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Animal, Vegetable, Pitiful
The vegan argument against Thanksgiving turkey is half-baked and tough to swallow
By Dan Murphy
’Tis the season, apparently.
It’s Thanksgiving, so get set to be treated to another ride on the vegan Guilt-O-Rama, this time courtesy of a New York Times op-ed piece (www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/opinion/22steiner.html) from avowed vegetarian Gary Steiner, professor of philosophy at Bucknell University. Steiner asks, “Is it wrong to kill animals for human consumption?”
For never-say-die vegans, that’s a rhetorical question. Of course they think it’s wrong! In Vegan World it’s wrong to kill anything (including nonsensical debate over meat eating). Nevertheless, Steiner rolls out the usual chestnuts about, “Eating animals for food is mass murder,” and, “The practice of delivering animals to the table abhorrent and inexcusable,” and decries the folly of those who offer “impassioned calls for more ‘humanely’ raised meat.”
But his most revealing point comes when he argues that, “People who are ethical vegans (as if there’s some big splinter group of outlaw vegans) believe that differences in intelligence between human and non-human animals have no moral significance whatsoever.” Which means that killing an animal for food would be morally indistinguishable from killing another human being. And that’s the principle upon which Steiner and those of similar beliefs base their vegan credo.
He concludes his piece with a final stick-in-the-eye rejoinder: “Think about [animal suffering] when you’re picking out your free-range turkey, which has absolutely nothing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. All it ever had was a short and miserable life, thanks to us intelligent, compassionate humans.”
I’ve got news for Steiner: There are a whole lot of wild birds who also had a short, miserable life. It’s called Nature. Look into it.
Of mice and men
In truth, it is a fairly straightforward process to refute the vegangelical assertion that humans who eat animal food are somehow morally circumspect. Since he’s a classic example, let’s deconstruct Steiner’s rationale, starting from a philosophical standpoint.
To adhere to the vegan doctrine, one must believe that all animal life is morally equivalent. And if it is wrong on principle for humans to kill and consume animals, then it must be equally wrong for any animal to kill and consume other animals. By that standard, then, billions of animals would be morally culpable.
But that makes no sense, nor is it what vegans believe. They argue that it’s only wrong for humans to eat other animals. Nobody in the veggie community would ever voice criticism of a wolf pack for running down and slaying a pregnant moose, or a hungry group of crocodiles for picking off dozens of terrified wildebeests as they struggle to cross a rain-swollen river. That’s what they do.
The rules are different for humans, however. Why? Only one reason: Because we are different from and superior to other species. Otherwise, since all life is ultimately based on a kill-and-be-killed model, the entire planetary ecosystem would be judged immoral. So if humans are different from other animals, then we’re back to comparing whether our consumption of animal foods is any different from the cruel and often savage tactics used by virtually every carnivore and omnivore who walks, flies, swims or crawls upon the Earth.
I would argue that it is very different, and when animal husbandry is practiced wisely and compassionately, far better.
The wisdom of the ancients
Next, the naturalistic perspective. This piece of the vegan doctrine posits that vegetarian foods represent our natural lifestyle, as if we were biologically hard-wired to live off processed soybeans, tropical fruits and jet-freighted, out-of-season produce, today’s modern veggie staples. But if we’re seeking the sources of what could be understood as a natural diet, shouldn’t we access the wisdom developed over many millennia that our ancestors used as the foundation of civilization itself? There isn’t an indigenous tribe or people on any continent in any time period in history that didn’t hunt, fish or trap wildlife or make use of domesticated animals as a principal food source.
Native American folklore and spiritual teachings are filled with songs and prayers of gratitude to the Great Spirit who provided the game and fish upon which the people depended for sustenance. Are we to assume that hundreds of sophisticated societies across the eons were all inherently misguided? That every tribe we’ve ever studied somehow got it all wrong?
Of course not. There has always been a natural symbiosis between humanity and the natural world, even though that has been sadly subsumed in our modern urban lifestyles. As do virtually all species at the top of the food chain, early humans learned to co-exist with other animals, capturing and eventually domesticating the wildlife whose flesh, organs, fur, hides, bones and antlers provided not just nourishment, but shelter, tools, medicines and clothing.
Vegans like Prof. Steiner will argue that we have “evolved,” that we are no longer primitive people living in the forest or on the plains, dependent on the vicissitudes of drought, blizzards or natural disasters to survive. But such thinking implies that we have cut our ties with Nature, that by harnessing science and technology we have fundamentally altered our relationship with the ecosystem we share with all life on the planet, that we no longer need to worry about consuming a “natural” diet.
Show me the vegan who buys that belief and I’ll give up meat eating for good.
Truth is, we are creatures of Nature, as surely as every other member of the animal kingdom that vegans pretend is so sacred. So my challenge to Steiner, et al, is this: Either embrace the omnivorous diet to which our human biology has adapted over the last 30,000 years, or admit that the very existence of a vegetarian option is purely a product of recent scientific and technological progress—which means accepting production agriculture, mechanized food processing and complex distribution infrastructure as normal and necessary components of life.
Answering the carbon question
Finally, let us examine the validity of a vegan lifestyle from a sustainability perspective. Even if there weren’t 6.2 billion people alive today—with another three (or four) billion more expected by mid-century—the challenge of providing sufficient food for everyone on Earth would remain a formidable one. As enlightened citizens of the Third Millennium, we now understand the importance of our carbon footprint and its impact on everything from global climate change to conservation of energy to the limits on critical food production resources, such as arable land and irrigation water.
But would a wholesale departure from eating animal foods help or hurt the cause of conserving resources and reducing carbon emissions? Several high-profile studies by activist groups, think tanks and the United Nations suggest that livestock production is a major contributor of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Even if that were true—and the calculations in such studies are invariably based on meat production models that require the maximum possible inputs—we have to consider the alternative. What would happen if all beef, pork, chicken, turkey, mutton and all other animal proteins were taken off the menu?
For one, we’d need billions more acres of land to be cultivated to replace even a fraction of the calories supplied by meat, poultry and dairy, assuming that most of the replacement food value would have to come from grains and legumes (they’re a complete protein—ask any veggie). That would seriously devastate enormous swaths of precious wildlife habitat, consume vast amounts of water in precisely the regions that could least afford it and displace multi-millions of indigenous people from a livelihood of herding, ranching and meat production without much in the way of viable alternatives.
The problem with even considering putting more land to the plow is that fully one-third of the arable land on Earth is suitable for grazing animals but unfit for non-irrigated cultivation of cereals (and you might want to consider where the fertilizer needed for all that natural, organic farming is supposed to come from). Science and technology, in the form of genetically engineered crops, might mitigate that hurdle, but there isn’t a vegan alive who thinks that GMOs are the answer to feeding the world on a vegetarian diet. They cannot and dare not embrace even the thought of biotech, because it’s “not natural.”
Just like the highly processed, soy protein-extruded, artificially flavored analog meats and faux foodstuffs that occupy the center of the plate for vegans like Prof. Steiner. But on Thanksgiving, they’d think nothing about enjoying a big bowl of “vegetarian ice cream,” made from the following ingredients:
· Soybeans, likely grown in Brazil (one of the world’s top producers) on land where rainforests once stood
· Palm or coconut oil, grown on massive, mono-culture plantations carved out of jungles across the Philippines, Indonesia and India
· Brown sugar, which is white sugar spray-dried with molasses, a by-product of the refining process and the substrate for the rum-making that fueled the colonial slave trade and made millionaires out of Prohibition-era gangsters
· Cocoa, the dried, fermented seed of the cacao tree native to the Andes, for which the veggies who want to eliminate factory farming can thank the Conquistadors for exporting cacao trees to colonies in the Caribbean and Asia, becoming yet another cash crop that displaces native agriculture, requires destruction of indigenous vegetation and ends up as a commodity that can’t feed the local population
And eating veggie ice cream is supposed to be morally superior to the real stuff made with eggs, milk and cream produced on farms right here in the United States? Please.
As if all that isn’t enough, that natural veggie dessert is processed in high-tech, automated plants, shipped thousands of miles via an energy-intensive frozen food chain and marketed aggressively by the very corporations responsible for the destructive production practices required to produce the raw materials in the first place.
Vegetarian? Sure. Humane? Hardly. Ecological? Not on your life.
If deep thinkers such as Prof. Steiner truly want to address such issues as food security, agricultural stewardship and sustainable food production on a moral basis, there is no better model than small-scale, multi-species animal husbandry practiced by more than a billion people across the world today.
But raising animals for food just wouldn’t be enlightened, would it?
—Dan Murphy is Strategist + Owner of M-PhaticComm, a marketing consultancy specializing in communications for food and agricultural organizations
M-Phatic Communications 2116 Cedar St. Everett WA 98201 425.359.3425 firstname.lastname@example.org