The New York Times launched a contest last month that asked its readers to ethically defend their meat-eating. Six finalists have been chosen by a panel of (all-star and, some have noted, all white male) judges, and the winner was chosen Wednesday. The contest is obviously an interesting challenge, since it is usually vegetarians and vegans who have to defend their eating habits, but as some of the readers of the initial article pointed out in their comments, the question of ethics in meat-eating is a “first-world problem.” The ethics of meat-eating is only discussed in a very small circle, while nutrition, status, convenience and other less choice-driven factors are the more pervasive culprits of meat production on a massive scale.
All of the articles (except the two that don’t technically defend eating meat as it is traditionally defined) make excellent arguments for the conscientious eating of meat — and ‘in moderation,’ when not explicit, is implied. Most of them make arguments along the lines of: eating meat is natural, the cycle of life depends on animal farming, with thoughtfulness and moderation meat-eating is morally correct, etc. And of course, this all may be true, and the farmers, environmentalists, and conscientious humans who have written these winning essays clearly have given extra-ordinary amounts of thought to this question.
But as we can now see in the industry that has usurped ethical meat-eating in moderation, the global trend in meat consumption is a much broader problem involving the regular availability of meat in cultures that until recently enjoyed vegetable-heavy diets, and the convenience and low cost of meat in cultures that are dominated by fast-food advertising and eating-on-the-go. As the demand for meat increases, the implications of its consumption grow distant from the simplicity of the natural cycles that the winning essayists describe. This is not only true for meat, it is true for anything produced on a large-scale farm, including the soybeans that are fed (nearly 90 percent of the global harvest) to farmed animals (even as soy is a popular meat substitute. But we have to eat something)!
One essay in the contest makes the eloquent point that it is not the eating of meat or vegetables that need be defended, but the practice of conscientious and small-scale farming to produce our food. Almost all of the essayists demonstrate that a more holistic conversation would be a more fruitful one — one that encompasses not only meat, but also our human footprint in general. The results of the voting are more telling about the discussion than anything else: if thousands of people are taking the time to vote on who makes the best argument for eating meat, could it mean that enough people are thinking about it to address the more pervasive drivers of intensive production? Unfortunately eating ethical meat does not mean that only ethical meat is produced world-wide; nor does not eating meat at all.
So what will it take to turn individual ethical concerns into a global challenge to industrial farming? How can this conversation deconstruct the wide-spread farming practices that we condemn but allow? The essayists concede the effects that meat production has beyond their stomachs and consciences. Most of them talk about small-scale farms or personal connection to the slaughtering of their food. NPR’s The Salt also published an article yesterday about the intersection of farming, health, and ecosystems. Can the growing awareness of our food production’s effects reach a large enough scale to produce real, holistic, and global results? The essayists were not just talking about eating meat, and hopefully soon that will be true on a wider scale.
Photo courtesy of Eric Constantineau