Ethics and Meat Eating
You will need a bit of time to read my thoughts on ethics of meat eating as it is not a simple topic, and please remember that this page is a work in progress and will be modified significantly as feedback is received.
So, is it possible to be an ethical meat producer and eater? Many vegans and vegetarians would say "absolutely not!”, but I ask those in the 'absolutely not' camp to ponder the following philosophical questions. Is a short happy life better than no life at all? Is this true if the animal is sentient, but has no concept of a future? If all the worlds’ peoples were devout Muslims and Jews, would pigs exist?
The last question has implications for food security, as government, taste, fashion and religious prescriptions determine diversity. Just imagine a world where the only food you could buy was hamburger and fries from designated establishments! Just in case you think this impossible, here's an old 'cold war' joke from Russia; what is hundreds of metres long, has thousands of feet, and eats cabbage? A Soviet meat queue! A truism in jest.
Anyway, I should commend to you the following books for an intelligent discussion of the subject. The first is by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, the ethics of what we eat. This book discusses our many moral dilemmas when facing our food choices, and factory farmed, 'conventionally' grown and raised meats get a roasting (pun intended). They conclude that there are no moral, social, health or environmental reasons that would favour the eating of factory-farmed meat from an agro-industrial complex. However they did say that there are historical, cultural, evolutionary and other valid reasons why many do eat meat. So they set out a list of criteria, if meat is to be eaten at all, of just how, why, where and when this could be done. We had set about meeting their criteria long before the book was written.
The second book on the subject is Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. Michael explores the question, "What should we eat?" with a good scientist's attention to detail, removing the obfuscations to food truths. An excellent book and easy to read, it might change the way you shop and buy food. His follow up book, In Defense of Food, is well worth while reading too. In essence he advises "Eat food, mostly plants, and not too much". He defines food as not "edible food like substances" that need a degree in industrial chemistry to know what's in them.
The third book that I'd recommend is Slow Food Revolution by Carlo Petrini of Slow Food fame. This book, along with his second book Slow Food Nation, discusses how food should be 'good, clean and fair'. The important lesson from this book is that good food should also be pleasurable, and this experience be readily available to all. Implicit in this lesson is that the pursuit of quality be paramount in food production.
In the light of the above, and after much research and soul searching, I have determined that it is possible to raise and eat animals providing all the following issues are resolved and/or minimised. Please note that many of the points below overlap significantly and I have made some arbitrary decisions about where comments and anedotes should be placed.
1. Meat is an energy and water intensive product. Depending on how it is raised and killed, the energy required to produce a kilogram of beef would produce 15 to 60 times the amount of energy in grains and vegetables. The water consumption figures are even worse. Therefore raising meat is an inefficient means of producing food energy and using water.
I have no objections to the mathematics of energy and water input/output. However, are energy and water efficiency the only criterion that makes food use acceptable? If this were true, nature herself would progressively eliminate all but the most energy efficient living organisms. In fact it is an argument for biological regression. It seems self evident that there is a place for all species in the food chain, provided the food chain is in balance!
Human management of the food chain has distorted the natural order of things. Our food consumption should probably resemble an inverted pyramid with meat at the smallest and bottom part of the diagram. Instead the majority of Australians eat meat every day of the week. 1.2 million Australians eat at just one of the large hamburger chains every day! If you add to that all the other hamburger chains, pizza franchises and ‘take-aways’, you get the picture of what is wrong with the system.
It should be remembered that meat was traditionally a food for special occassions only, religious, cultural, social festivals and so on. The killing of the fatted calf only happened once or twice a year. This evolved over time to be the Sunday roast, and reducing one's meat eating to once a week should be reconsidered. As I have said elsewhere -
EAT LESS MEAT.
Incidentally there is a large variance in energy consumption figures for meat, and this depends partly on the species in question, chickens and pigs more efficient at converting plant protein to animal protein than cattle, sheep or goats. The variance is also heavily dependent on how the animals are farmed. Factory farming by way of feed lots and other animal confinement systems have much larger carbon footprints than range grazed animals. Also cattle, sheep and goats should not need a granary to feed them, as they should only graze freely on pastures.
If ruminants are free ranged on pastures that are not suitable for cropping or other horticultural pursuits, then the resultant product is as energy intensive, efficient and effective as the land/nature allows. This land use effectiveness is directly related to the next point.
2. Meat requires a much greater land area to produce the equivalent food calories/kilojoules than in grains and vegetables. If land use energy efficiency as measured in kilojoules were the only parameter, the food chain would probably end with bacteria. That said and logically in human food production systems, land that is suitable for the growing of grains and crops should not be used for grazing stock as it is inefficient and wasteful. It is a travesty that much of our prime agricultural land in Australia, the river flats, is used to grow cereal crops and hay to be fed to livestock compounding the inefficiency.
