30 September 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 11 of 13

For an explanation of this feature, click on “Moral Vegetarianism” at the bottom of this post.

The Argument from Human Grain Shortage

All of the clearly moral arguments for vegetarianism given so far have been in terms of animal rights and suffering. New moral vegetarianism, however, rests on moral arguments couched in terms of human welfare. It is argued that beef cattle and hogs are protein factories in reserve. In order to produce one pound of beef, cattle eat approximately sixteen pounds of grain; and in order to produce six pounds of pork or ham, hogs eat approximately six pounds of grain. It is estimated that the amount of grain fed to cattle and hogs in the United States in 1971 was twice that of U.S. exports of grain for that year and was enough to feed every human being with more than a cup of cooked grain every day for a year. Given the people in the world who are hungry or even starving, we should not eat meat, since in eating meat we are, as it were, wasting grain that could be used to feed the hungry people of the world. It only takes a little imagination to suppose that every bite of hamburger we eat is taking grain away from a hungry child in India.

The difference between this argument and the arguments considered above should not be overlooked. Whereas those arguments maintain that grain-eating animals should not be slaughtered, this argument is at least consistent with the position that they should be: grain-eating animals, it might be maintained by a new moral vegetarian, should be slaughtered to prevent them from eating more grain and producing new grain-eating offspring. This argument also differs from traditional ones in its selective and restrictive moral prohibitions against eating flesh. The eating of non-grain-eating animals, e.g., fish and wild game, is morally permissible on this view. Indeed, it might even be encouraged in order to utilize all food sources as effectively as possible.

KBJ: The first difference mentioned in the preceding paragraph betrays a misunderstanding. Nobody wants existing animals to be slaughtered. The proponent of the argument wants to stop replacing them when they die.

These differences aside, is the argument valid? Does it follow that because grain that could be used to feed hungry people is used to feed cattle, people should not eat the meat produced by feeding these cattle grain?

To see that it does not, one must be clear on what this argument assumes in order to arrive at its conclusion. First of all, it assumes that if many people in countries with surplus grain, e.g., in the United States, did not eat grain-fed meat this would cut down on the amount of grain used to feed animals that produce meat. Second, it seems to assume that not eating meat is the best way to conserve grain. Third, the argument assumes that if the grain used to feed cattle in the United States, e.g., was not fed to cattle, the grain would be used to feed the hungry people.

KBJ: The argument does not assume that “not eating meat is the best way to conserve grain.” It assumes that not eating meat is one way to conserve grain. Martin has a disturbing habit of misstating his opponents’ arguments.

None of these assumptions seems plausible. Let us take the first assumption. It is useful to remember that grain was fed to cattle and other animals in this country in order to use our surplus; it was an economic move. Given a depressed demand for meat caused by widespread vegetarianism, other economic moves could be made. More grain could be fed to fewer meat-producing animals resulting in the same consumption of grain. Or the same number of meat-producing animals could be produced and fed the same amount of grain, but new markets could be found for meat and new needs created. Or new markets could be found among the countries of the world where meat consumption is slight; more need for meat could be produced among nonvegetarians and dogs and cats.

The next assumption is no less dubious. It is doubtful that the best approach to conserving grain is to become a vegetarian. It is important to realize that beef cattle and other ruminants do not need to eat protein in order to produce protein. Indeed, beef cattle can be fed on a variety of waste materials, e.g., cocoa residue, bark, and wood pulp, and still produce quality meat. Various lobby groups, world food organizations, and consumer and environmentalist groups putting pressure on meat producers to utilize these waste products to feed animals might be a much more effective way of conserving grain than vegetarianism. If beef cattle and other meat-producing animals were fed on waste products instead of on grain, there would be no reason not to eat meat in order to feed the hungry people of the world. Indeed, one might feel that there was an obligation to eat meat. Eating meat from animals fed on waste products would be a way of saving grain that could be shipped to the hungry people of the world.

KBJ: Yes, beef cattle can be fed on waste materials, but they’re not (at least exclusively). The argument under consideration is about the real world, not some fanciful world of Martin’s imagination.

The third assumption of the argument is also dubious. It is highly unlikely, given the present policy of the United States government, that surplus grain, even if it were available, would be shipped to the most needy people. The government’s policy has been (and it is likely that it will continue to be) to sell grain to those countries that are able to pay and to those countries in whom we perceive our national security interest. In 1974 we shipped four times as much food to Cambodia and South Vietnam as to starving Bangladesh and Swahelian Africa.

