13 May 2015

Can you make a moral argument for eating meat? Because I can't

I'm not a vegetarian. Not even close. My absolute favorite food in the world is a perfectly cooked medium-rare USDA prime filet mignon (or, sometimes, a ribeye). One restaurant here in Tulsa prepares theirs soux vide style, in which it's vacuum-sealed with seasonings and very gently cooked in churning water that beats and tenderizes the meat for 45 minutes; then it's quickly flash-seared to finish the edges with a nice char. It's heavenly.

  And yet when I enjoy a meal like that, I'm aware of the costs. They are not small. California is facing a water crisis, and the biggest drain on water in the state is animal agriculture. I won't comb through all the statistics because they're everywhere, but it takes vastly more water to raise a pound of animal protein than a pound of plant protein. Animal waste contaminates soil and groundwater; methane, released by billions of farting animals, is a major source of greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change.

Then there's the grim reality of factory farming. We are so far removed from the mechanized process of meat production that we often give little to no thought about how the neatly-packaged meat we're eating got to our table. But, it's not good. Animals are confined to cramped quarters, sometimes so small they can't even turn around. They might wallow in their own filth or that of nearby animals. Disease is so rampant because of the squalor that animals have to be fed large doses of antibiotics for much of their lives. Babies are dispassionately taken from their mothers, who cry out in distress. And while after a short life in such abysmal squalor and cruelty they are killed with mechanical efficiency, some inevitably slip through the fast-moving process and die an agonizing death. 

And we don't need any of this. We don't need to eat animal protein. We live in an era in which we could, should we so choose, invest in high-protein plant foods. We'd do vastly less harm to the environment, spare billions of animals from short and miserable lives, and we'd almost certainly be healthier — as the saturated fat and high caloric density of animal tissue is far more than we actually need. Meanwhile, plant proteins are loaded with fiber and nutrients that are often deficient in the American diet. 

The best I can argue is that it's not in principle wrong to eat animals and/or use them for various products. The problems come when we force them into unnatural habitations, behaviors, and lifestyles. We breed chickens with such large breasts (because we don't like dark meat) that their legs sometimes break under the weight of their own bodies. But it doesn't have to be that way; there can be, and are, sustainable and humane animal farming practices. The problem is that they're so rare that the cost of eating that way is a privilege of the upper-middle class and beyond.
Millions of male chicks are killed every year shortly after hatching, because male chicks do not lay eggs and are not suitable for meat production. [Why?]
MILLIONS OF MALE CHICKS ARE KILLED EVERY YEAR SHORTLY AFTER HATCHING, BECAUSE MALE CHICKS DO NOT LAY EGGS AND ARE NOT SUITABLE FOR MEAT PRODUCTION. [WHY?]
Of course eating vegetarian is not cheap, either —  red bell peppera, which EW mostly water, cost around $3/lb here in Tulsa. And I think that's where animal advocates have failed: they've focused on the environmental and ethical issues, and haven't addressed the economic ones. Poorer people eat animal protein because it's cheap, nutrient-dense, and tastes good. Vegetarian alternatives are often comparatively expensive, difficult to prepare, and lack the rich taste and pleasing mouth feel (that's the fat) of animal proteins. Until vegetarian alternatives can compete with animal proteins on those fronts, those 10 billion or so farm animals we consume every year don't stand a chance — no matter how many gruesome "inside factory farming" videos are produced.

And that's why I haven't gone vegetarian. I do make an effort to seek out humanely raised and sustainable meats, but it's not always available. My wife and I are making an effort to reduce the amount of meat we eat by eating vegetarian dinners a few times a week and really, that's the absolutely best way to change the industry: quit supporting it. But do we always do it? No. Do we love the taste and texture of meat, eggs, and cheese? Yes. Can we really defend our omnivorous tendencies? Not really. Can you?

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