Posts Tagged ‘animal sentience

Are Vegans Obligated To Eat Insects?

» October 14th, 2014


My last post created quite a buzz among ethical vegans who categorically declare that it’s wrong to harm all animals unnecessarily—insects included. Trust me when I say that I understand how raising doubts about insect sentience makes vegans uncomfortable. Angry, even. Any line drawn through the animal world bearing on the extent of our moral consideration is a line that cuts right into vegan identity politics, complicating as it does the entire concept of veganism as an activist response to systemic injustice.

All that said, here we go.  I want to suggest here that insects do not warrant our moral consideration because they do not feel pain, or at least anything qualitatively comparable to what farm animals experience when they suffer. Of course, I cannot make this case with airtight certainty (nobody can)—do note, though, that the same can be said for the plants we eat—but my reading of the evidence (an ongoing process that leaves me open to change) currently compels me to argue that insects are legitimately (ethically speaking) edible. We can, in essence, put them to good use in ways that reduce the harm we cause to animals who we know without a shadow of a doubt suffer. And if we can do that, we should. We are, in other words, not only justified in eating insects. We are obligated to do so.

Begin with anatomy, which is essential to pain. Pain is a sensation that goes beyond the stimulation of neurons. The stimulation of neurons might elicit a response that appears to be a reaction against pain. But, considering insects’ primitive anatomical state (compared to animals that clearly suffer), we cannot necessarily trust the external appearance of such a response, much less impose upon it a narration of pain.

As the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains, pain is an emotional and subjective experience, one that requires a higher ordered, much more complex nervous system. Insects lack this. They have nothing remotely close to it. Specifically, they do not have the nociceptors that transmit pain signals through our spinal cords and to our brains where the thalamus sends those signals into the limbic system for interpretation. Because insects lack the structures that foster this process—one that’s essential to feeling pain—they lack the ability to experience pain subjectively and emotionally.

Considered from an evolutionary perspective, the matter of insect pain is that much less plausible. It makes perfect sense for insects—given the biological niches they occupy, their existence as a social collective (most of the time), their relatively brief lifespans (a matter of days in some cases), and their sheer numbers—to lack a pain apparatus. We assume too easily that pain is essential for biological survival. This claim might hold true for an individual, survival-of-the-fittest view of life, which many animals require. But the collective survival of a species (such as insects) could conceivably benefit from the exact opposite: not feeling pain. Several insects propagate themselves through cannibalistic mating practices. Most famously, the female praying mantis will bite off the male’s head mid-coitus. Within the male’s head you do not find a brain, but rather a little enzyme package that protects the female if copulation is successful. From an evolutionary angle, pain would (to say the least!) inhibit this critical, if weird, symbiotic process.

Taking this logic even further, consider what pain accomplishes for the animals that experience it: it teaches them how to solve problems. This implies a life-span that accommodates a pain-driven learning process. Pain, after all, is integral to a trial-and-error process of negotiation with the external world. I would argue that one of the reasons that insects breed so effectively is to avoid trial-and-error—which can be resource wasteful—altogether. Problems, instead, are solved collectively through breeding efficiency, not through an individual insect drawing on pain to get it right the next time. In essence, insects have no evolutionary need for pain.

The default move here is to argue that we should err on the side of caution and assume they have a pain sensation. To do this, though would also require, given the research done on the behavioral responsiveness of plants, that we take the same precaution for plants. That we cannot do. Moreover, provided the pain that would be spared to obviously sentient animals if we transitioned to an insect-based diet, it would be irresponsible, or something close to it, for us to project the capacity for pain on animals that have no evident apparatus for experiencing it, much less an evolutionary reason for doing so.

The Elephants In The Room

» July 12th, 2014


My apologies for the long absence. The site experienced ongoing technical problems while my web man was on vacation. But the good news is that we all got a rest. That said, matters are in order and I’m back to work.

Over the break I became intrigued by the current outrage against ivory. Just the other day, Ricky Gervais, the English comedic actor, called on the public to “turn in” their ivory products as an act of public absolution. It’s curious, but all of sudden the media is all about elephants. Will ivory trinkets become targets of public attack such as fur coats once were? Why are we currently confronting the elephants in the room?