To put it in a nutshell, without vast changes in the economic systems and the policies of governments with surplus grain, not eating meat in order to help the starving people of the world is an idle gesture. Such a gesture may make people happier and may make them feel less guilty, but it does no good. With vast changes in economic systems and governmental policy, however, not eating meat hardly seems necessary.

Singer also uses the argument from human grain shortage to support his provegetarian position, although he is aware of its limitations.

This does not mean that all we have to do to end famine throughout the world is to stop eating meat. We would still have to see that the grain thus saved actually got to the people who need it.

Singer is no doubt correct that the problems in getting the grain to the people who need it are not insurmountable. But the economic and political changes that would have to occur in order to do so are very extensive—more extensive than Singer wishes to admit. In any case, as we have seen, changes in how meat-producing animals are fed, together with changes in political and economic policies, would enable us to feed the starving people of the world without a vegetarian commitment.

Frances Moore Lappé, in her fine book Diet for a Small Planet, also points out the simplistic thinking that is involved in supposing that going without meat is going to help the starving people of the world. But in the end she still advocates a meatless diet.

A change in diet is a way of saying simply: I have a choice. This is the first step. For how can we take responsibility for the future unless we can make choices now that take us, personally, off the destructive path that has been set for us by our forebears.

But if Lappé is correct in the major arguments in her book, such a first step is not really necessary. There are ways to feed the starving people of the world without forgoing meat, e.g., by changing governmental policy. Indeed, Lappé, in the next section of her book, recommends a list of organizations that one can join in order to change government policy toward hungry people of the world and to educate Americans about the food problem. None of these organizations requires a vegetarian commitment.

How can we understand Lappé’s recommendation of a meatless diet as a “first step” toward changing the present situation? Perhaps in this way: Becoming a vegetarian is a very personal, symbolic act; it symbolizes one’s commitment to a cause and goal: feeding the hungry people of the world.

KBJ: This is a willful and, if I may say so, disgraceful misreading of Lappé’s argument, which has nothing to do with symbolism.

But for many people such a symbol is not necessary; they do not need a personal symbolic act in order to work for a good cause. In any case, one has no moral duty not to eat meat as a symbolic commitment to help the hungry people of the world, although one may have a duty to help the hungry people of the world. One may have a duty to be committed to some worthwhile cause without having the duty to express that commitment in some particular symbolic way.

In fact, not only is expressing one’s commitment to feeding the hungry people of the world by not eating grain-fed meat not morally necessary, it may not be the best way of expressing such a commitment. I suggest three questions that one should ask in evaluating any way W of committing oneself to some goal G.

1. How well does the regular use of W bring about G?

2. How well does W educate people to the value of G?

3. How well does W induce the person using W to continue in the pursuit of G?

Considering vegetarianism in the light of these three questions, one might suppose there are better ways of expressing one’s commitment to helping the hungry people of the world. For example, protesting the government’s food policies by wearing buttons, putting ads in the New York Times, or writing one’s congressman would seem to have greater educational value than not eating meat (question 2). Supporting organizations that are devoted to the solution of world food problems would seem to be a better way to achieve the goal of helping the hungry people of the world than going without meat (question 1). It is difficult to say whether, for example, wearing a button that says “Help Starving Bangladesh” and signing petitions supporting food relief programs will induce the people who wear the buttons and sign the petitions to continue in their humanitarian effort more than going without meat (question 3). But it is not implausible to suppose that, for many people, going without meat will have less psychological meaning and consequently strengthen their resolve less than wearing buttons and signing petitions.

KBJ: I’m speechless.

26 September 2009

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “A Free Speech Battle Arises From Videos of Fighting Dogs” (front page, Sept. 19):

The Supreme Court should reinstate a crucial 1999 federal law banning the commercial sale of videos depicting animal cruelty.

In the 10 years that the law has been in place, it has been used only to stop people from selling videos of dogs tearing one another apart in organized dogfighting, the underlying crime now treated as a felony offense in every state.

Its greatest effect, however, has been to dry up the supply of “animal crush” videos, where women, often in high-heeled shoes, would impale and crush to death puppies, kittens and other small animals, catering to those with a fetish for this behavior.

Now that the law has been struck down, there has been a resurgence in these snuff films readily available for sale over the Internet. This is not speech. This is commercial activity of a sickening and barbaric type, and the peddlers of this smut should find no safe harbor for it in the First Amendment, just as child pornographers do not have a right to sell films involving the exploitation of children under the banner of free speech.