In short, and following on from the energy intensive and inefficiencies of meat, I contend that only land that is not suitable for crops or horticulture should be used for grazing animals. Of course in some cases it is efficient to graze the stubble and crop residues when harvesting is finished. However this should be incidental and a minor component of the cropping operation.
This would mean that some plains and foothills are the most suitable for grazing, and I would add that grazing should be also excluded from ‘environmental protection zones’. On an average farm this would equate to 20 to 40% of the farm being managed for environmental protection or enhancement. These figures are very 'rubbery' as they are highly dependent on the bioregion in question.
3. Meat production should be 'clean'. In the case of animals raised for food the organic standards suffice for chemical residue reduction. However the organic standards permit the feeding of grain to ruminants, and this is wrong on two counts. Firstly, points one and two above would prohibit the inefficient, wasteful and inequitable practice of feeding grains to ruminants. Secondly there is now much scientific evidence that shows that feeding grains to ruminants, that are not designed to eat them, leads to ill health of the animal (obesity). This in turn is not good for us - we are what we eat. The omega 3, 6 fatty acid ratios are seriously unbalanced in grain fed ruminants and unhealthy - organic or otherwise.
Being clean also implies that the land should still be clean after the impact of the animals. Animals living and feeding on their own excrement is not conducive to good health - theirs, ours and the environments. Therefore animal / pasture rotation systems must be employed to allow the dung and urine to incorporated into the soil, and dealt with by the soils biota. Rotations also allow the UV from sunlight to sanitise the pastures of many parasites and pathogens.
Being clean further requires that the meat contain no chemical residues from 'health treatments'. The only way to ensure meat is 'chem free' is not to use chemicals in the first place. There are many natural remedies for most animal illnesses, the best being prevention. Applecider Vinegar and garlic is a good health tonic and wormer, seaweed meal is also beneficial. Being clean is not about using 'cydectin' instead of 'ivomectin' as a drench because the former doesn't kill dung beetles. Both chemical drenches remain in the dung when deposited and kill all earthworms within a 1.5 metre radius of the cowpat.
4. Animals are sentient beings and should be treated with respect and kindness. If we are to raise animals for meat, they should be accorded respect and be well treated during their lives. They should also be allowed to express their unique biological distinctiveness whilst living. Systematic mutilation and painful behaviour modification should not be supported. Intensive and cramped confinment and housing systems should not be supported either. A few examples: debeaking of chickens, tail docking, teeth clipping and nose rigging of pigs, sow stalls too small for pigs to turn around in, battery chickens, dairy bull calf kills, feedlots and so on. All industrial farming systems inflict undue suffering on the animals in their ‘care’.
Being respectful also means making use of all of the animal once it is dead. To respect the animal is to eat it 'nose to tail'. We farm rare breeds and it is not a paradox to say "we must kill and eat them, to save them". If there is no market for these rare breeds, they will die out. In fact according to the FAO, we are losing 3 breeds a months globally. So not killing and eating an animal does lead to a breeds demise, and in so doing deminishes diversity and obliterates hundreds of years of food history and heritage.
Death and dying in our culture have become sanitized and almost taboo subjects - out of sight and out of mind, and little discussed. However death is a precondition of life as we know it, which brings me back to the philosophical question; is a short happy life better than no life at all? Difficult to answer, but perhaps this is where a consensus might help. If we asked this question to a large sample of people, at say a referendum, the vast majority would say yes. I have asked most people I know this question and the answer is yes.
There are those who object to the killing of animals outright. If this objection is followed through, then honest attempts should be made to prevent the cat killing the bird, the fox the rabbit, the dingo the roo, and so on. The absurdity and impossibility of this position should be obvious.
There is so much more to life than attempting to stall or deny death. Life is impossible without it, and is enhanced by it. So we should all get used to the idea that death is as natural as it is inevitable. What is important is not the fact that all living creatures die, it is the manner of their death that is important.
Some people want to know how long is a short happy life, and most people want the word 'happy' defined, but other than that they say yes to the question. I define happy, for the animals in our care as; not subject to pain or stress, being able to express their unique biological distinctiveness, being well fed and watered, being well sheltered, being able to associate in familial groups of a comfortable size. Death when it comes is as quick, stress minimised and humane as is possible. I may have forgotten something, but essentially the animals live as close to a normal and natural life as possible given that a farm is a human construct.
