The Real Reason that Eating Meat is Ethical


Earlier this month, The New York Times held an essay contest asking readers to perform a surprisingly challenging task: provide an ethical justification for eating meat. The best six responses, as judged by a celebrity panel that included Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, and Jonathan Safran Foer, were published last week. The winning essays relied on a variety of justifying principles, from the reasonable – livestock waste nourishes the land – to the dubious: animals are allegedly incapable of forming meaningful relationships. To my mind, however, none of the six pieces captured the most powerful argument in favor of meat-eating: that every source of food, vegetables included, results in animal deaths. You simply can't see the creatures that died for your veggie burger. 

In 2011, a team of scientists published an article in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity that sought to explain the mysterious decline of North America’s monarch butterflies. The culprit, according to the entomologists: Roundup, the world’s most famous herbicide.

Roundup, which is manufactured by the biotech giant Monsanto, is designed to kill every plant it contacts, aside from the company’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops. Unfortunately for monarchs, Roundup has proven especially effective at wiping out milkweed, the plant upon which the butterflies rely during their legendary transcontinental migrations. As milkweed has dwindled, so too have the monarchs, reaching record low populations in 2009-2010. According to the study’s authors, the indiscriminate use of Roundup “calls into question the long-term survival of the monarchs’ migratory phenomenon.”

As the monarch’s decline shows, the production of vegetables is as brutal as any feedlot. The vast majority of agricultural operations within the United States are sterile, monocultural wastelands in which insects, rodents, and all other life forms capable of jeopardizing yields are criminalized and wiped out on sight. While agriculture’s toll on insects is impossible to quantify, it’s safe to assume that the number of invertebrates killed every year in the name of vegetables dwarfs the number of slaughtered chickens by several orders of magnitude.

Bestowing more value on cows than beetles is a natural impulse – I’m moved by big, dewy eyes as much as the next person – but that prejudiced perspective reveals the same bias toward certain species that vegetarians decry in carnivores. Whether insects are capable of suffering as mammals do remains an open, and perhaps irreconcilably subjective, question; but ample research suggests that insects feel pain and strive to avoid it. And if you still imbue warm-blooded vertebrates with greater worth, then you’re surely devastated by the estimated 67 million birds that succumb to agriculture each year.

It is, perhaps, theoretically possible to run a “no-harm farm,” where even the most irksome pests receive the right to live. In fact, I once worked on one: Hell’s Backbone Grill, a farm and restaurant in Boulder, Utah, where mosquitos and grasshoppers were controlled by birds and dragonflies, and where flies that snuck into the farmhouse were captured and freed with a handheld vacuum that resembled a baster. Nonetheless, given the overwhelming dominance of lifeless monoculture over the landscape, we can infer that all but the most scrupulous vegetarians are eating produce that has done plenty of harm.

Vegetarianism’s moral superiority, therefore, is illusory. The animals sacrificed to a head of lettuce merely die invisibly in the fields, rather than turning up as a gray grilled mass on a plate. Does that make meat moral? Perhaps not – but a guy’s gotta eat something, right? Animals suffer and die during the production of any food, but no one would seriously suggest that we all stop eating.

We can, however, advocate for a less vicious food system. While eating a hamburger in the abstract is ethically defensible, consuming a slab of cow that was raised in the appalling confines of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation is a different matter. Still, while our industrial meat system is indefensible, I maintain that the way we grow corn is as murderous as any CAFO. Just as animal rights advocates have fought to improve the lot of livestock, so must ethics-minded activists remember the collateral damage of agriculture, and endorse reforms – ecosystem-based pest control; promoting polycultures – that reduce the death toll in America’s fields. Until that happens, eating meat will be no less ethical than eating anything else.  

The Real Reason that Eating Meat is Ethical