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The way I see it, there are two ways to think about the ethics of meat eating. One is to look at the suffering of each individual animal that is killed for consumption. The other way is to take a global approach, where one is concerned with negative environmental/human consequences caused by the meat industry. Of course, you don't have to choose one over the other, it just seems worthwhile to make a distinction. With this distinction in mind I'd like to call attention to a recent piece by George Monbiot in The Guardian that argues that much of the human malnutrition connected to the meat industry could be alleviated most effectively by changing the system in which animals are farmed. The author, a longtime proponent of veganism, had some of his assumptions challenged by the book Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie.
If pigs are fed on residues and waste, and cattle on straw, stovers and grass from fallows and rangelands – food for which humans don't compete – meat becomes a very efficient means of food production. Even though it is tilted by the profligate use of grain in rich countries, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition: in fact it's a significant net gain.
It's the second half – the stuffing of animals with grain to boost meat and milk consumption, mostly in the rich world – which reduces the total food supply. Cut this portion out and you would create an increase in available food which could support 1.3 billion people. Fairlie argues we could afford to use a small amount of grain for feeding livestock, allowing animals to mop up grain surpluses in good years and slaughtering them in lean ones. This would allow us to consume a bit more than half the world's current volume of animal products, which means a good deal less than in the average western diet.
The meat-producing system Fairlie advocates differs sharply from the one now practised in the rich world: low energy, low waste, just, diverse, small-scale. But if we were to adopt it, we could eat meat, milk and eggs (albeit much less) with a clean conscience. By keeping out of the debate over how livestock should be kept, those of us who have advocated veganism have allowed the champions of cruel, destructive, famine-inducing meat farming to prevail. It's time we got stuck in.
Have vegans, in their attempts to lessen meat-consumption-related suffering, done their cause a disservice by keeping themselves out of the conversation about how meat is produced? If it's true that world hunger issues could be improved through ethical animal farming, is that worth looking into? Do human-rights issues trump animal-rights issues? In an earlier blog post I suggested that there was some "gray-area" regarding the ethics of meat eating. I should clarify that I meant this only with the large-scale global approach—where less is better. If your reason for not eating is the suffering caused to each individual animal that is slaughtered for consumption, the matter is black and white.