Is It Ethical to Be a Vegetarian?
Just this morning, before sending my child off to school, I read him a chapter of a children’s book called E is for Environment – a sort of ethical and environmental primer for young minds (otherwise known as a selection from Sarah Palin’s nightmare reading list). In the particular chapter I read, there was a very distinct message about how, specifically, conventional cattle farming does a general disservice to the environment (mainly through the cow’s prolific methane off-gassing), and by opting to go vegetarian “one night a week” we would all be greatly helping the planet. While there was a general truth to this message, I deeply felt the need to clarify with my son about how ethical and conscientious animal farming does not do nearly the damage that industrialized farming has done to this planet. And while yes, I agree that eating vegetarian is a good idea (especially well more than once a week) I remain a bit apprehensive about shouldering our environmental woes on the cattle farmer and the world’s population of farting cows.
The fact is, between conventional cattle farming and processing (i.e. slaughter) and the virtuous life of a vegetarian, there exists some fertile pastureland of ethical and environmental choices. I know, and have made friends with, many farmers who sustainably and conscientiously raise farm animals for their meat, and I do believe these people to be caring and, often times, forward thinking individuals. This is not to say that these people do not slaughter animals for profit, but their commitment to farming, animal welfare, and the health of the land is the overriding principle in their operation. Still there is the sticky issue of taking the life of an animal for consumption, something that no staunch vegan or vegetarian will ever abide by.
While the majority of meat slaughtered in this country comes from awful feedlots with highly questionable means of production, there exists a growing and innovative few doing this slaughter thing with a bit more integrity than what we have grown accustomed. This is moving the conversation of the omnivore lifestyle into a new terrain. I have written about writer Simon Fairlie and his advocacy of sustainable meat production, and more recently about a former vegan turned game hunter with his crosshairs aimed at a new breed of conscientious hunting.
Now comes leading sustainable food advocate and restaurateur Dan Barber (Blue Hill) and his specific case that animal and vegetables should be raised together, like what is done at his restaurant/farm Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “Our greatest advantage is not growing vegetables,” Barber contends, “…it is not the most productive use of our ecological resources, our ecological resources are pointing towards eating meat.” Barber’s point is that we need to look at the larger life cycle of our immediate ecology (in this interview he is specifically talking about the Northeast) and include responsible animal harvesting to support that local ecology (see video below). In essence, vegetable farms need the presence of animal byproducts (namely manure) to be truly prolific and sustainable.
No doubt Barber will find both adherents and detractors to his notions of ethical eating and farming. More recently, The Ethicist column in The New York Times Sunday Magazine posted an open contest for readers to write a 600-word missive on the virtues of eating meat, particularly why it is ethical to eat meat. The winner, meaning the one who most eloquently makes the case, will have his/her case reprinted in the Times.
While there will always be those who simply reject the idea of killing and eating any kind of animal, and there will always be those who are not satisfied with anything less than a half-pound of corn-fed ground beef on a bun, there exists a growing conversation in this country (as well as in places outside of the United States) about the ethical options of the omnivore.
Where do you stand on the idea that animals can be ethically raised and slaughtered? Is it a rationalization, or a budding reality? Do you buy Dan Barber’s argument that farmland was meant to be occupied by both animal and vegetable, and if so, does the animal necessarily need to be eaten? Have you changed your eating habits to reflect a more ethical and sustainable mindset, particularly when it comes to eating meat?