The things we eat are immensely interesting to me. First of all they are ethical matters, even though most people refuse to see it from that view point. They are also matters of habit, far more than most things in our existence. I have relatives that where raised on pot roast sunday, and their calendar is just not right all week if they don’t get their pot roast. In America it is also a matter of convenience, and has fallen a long way from being an art form, here in the land of the golden arches. The health implications alone of our diets can (and have) filled numerous books. And TV shows. And magazines. Diet fads, talk shows, interviews and radio programs. Food is a serious topic.
One ethical concern over our food choices is brought up by Peter Singer, who approaches the matter from a Utilitarian standpoint. As a Utilitarian, Singer thinks that what is right is determined by what is good. Happiness and freedom from pain are good, and so those choices that minimize pain, maximize pleasure, and cause happiness are the the morally right choices. If on balance the pleasure or happiness or averted pain are greater than the caused pain, sorrow or harm, then that is correct choice for the Utilitarian. Giving up $100 a month hardly causes me a major inconvenience, but that same $100 a month can be used to feed 3-4 starving children in certain parts of the world. Clearly then (for Utilitarians) the moral choice is to give that money to those in need.
So how does a Utilitarian view meat? Singer has made claims that follow in the footsteps of Jeremy Bentham who said, “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but rather ‘Can they suffer?’” The question of utility on the matter of eating meat for Singer is, roughly speaking, “Is the good I get from eating meat greater than the suffering caused by my eating it?”
The discussion doesn’t end there, but just gets started. Posing the question as a matter of suffering leads first to considering the animal. For Singer, this question is perhaps enough to justify his own vegetarianism, though he knows it is not enough to persuade others. Singer points out that no matter how great the pleasure we take from eating (to choose a random example) a steak might be, the pain caused to the animal is considerably more. We might choose not to eat veal because of the inhumane conditions it is raised under, but happily eat steak, having convinced ourselves that the cow in question had a much happier life. There are numerous considerations to reflect on first…
There is the actual act of killing the animal. We might wonder first exactly how we are supposed to execute a creature in a humane manner. While there are several methods allowed in America according to the USDA, talking to anyone who has ever worked in a slaughterhouse can pretty quickly disabuse you of any notion that slaughtering animals can be anything approaching humane. Despite tremendous improvements in conditions over many years, it is easy to find videos, testimonials, and stories that challenge us to even pretend that what is happening in a typical slaughterhouse is less than horrible. Gail Eisnitz book Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect and Inhumane Treatment Inside the US Meat Industry is essentially the lowlights of over two million hours of slaughterhouse experience, and reads exactly as horrifically as you are afraid it will. And then it gets worse.
“One time the knocking gun was broke all day, they were taking a knife and cutting the back of the cow’s neck open while he’s still standing up. They would just fall down and be a shaking. And they stab cows in the butt to make ‘em move. Break their tails. They beat them so bad…And the cow be crying with its tongue stuck out.”
“And it sounds mean, but I’ve taken prods and stuck them in their eyes. And held them there.”
“Down in the blood pit they say that the smell of blood makes you aggressive. And it does. You get an attitude that if a hog kicks at you, you are going to get even. You’re already going to kill the hog, but that isn’t enough. It has to suffer…”
“One time I took my knife — it’s sharp enough — and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my hand — I was wearing a rubber glove — and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s a**. The poor hog didn’t know whether to s*** or go blind.”
There are at least two important points to take away from this. First of all, the findings don’t blame the workers, but the industry. Blaming workers for taking out their frustrations on these animals or even simply trying to their job and keep the slaughter lines moving at all costs, makes no sense. The industry is simply built in this way. The second take away is simply that no matter how much you love a steak, or a drumstick, or bacon in the morning, Singer has a point. If we take animal suffering to be important in any way, even if we believe that it is less meaningful than human suffering, that steak simply doesn’t justify the cruelty.
What if we are able to actually slaughter animals humanely? Sadly, the question might be moot. It may simply be impossible to provide the massive amounts of meat that are currently consumed in the United States in a humane manner. But lets assume for the sake of argument that it can be done.
Singer points out that even if we are able to provide meat in an entirely humane manner, the most humane death we can manage remains just that. Death. If we are to believe that animals are capable of the most basic instincts of preferring their own survival, we have taken something away, and done it for the simple reason of craving the taste of flesh.
The last argument is less convincing than the rest of Singer’s concerns. If we were somehow able to achieve humane slaughter in all cases (which again may be impossible) then the guilty feelings that we have when reading accounts like the one above may be assuaged. But we might need to consider more than just the moment of death.
More than half of all the eggs, chicken, and pork consumed in the world come from CAFO’s, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. At current rates it will be less than ten years before the same can be said of beef and mutton. In a typical CAFO, the life of the animal being raised is hardly less horrible than its death. In some cases it can be worse, making death a release. Animals packed into cages so small that they trample each other to death on a regular basis, standing in their own waste, attacking each other from the stress, suffering stress fractures simply from being forced to stand at all times…
These arguments all amount to Utilitarian arguments. If we are not concerned with the Utilitarian definition of good however, or even if we are, but don’t extend the value of Utility to animals, are there reasons to consider the meat we eat from an ethics standpoint?