As usual, I’ve no idea. But in and of itself, the public/media outcry against ivory is a praiseworthy response to the gross atrocities committed against elephants. Interestingly, though, nothing of the sort is happening with respect to, say, the tens of millions of cattle we slaughter every year. This kind of inconsistency is common when it comes to the way humans treat animals. And it cuts both ways. I recall commenters on this site advocating the death of elephant poachers. But would they advocate the death of slaughterhouse workers? Either way, this paradox bears some consideration.

One obvious reason for the disparity—aside from the fact that we eat one product and not the other—is that elephants are going extinct whereas cattle, whose genetics are controlled by humans, proliferate at whatever rate we want them to proliferate. In essence, elephants are wild creatures who matter collectively whereas cattle are factory products who do not. The terms of their reproduction have illogically determined the terms of their extermination. How that happened is a historical/cultural question that somebody should explore.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a collective focus on a species, of course. But the current “save the elephant” gambit rests on a false—or at least conflicted—sense of what’s considered “natural.” That is to say, what bothers environmentalists isn’t the death of individual elephants for their tusks. It’s the fact that their death is denuding the landscape of the elephant’s presence, a diminution that’s perceived to be out of sync with what nature intended—whatever that may be. But who ever said scarcity, even anthropogenic-determined scarcity, was unnatural?

It’s more that scarcity can be unjust. But even if this kind of human-driven ecological change is unjust, the same kind of ecological logic would have to be applied to cattle. Cattle may not be going extinct, but the resources used to ensure their proliferation most certainly are in grave danger of depletion: arable land and water most notably. If conservationists and environmentalists are truly committed to the ecological logic of scarcity, then consistency would require them to wring their hands just as earnestly about the consumption of beef as the consumption of ivory. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

What’s lost in the failure to do so, however, is an opportunity to incorporate animal sentience into an increasingly cynical environmental lexicon.

PS: Speaking of which, if you’d like to send me your critical thoughts about the documentary Cowspiracy, please email them to I’m hoping to do a post that incorporates readers’ thoughts on the film.


Future Present

» October 6th, 2013

For all the discussion that goes on about the comparative ethical implications of raising animals in industrial and non-industrialized settings, the easily overlooked point is that both systems, and for that matter any system that raises animals to kill them, engages in the troublesome behavior of ending an animal’s life unnecessarily and, in so doing, denying that animal a future of potential pleasure. Supporters of  the “death is just one day” or “everything dies” approach to rationalizing the “humane slaughter” of animals fail to consider the point that life is a phenomenon that’s given meaning not in the moment alone but by what has yet to happen as well.

In many ways our essential quality of life is contingent on the expectation of future happiness. The nit and grit of every moment—the here and now—is linked to the future in ways we rarely appreciate. About ten minutes ago my dogs misinterpreted my movements to think we were heading out for a walk. They began to huff with excitement and run back in forth in anticipation. They were thinking of the future and the happiness they would experience later.  Every act, in this sense, depends on having access to the future. Awareness of that access strikes me as critical to evaluating the argument that “death is just one day.”

We plan. And so much of what we do in the moment is intended to lay a foundation for future behavior. This is likely as true for sentient animals as it is for humans. It’s also an idea that might help us draw some distinctions between between animals that deserve equal moral consideration and those who do not. It seems unlikely that insects, to cite a controversial example, have conscious awareness of the future in the same way that farm animals do. Perhaps this could be one reason we might deny insects the same level of moral standing we grant to pigs, cows, and chickens.

Do note: behaving in a way that’s relevant for future activity and behaving in a way that self-consciously anticipates the future are not the same thing. Bees and ants and probably every insect acts in a way that’s relevant for the future, but they are not self-sconsciosly aware of it. Heading to the other margin, even mentally incapacitated humans are aware of a future, one that might very well bring a modicum of pleasure.

This idea of the future being embedded in the present, as well as the implications it has for our assessments of moral consideration, has been percolating with me for a few years. I’d like to pursue it more systematically, so I look forward to all thoughts and references you might have.



