Bradley Cramer taught Burmese refugees how to process the chickens he raised in Medina, Ohio, last Saturday at Schmidt Family Farms./Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Several weeks ago, New York Times columnist Ariel Kaminer created a contest asking people to argue that eating meat is an ethical decision. Kaminer was pleased by the response. Judges included carnivores, vegetarians, and perhaps the most thoughtful and compelling vegan living, Peter Singer (and it’s worth clicking the Kaminer link for the judges’ overall responses to the many essays they read). They chose as winner an article by teacher Jay Bost.

It’s no secret that I am a vigorous and unapologetic carnivore. After visiting the above, Schmidt Family Farms, where Bradley Cramer not only processed more than 100 chickens but also trained Burmese refugees how to do it so that they, relocated to the Midwest, might try to earn a living farming, I’ve decided to weigh in on a subject I’ve been thinking about for years: why it is OK for me to eat another sentient creature.

This I believe: to eat humanely raised and slaughtered animals is not only ethical, it’s important to our humanity. I don’t argue against vegetarianism, and do believe that our diets should be composed mainly of plants, as Michael Pollan rightly simplifies it. I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else what they’re allowed to eat. And while I’m an admirer of the great intelligence of Peter Singer and his talents as a writer, I believe veganism as practiced by most is sanctimonious at best, and at worst harmful arrogance. What I can say for veganism is that it’s a superlative weight-loss strategy.

As the Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, the cooking of food may well have been the mechanism that tripped our ancient genes into our current human ones. He suggests convincingly that consuming calorie-dense food (attainable only by cooking it) grew our brains, gave our ancestors the health needed to spread their genes, and socialized us (cooking food required cooperation, which led to small societies that could organize and protect themselves). Meat was a main source of this calorie-dense food.

To put it as simply as possible, then, to give up eating what made us who we are possibly endangers us genetically and socially.
Second, eating meat is a pleasure, and in a stressful uncertain world, pleasure is good, for mind and body.
Third, our eating animals is good for the animals. They exist because we care for them, and we care for and raise their offspring. If spit-roasted dodo bird had been delicious to eat, I’d wager the dodo bird would still exist.

In my reporting about food, I interviewed a farmer, Keith Martin, who raises lamb outside Pittsburgh for high-end restaurants such as the French Laundry and Alinea. He is so caring for his animals that when a farm hand failed to keep the animals’ bedding dry, he made the farm hand lie in the urine-soaked hay in order to make his point.
I spoke with Mr. Martin about his personal thoughts on the ethics of raising lamb for slaughter, given his obvious care for these animals. He is a thoughtful and smart man who left his work as a stockbroker to raise livestock—no crackpot.

Michael, he said to me, I spend a lot of time with these animals. I watch them get into that truck. I see their eyes. I know they’re good with it. They know, and they’re good with this arrangement.

The arrangement being that Martin takes good care of them, and their children, and they go willingly into the truck, stress-free, to the slaughterhouse. This he believes. [Update: enough people have taken issue with Keith's comments that I urge you to read their comments below, as well as my response.]

To eat meat then is both good for us, health-giving when consumed in proper proportions, and deeply pleasurable (there’s a biological reason for this pleasure, certainly). Eating meat is good for humanity generally and, provided the animals are treated with care, our eating them ensures their survival, life’s ultimate impulse, no matter the form.

Given that humans no longer need high reserves of protein and fat, and given that modern livestock raising has become in many places harmful to the land, the animals, and the workers who tend them, our ethical duty lies in eating meat in healthful proportions and working to ensure that all animals are cared for with the passion and thoughtfulness of people such as Mr. Martin and Mr. Cramer. This truly is what needs to be the next step, and I don’t think anyone—vegan, vegetarian, carnivore—disagrees with it: End the way we currently grow, process, slaughter, distribute, and eat meat by encouraging more Keith Martins and Bradley Cramers to do their work.

If you liked this post on Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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81 Wonderful responses to “Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat”

  • Trase Passantino

    Excellent! As an additional point in favor of eating animals, I cite Joel Salatin – he’s spoke about this in many place, but I’m currently reading his latest book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” and in it he talks about how if we want to preserve farmland, we have to preserve the farmer. And in order to do both of those things, we have to raise livestock on the land – to provide manure amendments to the soil and keep those earthworms happy! It is only by doing this that we can heal the land and keep the symbiotic relationship we all share in balance. Grass-fed, pastured animals help heal the land, and us in the process. This is the driving philosophy here on our farm and we are always thrilled to see more proponents in terms of folks looking for these types of nutrient-dense, humanely raised foods. Great article, and thrilled to hear your thoughts on this issue!

  • Andrew

    Another issue to keep in mind is that most of the animals we raise for food are completely domesticated. As you alluded to when you mentioned the dodo bird, they would not exist today were it not for the fact that we eat them. If you opened all the fences and let all the chickens and cows go free, they would soon starve and go extinct. Chickens can and do make reasonable pets, but not too many people would be raising them if it weren’t for their eggs and meat. Cows are probably not the greatest pets but we raise them for their milk and meat. Even those trying to keep heirloom breeds alive are encouraging people to eat them! Eating them is paradoxically how we save them. Just treat them well and let their lives be happy and comfortable ones until that end.

    • ruhlman

      Brad keeps the chix in a little hoop cage and rolls it around the pasture; he said he tried raising them free range, but too many got eaten by hawks. “How humane is that?” he asked.

