Is Eating Animals Immoral?

I think readers can guess Rodgers and Wolf argue the answer is a emphatic no. How do they make their case? Oh, so many ways. Their approach is “death by a thousand cuts.” Death to anti-meat arguments that is. Let’s dig in.

A lot of this chapter revolves round the idea of “least harm.” Human action impacts plants, animals and the environment. Properly managed, regenerative food systems including animals and plants is the best way to cause “least harm.”

One old, vegan chestnut is that animals should be allowed to live in the wild to old age, enjoying a long retirement and pension. I’m being facetious but only just. Our authors make the obvious point that Western populations are so divorced from nature (and increasingly reality) that vegans think cows, sheep, etc. would live some kind of idyllic existence if man would just leave them alone and eat bread. But, you dear reader know otherwise, “In nature, most animals are killed by another animal to be eaten.” Or if they were somehow protected from predators but not eaten by humans they would die of sickness, disease or old age. Yet, old age is not what it’s cracked up to be if you’re an animal, “By the end of its life, its organs start to fail and the animal can no longer eat or drink. Maybe it goes blind or breaks a leg. Is this process painless and fast? Is it “humane”?” No it is not.

In contrast, farmers, most of whom actually do care about their animals “ensure that their animals are well fed and have access to clear water, are treated for infections, and enjoy a relatively stress-free life. This is much more comfortable than life in the wild, where food can be scarce, cuts can become deadly infections, and there’s no fencing to protect them from predators.” Predators who eat them alive I should add.

But, but but, the vegan might cry, “on the whole we limit suffering more than those who raise ruminants.” Not so our authors continue. First, vegans depend on an agricultural system that is destroying the Earth’s soil and causing other environmental problems. Have you ever driven past a farmer tilling the soil with massive flocks of birds behind him? That’s because the birds are eating all the things the farmer has just killed from tilling: worms, mice, insects, etc. In addition, during the growing season, the farmer doused his crops in pesticides that kill insects and poison the animals that eat them. Then the exposed soil and chemical run-off find their way into rivers that kill fish and aquatic life. Yes, the vegans are holding a very weak hand indeed when it come to causing least harm. During the harvest, farmers run over rabbits, mice and other critters. Our authors ask how many animal deaths is the vegan causing through eating plants. The answer is a lot. Ultimately, “animal death is a by-product of plant production. It’s inescapable.”

What about human lives? Do they count when it comes to plant production? Almonds, of which 80% of the world’s production comes from California, take up so much water that fish, animals and plants die because the water is siphoned off for the almond trees. Yet, many humans don’t always have access to California water because it goes to the almond farmers. Do you like chocolate dear vegan? Well, unless it’s fair trade, you are indirectly contributing to child labour, human-trafficking and kidnapping. Moreover, some African countries have switched over to intense monocrop cacao agriculture which has destroyed habitat and wildlife populations. Is that causing “least harm?” Finally, our authors note that most banana production uses aerial spraying of cancerous chemicals causing illness and death. “Are we only concerned with animal lives, or do human lives count,” our authors rhetorically ask.

Maybe the most interesting section of the chapter deals with sentience. The vegan argument goes something like this “humanity is a blight unto the earth, yet…the more like “us” an organism is (sentience), the more unethical it is to eat it. Plants, [antimeat types] argue, do not respond like humans or animals do to “pain,” so it is ethically acceptable to eat them.” I’ve always found this a rubbish argument personally. I know, and have known, for decades that some plants respond to external stimuli. Only the ignorant, unthinking and arrogant assume that plants don’t “feel.” Well, I had no idea they felt so much. This section was so fascinating that I will quote it at length:

But there’s a fallacy lurking in this position, since plants do in fact respond to attempts to eat them, via chemical warfare and warning neighbors. Trees can “talk” below ground through fungal networks. They can direct nutrients to other trees, know which trees are kin and which are not, and can even “feed” dying trees in an effort to keep them alive. When a tree is being eaten by a certain pest, that tree can turn on chemicals that will make its leaves taste bitter. It can also alert other trees that this pest is nearby, making those trees taste bitter, too. It can even send out a call message to beneficial insects that will eat the pest. Other plants have been documented “reaching” for sounds, and it’s common knowledge they move toward light.”

Since plants are clearly “feelers” and “communicators” vegans have no moral leg to stand on when it comes to the sentience argument. Ultimately, our authors make the obvious point. Since plants do feel and communicate how are they less important than rabbits or worms for that matter?

In their final analysis, Rodgers and Wolf conclude that “blood is spilled, and lots of harm is caused in the production of produce.” Instead,

If you value the lives of rabbits or chipmunks as much as that of a cow, and are truly looking to kill the least amount of lives to feed your own, then we propose that killing one well-raised cow that lived on pasture is actually causing less death than the number of animal lives that are lost by modern row-cropping techniques. in the last analysis, the principle of least harm may actually require the consumption of large herbivores (red meat).

This is a great way to conclude the chapter. My only change would be that least harm DOES require the consumption of red meat.

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