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:
- My post on buying local lamb and meats.
- Chef Edward Lee discusses the importance of slaughtering meat and how it connects us.
- Shop for local meats at Heritage Foods USA.
- Civil Eats is a great resource to learn more about food policy and politics.
© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved.