30 September 2009

Moral Vegetarianism, Part 11 of 13

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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.