  • Carly

    I do eat meat, and I come down on the side of, if the animal lived well and died humanely, then I don’t think there is anything wrong with eating it. What I struggle with, though, is that while I and many others say that, do we always practice it?

    I am a rare case that lives in the suburbs without a car. I can’t shuttle myself around to visit farms or select a butcher based solely on quality. From mid-May to early November, when our local farmers’ market is open, we are lucky to have a meat and dairy farmer come to us. His wares, of course, cost more than we can afford to gorge ourselves on, but we do buy our milk and eggs from him, and what meat we desire and can afford.

    But the rest of the year, my options are limited to grocery stores, and so we eat mostly vegetarian meals. But I’d be lying if I said I never stop somewhere and get a hot dog, order my favorite raw flank steak salad at our local Vietnamese joints, and so on. It’s relatively easy to find a responsible burger, but I have no idea where the meat is coming for some of the other things I eat. So yes, my consumption of factory-farmed meat is extremely limited – but I feel like I’m not alone among people who feel factory farming is unethical, but still sometimes support it either knowingly or unknowingly. Factory farming is far and away the norm, and it’s not easy to be an omnivore in many places and circumstances. So why am I not 100% vegetarian when I’m unable to source something better? Laziness, rationalization, the uncomfortable fact that I am sometimes willing to overlook ethics because something is tasty.

    Also, while I agree with the content of this article, I don’t love it when people say things about the animals knowing and understanding and being ok with their own slaughter. I’m not out to argue with anyone’s personal beliefs, but still. I sometimes humanize my dog and say he “knows” this or that, but when it comes down to it, I know that it’s in both of our best interests that I not justify his behaviors based on my own worldview. Animals both wild and domestic accept a lot of unfortunate facts with a grace that I don’t pretend to understand. I personally think it’s better that we not try to put that into human terms.

    • ruhlman

      Thanks for these excellent comments. I’d be lying too if i said I only eat ethically raised meat. It’s simply not practical. But I’m trying to eat more and more that way and supporting farmers. I’m really making an effort to integrate it into the routine of my week. The more of us who do this will create the need for more farmers.

      I also appreciate your comments about Keith. Sheep are not the smartest of creatures, and I don’t think they have a narrative going in their heads, but I thought Keith’s comments were interesting. And he really does feel that on some level the animals “know.” I don’t think it’s harmful to believe this. It probably encourages him to care more for them.

      • Carly

        I have to tell myself what you’re saying in your first paragraph here all the time – I always have a hard time separating practicality and reality from my ideals, but it’s always better to be better even if you can’t be perfect.

        As to the second, I fully agree. I think my discomfort stems not from him saying it, but from that place that sometimes makes you cringe because you worry about how other people will take the comments. That’s none of Keith’s responsibility. Even at its best, language can only ever take us so far. But I think you’re right that if his way of looking at it is a part of how well he treats the animals in his care, then it’s still a positive.

    • Barbara | Creative Culinary

      Carly, you speak for me exactly, especially your last paragraph. I enjoyed the article and the information but that notion elicited a ‘Sure they do.’ from me.I’m willing to bet if they did know and if given the choice they would not climb into that truck so willingly.

    • Kris

      Carly, I think you make excellent points. I too struggle with many of the same issues you mention, and I even live in an urban area with greater access to humanely raised and slaughtered animals. I think we have to strive to make the best choices we can in a given time and place and not beat ourselves up too much for faltering now and again.

  • Christian

    “I see their eyes. I know they’re good with it. They know, and they’re good with this arrangement.”
    For eating meat or against it, that quote’s a load of crap & rationalization.

    • ruhlman

      It may not be true, but I don’t think it’s harmful. And I think only if you believe what Keith is doing is morally wrong would you think that it’s a load of crap.

        • michael

          I have to agree with this. “They know” is 100% total BS that doesn’t need to be included here. That they were happy and well kept is enough. They don’t need to “know” and the sound they make when their throat is slit (sorry) belies them “knowing”…..

      • Mantonat

        I think the level on which the animal “knows” and is OK with it’s eventual slaughter (and which makes eating it ethical) is that animals like sheep are at the bottom of the food chain and that they are food for other animals – human, wolf, coyote, or otherwise. Sheep have a survival instinct, which is basically to stay in large groups and run when threatened. Animals that fight too much were not evolutionarily good for the predators, so most prey animals freeze or just collapse when caught. Good animal husbandry removes even the fight-or-flight instinct before death, so farmers like Keith Cramer are a step up for the sheep in terms of the nature of its eventual demise.

      • Anthony Robinson

        I have to agree that it’s bullshit. In defense of carnivorism, we should use our best arguments, not our weakest. I’m pretty sure that no living creature is happy to be killed. If we eat meat we should accept the responsibility that we are killing something and that animal we kill probably isn’t very thrilled with it.

    • Michael

      I found that statement so bizarre it barely registered until I read your comment.

      The entire set up made me chuckle too. You were a former salesman (i.e., stockbroker) and that somehow means you’re not wacky. So when I present your truly wacky point the reader will swallow it.

      Yes, I assume the farmer believes it. We can convince ourselves of ANYTHING. I’m particularly suspect of self-interested statements. I raise animals for food for a living. They don’t mind it. It’s a win-win. Very convenient argument that is even more appealing if you believe it yourself. I am not knocking this farmer. I eat meat as I said. I am glad people like him exist. I prefer to eat meat produced by people like him. But Michael speaks of arrogance of vegetarians. You’re telling me that you know the animals are good with it. Gimme a break.

