The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

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.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a PhD candidate, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and would-be cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community...

11 thoughts on “The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems”

  1. I didn’t find the 6 finalists particularly motivating, certainly none that would move me to start eating meat again, though I’m usure that is the point of the competition. I don’t see the competition as particularly fair either, given the restrictions and specificity of the question. It seems to me that what the question is designed to do is have meat eaters justify to a panel of moralising judges the seemingly unjustifiable practice of eating meat. But that is just my take on the competition.

    Regarding the question though, which also points to your entry, the question is specifically about privilege; whether it is morally justifiable to eat animals if human survival is not at stake. The reading I have of the question speaks to the privilege of the West. In light of this reading, whether those starving in the global south ought to abstain from eating meat, or any other group of peoples in similar circumstances, is something of a moot point if we understand that a normative commitment is only binding if the ability to follow through with it is also present. For example, if I am unable to swim I ought not be obliged to save anyone from drowning. Likewise, and crudely put, if I am unable to survive without eating meat, then I ought not be obliged to starve to death. This is what the question points to I think. Given your (read: those who wish to participate in the competition) position of relative wealth and privilege living in the West affords you, which implies that you are not in a position of starvation, justify your practice of killing and consuming animals against the normative backdrop that animals ought not be killed for human consumption. If this is a reasonable reading of the question, then a) the participant needs to justify the seemingly unjustifiable, which leads to b) forcing you to reject your belief that killing animals is acceptable without reducing or sublimating the act of killing to something other than what it is: killing.

    However, this strict reading is countered with a more broader reading which places the normative value with the environment as a whole, one that does not extract humans and non-human animals from an overall ecology. Humans and non-human animals should not be removed from the discussion of ecology, and it is here I agree with your basic premise: “The ethics of ecosystems demand we eat so that we are growing our food in concert with the local environment.”

    The only issue I have, and this in based on how I would ontologically structure the being of humans and non-human animals, is that I try not to place any hierarchy between humans and non-human animals, which brings me to my question on your conception of a food chain. If not every component is determined to have equal value, though considering each component, how do you structure such a food chain?

    Anyhow, I’ll leave it there.

  2. Thanks, Lesh. There were some great entries on there, though I was pretty disappointed to see the one advocating in vitro meat winning, as it not only didn’t engage with the real ethical dilemma, in my view, it remains utterly trapped in the anthropocentric mindset that divorces humans and non-human animals from the rest of the ecosystem. :-(

  3. Nathan, thank you so much for this really thoughtful response. First of all, I agree with you that the competition was poorly set up – it struck me as a late-night idea that had legs, rather than proper thought put into it. The tiny word count alone made the task nearly impossible, but also, as I highlighted in my piece, I think they asked the wrong question.

    Having said that, I follow your moral reasoning on privilege and choice, but one of the things that makes this discussion difficult is how far removed we are from fully appreciating our place in a healthy ecosystem – one that’s actually in balance. In such a hypothetical space, I don’t even think the question of hierarchy as such would arise, because it’s about balance, not power, it seems to me. That is, as my flesh rots when I die, it should be in the soil to feed the insects and microorganisms to continue growing more soil, plant life and ultimately animals. And should I happen to be in the way of a hungry tiger, well, on balance, I guess it’s her turn to eat and mine to die.

    Similarly, take a closed system where a community is farming both plants and animals. The community wouldn’t actually take the lives of many of those animals, as it would have too high a cost to do so. It takes a lot of resources to support the life of animals, including ours, and in a world where we better understood that, we would only take the nutrients we need out of the cycle to perform a particular nutritional need, including human need. But of course too many roosters are a problem in a flock of chickens, and so some of them would be considered surplus to the energy needs of the flock and vegie garden and therefore better used to provide sustenance for the humans. And although I understand that vegans may argue (rightly) that we don’t *need* animal products to survive (in nutrient-rich societies like ours), so why even have the chickens, cows, sheep… as I and others have pointed out, animals are a critical part of healthy agriculture. So unless we return to foraging and a nomadic lifestyle, I don’t see how we can de-couple farm animals from plant agriculture – the examples of where we’ve already done that have shown us the error of our ways.

    Finally, on hierarchies, something I am grappling with is a vegan argument whereby they own/live with dogs, cats and/or other animals. I’m familiar with the rhetoric around ownership/pets, etc, and am not really interested in debating that. What interests me are a couple of other questions: 1) do they feed them on animal products and if so, how to justify this – whose interest is being served here, the human or the dog? And how much are people willing to pay to ensure their pets have ‘ethically raised’ pet food, or does it not matter that the food they give their animals is from battery hens or bobby calves? 2) when the dog ‘misbehaves’, is s/he disciplined? Does this not suggest a hierarchy then? Can we really say there is no hierarchy between those with greater capacity to lead/control and those with less?

    The first question returns to the core of the question about killing for consumption, and I think highlights the instability of the proposition about hierarchies. The second I don’t wish to suggest is about killing – they’re not equivalent arguments – however, it does worry at the issue of hierarchical relationships between human and non-human animals. I’ll leave it there for now, but look forward to more, I hope.

    Once again, thanks for a thought-provoking comment, and as always, your respectful manner of engaging with what are difficult and often emotional discussions, Nathan. Compared with the antagonism I’ve encountered from other quarters, which has made it much more difficult to remain engaged, you always make me think a bit more.

  4. I’ll try and respond to each paragraph just to make it more coherent (though I make no guarantees for coherency of argument…).