A 'short' life is species dependent. In the case of our cattle this is roughly 25 to 30% of a normal life expectancy, and this is nearly double the industry average. Our pigs live for approximately 20% of a normal life expectancy. When we eventually kill poultry for food, the life of the birds will be very short, but still more than 3 times the factory farmed average. Partly this is because we farm the old rare breeds that are slower to mature, and partly because it is a better outcome for the animal in question.
5. The way our food is produced should be totally transparent. This follows on from point 4. You should know all that is done to the food you eat - all processes including the kill. If you "don't want to know" what happens to your food, you leave your food open to sytematic abuse, contamination and processes that are not good for your health. Not wanting to know what happens to your food also implies the desire to live in an ethical void.
Furthermore, you farm out this transparency and "need to know" to certifying bodies and government agencies at your own risk. The major food scares were, and still are, a by product of the agroindustrial food chain. Mad cow disease and bird flu are only two examples. The worlds largest recall of beef (65,000,000 kilograms) happened in February 2008 in the USA, but much of the suspect beef had already been sold and consumed. If 65 million kilograms of beef is too big a quantity to contemplate, it is roughly equivalent to 500,000 live cattle.
Transparency in the case of meat this includes how the animal was reared and treated from conception to plate (see point 4). This includes how the animal is killed. Killing is a contentious issue, and there are humane and inhumane ways to kill. Pain and fear, leading up to, and during the kill, can be nonexistent. It is as simple as walking up to the animal in the paddock and putting a bullet (or captive bolt) into the brain. Death in this case is instantaneous and the animal is unaware. Unfortunately it is illegal to sell meat killed in this humane way in Australia. All meat killed for sale in Australia, must be killed at a AQIS (Aust. Qurantine Inspection Service) certified abattoir.
So, can you really trust a large corporation, with 'commercial in confidence' restrictions to transparency, with your food? "We can't tell you what we do to this food product as it is a proprietary process." This is an outrageous state of affairs and supported by ‘the agroindustrial system’.
Locally produced, minimally processed food is more likely to have producers that support transparency.
6. Food miles, and the consequent carbon emissions, are an ethical consideration. If intergenerational equity is to be considered, food miles are a big problem. There is much debate happening about food miles in the press, and the press loves an argument - arguments sell papers. So papers have concentrated on the exceptions to the rule to generate friction and adversarial 'discussions'. The truism 'the exception does not disprove the rule' should be applied to food miles.
It may well be that lamb produced in New Zealand on pasture, shipped in huge bulk refrigerated carriers, arrives in the UK with a lower per unit carbon emission than locally produced grain fed, housed lamb. But they are not comparing production systems, only the carbon emissions. There is no way a Danish ham, cheese, or sausage has a lower carbon footprint than a comparable local Australian one. There is a 24,000 kilometre difference in distance, and even allowing for economies of scale, the numbers do not stack up. All things being equal (production systems and processes) the closer the food, the less carbon will be emitted in reaching your table. So do use lower food miles in your ethical considerations.
Singer and Masson raise another ethical question with food miles. Is it better to support a local first world farmer, if this means a third world farmer is deprived of an income? A hard question to answer as it implies a hierarcy of ethical considerations, where to choose one would render the other impossible - a zero sum game if you will. A better question might be, do we want to support a system that locks a third world farmer into export dependence? Assuming peak oil is here or has past, and a carbon tax invetiable, the long distance haulage of foods will be penalised no matter where or who it's from.
As stated in point 5, transparency usually improves with proximity too. A farmer facing difficult economic circumstances may well compromise their products integrity if it means lower costs and increased returns. You should be very concerned about the heavy metal and pesticide levels in vegetables imported from the Asian 'tiger' economies.
Incidentally, large scale industrial organics do not address food miles at all. In fact the conversion of small scale organics to industrial organics runs counter to the principles of localism, and is part of the agroecological global mess that is looming.
7. Producing food should not impose costs on others; it should be socially, environmentally and economically fair.
a) Farmers and farm workers should be properly renumerated for their efforts. In Australia, the average age of farmers is close to 60 and the younger potential farmers are choosing not to farm. The reason being it is a 7-day a week, 24 hour 'on call' job that pays poorly in monetary terms. There are 'lifestyle' considerations, but these often do not appeal to the young and ambitious. As they say, “You can’t eat the scenery.”
Part of the problem is that the agricultural system is geared towards the bulk materials handling of commodities. If you are in the commodities business you are a 'price taker' at the whims of the international market and the buyers from the large supermarkets. This price / income uncertainty, coupled with long hard hours, rising input costs and topped with droughts, floods and fires is a disincentive to farm.