  • Tags

    What we need is transparency in the food-raising process. If you’re going to argue that the markets will naturally weed out the bad elements, you must then concede that deceit and obfuscation hinder the markets.

  • YOD

    you had me until the quote by the lamb farmer that he can see in their faces that they’re “good with it.”

  • Eric Werner

    Hi –

    I’m confused about your statement “I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else what they’re allowed to eat.”? Does this mean that you disagree with rules against eating humans, food produced by slaves or food that is harmful (for example, a chemical that the vast majority of experimental evidence confirms is harmful, but is produced by a large company with enough advertising dollars to keep enough confusion in the marketplace over the confirmed harm, so millions of people keep eating the product)? I think my question is valid, because someone making a case against eating meat might make arguments similar to these examples.

    P.S.- I’m not vegetarian.
    P.P.S. – I started reading ‘Twenty’ this morning and i love it!

    • Mantonat

      Easy answers:
      1) You don’t need laws against cannibalism if you already have laws against killing people (hard to eat someone without killing them first).
      2) You don’t need laws against food produced by slaves if slavery itself is illegal. Read Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook to see examples of how many of us were unwittingly eating tomatoes produced by enslaved workers until activist in Florida brought the injustice to the attention of the press, law enforcement, and the public.
      3) Chemicals are not food (overgeneralization, I know – see NaCL and H2O). If the chemical is toxic on any appreciable level, then it should not be put in food. When in doubt, don’t eat anything you don’t recognize as the name of a food. Of course, there’s plenty of hysteria surrounding the idea of chemicals in food. Certain naturally occurring substances (sodium nitrite, for example) are certainly toxic in quantity but are very useful for the safe preservation of meat and are harmless when used properly and consumed in moderation. Regardless, we already have laws requiring labeling of ingredients, so it’s easy enough to read labels and avoid anything you might be worried about.

      • Eric Werner

        My problem is simply with the initial statement: “I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else what they’re allowed to eat.” I think it’s dangerous to advocate that position. Are you advocating that all laws protecting consumers from dangerous foods be eliminated? Because those laws are telling people what they are allowed to eat. The question for me becomes what (and to whom) is ‘dangerous’ enough that people shouldn’t be allowed to eat it? E-coli; definitely. Tortured animals; i’m not sure. And i’m not sure how you believe that an animal is conscious enough to be ‘good’ with the ‘arrangement’ of being slaughtered, and not believe that (at least) > 99% of animals produced for consumption are being tortured. (Again, I am not a vegetarian, but i only buy meat at the Heritage Meat Market or at restaurants supplied by Heritage or farms i am directly familiar with.)

        As for the ‘easy’ answers:
        1) Are you saying that if i kill you, it’s alright for someone else to eat you? It’s easy to eat things you don’t kill – when was the last time you killed a cow?

        2) Your food may not be produced by slaves (in the US we don’t eat much food produced in slave-heavy areas; i can’t think of any), but your jewelry, clothing and motorized vehicles most likely start as materials produced by slaves. Is something you are ok with? Should there be laws against allowing corporations to indirectly profit from slave labor?

        3) I don’t mean all chemicals. I cook with ultra-sperse, Activa, etc. But there are plenty of harmful things in our foods and the ‘if you don’t recognize the name’ rule is childish. If i recognize everything, does that make everything safe to eat? Should i stop using seaweed-derived gellans, because the basic chemical names are latinate gibberish and eat high-frucose corn syrup instead?

        • Mantonat

          1) Not sure I get your point. Killing people is illegal, as is trafficking in corpses. Not so with cows. I don’t need to kill a cow to legally obtain beef to eat.
          2) We’re talking about food in America here, not raw materials in other countries. In any case, I don’t think there are currently any countries in the world where slavery is legal. Enforcement and awareness (in the form of media attention) are the keys, as has been demonstrated in Florida. People have been tried and convicted of slavery within the last 10 years. What’s the other option – making tomatoes illegal?
          3) The rule is not childish if you are educated. The more you understand about your food, the more you can decide what to eat or what not to eat. You prove that in your examples of modernist cuisine ingredients. But for those whose initial reaction is fear, it’s easier to understand “potato” than to go around attempting to pass laws against things like transglutaminase just because some lazy journalist writes an expose with no basis in facts. The other point is that there’s nothing hiding in raw, natural ingredients. If you don’t buy Cheez Whiz, you don’t need to worry about what’s in Cheez Whiz.

    • ruhlman

      your points are well taken. i think they’re addressed in the nytimes winner’s essay, noting that commercially produced soy beans that are turned into tofu make that tofu ethically suspect.

      and of course, mantonat’s points are good ones.

      • Eric Werner

        I will read the NYT piece and reread yours in the context of that article. Thanks.

