Is it ethical to eat meat, or to keep animals for meat or dairy?

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Posted Oct 15 2017 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

This is a very important question for us here at Lowimpact.org, because we have courses, books, magazines, links etc on keeping animals and on game. We also have vegetarianism and veganism as topics – because we recognise the environmental benefits of eating less meat. We have occasional emails and comments saying that it’s unethical to eat meat, and even to keep animals, even if they’re not going to end up as food (e.g. horses or bees), and questioning why we have information on keeping animals at all. We’re all opposed to factory farming, of course – that’s a given. But is it wrong to keep or eat animals at all? At the moment, the vast majority of the world eats meat, but will there come a time when humans look back on meat-eating in the same way that we now look back at the slave trade or witch burning – with abhorrence?

So we’d be very interested to know what you think about this. The stance we take generally is that people do eat meat, and so we’d like that to happen in the most environmentally-friendly and humane way possible. In the same way, it would be better environmentally if people didn’t use cars, but we accept that they do, and so we have biodiesel and electric vehicles amongst our topics.

But driving a car, even though it may not be good for the environment, doesn’t carry the extra ethical burden of meat-eating – having to kill animals (apart from roadkill, which is accidental). So, is it ethical? Let’s examine the arguments.

From an environmental perspective, there are four distinct positions that I can think of (although you may know more) – two pro-meat and two anti-meat. I’ve called the pro-meat positions the ‘smallholding’ position and the ‘hunting’ position, and the anti-meat positions the ‘land’ position and the ‘compassion’ position.

Pro: the smallholding position

Smallholding is a good thing, as it’s the opposite to factory farming – and smallholding is much easier with animals, because:

  • meat is a high-value product, and so can provide vital income
  • some animals (pigs and chickens especially) can eat waste – damaged fruit and veg, leaves and roots that are not eaten by humans, and waste food, or food that is slightly past its human-eat-by date
  • animal manure is very good for the soil
  • grazing animals can keep down weeds underneath fruit trees
  • running sheep or chickens under fruit trees can provide an extra income from the same amount of land, that smallholders wouldn’t have otherwise
  • chickens, and especially ducks, eat pests like slugs
  • some smallholders can only really make a living from animals – e.g. Welsh hill farmers or Scottish crofters. You can run sheep in the hills, but you can’t grow crops
  • pigs can be raised in woodland – so there is no need to remove natural habitat to produce farmland

Now smallholding can be a hard business, so anything that makes it easier or more profitable is to be welcomed. The more organic smallholders there are the better as far as the environment is concerned, because they reduce food miles, don’t poison the land with pesticides, produce more food per acre, support more trees, wild flowers and animals than large monoculture farms and they allow people to live closer to nature. Organic smallholding can be done without cruelty as long as they ensure that animals are free-range and slaughter is swift and painless.

The counter-argument: it’s not impossible to have a smallholding without animals, and even in hill regions, maybe it would be better ecologically to plant forests, and eventually smallholders could make money from firewood, timber and charcoal.

Anti: the land position

It takes much more land to feed a given human population with a meat-based diet than it does with a plant-based diet. The meat industry uses a lot of the world’s surface to grow crops, especially grains, that are then fed to animals – but it would be much more efficient, and take less land, to feed humans with the plant crops.

Every step up the food chain means wasted nutrients – animals will use a lot of the energy they get from plants to move around, breathe, digest their food etc. All this energy could have been made available directly to humans if we’d eaten the plant crop instead.

Therefore it can’t possibly be ethical to use more land than necessary to produce food, when some people don’t have access to land or money to feed themselves and their children properly. We could use the land saved by not eating meat for feeding more humans, or allowing it to revert to natural habitat.

The counter-argument: Simon Fairlie, in his book Meat: a Benign Extravagance (and see this article) suggests that we eat less meat rather than no meat at all. We should stop running animals on land that could grow plant food for humans, and stop growing grain to feed to animals. Just run animals on marginal land unsuitable for growing grains, and feed waste food to pigs and chickens (plus pigs and chickens can be kept in woodland), and we could actually extract more nutrition from agricultural land than from a solely plant-based diet.

Pro: the hunting position

We’re animals – omnivorous animals, with canine teeth and long intestines to cope with a diet that includes meat. The best diet for humans and for the planet is the stone-age diet, the hunter-gatherer diet – the one hominids have evolved with over the last 2 million years. In other words – fresh, local, organic fruit, vegetables and nuts, supplemented with lean, organic meat and fish caught from the wild.

The reason it’s good for the environment is that we don’t have to remove natural habitat to create farmland. We keep the natural habitat and harvest food from it. It’s organic, it’s natural, there are no issues around how animals are kept, and you have to work hard for your food. It’s a tradition stretching back to Australopithecus and beyond that involves respect for both animals and nature. Obviously, endangered animals are off-limits. But if you think about, if you were sentenced to death, and through some bizarre judgement, you could choose between being shot or being chased to exhaustion and torn apart by wolves, which would you choose, honestly?

The counter-argument: there are too many of us now for hunting and fishing to provide a significant part of our diet – it wouldn’t be long before there were no wild animals left. Only a tiny proportion of us could do it. Also, even hunter-gatherers could stop the hunting and up the gathering. Even in traditional societies, humans don’t need to eat meat. The Inuit are a special case, as their diet is mainly meat and fish – it’s too harsh a climate in the Arctic to provide much in the way of plant matter.

Anti: the compassion position

Animals have personalities – anyone who’s had a pet cat or dog knows that. It’s philosophically / ethically wrong to keep something with a personality, that can experience joy, fear and pain, with the intention of killing it and eating it. Yes humans are part of nature, and we’ve always been omnivorous. But we’ve always been violent too, and surely we should try to stop being violent (plus – maybe there’s a connection between our violence and killing animals). We’re not tied to the laws of nature like other animals. We have anaesthetics to numb pain, we have glasses and contact lenses to help us see, we drive cars and fly. Let’s not pretend we’re controlled by nature. We can rise above cruelty and viciousness. Killing animals is bad for us spiritually and in terms of compassion. We’ve come a long way – we’re better parents, more tolerant, more understanding than a generation ago. We should start to have a dispassionate debate about whether it’s right to eat animals at all. Mammals, at least, are too sentient. Killing them makes us cruel, and humanity would improve by becoming vegetarian. Also, if we eat eggs and dairy, then a lot of male babies have to be killed, because they don’t produce eggs or milk, and we’d be overrun with unproductive animals that we’d have to look after. If killing animals is the issue, then veganism is the only logical path.

The counter-argument: whatever humans do, we can’t stop animal suffering, or we’d have to stop nature. Virtually all wild animals suffer a gruesome death – either from starvation, disease or being torn apart by other animals. If it’s done ethically, then farm animals can suffer much less than animals in the wild. Plus, is there a line? Is it OK to eat fish, because they don’t have personalities in the way that mammals do? And what about prawns or shellfish – or even insects? Surely they are no more ‘sentient’ than plants? And philosophically, is it possible to draw the conclusion that it’s wrong for anyone to eat meat, or is it ultimately down to individuals?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. Maybe there aren’t any definitive answers, only opinions. My own position is that it would be better for our health and for the environment to eat less meat. Whether it’s wrong to eat animals at all, I don’t know – but as long as people do it, we’d like them to do it a) in the most environmentally-friendly way possible, and b) without cruelty.