The New York Times recently ran a competition to write a 600-word essay on why it’s ethical to eat meat. Six runners up have been selected by a panel of judges (Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light), and now the public gets to vote for a winner. There are some good ones over there, and I recommend voting! I submitted the essay below, which didn’t make it into the short list…
I look forward to a rigorous debate in the comments, which I promise I’ll join in on this time (work commitments have limited my capacity to engage lately, my apologies).
The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems
You ask why eating meat is ethical, and I retort, ‘the real question is how can we feed 9 billion people by 2050 sustainably and ethically?’ The answer: ‘we must grow our food in an ecosystem.’ Ecosystems are complex, and animals are merely one part of the equation – there are also flora, microbiological organisms, and abiotic components – minerals, energy, water… Restricting ethical arguments to people and farm animals merely contributes to the anthropocentric problem-solving that got us into our current unsustainable, unethical mess.
It’s a bit of privileged righteousness to read Peter Singer, become vegetarian, and debate the finer moral questions of whose interests are served by the killing and consumption of animals, when humans can live without relying on meat. It’s also a damned sight easier than grappling with the complexity of ecosystems.
We’re part of a food chain, not a constellation of highly evolved autonomous links engaged in synchronised swimming. Each link consumes others in an endlessly complex cycle – remove a link, and others must disproportionately bear the weight of the world.
Industrial agriculture has dropped such a burden on us – it is being born heavily across many ecosystems and species, including our own, but the answer is not ‘stop eating meat’, because the more important question is ‘how can we participate in ecosystems without creating massive imbalances?’ The answer is to dismantle industrial agriculture, and to do so the global north must stop eating so much meat (and dairy), stop growing so much grain for too many farm animals to eat, stop growing soy and corn to insert into every industrial, processed food in existence, and eat foods farmed in biodiverse agro-ecological systems. Equally the global south must be assisted to restore their own agro-ecologies.
It’s only by exiting the anthropocentric mindset that we can understand the ethics of ecosystems – while not every component may be determined to be of equal value, each must be considered. The soil must be nourished just as human and non-human animal bodies must, water must be protected from systems of excess, and biodiversity – including crop and animal diversity- must be protected and maintained to provide natural crop protections and increase our food system’s resilience.
The ethics of ecosystems demand we eat so that we are growing our food in concert with the local environment. We would grow what fruit and vegetables are viable locally, and trade to supplement our diets with what can’t be grown locally.
Poultry would be eaten perhaps once a month, when there are too many roosters or an old hen off the lay, as laying hens are worth their golden eggs alive, nutritionally speaking. Dairy and eggs offer dense nutrients, and milking a cow who is also feeding a calf (who is next year’s beef) is part of many an eco-agricultural cycle. The manure from all these animals provides nitrogen and phosphorus, essential nutrients for plant growth in an extensive garden, just as the meat provides the family with direct and readily bioavailable sources of life’s most basic building blocks.
Animals are a critical part of any healthy agricultural system – when we de-coupled plant and animal agriculture and moved towards enormous monocultures, we broke entire ecosystems and embedded unnecessary and abhorrent animal suffering. Clearing rainforest for beef or soybeans or palm oil, building vast concrete-floored sheds and then trying to figure out what to do with the effluent of 10,000 miserable pigs, and spraying thousands of acres of corn with megalitres of pesticides is not and never will be sustainable, nor ethical. Any ethical system knows this.