The Insect Challenge

» March 11th, 2013

Loyal readers of Eating Plants: we face a challenge. It’s one that, I think, ethical vegans dismiss at our ultimate peril. Here’s what the last two blog posts—in addition to the essential/incredible commentary—have demanded that we do: we must explain why it’s morally unacceptable to exploit a farm animal but morally excusable to exploit insects.

We eat. We eat plants (or at least most of us here do). As a result, we kill insects. Anyone who thinks that organic agriculture spares insects needs to accept the fact that organic growers spray with an arsenal of insecticides. They just happen to be “natural” insecticides, a designation that makes consumers feel “safer.” Likewise, anyone who thinks we can consume food by foraging needs to choose about 5 billion humans who get to die first.

We eat plants. Therefore we support agriculture. Therefore we support the wholesale and unfathomable destruction of insects (among other “lesser” animals). Significantly (and obviously), we do not accept this destruction for cows, pigs, chickens, or other farm animals. But we do for insects.

Why? It’s not enough to say “we’re doing the best we can to reduce animal exploitation.” Even if it’s true—which it is for so many of us—the relativity inherent in such a claim requires grounding in order to make our case convincing. “The best we can do” tacitly consents to insect devastation but in no way tolerates the exploitation of farm and fur animals.  As a said, we face a challenge: why?

Let me get to what I think does NOT need to happen: we do not need to draw a precise species line between morally unacceptable and excusable. That’s not possible to do with any degree of accuracy. We do, however, have to explain the question I opened with: why is it worse to kill a cow than an ant? I don’t like this question one bit, but I’m also tired of hiding from it.

Ultimately, this is going to require that take the concept of “sentience”—a word thrown around a lot on this blog (mostly by me)—and give it more nuance, greater gradation. The first thing I’m going to do when I get back from my Spring Break (and closer to my library) is go back to Gary Francione and Tom Regan (and others), re-examine what they have to say about sentience, and then start facing up to this challenge.

There’s no denying that this project will be a human-centered project. And there is no denying that the gradation of sentience that we devise to answer our cow/ant dilemma will ipso facto be a human designation. But until you can get an ant or a goat undertake the task for us, I see no other option. Onwards.

Car Grill Carnage and Moral Consideration

» September 26th, 2012

Moral equality is an alluring illusion, especially when applied to the animal world. I suspect many ethical vegans would very much like to claim that they treat all animals with equal moral consideration. Every now and then I hear someone say this and, frankly, I cringe a little bit.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m aware that the goal of treating all animals equally may feel like the right idea to articulate. But it’s not possible to achieve. To stay grounded in the vicissitudes of reality, vegans would be better off distancing ourselves from what really is an outlandish claim. It’s certainly noble to dream of a world where it’s possible to treat all animals with equal moral dignity, and I don’t want to squelch anyone’s dreams. However, the minute I make the claim all animals have equal moral worth is the minute I alienate many omnivores who happen to be curious about veganism but want to remain part of the reality-based community. More to the point, it is the moment that articulates a vision according to which I can never live.

Look at it this way. If you drive a car, or benefit from someone else’s driving, you tacitly accept the fact that you will kill untold numbers of insects as a matter of course. Car grill carnage, of course, is just one example among hundreds I might have chosen. We live with this reality not because we like it, but because we place the convenience of driving over the worth of insect life. By living as we do in the world, we accept insect death as collateral damage to human mobility in the twenty-first century. Proof that we do not apply equal moral consideration to all animals is that fact that we would never brook this trade-off if every time we drove untold numbers of people, or apes, or dogs were run over as collateral damage. Nor would we stop eating because farmers use pesticides, organic or otherwise, to grow our kale. And so on.

Making this distinction, of course, lands in me some roiling philosophical waters–ones that ethical vegans need to negotiate. After all, by admitting that I make changes in my behavior to respect the moral worth of farm and lab animals but do not make changes in my behavior to respect the supposed moral worth of insects forces me to explain why one animal deserves moral consideration and the other does not. This question, of course, is at the core of animal rights philosophy.

