September 10, 2010

The Ethics of Farming Animals

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.

From "I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat—but farm it properly":

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.

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Sabio Lantz's picture

I am a meat-eating Buddhist. We raise our own chickens for meat and eggs. Our chicken live a very good life and die rather painlessly. We all die and we die of something which is rarely pleasant. Is it the length of life or the quality that determines the degree of suffering.

Bodhi Sanctuary's picture

BTW, on the flesh eaters argument toward vegetarians about bacteria. Bacteria has a life span of a few hours and can multiply in the millions in a few hours in the right conditions, and eating certain bacteria is necessary for the body to function properly and digest our food. Yes, bacteria lives in our body, the right ones help us function, and the wrong ones can kill us. Plants are fruits and vegetables, not mammals like us. Mammals lives long lives, and plants only live for season, and they die, but we eat plants just before they die. We need these to survive, and we don't need to kill other mammals to survive. That again is the difference.

Definitely it is not the same and nothing comparable to the life span of other sentient beings who live as long and are probably just as intelligent or more intelligent than some in the human species. So the justification is not comparable, and flesh eaters attacks toward vegetarianism isn't working.

It's just a way to make them feel better about killing sentient beings.

Are you one of them?'s picture

We're better than that.

TK's picture

Well, I've done very well for being vegetarian for almost 20 years and the last 10 months bordering vegan. It can be done. Theirs no need for all these animals to be suffering for me.

As for another comment on seen on FB... some one commented that vegetarians or vegans never mention anything about the bacteria that we kill in our food when we "boil our vegetables," or bake bread. Their is a big difference between these and animals that people raise to kill and eat the flesh. One thing is it's not necessary. We can survive without causing these sentient beings to suffer. There is also a difference between intent to do harm. Yes, as a vegetarian "vegan" I do, end up killing bacteria on my body when I bath with soap. I do take note of these things, and I don't even kill roaches. If I find a water roach or spider that came into the house, I will put it back out side, but a roach is also far different than bacteria that we can't even see.

I don't understand why these animal flesh eaters complain about vegetarian's eating vegetables or killing bacteria in their food, when they themselves eat the flesh of sentient beings who have more understanding and are more like us than bacteria or other single celled bacteria's.

Do your best! Is that the best you can do to stop the suffering?

alex's picture

If you are trying to live according to buddhist principles, and you eat animals, perhaps you should consider killing the animals that you eat yourself. This would make you more aware of the causes and effects of your actions. It would be more respectful to the animals that you eat rather than paying someone else to kill the animals for you, behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the consumer. It seems that so many meat eaters are opposed to hunting, but at least hunters have enough respect for the animals to kill what they eat themselves.

Rev. Maynard's picture

And the angel of the lord came unto me, snatching me up from my place of slumber. And took me on high, and higher still until we moved to the spaces betwixt the air itself. And he brought me into a vast farmlands of our own midwest. And as we descended, cries of impending doom rose from the soil. One thousand, nay a million voices full of fear. And terror possesed me then.

And I begged, "Angel of the Lord, what are these tortured screams?"

And the angel said unto me, "These are the cries of the carrots, the cries of the carrots! You see, Reverend Maynard, tomorrow is harvest day... and to them, it is the holocaust."

And I sprang from my slumber drenched in sweat like the tears of one million terrified brothers and roared, "Hear me now, I have seen the light! They have a consciousness, they have a life, they have a soul! Damn you! Let the rabbits wear glasses! Save our brothers!"

Can I get an Amen? Can I get a Hallelujah? Thank you Jesus.

(This is necessary) feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life ...

Wildlife Medley Animals Hunting Deer Wall Stickers | Hunting's picture

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Joe M's picture

It was not so long ago that even most Americans subsisted on animals they had raised-- or even hunted-- themselves. Many of these people never would have imagined the words "meat" and "industry" could appear side by side. The same was true of the plants they grew and/or foraged. These people understood far better than modern man that their lives existed because of death.

Whether it's the harvesting of one's own vegetables or bringing livestock to slaughter, the Buddha knows these are acts in which s/he mustn't be complicit and is not. We are not all buddhas. If we were, we wouldn't need to take the vows of the boddhisattva. As such, we're blessed to be a part of moving all beings from a place of greed and hatred to one of loving-kindness and equanimity. Being a part of the conversation and bearing witness to what is surely is an essential component of that task.

Andre Halaw's picture

Interesting perspective on meat farming. As a vegetarian, what I find most repugnant about meat consumption--besides the obvious needless suffering involved--is the exorbitant amount of waste involved. Take a casual stroll through the meat aisle at the grocery store and you will see literally hundreds of animals slaughtered "in the event" that someone might want to eat them. And that's just ONE grocery store! Imagine how many animals are needlessly slaughtered, just in case someone "might" want to eat them. To me that's clearly inhumane.

Is there another alternative? Not that I know of. Slaughtering "on demand" just is not feasible in our complex society.

What is clear to me, though, is that if people do decide to eat, they are tacitly endorsing such a system.

The First Buddhist Precept prohibits taking life. Although the Buddha allowed his monks to eat meat (provided it wasn't killed specifically for them), he was obviously opposed to killing animals, as they are sentient beings. Nutritional needs aside, I don't see why a Buddhist would willingly eat meat, especially when there are so many dietary options available.

Again, I'm a vegetarian, so I'm admittedly biased. Just figured I would offer another perspective.