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My Vegetarianism/  /April 06, 2008

I’m a vegetarian, and Yes, it’s for ethical reasons, but No, it’s not because I think animals are adorable and don’t deserve to die. Animals do deserve to die. We all deserve to die. Chickens and humans, and bacteria and lichen and elephants, are all part of a glorious ecosystem that circulates organic material around and around, each thing eating its time in the sun and passing on. It’s called life, and it’s not wrong.

What is wrong, in my view, is industrial meat production. The chain that leads from the birthing of a cow in a breeding center, to its growth on fattening grains (which themselves are intensively farmed), to its glory days in a CAFO absorbing hormones and grazing the shit of other cows, to its arrival at the abattoir and then its grinding and processing, is a peculiar invention of man and particularly the modern capitalist supply chain which perfectly dissociates consumers from the origins of their products. My vegetarianism is a protest, a demonstration, against these methods.

It’s not a matter of the animal not having a chance to defend itself, as people sometimes say. Chickens, pigs and cows are at a distinct disadvantage against human hunters and husbanders anyway, as is the gazelle when faced with a lion. The gazelle has its own adaptations—its speed, for example—but at least nine times out of ten it’s the lion that eats the gazelle and not the other way around. In a wild ecosystem, predators sometimes starve, and prey populations go up and down—they evade better or worse—so there’s a natural balance. But in terms of the eating, we know who’s eating who. A man who eats from a cow herd, if that herd lives in some sustainable balance with the man, is no less ethical than the lion that eats the gazelle.

I don’t object to the use of tools or technology in hunting or raising food animals. Let us have our human advantages—our tools, our planning intellect—fine! But when we start to use the animal as simply a factor, leveragable to maximize production, we’re doing something wrong. If we lose the larger ecological cycle that animals participate in, we start taking unexpected costs. We see these costs in many places: There are the occasional health scares, like mad cow disease, that are nurtured by the animals’ unnatural diets. Hormones given to the animals might affect human health in unexpected ways. There is the land-use problem, that getting human energy from animals requires ten times as much land as getting it from plants. It’s not the technology as such that causes a problem: it’s the assumption a tool that increases yields on your farm—a hormone, say—won’t have unsustainable costs somewhere else. It’s the policy of focusing on results, rather than the cycle that produces them.

Even if animals deserve to die—to become someone’s lunch—we should still respect their life, I feel. As living things, they deserve not to be managed strictly as food items. They deserve to eat a diet that their digestion is adapted for, rather than one that fattens them up. (If they are meat-eaters, they deserve to eat other living things, rather than the ground bones of other industrially-farmed animals, which is commonly used as feed.) They deserve to roam, to graze—to follow their behaviors. The industrial system puts the animals in an extremely tight cycle of birth, feeding, waste removal, and slaughter, which is not a life.

Not all agriculture is as intensive as industrial meat production. Older ways of farming were more holistic, allowing the animal a fairly natural life before cultivating it—that is to say, slaughtering and butchering it for the table—and some farms strive to operate this way today. (One such farm, Polyface Farms, in Virginia, is astutely profiled by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

Above all, I want to know the chain, to know what I'm eating. Forget about facing the animal with a sharp flintrock on an open plain: If you can stare your food chain in the eye, then you can eat from it. If you insist on averting your eyes, you're doing something wrong.

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Perhaps you should eat meat labeled as free-range. It may not meet all your requirements, but it sends a message to the meat industry. Otherwise they probably lump your protest in with PETA members' (when they look at meat consumption statistics).

—posted by Jeremy Stein at June 5, 2008 11:10 AM

Jeremy: You're quite right. How best to express a preference or an ethic to the manufacturers is a detailed question in its own right. The meat industry isn't going to do much to cater to non-customers (vegetarians), but it might adapt to better serve "specialties" like the free-range label.

One of these days, I may go and eat some carefully-chosen meat. I need to do some thinking, and some label-reading, en route to that.

—posted by the author at June 7, 2008 7:43 AM
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