When I mentioned that nearly half of all (non-fish) meat and eggs come from CAFO’s, there is a less than obvious but natural outcome to this. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are, by definition, also CASO’s, or Concentrated Animal Shitting Operations. Some of the most polluting organizations on earth are CAFO’s. The problem is literally the massive amounts of shit that such operations produce. Many individual CAFO’s produce more raw waste than good sized US cities.
Smithfield Foods Company alone slaughters more animals per year than the population of NYC, LA, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin Fort Worth and Memphis all combined. That means they also raise that many animals. Smithfield raises hogs, and a typical hog produces 2-5 times the fecal waste of a human. Which in the case of Smithfield means around 282 pounds of shit for every man woman and child in America. In other words Smithfield alone, a single company, produces more waste a year than the human population of California and Texas combined.
For fun, go try and determine how many sewer treatment plants are in those two states. That is just to keep the water you drink clean from your own (and others) waste. Smithfield takes that same amount of waste and pours it into an open pit. Sometimes when the pits fill faster than expected they spray some of the matter on grass as “fertilizer.” That grass then becomes toxic to all known animals.
This is not the picture of the small family farm that uses the waste from the animals to grow crops that many people happily keep in their heads when they form a mental picture to go with the word “farm.” And the waste we are talking about here is not all shit. The waste lagoons at a CAFO can include (but is in no way limited to) such things as afterbirths, stillborns, vomit, blood, syringes from treating the animals with antibiotics, broken insecticide bottles, body parts…
Communities living near these CAFOs not only have the pleasure of living downwind of a place that will spray excess waste in to the air, simply aerosolizing fecal matter in an attempt to deal with the sheer volume, but they report other benefits of living near these operations. Persistent nosebleeds, chronic diarrhea, burning lungs, 50% higher asthma rates than the general population. CAFO’s make good neighbors.
And what happens to this shit? As has been mentioned, it is generally stored in lagoons. A lagoon can be as much as 30 feet deep, and cover 120,000 square feet. A single CAFO can have over one hundred of these lagoons.
In 2010, the BP oil spill was declared the largest natural disaster in US history. The estimates are that 1 billion gallons of oil where spilled. Until that date, the largest spill in US history had been the 1995 Smithfield lagoon spill from a CAFO into the New River NC. Spills from similar disasters have been linked to MRSA or “flesh-eating bacteria” in several cases.
In other words, even if you choose to completely discount the welfare of the animals that wind up on your plate, we have moved into a world where the most common method of farming means you can get cheap meat, but you have put yourself at risk from a health stand point. And the “cheap” is cheap meat is clearly misleading. When the actual costs of real cleanup and health concerns are taken into account the cost is much higher. Much as the petroleum industry is profiting from the inability of the free market to add the cost of pollution and global climate change into the cost of a gallon of gas, the cost of a pound of meat is not payed at the grocers, but at the doctors.
(It is important to note that all of this ignores such relatively minor issues as the “pink slime” that has made news lately. Issues where the inedible are processed until they are considered “edible”, at least when mixed with other content, deserve their own post. Pink slime, madcow, the fact that much of our current fish choice is limited to what was considered “trash fish” just a few years ago… These all deserve consideration as well.)
Speaking of global warming, a University of Chicago study says that our food choices contribute at least as much to climate change as our transportation choices. Eating steak but driving a Volt just means you are destroying the future with a different weapon of choice. The typical American omnivore diet contributes seven or eight times the volume of greenhouse gases that a vegan does.
But back to health. The health cost only goes up if we consider the cost from actually consuming the meat. I won’t bother to point to the mountains of research into the health costs of the uniquely American diet. As Jonathan Foer points out, if the world population sat down to eat as a ten person meal, one single person of the ten would represent all of South Central and North America. Yet by food consumed, the US alone would have almost three seats at the table, consuming between 1/5th and 1/4th of all the food consumed by people on this earth. And we consume far more meat than the average world citizen.
Even if all of the above could be changed to mitigate the damage of meat eating, simple biology says there are ethical issues to consider when eating. As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, the energy loss from feeding grains to animals to consume the animals in turn is hardly a moral choice. “Forty thousand children die each day in various countries for lack of food. In order to produce meat you must feed the cow or chicken with a lot of cereal… An authority on economics who lives in France told me that if western countries reduced eating meat only 50% that would be enough to feed these starving children.”
All of which amounts to a collection of good reasons to reconsider eating meat. So why haven’t we?
I can only speak for myself, but despite being aware of all of the above information, the vast majority of the time it is simply easier to eat meat. I have described myself as a “social meat eater” in the sense that while I actually prefer a vegetarian (not vegan) diet we are simply surrounded by meat, and when everyone else is eating it, I generally do too. Eating at a restaurant more often than not means choosing between two meals, while 95% of the menu features meat in some form. Visiting with family, gathering with friends, attending lunch or diner meetings, all of these things generally mean choosing between “doing as the Romans do” or making a fuss over ethical concerns that most of those present simply don’t share. The easy way out is simply far too easy.
Thousands of years ago Aristotle was concerned that in a society that didn’t respect the virtues, even the most ethical person couldn’t be truly virtuous. However in a society that follows the virtues, it is hard for even the least ethical to stray far without difficulty. In America, on the matter of eating, it is nearly impossible to be ethical. We have simply become creatures of bad habits. Our culture has become such that not eating meat is at the least difficult. When the moral choice is habitually and socially difficult, why are we shocked that so few make it?