I’m admittedly out of my league when it comes to professional philosophy. But that doesn’t keep me from grappling with the question of why some animals warrant my full moral consideration while others do not–mainly because it exposes me to the charge of arbitrariness. Obviously volumes upon volumes have been written about this conundrum. I’ve read a lot of it and, for the most part, I find the experience of answering this question in a practical way with the help of academic philosophy sort of like nailing jelly to the wall. Hard to pin this stuff down.

But still, as thorny as the philosophy can be, we need a working answer. So, what I’ve done is cobble together a provisional attempt, one that integrates consciousness, sentience, and experience to draw at least a vague but hopefully meaningful distinction. My sense, and it really is only a sense (what else could it be?), is that when a conscious and sentient being is able, through a clear sense of a single continuous self, to not only undergo an experience but to weave that experience into the very notion of a multi-experiential self, then that being deserves moral consideration. 

I’m aware that this definition can be attacked from myriad angles. Most notably: what about humans who have Alzheimer’s disease, are mentally impaired, are infants, etc? And again, volumes have been dedicated to struggling with these challenges to basic claims to exclusive rights. My answer to these particular challenges hinges on an important social component to rights that is often obscured. Specifically, if other members of a species are capable of recognizing that impaired or not fully developed members of that species are in fact living in involuntary alienation from a sense of a continuous self capable of integrating experience into identity, then that serves as an effective justification for their continued right to equal moral consideration. Whew.

I’m sorry if this is muddled or less clear than it might be. But, the more I talk and think and try to persuade others about the virtues of ethical veganism, the more I feel the need to have as firm a philosophical grounding in the behavioral distinctions I make in my own life, as an outed ethical vegan trying to reduce animal suffering as much as I can in a twentieth century world that, while I do not fully agree with it, I live in nonetheless.

Future Tense: Animal Sentience and Human Ignorance

» May 22nd, 2012


Advocates of eating “humanely raised animals” often describe the imposed death of an animal as “just one day” in an otherwise happy life. Forget the fact that this comment embodies the absolute worst manifestation of human arrogance, an arrogance so acute it casually confers to us justification to end the life of a sentient being. Let’s take it a bit further than arrogance, though.

Push advocates of “humane killing” (the phrase just galls me) to justify the legitimacy of that “one day” argument and they’ll usually say that animals have no sense of the future and, as a result, it’s okay to end the game of life whenever a human feels like doing so. They have no idea what they’ll be missing. It goes without saying that these so called compassionate carnivores would never apply this logic to human beings, which makes them, of course, blatant speciesists, a designation no more flattering than to be called a blatant racist, sexist, or homophobe. But, again, let’s take it one step further.

Ask these “ethical butchers” to prove that the animals that they’re so mercifully killing don’t in fact have a sense of the future. Push them on this. What you will find is that they cannot support that case, primarily because it’s unsupportable. Three questions is all it takes to reveal this ignorance: Do farm animals make choices? Yes. Do they make these choices arbitrarily? No, they have some goal in mind. Does that goal exist in the past, present, or future? Future. Conclusion: farm animals do have a sense of the future, so to kill them is to deny them of a future they understand. And that’s not humane. That’s cruel.

By denying to animals their sense of the future we “bespeak a prejudice,” to quote Tom Regan, “rather than unmask one.”


The EATS Show: UNC-Chapel Hill and Animal Ethics

» April 20th, 2012

Last Tuesday I did my bi-annual speaking gig at UNC-Chapel Hill’s world famous EATS seminar. This multi-faceted “food studies” course encourages the university’s best-and-brightest undergrads to grapple with the multiple complexities of today’s broken food system. Students are not only deeply engaged in matters of the mind, but they pay equal attention to matters of the palate.  Questions of taste, texture, and refinement are just as critical to the classroom ethos as the inadequacies of the Farm Bill. Facing fifteen gourmand geniuses requires strong coffee, nerves of steel, and airtight arguments. All things considered, it was one of the most engaging classroom experiences I’ve had in 15 years of teaching.