  • NYFarmer

    Meat may very well be the best thing for people of the Northeast to support. The great and well watered grasslands of the Northeastern states are being lost to large lot subdivision, fragmentation and downright abandonment to farm use. These are well watered grasslands that also serve as habitat for critical species, flood retention, watershed protection in some areas, open space, places of traditional architecture and beauty. Cornell details that some 3,000,000 acres of NY’s grasslands are abandoned, lost or underused for food and ag as large lot subdivisions move in. (see “Green Grass, Green Jobs”) Audubon has detailed the plummeting grassland bird species populations as the farmers are driven from the land. Growing livestock is what we are best with here in the Northeast, a food resource close to the Northeast Corridor equates to food security. New England Farmers Union is helping farmers to better understand how their farms sequester carbon. Properly managed grazing enhances carbon storage. In some areas, plowing up the grasslands as vegans scream at us from their Manhattan apartments would be ecological disaster. NYC, please think about and support the farms that can feed you. We see so little of this info in Big Urban Media. Oh, Mark Bittman and Ariel Kammer, how is it ethical to try to destroy the farms nearest to a population center that may someday desperately need us? When the habitat and birds of NY are gone, what will you say then?

    • Tim

      Amen. Every time I drive through central NY I imagine fields and fields of pasture poultry and pigs… Some day… Some day…

      • NYFarmer

        Watching the dairy farms here in central NY hacked to pieces is sickening. Knowing that the grassland bird species are being driven out of here as their habitats are smashed and fragmented makes me downright angry at urban people who want our farms gone because we produce milk and meat. I wish people would read Aubudon NY’s “Plan for Conserving Grassland Bird Species” to see the impact that the loss of NY’s grassland farms is having on NY’s signature bird species. We inventoried the bird species on our land in 1989 with professional ornithologists, they are holding their own at this point because a group of us farmers are holding our own (by forgoing health insurance, driving beat up cars and saving every cent for real estate taxes). We are told, that the same habitat fragmentation as pastures and grasslands are broken and/or plowed up for soy is occurring in the Pampas where the Upland Sandpipers from our farm go in the winter. Vegans, you can keep your soy and your smarmy lectures. I want milk and meat from central NY and I want the farmlands kept wild and beautiful for future generations.

  • Kathy

    I went vegetarian years ago, for ethical rather than health reasons, and that’s how I found out that my body can’t metabolize non-heme iron. Very funny, Universe! So I have no choice but to eat meat (or consume blood, if you want to go there) but like you, I do try to eat reasonable/responsible amounts of it obtained from ethical sources whenever possible. My husband and kids have a lot of food allergies — poultry and beef among them — so we tend to eat a lot of game and “alternative” meats anyway, most of which are sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered. I’m lucky enough to live in a huge food town (Austin) so I have little trouble finding non-CAFO meat, however it IS super expensive which is why I try to eat as little of it as I can without becoming severely anemic. I would say right now, since I started making a concerted effort to find it, about 70% of the meat we eat at home is non-CAFO. I’m working to get that to 100%, and I think it’s doable. Also, 90% of the eggs I buy are from pastured, humanely raised chickens. Again, pretty easy to find where I live. It’s dairy that’s the big bugaboo here. The best I can hope for is organic but that tells me NOTHING about how the cows are treated. I don’t do dairy myself but my husband and son drink a LOT of milk.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Discussions of ethics so often overly simplify or even dismiss the power of our being the creatures that we are. We (our species) eat meat because we are genetically programmed to do so. This is the only really objective answer that we have. The problem with ethics is that to act ethically, one has to first feel that one’s fundamental issues of life are not threatened. Ethics assumes that survival is reasonably assured. There is no evidence that we are evolving to not eat other creatures. Evolution is more basic and thus more powerful than ethics and evolution is not showing that our survival is being advantaged by not eating meat. But, in the evolutionary time scale, it may be too soon to tell, eh?

  • Monty

    Meat is precious. Any hunter knows this. The amount of effort it took our ancestors to track, close with, and kill, and eat an animal is astonishing. Meat should be rare in our diets, but when eaten in proportion should be enjoyed throughly.

  • Ryan Vegan

    I’m glad we have a spokesperson for the animals! We got the okay that just by the look on the faces, they are good to go. I’m overjoyed that he just knows that they are okay with it. This article made me laugh. It’s funny watching all of you scramble to find information and cases for eating meat.

      • Hershele Ostropoler

        I think this is often overlooked or dismissed in arguments for vegetarianism. We’re brought up in a world that views pleasure as trivial if not suspect.

        Now, “it brings pleasure” is not, itself, a sufficient argument in favor of eating meat, or against choosing to never eat meat, especially if the burden of proof is on the meat-eating side, but nor is it an irrelevant one.

  • ohiofarmgirl

    i get a little chuckle from the chest beatin’ non-carnivores saying how unethical it is to eat meat…..i hate to tell them but industrial ag provides most of that soy and such that makes their tu-food. and it takes a crap load of chemicals to do it. and it is not kind to the environment. so i always ask myself what could be more ethical than small farming? thats where we get almost all of our meat and most of our other food – from our yard. on my bad soil i couldnt grow enough carrots to keep a rabbit alive. but i could put a couple of pigs on pasture and in our woods – raise them up just fine and butcher at about 275lbs in our yard. makes the best bacon and feeds us for the year. in their yard right now i have a field of clover thats growing beautifully with ZERO chemicals or fertilizer. the pigs tilled and fertilized it for us. the clover now feeds the poultry and goats – who’s eggs and milk feed us and this year’s pigs (now in a different pastures). its a great little system that supports itself. more folks should try it. they’d shrug off their, as you say sanctimonious, attitude and be glad to be part of The Way of Things.

  • Angelina

    I am a non-sanctimonious vegetarian who isn’t interested in making you or any other carnivore or omnivore become a vegetarian. I can’t think of a more pointless or more ridiculous activity to engage in. I don’t thump my chest and I don’t think eating meat is wrong. I agree with you that the most important thing to address is the way meat is being raised.

