In a recent interview in The Sun magazine, Joel Salatin, who is the owner of Polyface Farm and was featured in the film Food, Inc., and in Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” makes a number of comments about animals that bear deconstruction, primarily because they’ve become a straw man that undermines the goal of doing the most good and least harm to all people, animals and the environment.
Salatin is a farmer who raises animals for food. When asked whether animals should give up their lives simply for our pleasure, he replies: “Why think animals are more special than carrots?” He goes on to say that he hopes that anyone who cares for animals “would not spend more on his or her dog or cat than on making sure hungry children in Africa got fed,” stating that Americans spend more on vet care than Africans spend on health care. He actually calls this a litmus test of our priorities.
Why this need to disparage caring for pets? After all, there are many other things we spend money on. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, U.S. consumers spend about $1.2 trillion per year on non-essential things, including boats, jewelry, alcohol, gambling, and candy. Breaking this astounding number down (and gathering these numbers from the Commerce Department and a few other websites), I discovered that U.S. consumers annually spend approximately:
$110 billion on alcohol
$100 billion on tobacco
$100 billion on gambling
$100 billion on hair care
$60 billion on jewelry
$55 billion on sports equipment, including guns and ammunition
$15 billion on bottled water
$13 billion on veterinary care
$8 billion on cosmetics
$2 billion on Halloween candy (just Halloween!)
Why didn’t Salatin compare personal contributions to Africa to any of these numbers? Are all such expenditures, no matter how frivolous or destructive, less worthy of a “litmus test” than veterinary care?
I believe that the purpose of Salatin’s comparison is to undermine care and concern for animals, and to delegitimize any criticism of his killing animals for food in a country where eating animals is not essential to meeting dietary needs. Joel Salatin would prefer to have us question the morality of vegans, who, he suggests, care more for animals than people (which therefore makes them ethically corrupt in his eyes), than to consider whether slaughtering animals who wish to live as much as he (for no other reason than we like the taste of them), is morally acceptable.
While he may think that animals are no more “special” than carrots, he later says that humans “are arguably the most important species on the planet.” Salatin believes in a hierarchy, but his hierarchy is solely meant to distinguish humans from everyone and everything else. But the truth is that a carrot cannot suffer or feel pain, yearn to live, love its young and mourn their loss, but every pig, cow, sheep, turkey and chicken can and does.
It’s time to knock down this straw man. We do not have to be miserly with compassion or limit our moral concern solely to humans. We can help people in Africa as well as our neighbors in our own communities; we can restore ecosystems nearby and support the restoration of those far away, and we can also limit the harm we cause to the other species with whom we share this magnificent planet. We can make choices that help people, animals and the environment simultaneously, which, despite what Joel Salatin would have us believe, a vegan diet actually does.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of The PAW Project via Creative Commons.