Wayne Pacelle
President and Chief Executive
Humane Society of the United States
Washington, Sept. 20, 2009

24 September 2009

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

It’s mind-boggling that in spite of overwhelming evidence that the consumption of animal products is directly responsible for a host of human diseases, greenhouse gas production and indescribable animal suffering, the general public continues to satiate its taste buds and support factory farming.

Instead of complaining about it, we need to examine and revise our own diets. A plant-based diet is better for human health, the environment and, obviously, the animals.

Rina Deych
Brooklyn, Sept. 20, 2009
The writer is a registered nurse.

Animal Welfare

The Ohio State University is hosting an Animal Welfare Symposium next month.

23 September 2009

Philip E. Devine on Vegetarianism

There are two approaches a vegetarian might take in arguing that rearing and killing animals for food is morally offensive. He might argue that eating animals is morally bad because of the pain inflicted on animals in rearing and killing them to be eaten. Or he could object to the killing itself.

These two kinds of argument support rather different conclusions. A vegetarian of the first sort has no grounds for objecting to the eating of animals—molluscs for example—too rudimentary in their development to feel pain. Nor could he object to meat-eating if the slaughter were completely painless and the raising of animals at least as comfortable as life in the wild. Nor could he object to the painless killing of wild animals. Such a vegetarian will, however, object to the drinking of milk, since the production of milk requires a painful separation between cow and calf. He will also object to the eating of eggs laid by hens which did not have scope for normal activity. (He will not, however, object to the eating of fertile eggs as such.) To that extent, he will be not only a vegetarian, but also a vegan, one who abstains not only from meat but also from animal products.

One might of course defend the consumption of animal products, while opposing the eating of meat, on the ground that killing a steer, say, produces more suffering than separating a cow from her calf. The argument seems to me a chancy one, but an intermediate kind of vegetarian on this kind of ground does seem possible.

In contrast, a vegetarian who has objections only to the killing of animals will object to all forms of meat, but he will not object to milk or eggs, so long as the eggs are not fertile. For such a vegetarian, a borderline case would be the consumption of animal products not, in the ordinary course of nature, produced by the animal; for instance the drinking of cattle blood as practised by the Masai. Of course one could be a vegetarian on both grounds, and object to anything either kind of vegetarian objects to.

(Philip E. Devine, "The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism," Philosophy 53 [October 1978]: 481-505, at 482)

17 September 2009

From Today's New York Times

To the Editor:

The sentence in your Sept. 9 editorial “Justice on the Farm” describing a “visit to a duck farm in Sullivan County where workers toil through exhausting shifts to force feed poultry for foie gras” encapsulates one of the fundamental problems facing agriculture today: the perpetual chain of exploitation that occurs on many farms.

The exploitation of farm workers reverberates in the treatment of farm animals and degradation of the environment. New York’s protection of laborers should be a first step toward recognition of the other systemic abuses that occur on farms that, like the long-ignored rights of farm workers, have been constantly disregarded by legislators.

Deborah Dubow Press
Washington, Sept. 9, 2009
The writer is on the staff of the Farm Animal Program, Animal Welfare Institute.

Gene Baur's Bloggings

Here is a blog for your consideration.

08 September 2009

Canis Lupus

Here is a New York Times blog post about wolf hunting. This passage puzzles me:
Unsurprisingly, I believe it is wrong to inflict pain and death unnecessarily on a creature capable of suffering. (Peter Singer more broadly examines the moral standing of animals here.) While this belief might not compel us to be vegetarians, it does demand significant changes in the way we raise animals for food, and it forbids wolf hunting as a form of entertainment.
Why does this belief not "compel us to be vegetarians"? Is meat-eating necessary? If so, in what sense and for what purpose? How much do you want to bet that Randy Cohen eats cows and pigs?

07 September 2009

Reasons Consistently Applied

I suspect that many regular readers of Animal Ethics are already vegetarians. That's because those who read Animal Ethics with regularity know that there are many compelling reasons to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle.