    I can’t speak for sheep or goats or pigs or cows but I can say unequivocally that chickens do not require human beings for their survival. They are excellent foragers and in “wild” packs the roosters are pretty good at protecting the flocks from predators. I raised chickens as a kid and as an adult. One town we lived in had a huge flock of escaped chickens living (and surviving) in our park. I’ve seen other flocks of chickens living in other cities as well.

    I also have friends who have an enormous flock of chickens in the woods and they don’t feed them at all. Those chickens forage for their own food in the woods all day and come home to roost at night. They are the healthiest chickens and make the most amazing eggs I’ve ever eaten in my life. Sometimes my friends give them bales of alfalfa for special treats but otherwise – those birds feed themselves and a surprisingly few number of them are lost to predators each year. Chickens were originally jungle birds that lived in trees and they still have all their wild instincts in tact. At least in this case it would be arrogant to assume that they would have gone extinct without humans to cage them up.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      I asked Bradley why he didn’t let his chickens run wild but moved them around the pasture in cages. He said, he lost too many to the hawks.

      • DrNoreen

        I don’t where the commenter lives who has chickens living in woods, but they would starve to death in the northeast in the long winter months and the wet seasons. Our pet chickens have done best when they had a nice varmint-safe house to get into at night. As a veterinarian, I also like farms where the domestic animals are able to have human care. Treating animals who have mange, been attacked by rabid animals or porcupines, having difficulty giving birth or hosts of other issues makes me grateful for modern veterinary medicine available to the domesticated animals that share our lives. I know the fate of the wild animals in these situations. Some of the worst cases of animal abuse have been hobby farmers who had no idea how to care for cows, horses, chickens and sheep. They practiced the philosophy that doing nothing was the appropriate thing to do when the cow or sheep needed help. I have seen them starve sheep to near death because they didn’t know about parasites, allow goats feet to become deformed because they didn’t know that a farrier could help, demand that a cow burning with fever be not treated with an antibiotic so she would be “organic” and on and on.
        I can only shake my head in how some of the commenters on here have all the answers while mostly likely having no practical experience in agriculture or the land. And, now, I will be telling my farmer clients that some groups of people even consider their work to be unethical.

  • Randy Martinez

    I was with you until you quoted Mr. Martin. What is he, the sheep whisperer? Wow, if someone I worked for asked me to lie in sheeps urine, I would kick the crap out of him. Ethics has nothing to do with any of this.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      no you wouldn’t, he’s a wonderful man, and maybe it is just a part of his brain trying to justify killing animals he’s cared for. it’s what he believes, and he wasn’t full of shit when he said it; the way he said it was moving. until you’ve heard it from him, I’d ask you not to want to kick the crap out of him.

  • Andrew

    There is plenty of sanctimony on both sides of this debate. To believe that domesticated animals have considered the question and are OK with being slaughtered for food is a real act of faith.
    I think the question of whether or not it is ethical to eat meat is the wrong one. I think the better word would be along the lines: appropriate, productive, the best use of our resources.

    I think the majority of people who don’t personally profit from our industrial agriculture system would agree that the system is broken and unsustainable. I’m willing to concede that up to a generous 1% of the meat produced in the US is done ecologically efficiently and in a manner that treats the animals humanely from birth through vacuum packed morsels. To me, the damage done to the health of people and the planet is just not justified by that 1%.
    Meat certainly was an important part of our diet as a developing species, but I think we have long since outgrown that. A planet topping 7,000,000,000 people, and set to double in 70 years, is a completely different circumstance. Producing meat for the consumption of more than a trace of our calories just isn’t appropriate anymore.

    And given the alarming obesity and the related illnesses rates in the US and other developed countries, I think we need a radical change to how we feed ourselves. Eating a plant-based diet is my contribution to the cause.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      actually there’s a good ted.com talk from a respected statistician who argues with convincing evidence that the world population will level off at 10 billion. Still a lot but it’s not like the whole planet will be dense as Tokyo.

  • vijay

    I’m not sure if there’s really a tremendous amount to add to the winning Times post. At best, this post makes a stronger case for ethical and humanitarian consumption of meat. But as the winning Times post noted, the issue of killing a sentient being still lingers. As a carnivore, I recognize that this is not an easy question and it’s difficult to make a clean ethical case for any kind of line-drawing. Vegans may be sanctimonious, but at least many of them have wrestled with ethics of meat consumption in a way most carnivores simply have not. It’s a bit unfair to cast them all in such an unfavorable light.

      • vijay

        also, I think Gary Taubes has done a great service to advance the ethical case for meat consumption (while not necessarily resolving the problem of killing a sentient being). Taubes’ work on fat rejuvenated my interest in meat and cooking, which led me to your wonderful and inspiring work. Maybe people think he’s an insufferable crank, but I feel like he gets insufficient attention from the “food matters” set.

  • Scott

    I’m a devoted carnivore–and try to be an ethical one, too–but you lost me on the arguments about meat being integral to our genetic and social well being. Are you suggesting that without meat we would revert to some former genetic profile? I don’t think that’s how it works. Plus, there are plenty of calorie-dense foods available to us today (tree nuts, oils, avocados, etc.). Meat may have been an important genetic trigger to make us who we are today and may have contributed to important social consequences, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is the only thing to keep us this way in the future (or that some other change based on a change in diet couldn’t be just as good, or better, or simply benign).

