Our policy on keeping animals & eating meat

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Posted May 10 2020 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Eating meat and keeping animals

Our topics include vegetarianism and veganism, but also keeping animals (for meat, dairy, eggs, honey, wool, leather, work etc); and also fishing and hunting animals in the wild. Is this incongruous? As a sustainability / new economy organisation, should we be promoting only veganism, rather than the keeping and/or eating of animals?

We’ve had huge debates about this, and the first things we want to stress are that:

  1. We oppose industrial agriculture, large-scale industrial fishing and the shooting industry.
  2. We believe the scale of current meat production to be unsustainable, and would like to see a huge reduction in the consumption and production of meat. Vegetarianism and veganism contribute to this, which is why we support them.

But we believe that in some circumstances, it’s acceptable to keep / eat animals. After thinking and debating about this for a long time, we think that the arguments can be condensed into three questions, the answers to which form our policy:

  • Can keeping or eating animals be ethical?
  • Can keeping or eating animals be sustainable?
  • Is it spiritually damaging to humans to keep or eat animals?

Can keeping or eating animals be ethical?

We believe that it can, or at least that the argument that it is unethical isn’t strong enough.

Imagine that we could talk with pigs (for example), and explain to them that they have three options (bearing in mind that we’ve ruled out industrial agriculture):

1. You can live in the wild. There’s a very large probability that you’ll die before you’re one year old (see note 1). You’ll almost certainly die by being torn apart by a predator or predators – probably when you’re very young, but also if you become old, infirm, or just unlucky; and as you’ve got thick skin, this could mean quite a long period of pain and torment (see note 2). If you get a disease or an injury, death could be much worse. If you’re an adult female, you’ll almost certainly see some of your children torn apart in front of you. You’ll never be sure of getting enough food or water, and you won’t have shelter in the winter, or any medical treatment.

2. You can live on a farm. You’ll definitely live to one year old. You’ll live outdoors, ideally in woodland. You’ll die quickly. If you’re an adult female, you’ll never see your children die. You’ll be guaranteed food, water, shelter in the winter and medical treatment.

3. You never exist at all.

(There’s a fourth option – to be kept as a pet, but we haven’t included this one, because farmers won’t do it, but also because it’s unsustainable, as land would be required to feed them, but they would never produce meat, so extra land and resources would be required to produce human food that could have been provided by their meat.)

We have no way of knowing which of these options the pigs would choose, and therefore there’s no sound basis for an argument that keeping or eating animals is unethical.

Can keeping or eating animals be sustainable?

We believe that it can, in two circumstances:

1. On smallholdings, where

  • no animal feed is imported, unless from waste / by-products;
  • the total environmental impact of the animals (including emissions) is no greater than that of the wild populations that existed in the area before humans changed the landscape to exclude them.

We want to help build a new economy, which involves switching from extractive, corporate production to mainly community-based, small-scale production, including food. We favour organic, mixed smallholdings rather than large-scale, industrial, monoculture agriculture. For example, a smallholder can run sheep under orchard trees, along with chickens and bees. The grass and weeds are kept down, the trees are fertilised and pollinated, chickens provide pest control – all for free, and the smallholder gets an income from meat, dairy, wool, sheepskins, eggs and honey. The smallholder is able to generate more food for local consumers, more nutritional value and more income from the same area of land.

Life is hard for smallholders, and it’s very difficult to get small-scale farmers back on the land. Preventing them from keeping animals and selling animal products of any kind will make it much harder. However, as the vast majority of the world eats meat and/or animal products, meat consumption and production is not going to stop – let’s instead try to reduce it and to do it as sustainably as possible.

2. The harvesting of non-endangered animal species from the wild.

We can harvest some nutrition from wild land, and a large amount from the sea, so that less natural habitat has to be converted to agriculture.

Is it damaging to humans to keep or eat animals?