    Firstly I’ll speak to the notion of balance and heirarchy within an ecosystem as you mentioned in the first paragraph. I’m very sympathetic to the notion of balance within ecosystems, it’s certainly something I promote and practice where it’s pragmatic to do so. The problem with balance is the difference in how balance is acheived within an ecosystem. Achieving a balance wihin an ecosystem still appears to based on an economic system determined by surplus that is always adventagous to humans. My death within an ecosystem is largely determined by natural means, that is to say, my death comes about at the end of a natural process without intervention. But even then, the process leading towards my death is an unnatural one given certain techological interventions such as industrialised medicine, aiding to the longevity of my existence. Parochially, human numbers are generally smaller in comparison with nonhuman animals which leads to the (commodity) value of nonhuman animal surplus when maintaining a balanced ecosystem. On a universal scale, with human populations increasing, there is no thought to maintaining a balance within human populations, the thought is to increase industries to meet demand of human populations. We don’t see balancing human populations the same way we see balancing nonhuman animal populations. There is no suplus with regard to human populations. Most would find it utterly abhorent if we started culling human populations, basing it on balancing an ecosystem. (This is the imbalance we find ourselves in at the moment). This is where I see the problem with balance in ecosystems. There appears to be an inherent, underlying notion of hierarchy involved based on an ontological priority. I want to stress, however, that this hierarchy may change under different circumstances, which leads me to my next point about agricultural systems.

    I certainly see your point about closed systems where agricultural systems seem far more controlled where the culling of populations looks at the whole system, where killing off roosters is beneficial not only for the flock but also for other resources. In a pragmatic way, I agree this is how we ought to organise and balance healthy agriculture. (The problem as we both know is getting it back to this point). The problem, which I am happy to suggest is really more a philosophical one merely for purposes of discussion, is that agricultural systems are not natural ecological systems. The difference points to the problems I mentioned above and the one you point to in regards to going back to more of a nomadic lifestyle. The reason why I call this a problem, and one that I have been criticised for being far too unrealistic, that if my reasoning is sound with regard to what I see as inherent hierarchies within unnatural ecological systems (read: ecologies of civilisation), then any notion of balance promotes oppressive dynamics between humans and nonhuman animals. Ultimately, the needs of humans will always be met through various technological apparatuses. Within a more natural ecological setting, at least in terms of the dynamics between humans and non human animals (I see little problem with community or private vegetable crops), these technological apparatuses are, though still present, diminished significantly. The activity of hunting (I’m not talking high powered rifles with sights) for example, to a vast degree places the dynamics between humans and nonhuman animals on a more level or equal playing field. We have just as much of an opportunity to catch and kill an animal as what the animal does of escaping. This does not de-couple animals from an overall ecological framework, it simply changes the dynamics to something more equal. I’m not suggesting that this is line is infallible, it needs a lot of work, though for me it is a base position from which to build on and develop, both theoretically and practically.

    The questions you raise with regard to vegans and pets is one that I often think about, being vegan and having pets. It is also one that perhaps I am unable to answer for the simple fact that I am the only vegan in my house. My wife is a vegetarian, my 11 y.o. son is an omnivore, while my 9 y.o daughter is grappling with the decision to be stricly vegetarian. I don’t force my choice to be vegan on my family, however, we collectively make the choice to source ethically sustainable food, whether it be meat, vegetables, or other food items — we grow as much as we can. Because of the varying diets within my household, my pets (2 dogs) have a varying diet. I can, however, speak more specifically to your question of discipline and hierarchical relationships. Within a household there are hierarchical dynamics between humans and pets, much the same as there are hierarchical dynamics between parents and children. My major issue concerning hierarchy is not necessarily a political one, which is what i think your outlining with your question on discipline, leadership, and control, (though there are issues I have concerns about in much broader social contexts), it is one of ontological priority. If my children misbehave, I discipline them accordingly. My pets are no different. However, I wish to stress that discipline in both cases is carried out in a non-violent manner. I don’t necessarily have an issue with violence when it comes to those engaged are of equal ability (I practice mixed martial arts and it is this level and context of violence I feel comfortable with). I won’t deny there aren’t hierarchical structures within my household, though these are political structures.

    I want to stress, mainly for others who will read my comments or who haven’t discussed these issues with me before, that my comments are in no way moral judgements, but merely thoughts to promote further discussion on the social, political, and ethical elements of food and all that it entails. Judgement implies authority, and authority is something I have over very few, namely my kids and my pets… :)

  5. I just want to add, if you think I’ve gone a bit off topic, by all means rein me in. I tend to be long-winded and lose track sometimes. Looking forward to further discussion on any of the topics raised.

  6. A well written & admirable piece, Tammi. And good on you for entering the competition. I haven’t read the finalists’ pieces yet, nor the winning article – hopefully i’ll get to them over the weekend.
    While i couldn’t have put it nearly as eloquently as you, i agree with your point that we are part of an ecosystem that is out of balance, unfortunately to the detriment of the animals that most of us in the West consume.
    Will that system be rebalanced if we all tweak our habits – eat less meat, practice polyculture, grow less corn & soy? Certainly. Will most of us tweak those habits? Certainly not. At least, not any time soon.
    I think it is ethical to eat meat in the ecosystem you describe.
    So thank you for your argument, for suggesting ways to rebalance our stuffed up ecosystem, and for reminding us that we’re all links in a food chain that we have a responsibility to maintain.

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