    • Laura

      Calorie dense isn’t the same as ‘nutrient dense”. Meat is extremely nutrient dense and consists of a synergistic group of vitamins, trace minerals and amino acids that are definitely hard to get in any amount of other types of foods. That is why it is important for most people to include nutrient dense foods like animal products in their diets if they want to stay healthy in the long term.

      • Scott

        I agree with the distinction, but you also have to note that the foods I listed are also highly nutrient dense. They don’t have branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), but it is by no means a settled issue whether those are necessary to live a healthy lifestyle.

  • cybercita

    The guy whose lambs tell him with their eyes that they’re OK with it needs to take his medication.

  • wmrg

    * Energy-dense cooked food contributing to our evolution is a valid point. but energy intake is no longer an issue, given our current diets (even vegetarian/vegan)
    In fact, the majority of people with western-style diets just eats wayyyyy to much meat/fat/protein.
    Claiming that eating meat is part of what makes us human because “thats how we evolved”, would imply that any other prehistoric activity we used to do should be taken up again as well.

    * Argument about caring for domesticated animals and treating them in an ‘ethical’ way helping them ‘survive and thrive’ and whatnot is just complete bullshit.
    -objectification of living beings; if they didn’t have a ‘use’ to us, they wouldnt exist in those numbers.
    There just would be no incentive for most of us to have them around; In most cases, there /would/ however be a clear incentive to get rid of them, since they would be competing for our food crops, which is exactly what happened to most ‘useless’ species we drove to extinction.
    -No matter how well theyre cared for, their life is a completely unnatural process mediated by human control. There might be different degrees of exploitation, but there’s absolutely nothing ethical and natural about raising animals in captivity.
    * … Our current globalist capitalist bioindustry encourages/promotes/selects for ‘unethical’ behavior

    • Laura

      Energy dense or calorie dense is not the same or as important as “nutrient dense”. It is likely the nutrient dense quality of cooked meat that helped in the evolution of our brains.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    I raise all of my own meat and have for a very long time.
    At one time we raised pastured poultry for sale, starting in 1996, shortly after Salatin published the book and well before he became well known.
    We raised as many as 1,400 birds each summer, but i’ll never ever do that again….it’s WAY too much work!!!!! LOL
    I now prefer to raise the our birds in yards of electric netting, it’s far less stressful for the birds and there’s little chance of a predator problem or a wind disaster….which was a major problem with the movable coops on more than one occasion.

  • Karen J

    ” I don’t argue against vegetarianism, and do believe that our diets should be composed mainly of plants, as Michael Pollan rightly simplifies it.”
    NO, Pollan (love the guy) is completely wrong. Humans evolved on meat. As a paleontologist I can prove that many times over. Look at any anthropological dig and you’ll find animal bones and evidence of animal remains in the “poo” of the people who lived there. Zero veggies. Humans who ate meat have longer femurs, greater cortical bone density, and (believe it or not) a longer life span.
    “I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell anyone else what they’re allowed to eat.”
    Correct.
    ” What I can say for veganism is that it’s a superlative weight-loss strategy.”
    Incorrect. When I was Vegan I gained fifty pounds. It can not be “superlative” unless it applies to every person.

    Cooking meat did not grow our brains. Before we became Homo sapiens, we were scavengers. Yes, we ate fat and a lot of it. But that was how we got big brains… not by cooking meat, it was by EATING meat (cooked OR raw) Google the “expensive tissue” hypothesis. Only a hypothesis, but very compelling.

    • mijnheer

      Googling “expensive-tissue hypothesis”, as you suggest, reveals that at least two recent studies (one published in the journal Nature and the other in The Journal of Evolutionary Biology) claim to refute the ETH. Although it’s true that our remote ancestors ate meat as a good source of energy, it would now appear that eating meat was neither necessary nor sufficient for evolving large brains.

      Even if the ETH makes a comeback, there is a logical fallacy involved in inferring an “ought” (that eating meat these days is ethically justified) from an “is” (how part of our anatomy evolved).

  • c

    I’ve really never understood why people insist on using the term carnivore to describe people. While it might almost have been true of some Arctic-dwellers in the past, we are OMNIvores. And that is one reason we prosper. We can and will eat just about anything from any kingdom or phylum short of cellulose and call it dinner.

  • Tucker Keene

    To say that eating meat is a pleasure implies that eating vegetarian or vegan (as I do), is not. It all has to do with what kind of food you eat! Sure, a quinoa and tofu salad isn’t very pleasurable, but ramp, morel, and asparagus risotto like I had this past week most certainly is. Bananas Foster crepe cake is also very pleasurable! White bean and truffle soup, with homemade croissants is nothing if not indulgent. To say that life without meat is a life without pleasure shows an ignorance towards the realities and capabilities of modern vegan/vegetarian cuisine, that is often stereotyped by the media and popular culture. For example, I haven’t bought tofu in at least six months, and when I did it was as an ingredient in a baked good (dough for yeast risen donuts), and I haven’t had it as the central protein in my meal in God knows how long.

    Veganism was not an ethical choice for me, but a culinary one. I never really cared for the taste of meat, and then later found out I was lactose intolerant. It has expanded my palate to so many interesting new foods and cuisines, and forced me to learn how to cook, so that I wouldn’t be stuck eating the stereotypical vegan food! Its been nothing but a positive experience. I suspect it won’t last my entire life, and I am interested in seeing how my expanded palate and cooking skills might apply to meat eating, but I don’t regret it one bit.

