The New York Times’ ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, has announced the results of her Ethical Meat-Eating Contest. Turns out eating meat is ethical when it’s ethical (More about the winner below). Fortunately, Ms. Kaminer addressed some of the criticism she got for the contest: “Some critics insisted that even contemplating a life without meat was an indulgent luxury, a silly game for a wealthy first-worlder. I found this puzzling ‘ as if the poor feast nightly on roast suckling pig and only the 1 percent eat boiled tubers.” True, the majority of the world’s population is not eating roast suckling pig. What meat-eaters are eating is for the most part malnourished, mistreated, factory-farmed pork, beef, and chicken by the ton. And actually, I think it is true that the “1 percent” can probably freely decide to plant, harvest and boil their organic tubers with much greater ease than the “99 percent.” Some folks, like the people who submitted to the ethicist’s competition, can decide to eat a pig or to eat potatoes every day for the rest of their life, and others cannot.
The competition winner, for example, decides not to buy beef from an industrial farm, and also has the option of maintaining a small farm with legal rights in place to prevent land-usurpation from governments and corporations, pollution by nearby industry, and pressure from GMO seed companies like Monsanto. Some omnivores do not have that option, which means their choice to eat meat is not quite like the winner’s. Many of the contests’ submissions recognize the general problem with the way meat is produced. It is the production, not the ethics of meat, that requires mainstream attention and action.
And unfortunately, the ethicist bases some of her wrap-up on unhelpful generalizations about production and consumption: “over all, rich nations eat much more meat than poor ones, and raising animals for food takes more agricultural resources than raising crops. In any case, a vast number of the world’s ethical vegetarians live in India. Caviar is a luxury. Ethical discussion is not.” Again, the global meat-eating discussion really isn’t about caviar or a single suckling pig, and it’s also not strictly correlated with rich vs. poor countries. The fact that raising animals requires many more resources than crops does not, in any reality, mean that only rich countries produce it.
The speedy overhaul in lifestyle in countries around the globe is what’s more troubling. Meat consumption in India (that country that Ms. Kaminer referred to as a hot spot of ethical vegetarianism) has increased drastically in recent years, and “eating non-vegetarian food is no longer a luxury.” What does it mean that a people’s religiously-based ethics are quickly shifting in the face of increased availability of meat? Maybe they are mutually exclusive, but the correlation seems blaring. And if Ms. Kaminer’s prize example of ethical vegetarianism is quickly decreasing in vegetarians, what does that mean for the less (or not at all) vegetarianism-inclined nations?
China’s meat consumption has also shot up: in 1978 China ate 8 million tons (one third of the U.S.’s consumption), and now, as of April 24, eats 71 million tons of meat per year — more than double that of the U.S. The sheer upward trends of these two countries’ meat consumption, whether they are rich, poor, historically vegetarian or not are not wavering, because the conversation is now: ‘how do we produce more, faster, and is our competition doing that better than us?’ (China’s solution is to “move from backyard farms to Western-style large, consolidated operations to keep up with demand”). The conversation that is driving meat-eating to an ever-increasing global record doesn’t touch ethics, culture, or religion with a 40-foot pole.
The winning essay eloquently circumvents the industrial discussion by asserting personal choice: whatever you eat, eat what’s grown ethically. The writer, Jay Bost, who is a self-described “farmworker, plant geek, agroecologist and foodie” outlines the three-steps of being an ethical omnivore: first, you accept the life/death cycle, “second, you…choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.” Well put, in my opinion, and granted that the contest was to make a strictly ethical argument. But where do the non-farmer/agroecologist/foodies get their meat? Where it’s available, from wherever that is, regardless of the animals’ welfare, for that tantalizingly low price (which is a false price, if you include subsidies and environmental degradation). And what are the ethical farmer/agroecologist/foodies supposed to do beyond their own ethical choices? We can’t all hold ourselves responsible for other people’s eating habits — that is disrespectful and alienating in some cases. So where do all of our well-argued ethics get us?
I’m very grateful to Ariel Karimer and the New York Times for setting up this platform in the mainstream, and I agree with one of the judges, Andrew Light, that “if we can’t all at least agree that there is a moral issue at stake then there’s very little chance we’ll be able to discuss our differences on these issues.” But the morality at stake can’t be where we stop, or we will simply find new and better ways to defend our morals. Can we use this momentum of discussion to take our personal, ethical eating to a broader level, so that the practices that we readers find unethical can be finally abolished?
“Lurking beneath these submissions,” Jonathan Safran Foer (another judge) said, “is a shared dissatisfaction with our current system of meat production, a shared anger.” If none of us, not even voracious carnivores (including the lions, sharks and venus-flytraps that some of the contest’s submissions mentioned), wants to eat factory-farmed meat, why is meat still being factory-farmed? It’s clear that meat-consumption involves more than ethical debates; how will we address the government subsidies, corporate control, environmental degradation, and intensive water-demand of industrial farming? (All of these issues are detailed in Brighter Green’s policy papers).
The ethicist summarized her favorite essay (which got no votes from the judges) as follows: “like it or not, when we render this planet uninhabitable, we’re going to have to move to another, and the only thing that’s going to make anyone let animals into the spaceship is the chance to eat them.” When we move to a different planet? I’m sort of attached to this one — it being a homey balance of gas, liquid and solid, perfect for human survival without our having to do anything at all, which is why it’s kind of puzzling that we’re swiftly and purposefully destroying it. As the title of the contest said, “Put Your Ethics Where Your Mouth Is,” but this time around, can we stop chatting about why it’s okay for a privileged few to eat lovingly raised meat when we have a global problem of industrial-scale food production at the table?
Image courtesy of Brighter Green