It didn’t take long for students to bring the razor-sharp lucidity of taste to bear on the ambiguity of animal ethics. Several students made it perfectly and proudly clear that they ate animals because animals tasted good. So there. The underlying implication was clear enough: there’s no arguing with taste—it’s the ultimate arbiter, not only of pleasure but, one assumed, ethical legitimacy.

Needless to say, I was all over this assumption like bearnaise on eggs Benedict. For one, it’s a brand of fundamentalism no different than that espoused by the University of Texas student who just last week told me that he ate meat because The Book of Genesis said he could do so.  Fine, but this won’t do. What our food culture needs is an intellectually sound justification for causing unneeded suffering, not a reference to an arbitrary external “authority” such as Genesis, or taste.

Moreover, we don’t claim a customary right to experience an endless array of pleasure in other arenas of sensual life.  The pleasures of food are often compared to the pleasures of sex. Still, few of us live life under the impression that we can indulge every sexual desire that tickles the imagination just because it creates pleasure. We don’t have TV shows featuring figures such as Anthony Bourdain traveling the world sampling local and exotic sexual indulgences. To the contrary, we structure the quest for sexual pleasure within a framework of reasonable, morally bound regulations. Whether we adhere to these regulations or not isn’t the point–we generally assume that they serve an important societal function. As I see it, the only reason food gets a pass from this form of regulation is that animals cannot provide their consent.  Thus our quest for pleasure trumps their right not to be needlessly violated.

Another common justification offered for eating animals was that it’s an integral part of culture, ritual, tradition, and even religion. Two thoughts came to mind on this point. First, not to be flip, but so what? Culture, ritual, tradition, and religion change with the wind.  At the time of the American Revolution the forces of tradition affirmed the oppression of women, enslavement of blacks, and the decimation of Native Americans. Point being: the existence of a tradition is hardly proof of its ethical legitimacy. Second, for a generation hoping to reform the food system, an appeal to tradition, culture, and ritual is dangerously counter-productive by virtue of its inherent conservatism. Why support values that oppose change, especially when culinary “culture” and “ritual” for most Americans today centers on fast food and Twinkies?

A final point that evoked debate was the issue of sentience. The ability to suffer, I argued, transcends species differentiation. In fact, it’s the crucial commonality humans share with farm animals, the one that specifically nullifies any right to raise and kill them for food. This idea penetrated the group like a toothpick into a boulder. They wanted none of it. The primary objection was that varying levels of sentience justified the decision of higher order “life forms” to kill and eat lower order life forms. I joked with the class that I hoped, especially as I aged, that I never end up stranded with them on a desert island. My quip had a purpose: I wanted them to think of sentience differences within species as well as among them. Would they apply their sentience-differentiation-justification to mentally handicapped humans, humans living in a vegetative state, or humans wracked with dementia? Thankfully, nobody would admit to that.

I consider it a victory of sorts that, not only were there already committed vegans in this class, and not only was the collective discussion incredibly vibrant and respectful, but that we were having the discussion at all.  I told the class that I didn’t really expect to see any real progress toward a food system free of animal exploitation in my lifetime.  But, whether intentionally or not, the class gave me at least a spark of encouragement.

Interpreting Sentience: Scientific Skepticism Vs. Common Sense

» April 8th, 2012

Envision a famous sculpture–say, Michelangelo’s Statue of David. Let your mind’s eye focus on it for a moment (or just look above). Impressive specimen, you might think. Now imagine a skeptic coming along and arguing that you weren’t really seeing what you thought you were seeing: the image of a man.  We couldn’t be totally sure, the skeptic would say, that the statue represents a real live human being. Granted, a lot of evidence suggests that it represents a human being (such as the fact that it looks exactly like one!). But consider a few points: it’s seventeen feet tall, made of marble, and only shaped in a general resemblance of a human being–a resemblance that could, after all, be coincidental. None of these characteristics, the careful skeptic would argue, proves that Michelangelo intended it to reflect a human form.

