on meat and dairy products in their diet.
What would the world look like if everyone were more conscious about the origins of his or her food? Have you thought about the ethics of eating animals products? If so, what does your diet look like?