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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?

Related:
Can Eating Meat Possibly Be Good for the Planet?
In Defense of Hunting
Eating Meat Respectfully

Read more: Animal Rights, Blogs, Eating for Health, Environment, Following Food, Food, Nature & Wildlife, Vegan, Vegetarian, , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

345 comments

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6:40PM PST on Jan 9, 2013

I am against all forms of modern farming of animals, it is cruel and environmentally destructive. However, there are sustainable ways to farm cattle, ways that actually help the ecosystem, and that is the only time I will support the eating of meat. There is amazing work being done in Africa, turning what used to be dust bowls back into the lush landscapes they were before over-grazing destroyed them, and that is largely because cattle play a part in the ecosystem's cycle. This is how all cattle should be farmed, but until that moment, I feel my decision to be vegetarian is exceptionally ethical.

9:31PM PDT on Aug 21, 2012

Fascinating concept and insinuations about so-called "Perpetrators". Are we talking about pedophiles here, that is what I think of when hearing that word.

There are no Meat Rehab Centres anywhere on the planet that exist.

Mark g talks about:

"The guilt and shame perpetrators feel for their violent actions stem from their natural sense of kindness and caring, which they have blocked and are violating."

When eating meat I don't feel either guilt or shame that has been "blocked" any more than I do when eating eddoes, bok choy or squash that I have sliced to add to the salad. Try raw beets!

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Guess, what, I just happen to like to eat meat, so no matter how many studies people toss up to "prove" we are fruit eaters, other studies can be tossed up by others to counter these and the game goes on and on.

No one is going to tell a vegetarian to go and eat meat, they won't anymore than telling me that I was designed to chew on apples is going to convince me to give up meat. I like the taste and if you don't, no one is forcing you to eat it.

My food sources are organic, balanced, proper portion sized and I will continue along my omnivorous path and those who don't eat meat, eat what you like.

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Until Mother Nature redesigns our DNA so that we can all dine on rock pate and not on any living organism, I will continue to be an omnivore and eat meat. If some people cannot accept that others have a different outlook or journey that is not my problem. I do not tell vegans or vegetarians to eat steak and I will eat my own diet, free range and organic, portion the size of a deck of cards.

Some even put their cats, an obligate carnivore on a vegan diet because they so oppose the consumption of meat that they will go against Nature and have a cat eat an unnatural diet.

Of course travelling to Africa and holding up broccoli in front of a Lion will certainly convince that obligate carnivore to give up chasing Zebras.

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Some people really need to get over themselves. Many people are omnivores and this will not change. Living on a farm, free range, small individual farm raising food both animal and veggie for the family did not leave me wallowing in guilt.

Some believe in their life style with cult like stature that only their lives, their guidance is the way to live.

If we all return to caves (asking the bats living within for permission to share their home), give up all modernity as even using computer has impact on animals.

There is nothing unnatural in eating animals or we would die of toxins from eating them, just as eating certain plants will poison us.

The idea that veganism or vegetarism is more natural than being an omnivore is false, or the idea that we are somehow disconnected from the true world is also false. People can follow their journey along different paths without being subjected to ridicule by others.

8:23AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

The debate continues, more like a monologue with Truth, Virtue, Compassion belonging to "one side" only in delusions of grandeur. In reality no one lives here without affecting other entities.

I eat portions of meat the size of a deck of cards, some days none but anyone eating veggies has to have it shipped across long distances if they live in cold weather regions or don't buy local/live in a large nation.

Modern life creates impact including that of vegans/vegetarians. Until we revert to living in a cave, avoid driving cars, stop using plastics/ manufactured goods - our modern living impacts or kills animals. Work in an office highrise...birds die by the thousands by flying into the windows!

Prefer organic everything but the world's soy is 60 per cent genetically modified. Until Mother Nature redesigns us to survive on rock pate, we all feed on life forms be they plant/animal. Sentient? Humans in their arrogance kill mosquitoes, parasites, plants but who is to say their created existence in the design of Nature is less? Our opinions only. All life feeds on life in some form. Organic free range and non toxic veggies is preferable, pesticides kill animals as well.

The 16 year old blind cat owning me is an obligate carnivore, no apologies. Follow your life journey in your own way, you are no more compassionate than others following a different path.

Use manufactured goods/veggies? Transport trucks carry these to market and animals also die as road kill as a

8:23AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Continuing my comment from below as Care2 has no Twitter like word count warning us as we approach the end of our comment, it would be nice then we could edit more easily.

Use manufactured goods/veggies? Transport trucks carry these to market and animals also die as road kill as a result so one can dine on beets or meat.

Giving up all modernity and living in caves will prevent displacing/killing animals in the now urban environment, some animals die to build our modern homes. Eat animals, veggies, live in modern life all involves life and death.

7:17AM PDT on Jul 14, 2012

I was born a vegetarian , still am at my age , no adverse effects, surviving on only vegetables, although i do take skimmed milk !!!, my bP=normal, lipid=normal, blood sugar=ok, hair =still black !! , balding(butat slighlty slower rate.) It pays to bring up your child as a vegetarian !!!

8:52PM PDT on Jul 1, 2012

Many vegetarians and vegans donate butterfly credits to farm that slaughters animals for meat, without knowing. The "Raise A Farm Animal Humanely" is the slaughter farm, where sacred life is violently ended, meat is eaten and sold. Please be aware of these, vegan and vegetarians, Buddhists and Hindus and Christians and Jews who follow the sacred path and original teachings to eat veg diet and cause no harm. This is not a sanctuary for rescued farm animals. The word "Humanely" means something entirely different here.

11:55PM PDT on Jun 27, 2012

Don’t let an industry that wants to sell you meat and societies pressures make you into something you are not!

A REAL MEAT EATER NEEDS THESE TOOLS TO SURVIVE
Complete Carnivores, jaws move vertically for cutting meat chunks, Do not chew food swallow whole chunks, Flesh eaters lap liquids with tongue, 10 times hydrochloric acid of humans, Can digest bone, flesh, feathers, sinews, etc, Eat the whole prey not just cooked muscle, Large liver to aid in detoxifying the blood, Can generate massive bile secretion, Have enzyme uricase eliminates uric acid waste (humans have none meat causes kidney disease), Sweat through tongue only, Stomach small round sack dissolves flesh quickly, Gut of carnivore very short digestion to elimination 3 hours (ours gut is long, to elimination time 15 hours causes putrefaction)

Happy Healthy Trails
Doc Blake

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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people are talking

I could see myself being vegan, in theory. In practice, not so much.

I love them all! Cats sure know how to bring a smile to us humans. More cats, less humans!

I can only hope that the good farmers sell to those willing to pay well for their products.

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