  • Dean

    I’m a omnivore like most folks and prefer to eat meat from humanely treated animals. I don’t feel the need to apologize for eating meat, and I don’t feel need to make up fake rationalizations for doing so. But, Michael… really? The statement that the “lambs are good with the arrangement” is a bit much. No animal is good with being taking off to die. You may want to reel this one back in somehow.

    As for vegetarians and vegans – if it makes them feel good physically, psychologically, spiritually or any other way – good for them. The number who’ve preached to me about the virtues of their diet pale in comparison to the other types of religious or political fanatics who’ve intruded on my peace. I’d rather talk to someone passionate about food, than someone who’s telling me I’m going to hell.

  • Epicuranoid

    Thoughtful piece, thoughtful comments. My last batch of ducks were scared-as-hell of me. Even though I raised them from chicks. I’m pretty sure they knew what was up.

  • Michael Ruhlman

    I talked to a woman who raised sheep for milk to make cheese with (some of the best in the country). She said sheep were dumb as all get out. Didn’t even have the sense to come in from harmful weather. I trust her. Keith Martin has raised thousands of sheep and spent a lot of time with them. If you have raised thousands and thousands of sheep, and spent hours tending them, feeding them, caring for them, loading them into the trucks for the journey to the slaughterhouse weekly, well then, I wouldn’t take offense if you wanted to call bullshit on his comment. Otherwise, I’m going to ask you to give the man his opinion.

  • Charlotte

    I’d also recommend Ted Kerasote’s Bloodties: Nature, Culture and the Hunt. I live in Montana, in the middle of some of the last great herds of wild ungulates. Many many of my neighbors live off elk, deer and antelope (my favorite) for much of the year. We also raise a lot of meat in this state — cattle, sheep and pig. We’re lucky enough to be able to buy meat by the share, often raised by a 4-H kid — it does require that you learn to cook odd cuts (there are a lot of mysterious “pork roast”s in my freezer), but it’s more than worth it for me to eat clean meat.

  • DiggingDogFarm

    If it makes him feel better to think that they’re good with it, then more power to him.

    I’ve looked into eyes of literally thousands of animals that I’ve personally dispatched quickly and humanely. (beeves, sheep, goats, hogs, rabbits, geese, ducks, guinea fowl, turkeys, pheasants, quail, pigeons and lots of wild game.)
    I can’t say that I ever got a sense that they were good with it.

  • Edwin

    We need more farmers like Keith Martin, instead of farmers like the one in California pushing cattle with forklifts back ’08. To get the type of farmers your suggesting Michael, don’t you think we need more regulation on these corporate farms? Some earlier comments suggested that we really dont know what we are getting from these large farms, and I agree. I mean to the point were some of the food we eat is killing us. A more regulated farming business, I believe, will give America more Keith Martin farmers, that this country so desperately needs.

  • Michael

    I’m a meat eater always have been and probably always will be but I find Michael’s arguments unpursuasive.

    And he refers to a fantasy of meat production that simply doesn’t exist “for practical purposes” as one of his arguments to justify meat eating:

    Rhulman: “This I believe: to eat humanely raised and slaughtered animals is not only ethical, it’s important to our humanity.”

    Then later, of course, acknowledges that even for him it’s not practical all the time. It’s such an insignificant portion of meat production that to refer to it as a reason eating meat is OK is specious.

    And given the way 99% of meat is actually produced — factory farming — I find the argument that you wouldn’t enjoy the experience of living as, for example, a chicken in the modern factory farmed operation if we didn’t eat you — so be thankful for it. Well that is not something that will convince me that eating meat is good for animals.

    On the scientists pet theory (no pun intended) and Michael’s sweeping conclusion from it, a lot of things “changed us socially.” No longer treating blacks (or African Americans if you prefer) as chattel. Yup, changed things socially. Given the last century was the most violent in history maybe we need to change “socially.” T

  • Natalie Luffer Sztern

    Thank goodness for living in a Democratic world where free speech is our right. Thank goodness for nutritionists who tell us what and how much of any food group to eat. Thank goodness for those who farm to tell us how and why they kill their meat they way they do. Thank goodness for all of that: In Europe prior to World War’s it didn’t matter how animals were killed it mattered that people were able to eat, which is probably why, among other reasons, we are all here today to discuss this topic. I would rather focus on the children who don’t have choices of what to eat and would eat beef and chicken in any form it is cooked. I am grateful I was not lost on a snow covered mountain and had to rely on eating my friends to survive. In the long run – in the very long run we need our farmers to survive so that we can reap the advantages they give us in growing and raising our food. I agree that it is nauseating to see how inhumane many animals are killed to get to the supermarket fast and faster and that is animal cruelty and I choose not to shop there. My neighbor, on the other hand, who feeds off of food stamps hasn’t got my choices. I wish she did so until food stamps gets a raise I would have to say that this entire post is finding me thinking of Alice Waters and how lucky she is to be able to pontificate the value of organic foods. Hooray for Mario Batali who I read intends to stick his family on the same amount of money weekly that my neighbor gets and I do believe we should ask him what the results of not being able to make viable choices has done to his nutrition these days

  • Jennifer

    Michael, we’re reading and watching the same stuff. Wrangham’s book (it was the raw diet that caused the extreme weight loss, not the vegan diet), Pollan, Salatin, that TED talk on population. Great thoughtful comments here. Wish there was a “like button” I could use.