There are moral reasons to go vegetarian:
  • Recognition that it is wrong to contribute to unnecessary animal suffering.
  • The injustice of exploiting animals and killing them for no good reason.
  • If human have rights, then many nonhuman animals also have rights, and confining and killing these animals for food violates these rights.
There are environmental reasons to go vegetarian:
  • The production of animal-derived foods is implicated in every major environmental problem.
  • According to the Food and Agricultural Organization's own report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow: "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. . . . Livestock's contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale."
  • This FAO report goes on to note that livestock production is a major contributor to "land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity."
There are self-interested, health-based reasons to go vegetarian:
  • The major killers of Americans—heart disease, cancer, and stroke—are all strongly positively correlated with meat consumption.
  • Plant-based diets significantly reduce one risk of these chronic degenerative diseases.
  • According to the American Dietetics Association's Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets:
It is the position of The American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. . . . [A] vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. [Journal of the American Dietetics Association 109(7), July 2009: 1266-1282.]
And there are religious reasons:
  • According to the Bible, the original divinely-prescribed diet was an entirely plant-based, vegan diet: "And God said, 'Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.'" Genesis 1:29
  • The First Ethical Precept of Buddhism states: "I will be mindful and reverential with all life, I will not be violent nor will I kill." This precept is variably stated as follows:
  • Avoid killing or harming any living being.
  • I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  • I shall endeavor to protect and take care of all living creatures.
Taken together, these reasons make a very compelling cumulative case for becoming a vegetarian. What might be less obvious is that each of these reasons actually gives us a reason to adopt an entirely plant-based vegan diet, devoid of animal products. One cannot produce eggs or dairy products on a large scale without the wholesale exploitation of animals. Layer hens spend their entire lives permanently confined in battery cages with 6-9 other hens and have only half a square foot of living space per bird. These birds are some of the most abused animals in agriculture. Since the male offspring of dairy cows don't produce milk, they are sold to veal farms, where they are permanently confined in veal crates that prevent them from moving or turning around. So, by purchasing dairy products, one is indirectly supporting the inherently cruel veal industry. One might think that eggs and dairy products are still preferable to meat on the grounds that "At least I am not contributing to the unnecessary killing of animals," but that too is false. After two or three laying cycles when their egg production begins to wane, the layer hens are inhumanely loaded onto trucks and sent to slaughter, where they are processed into chicken soup and pet food. After several years of confinement and continual reimpregnation on a dairy farm, spent dairy cows are sent to slaughter where they are processed into ground beef. The reality is that by purchasing eggs and dairy products, one is supporting the unjust exploitation and slaughter of hens and cows (which ipso facto violates the First Ethical Precept of Buddhism).

Eggs and dairy products also contribute to all the environmental problems listed above. Plus, vegans tend to have lower body mass indexes than lacto-ovo vegetarians and lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and stroke than their egg-and-dairy-eating vegetarian counterparts. And, as noted above, the original divinely-prescribed diet was a vegan diet.

Given all the compelling reasons to go vegan, why don't more people do it? In particular, why don't more lacto-ovo vegetarians (who are already aware of the reasons in favor of plant-based diets) go vegan? I suspect that more people don't go vegan because they mistakenly think that it must be incredibly difficult to eat vegan. I was a vegetarian for 12 years before going vegan in 1996, because I thought giving up eggs and dairy products would be incredibly difficult. But when I did make the change in 1996, I couldn't believe how easy it was to be vegan. I centered my diet around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. I replaced cow's milk with soy milk. I quit eating cheese, opting for ethnic cuisine that didn't call for cheese. I started experimenting with tofu scrambles till I found how to make ones that I like, and these are every bit as tasty as scrambled eggs and are far less likely to cause salmonella poisoning.

It really is easy to go vegan, and most people who go vegan report that they have more energy and feel better and more healthy almost immediately. But don't take my word for it. Why not try it for yourself for 21 days? Now is the perfect time to try out a vegan diet, because tomorrow marks the start of the PCRM's 21-Day Vegan Kickstart Challenge. Check out PCRM's 21-Day Vegan Kickstart Resource Page, where you will find meal planners; recipe suggestions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; healthy snack alternatives; and tips on how to make over your diet. This 21-day program is designed for anyone who wants to explore and experience the health benefits of a vegan diet, and its free! That's right, free! During these three weeks, you will have access to:
  • Daily e-tips that will put you on the path to weight loss, better health, and greater well-being.
  • A delicious, easy, and satisfying recipe sent every day that will help you break your cravings for unhealthy foods.
  • Weekly motivational nutrition webcasts featuring Dr. Neal Barnard, President of the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine.
All you need to do to get these recipes and have access to the webcasts is register, which you can do here. Just click on "login" or "profile" and you'll be able to register. Then you will discover the delicious, healthful culinary world open to vegans.

Bon Appetit!

01 September 2009


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