Is it psychologically (see note 3), or somehow ‘spiritually’ damaging? Maybe; but there’s no way to prove it (it would be impossible to collect any data, or to even agree on what was meant by spiritual). However:

1. If your argument is that eating meat damages humans spiritually, then you must believe that the Inuit, Yanomami, Saan, Maasai etc., or any people living a hunter-gatherer or herder lifestyle, in harmony with nature, are damaging themselves spiritually by hunting. We don’t find this argument convincing.

2. Hunting may be a skill that’s required for survival at some point, in case of societal collapse or being lost in the wilderness. Would we value the life of an animal over our own?

3. If it’s acceptable for animals to be killed and eaten ‘in nature’, but not acceptable for humans to kill and eat animals, then humans are not part of nature – but we are, in terms of our DNA and evolutionary history, as well as our utter dependency. Alienation and disconnection from nature is a risky path to take – if we don’t feel connected to nature, we’ll feel less inclined to protect it.

We believe that:

  • hunter-gatherer lifestyles are not spiritually damaging;
  • human life is more valuable than animal life (we would save a drowning child before a drowning animal, for example);
  • humans are part of nature.

There are also health risks involved in eating meat (around eating too much of it, whilst living a sedentary life), but also in veganism (around not taking care to get enough protein and essential vitamins and minerals, whilst living a sedentary life). But if you want to argue against meat consumption (or veganism) on health grounds, then for consistency you’d also have to support the banning of cars, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, mountain climbing, chainsaws, wild swimming, horse riding, slaking lime, felling trees, picking wild mushrooms etc. Ultimately, the corporate economy and its effect on biodiversity is the biggest threat to humans; so it’s important not to handicap smallholders – the main alternative to the corporate sector when it comes to food production.

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For all the reasons outlined above, we believe that in some circumstances, keeping or eating animals can be ethical and sustainable, and is not spiritually damaging to humans. We promise that our policy will change if we’re presented with arguments that convince us that it needs to.

The Lowimpact team.

Notes

  1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wild_boar#Social_behaviour_and_life_cycle. Wild boar maximum lifespan c. 12 years; but few live past 5 years. Females reach maturity at 1, average litter size is 5. So a sow with a lifespan of 5 years will have around 20-25 piglets in her lifetime. In a healthy ecosystem, wild boar numbers will remain relatively stable, so of those 20-25 piglets, on average, 2 will reach breeding age (one for each parent). Over 90% of wild boar piglets die before the age of 1.
  2. Please do not visit this link if you’re of a sensitive disposition. It’s one of many freely-available videos on YouTube showing the killing of wild pigs by predators – this time, a leopard. In a healthy ecosystem, this is the ultimate fate of almost all wild pigs. Pigs kept on organic smallholdings don’t suffer in this way. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Fap8w8rZgA.
  3. We’re against industrial, corporate agriculture, and that goes for abbatoirs too. We don’t know of any evidence base for whether working in a small-scale abbatoir is psychologically damaging generally. To some it would be, but to others it may not. We’d like to find out if there have been any studies. We’ll try to interview someone who works in a small abbatoir, about their work and how it affects them. Not scientific, but interesting nonetheless. We wonder if most smallholders would prefer not to send animals to an abbatoir at all, but to slaughter them on the farm (separated from other animals, with a rifle, whilst eating. I’ve seen it done – they’re gone instantly). We’ll interview smallholders about this – would they prefer to do it this way? However, this does mean that smallholders wouldn’t be able to sell their meat (only people living on the smallholding would be able to consume it), which removes one of the main planks of our position – to support smallholders vs industrial ag. when it comes to meat production. But – if the meat is deemed fit for people on the smallholding to eat, then why is it not fit for anyone else to eat? We’re going to look into the regulations, and see if there are any campaigns to allow smallholders to sell the meat from animals slaughtered on the farm. We’d be happy to support a campaign like that. We’ll also contact the Humane Slaughter Association to arrange an interview about the likelihood that the regulations could change. We think it’s a case of organic smallholders being penalised by the bad practices inherent in industrial agriculture.