    I raise my own chickens, and now have sheep, goats, rabbits and ducks for the first time. Butchering is difficult. And I think it should be. There would be a whole lot more vegetarians if people had to witness an animal’s death before they ate it. Many just don’t have the hard heartedness to do it, regardless of the ethical arguments pro or con.

    Last year I was able to attend a ritual butchering of goats/sheep for the Muslem festival of Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice) on a small farm. I walked away from the experience feeling recommitted to farming. It was wonderful to see people taking full responsibility for the end of an animal’s life, with respect. There is something appropriate and holistic about participating in the slaughter of an animal that will feed you. No it is not fun. There is struggle and blood on the ground. It IS a sacrifice, every time we do it. And to always remove ourselves from that sacrifice, but choose to eat meat anyway, makes us less thankful. I think that is the lesson of knowing where your meat comes from.

    And yes, they KNOW that something’s up.

  • J

    To call oneself a carnivore is simply a statement lacking in intelligence.

  • Mark Preston

    This is my response to all “man made” controversies about vegetarianism. It’s a quote:

    Sentimental Vegetarianism by P. Morton Shand

    New York : Knopf, 1928 – (page 160)

    The Sentimental Vegetarians are the most numerous and illogical of the different sects of dietetic vegetarians, quasi-vegetarians, frutarians, nutarians and the raw vegetable nourishment stalwarts. If the pretensions of the sentimental vegetarians are to be taken seriously, not only must humanity forgo all animal foods, including milk and eggs, from ethical motives, but true to the essentially democratic principal of “sois mon frere, ou je te tu,” every single race of mankind should be constrained — by force of arms failing peaceful persuasion, since the offence is greater in the eating than in the killing — to abstain from meat nourishment for all eternity.

  • Andrew

    It’s still not clear to me how what a man has to tell himself to rationalize killing “thousands and thousands” of sentient beings contributes to the argument. Seems to provide evidence that the pro-meat argument isn’t based on rationality.

  • charity jill

    This reminds me of a (fairly legitimate, I think) bit of pop psychology I read awhile back on the topic of eating disorders (“Lying in Weight” by Trisha Gura). At one point she talks about how an all-or-nothing attitude is a sign that a person hasn’t successfully moved out of the adolescent life-stage and into adulthood. A mature attitude towards food (and self, and others) is one that is filled with grace, and embraces complexity.
    I need to say, I’m really appreciating this blog! I just found it yesterday. I’ve only really started cooking in earnest since I got married a year and a half ago, after living for 25 years on standard American convenience food. It’s easy to get bogged down in all the weird disordered thinking about food out there. I appreciate discovering sources that are challenging and that encourage thoughtful attitudes towards food while still being accessible to those like me who, ya know, aren’t accustomed to super-fancy food. So, thanks!

  • mijnheer

    Michael’s argument involves a number of dubious claims. I’ll address just one: “our eating animals is good for the animals. They exist because we care for them, and we care for and raise their offspring.”

    Eating a particular kind of animal may be good for the continuation of the species, but species as such are not individuals and have no subjective states, and so the continuation, or not, of a species cannot matter to the species as such, but only to us. Further, the continuation of a species of “food” animals is unlikely to be good for its members, who, even in the best of circumstances, have their lives terminated prematurely and unnecessarily (and definitely not with their consent). On the other hand, refraining from breeding animals cannot be a harm to what does not exist. (We fool ourselves by imagining that there are individuals who are waiting for the chance to exist.)

  • cybercita

    I concur that my comment about the sheep farmer needing medication for inferring from his animals’ expressions that they were OK with being killed and eaten was snarky. However, I have dear friends who live on a farm and grow their own meat. I was witness to their pigs being slaughtered one day. When the men arrived at their pen that morning, no weapons yet in sight, the pigs started squealing so loudly and frantically that it was completely obvious that not only knew exactly what was coming, they were definitely NOT resigned to their fate.

    As for it being healthier to eat meat, I have my doubts. Meat eating is not for everyone. I lived with a man who wanted to eat meat and potatoes every day, and I was happy to cook it for him. He thrived on it. But after two years, my own health, which had always been superb, was shattered. I left the relationship and switched to a plant based diet. I lost 50 pounds, regained my health, have boundless energy, and look and feel a thousand times better.

  • DJK

    I’d be interested in your general thoughts on this article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/the-myth-of-sustainable-meat.html

    And I specifically wonder if this kind of analysis:

    “It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.”

    …would hold true for the farming of all-things-necessary to convert the entire planet’s population to vegetarianism.

    Finally, I eat meat because it tastes good. The rest feels to me like different shades of rationalization. I just hope that our future alien overlords find us less tasty than pigs, lambs, cows, fish, and chicken.

  • Amanda Fisher

    The dodos got killed because they were tasty and easy hunting… and because at that point there was not really an understanding of t6he concept of “extinction”. At least, that’s what i’ve concluded from my reading.

    Similarly, look at the extinction of passenger pigeons. Or, if we want to go back a way, probably mammoths in NA.

    “Delicious” does not necessary equal “cared for”. “Delicious” sometimes equals “extinct”.

    I am an omnivore, and we eat mostly pasture-raised local meat. Mostly.

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