Scholars are skeptics, and their cautious and systematic doubt–the kind that questions the representation of David–is prevalent in animal studies. A recent case in point is F. Bailey Norwood’s and Jayson L. Lusk’s Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare. Norwood and Lusk are accomplished, well-respected agricultural economists. Their book is generally superb. However, a compelling chapter on the sentience of farm animals stopped me in my tracks, reminding me how scholarly caution–usually an admirable quality–can lead to conclusions that are not only obviously wrong, but supportive of proof that’s empirically unachievable.

The chapter in question–”Animal Qualia: Investigating Animal Sentience”–summarizes an incredible hit list of peer-reviewed studies confirming animal sentience, emotionalism, and intelligence. We learn that cows “can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” that pigs recognize as many as 30 of their peers, that after years of absence “a cow can still recognize up to 50 cattle and ten human faces,” that “pigs resemble humans to such a large extent that the heart valves from pigs can be transplanted into humans,” that chickens often behave “much like Pavlov’s dog,” that “unlike human infants, baby chicks will search for an object they have seen being hidden behind a screen,” and that pigs, which can predict what another pig thinks and sees, “are as smart as dogs.” It’s a spellbinding summary of sentience, and it’s hard to imagine an omnivore reading this chapter and not thinking seriously about becoming a herbivore.

Until the chapter’s conclusion. It’s then that that authors’ counterproductive skepticism kicks in, caution emerges, and a spade, all of a sudden, is no longer a spade. While there are “many reasons to support the idea of animal sentience,” there are, somewhat out of nowhere, “some reasons to cast doubt on the idea.” Despite the overwhelming, and often poignant, evidence that animal sentience is undeniable, the authors write that there is “a fair possibility that animals can feel pain.” A fair possibility? Even more befuddling, the authors conclude that, “it seems reasonable that this pain should be given some consideration.” Seems? Some? Where are these buffers coming from?  What am I missing here? What’s most troubling to me about this two-page dance around the evidence is that the conclusion could have been reduced to a few choice words: stop eating animal products.

But, as an academic, I’m well aware that that’s not how we academics roll. We tread lightly; we complicate; we question, object, challenge; we never jump to conclusions; we deliberate; we don’t like bumper-sticker length conclusions. These tendencies, however, can backfire. Specifically, at the threshold of common sense, they turn a statue of a beautiful human being into a pile of marble and a beautiful, sentient, non-human being into a falsely justifiable dinner option.




The Hidden Pitfalls of Small Scale Animal Agriculture: An Overview

» February 7th, 2012

What follows are extended talking points for the lecture that I will give this semester at several venues. I begin this Thursday at Wesleyan University, and will move on over the next three months to Berkeley, Southwestern University, MIT, the University of Texas, Augustana College, the Ottawa VegFest, the Madison Vegfest, and a TEDx talk in Los Angeles. I plan to blog about the responses that I get to what will prove to wide variety of audiences. -jm

(note: searching for a better title!)

Why Support for Small Scale Animal Farms Will Never Threaten Industrial Agriculture

James McWilliams

There’s a lot to celebrate when it comes to our growing awareness of factory farming.  Mainstream consumers are finally becoming cognizant of the impact industrial animal agriculture is having on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. We’re coming to realize that raising 10 billion animals a year in squalid and highly concentrated conditions has impacts that reverberate throughout society. We’re turning our outrage on corporations who profit from this exploitation, from Monsanto and Smithfield to McDonald’s and Jack in the Box, where, I just read, you can know buy drink called a bacon milk shake.

One might say that consumers are at a crossroads, a point at which, given the clear harm caused by factory farming, a critical mass of us are poised to reject the bacon milkshake and make a lifelong change regarding our relationship to the industrial food system. Thus far, most consumers who have taken a close look at industrial agriculture, and been appropriately appalled, have chosen to seek alternatives in options marketed as alternatives to industrial agriculture. Influenced by The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc, we’re opting for local, sustainable, and more humanely raised animal products–goods produced on smaller farms, often by people we know, and goods that are sold at Farmer’s markets and co-ops. In general, we’ve accepted the premise that, when it comes to animal agriculture, smaller is a kinder, more eco-friendly way to bring us our meat, eggs, and dairy.

