Back in spring, before the drought devastated farm country, before $8 corn and before we found out how bad replacement refs could be, The New York Times ran a contest asking readers to submit essays on “Why Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?”
(You might note that such a proposal begs the question of “Why do we have to write essays to justify eating meat?”)
Many readers responded, some with quite cogent arguments, ones that are good to file away should the need arise to counter the naysayers or address the criticisms of veggie believers who want livestock to disappear and people to subsist on processed soy protein.
Here’s a sampling of some of the better excerpts, including one from the winning essay:
● Evolution. Jan Cho, who writes on the Care2 Make A Difference animal welfare blog, is a former marketing executive and now a mother of two who “cares deeply about the quality of our food.”
In her essay titled, “Eating Meat to Survive,” she argued that in the wild, animals kill animals, predators devour prey and the strong conquer the weak. Humans, however, are “omnivores with a conscience,” as Cho phrased it. “We have a choice in what we eat and understand the ethical implications of our choices. But how did humans evolve the cognitive capacity to consider the ethics [of eating animal food] in the first place?”
Her answer: By eating animals. Meat is energy-dense, easy to digest when cooked and provides an excellent source of food for the brain. “Most anthropologists believe that it was by beginning to eat meat that our ancestors saw a substantial gain in relative brain size millions of years ago,” she wrote. “Bigger brains could accommodate more advanced cognitive functions, including abstract thought and language. So you could say that eating meat made it possible for us to deliberate the ethics of eating meat.”
● Sustainability.Nicolette Hahn Niman is a livestock rancher, environmental lawyer and author. Although she stated that she’s a vegetarian, she noted that in her work as an environmental lawyer she studied ecologically based farming and became convinced that animals are essential to sustainable farms. “They increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control and convert vegetation that’s inedible to humans and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food,” she wrote.
● Perspective. Tovar Cerulli, a hunter and author of “The Mindful Carnivore,” wrote about how living in a rural community showed him that raising much of the food we’re familiar with comes at a cost. “From habitat destruction to combines that inadvertently mince rabbits to the shooting of deer in farm fields, crop production is far from harmless,” he wrote. “Even in our own organic garden, my wife and I were battling ravenous insects and fence-defying woodchucks. I began to see that the question wasn’t what we ate but how that food came to our plates.”
According to Cerulli, adding eggs, dairy, chicken and fish back into his diet also led to an improvement in his and his wife’s health.
● Welfare. A vegan for 15 years, Joshua Applestone, a butcher and co-author of “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat,” wrote that he “overcame [his] aversion to consuming meat” after seeing farmers raising animals sustainably and ethically. He realized he didn’t have a problem with meat, only with some of the “inhumane practices’ of the meat industry. “Eating animal-derived foods is not, in and of itself, a health risk; it is over-consumption that is.”
Finally here is a powerful argument from the winning entry in The Times essay contest, written by one Jay Bost, who described himself as “a farmworker, plant geek, agro-ecologist and foodie” and who now teaches at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. He wrote:
“The reasons I became a vegetarian, then a vegan and then again a conscientious meat-eater were all ethical. While studying agroecology at Prescott College in Arizona, I was convinced that if what you are trying to achieve with an ‘ethical’ diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat is the most ethical thing you can do, other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans and pinyon nuts.
“A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun » diverse plants » cow » human. This looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field » irrigated soy monoculture » tractor harvest » processing » tofu » shipping » human.
“The fact is most agro-ecologists agree that animals are integral parts of truly sustainable agricultural systems. They are able to cycle nutrients, aid in land management and convert sun to food in ways that are nearly impossible for us to do without fossil fuel.
“For me, eating meat is ethical when you accept the biological reality that death begets life and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.”
Not a bad take—especially for a former vegan—and one that behooves us all.
Thank you, Jay.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.