Last spring the New York Times ran an essay contest I participated in. The topic? They wanted us to write about why it is ethical to eat meat.
I spent a lot of time collecting my thoughts and trying to come up with something original enough to impress the times.
I didn’t win, and I honestly wasn’t super enthralled with the submissions that made the finals. (I did love the fact the winning essay ended with the importance of giving thanks. I should have included that, but the word limit kind of cramped my final product.)
The other thing I largely didn’t include in my essay was my religious view. In my personal life I believe God created animals for us to care for and to be used as food. I also recognize many people have different religious beliefs. To be fair to the “ethics” nature of this question I tried not to tie my answer to any specific religion.
I never did blog about my submission, but I’ve decided now is the time. If you have comments, criticism, or questions, I welcome them all.
I’ll just say it. Yes, of course it’s ethical to eat meat. Many an animal’s
purpose in the natural world is to be food. Historically speaking, meat is
important to the human diet. All food production requires tradeoffs; why
single out meat?
Let’s explore these reasons a bit further, shall we?
Devine and noble purpose. That describes the end food animals eventually
come to. All animals die. If they die earlier to nourish people, they provide
Some claim it’s selfish for humans to nourish ourselves on animals. But if
we don’t, then what is the alternative for the animal?
The animal will either be eaten by predators or die of another cause and be eaten by scavengers. You just can’t get away from that food purpose.
You may be thinking of wild animals, but the same is true of domestic
livestock. If released from barns and pastures they too would fall victim to
predators or ultimately scavengers. So should we only allow animals to eat
People are omnivores and can survive without meat. But so are grizzly
bears. Surely bears can survive on plants, but they really want that
wriggling, enticing salmon. Just like the grizzly, some people want to eat
meat. Certainly humans should be afforded at least the same food choices
as animals. Most animals end up as food for something, so why not people?
There’s also a rich history of people consuming meat. Animals and plants
made up our ancestor’s diets. Eating meat was part of the natural order and nearly fundamental to the human experience if you wanted to thrive.
But our society has changed. Instead of worrying about enough to eat,
we have the luxury of worrying about country of origin and organic
certification. Meat specifically causes people to question how animals are
Does this make it less ethical to eat meat?
I still say no.
It’s not because I’m a runner who knows meat is essential for my body
to perform its best. It’s not even because I’m a farmer who knows the care and pride ingrained in how many a farmer cares for animals.
No; I know this issue is way bigger than me. For thousands of years the
circle of life has dictated people and animals look to meat as food.
The world, and food production along with it, is changing, but the fact
remains that all food systems have tradeoffs.
I argue saying meat consumption is unethical is as flawed as saying food
consumption – of any food – is unethical.
Every food, plant or animal, has a cost.
Let’s talk about chickens. Should they be raised for human food? If not,
you must ask yourself if it’s better they die a painful death in the jaws of
a hungry coyote. If so, should they be raised indoors or outdoors? Indoors they may have less freedom to roam, but outdoors they may experience higher death from wild bird diseases and exposure to the elements.
How about plants? Some farmers spray crops with herbicide. Some use
additional fossil fuel for a tractor and cultivator to control weeds. If they
use horses and plows, they have many horses to water and feed plus lost
efficiency. If no weed control is used, crops are drastically stunted.
Can we feed a growing world population with less output?
These examples do not show right or wrong. They show tradeoffs to
animals, earth, environment, and people no matter what we eat.
So I say meat is an important food for people and animals alike. Certainly it requires tradeoffs, just like all food. And if you want to debate the ethics of eating food, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. I may not be around anymore.