But this response is entirely inadequate answer to the hegemony of industrial agriculture. Granted, the alternatives enjoy enormous support from the food media, environmental groups, and even advocates for animal welfare.  But this path, in the long run, will lead us right back to where we started. It will do precious little to help the fate of animals, the environment, or to improve our health. In fact, it’s a choice that may very well perpetuate the very system of factory farming right minded citizens want to abolish.

I should very clear and tell you that I have an agenda. I speak today as an activist more than a scholar, and my goal is to convince you that the only way to truly fight factory farms, the only way to viably take on the insidious evils of industrial agriculture and the current state of our food system, is convert to a plant-based diet. Until we do so, every act of resistance, every dollar spent on local meat, every condemnation of factory farming is, as one scholar has put it, rain without thunder.

I have three reasons for holding this opinion:

a) First, when we choose alternative options we’re engaging in inconsistent welfare consideration for the animals we claim to care about–some have called it moral schizophrenia. Think about why we dislike factory farms so much–much of our disgust has to do with the way animals are treated: they’re overcrowded, they cannot run free, eat what they want, reproduce on their own, and are forced to live in squalor, caged, confined, and covered in feces.

It’s for these very reasons–which are all based on the correct assumption that animals have intrinsic worth–that we support systems of production in which animals are treated with dignity. That’s wonderful, because it shows that we know farmed animals have feelings, emotions, and intelligence; it shows that we know that they are social; that they can suffer; that, as living and sentient beings, they are worthy of our moral consideration. This is why we think it’s horrible for them to be raised as they are in factory settings. This is precisely why so many of us are outraged to be begin with.

How, then, can we simultaneously nurture this belief in the moral worth of animals, so much so that we act on it by rejecting factory farms, and then turn around and support an alternative system that, when you break it down to its essence, does the exact same thing? Small farms might treat animals better than factory farms, but don’t be fooled: they ultimately seek the same goal as factory farms–raising animals to kill, commodify, and send to market for food we do not need. So I ask: Is it possible to genuinely care for an animal’s welfare and, at the same time, kill it for the purposes of human indulgence? This is a very difficult question to answer logically, and, unfortunately, it is one that we are never asked to consider.

I don’t care how big or small the farm is, there is one thing that they all have in common: when the market tells the farmer that the animal must die, all welfare considerations for that animal come to a violent end. No animal wants to die. A market determined death for an animal we claim to care about renders all previous acts of kindness, to put it mildly, disingenuous. Never underestimate the importance of this basic similarity between the factory and the alternative farm, nor the power of the human mind to think it away.

[recent example of X on pig’s head]

So, to conclude my first objection, I ask you to think about the following questions: Do we really want to build a new system of animal husbandry on the back of this inconsistency? Even granting that the animals in this system have a decent quality of life, do we want to rebuild our food system on the premise that, just as in factory farming, a human who owns an animal can end that life because there happens to be a market for its flesh, eggs, and milk? Does this essentially inhumane act confer to an animal any real sense of dignity? Who are we to say that we respect an animal and then kill it to sell at a restaurant that will charge a mint because it was humanely raised? I don’t want the future of food to be based on such a sordid paradox.

b) My second claim is that we inadvertently support factory farming when we buy alternatively sourced animal products.  Our choice to seek alternatives is often couched in activist terms: we want to oppose factory farming so we buy meat from local farms where we know the farmers and trust his methods. But I would argue that, by eating animal products from small, local alternative sources, you are not opposing factory farms at all, but indirectly supporting them.

It all comes down to who’s defining the implications of your choice. Michael Pollan and the Food Movement have argued that your decision to eat alternatively sourced animal products means you are sticking it to industrial agriculture and supporting a fundamentally new approach to food. The media reflexively promotes the idea. Industry, however, invests your act with an entirely different meaning. From industry’s perspective, your decision to continue eating animal products–even of they are from alternatively sourced farms–is great news because it directly reinforces the most fundamental prerequisite for factory farming’s existence: the belief that there’s nothing wrong with eating animals. As long as this belief remains intact, the industry–which, recall, produces 99 percent of the animal products we eat–will continue to thrive. What big agriculture fears is not alternative agriculture–they can always co-opt that if they need to–but the emergence of a plant-eating ethic. This is what would put them out of business.