Furthermore the application of economic rationalism to farms has been devastating. I'll cite a very local example, 40 years ago my neighbour’s farm had twelve employees working 8,000 sheep for wool and 150 breeding cows. Today this farm is 'run' by the owner and a part time worker. The word run is appropriate, as that's all he does. He works 14+ hour days 7 days a week, doesn't take holidays, doesn't dare get sick or injured, and the personal monetary returns from the farm are much worse than they were 40 years ago!
In short the system that supported Australian farmers is broken. It is a systemic problem that is too large to address here.
Farmers markets, when you are dealing with the farmer direct, are a small part of the solution. Every bit helps.
b) In the interests of fairness, social costs such as noise, smells, visual and enivorment pollution should be eliminated. This is know as the internalisation of costs. In other words the price of many foods does not reflect their true costs, as some costs are externalised - passed on to others who are not a part of the monetary transaction. Examples include; fertiliser run off into waterways, rivers and the oceans killing reefs and affecting tourism, algal blooms rendering swimmimng in waterways unhealthy, and smells and pollution from factory farms and animal confinment systems.
c) Environmental fairness has been partly addressed above, but includes; artificial and unsustainable fertility, chemical, genetic, atmospheric, soil and water degradation and contamination. It is simply not right or fair that our food choices should limit those of future generations and diminish genetic health and diversity in the natural and farm environments. For these reasons heirloom varieties of foods (plant and animal) should be supported.
8. Food should be ‘good’. This has several meanings: it should be good for your health, it should be fulfilling of a need to eat and feel satisfied. It is should be obvious that we should not eat food that is detrimental to our health and wellbeing.
For years we have been confusing 'good' food with 'safe' food. Obviously at the extremes, food that kills you is hardly good for you. However food that is not deemed immediately hazardous to your health is not necessarily 'good' food either. Many fast foods may be 'safe', but most of them are far from 'good'.
Importantly the food you eat should taste good and leave you feeling that you have been well fed. Life is too short to drink bad wine and eat lousy food – just don’t do it.
9. Morals and ethics are a human construct. This whole discussion of animal rights is based on a false premise. We are discussing how a human construct, formulated to codify and facilitate human interactions, should be applied to other species. Is this not hubris on our part? How dare we transpose and impose the concept of 'individual and human rights' on another species? Nature has no regard for the rights of the individual, and nature has no regard if you or I are eaten or what we eat. In short the whole animal rights discussion is one of anthropomorphisation, and anthropocentric. We are imposing human values on other species, is this right? I sincerely doubt it.
The eating of whales is very topical in Australia, and I do not support the industrial factory ship hunting of whales. However, what is the difference between the Inuit's traditional hunting and eating of whale meat, and the hunting and killing of whales by Orcas (killer whales)? None, both species use intelligence and the tools at their disposal to kill and eat whales. Killer whales and humans will even co-operate in this endeavour as they did at Eden on the NSW south coast. 'Old Tom' a killer whale would tow the long boats to the whales, then round them up so the humans could kill them, and then share in the kill. The indigenous Australians and the Dingo had, and may still have, a similar relationship.
Anyway, it is my contention that it is not what we do, but how we do it that is the issue. Also, having grown up with the French, I believe that to impose one's personal dietary restrictions on others is simply bad manners. When I visit vegetarian friends I eat what is placed before me. When they visit me in return they refuse my offerings of meat and I am forced to modify my gift of food. It is this imposition of their personal choices on others that is offensive. And finally to quote Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
So, if you chose to eat meat, what sort of meat should you eat?
Obviously meat that satisfies or minimises all of the ethical objections above, and eat as little meat as possible. I am very happy to admit that Mountain Creek Farm is not perfect, but we have resolved or minimised as far as possible all of the above issues, and continue to work at minimising animal stress and suffering.
I guestimate that somewhere between 20% and 30% (a very significant number anyway) of our clients are what I affectionately call "lapsed vegans" or "lapsed vegetarians". Before I moved to the farm I was a strict vegetarian (near vegan) myself for many years. This was in protest against the factory farming of animals. Anyway, many of these clients have visited our farm to see for themselves how the animals are raised and treated. They would be welcome to come for a trip to the abattoir with me too, to witness the process in full, but nobody has accepted this offer - so far.
Any and all criticism of the above would be appreciated. This page is far from finished and I freely admit it is disjointed; it will be 'pulled together' over time as my thoughts gel. So if you feel something needs to be addressed or is incorrect, please email me and I will do my best to accomodate your concerns.
© 2007-2012 by Michael Croft and Mountain Creek Farm, All rights reserved.