[Eat More Kale t-shirt controversy]

When you support the consumption of animal products–which you do when you buy them from small or big farms–you reiterate a cultural practice that will, however ironically, keep big business in power.Unless eating animals is culturally and morally stigmatized (sort of like smoking is today), factory farms will always remain the dominant mode of production.  As long as we eat animals, there will always be factory farms.

The reason is not only cultural but economic. In a capitalistic society, unfettered demand for anything provides the political, economic, and technological incentives for producers to achieve efficiencies of production. He who produces more with less survives and thrives. This principle leads to many wonderful improvements in modern life. When applied to animals, however, it leads to a profound moral tragedy. As long as we eat animals, the principle of efficient production will always be applied to them.

To think that small farms can escape this reality is simply naive. They might be doing it right now. But as small animal farms proliferate, as they respond to increased demand for alternatives, the result will be competition among alternative farms for a growing demand for so called humane animal products.  The outcome of this competition, according to every economic model every created (with the exception of classic communism), will be to seek improvements in efficiency to produce more product for less. The cycle of efficiency would lead to denser, more streamlined farms that, in name of efficiency, took less and less interest in animal welfare. In no time we’d be back to the large scale systems that the small farms were designed to oppose in the first place. With India and China about to bring hundreds of millions of consumers into the meat market, to think that small farms will proliferate, remain small, and not compete is a willful distortion of thought.

Two recent examples: a) the organic industry and b) Niman Ranch. Both started small and ideal, became popular, grew steadily and, many agree, lost touch with their founding values.

c) My final reason for opposing small scale animal agriculture is that eating animals is environmentally unsustainable–whether the products come from big or small animal farms. We know the ecological impacts of factory farms are horrible: livestock produces more GHG than any other sector of the global economy, including transportation; 80 percent of the antibiotics produced are given to animals; the vast majority of the world’s corn and soy are grown to feed animals; virulent influenzas breed on factory farms; manure lagoons destroy aquatic ecosystems; 70 percent of the water in the American west goes to ranching; it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, it takes 13 to produce a pound of tomatoes. I could spend the next hour rattling off such stats. But I think you get the point: raising animals to feed 7 billion people is, by definition, an ecological tragedy.

Contrary to common assumptions, the alternatives aren’t much better when it comes to their environmental impact or safety record. With grass-fed beef, there’s a methane problem–cows that eat grass produce 3-4 times more methane than cows that eat grain. With free ranged animals, there’s a land problem–much of the Brazilian rain forest is being depleting to provide land for grazing increasingly popular grass-fed cows. Diseases prevail in free range systems as well as factory farms (recall Germans and US pork). The work of Peter Davies at Minnesota shows that, somewhat horrifyingly, confined pigs are safer to eat than free range pigs.  Then there’s deadstock: where do we take the animal carcasses without rendering plants? Right now alternatives account for about 1 percent of production; these hidden environmental and safety costs would become more evident as these operations proliferated.

Comprehensive studies support the argument that eating plants is far better for the environment than eating any sort of animal product. One recent study–by the World Preservation Institute–confirmed that a global vegan diet (of conventional crops) would reduce dietary emissions by 87 percent. This figure is compared to a token 8 percent for “sustainable meat and dairy.” If organic plants were eaten, emissions caused by food production would drop 94 percent. Another, done by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, calculated that a vegan diet was seven times more energy efficient than a diet that sourced a normal diet within 100 miles. Localism, in short, is no answer to the environmental impact of food production.

So, to summarize: the alternatives to animal agriculture are often promoted as the answer to the myriad and very serious problems of industrial agriculture. My argument is that these alternatives do very little to confront–and in some cases perpetuate–the problems of industrial agriculture. As I said at the start, though, the good news is that we’re at a crossroads. We know factory farming is not acceptable. This is a start. The next step, I would argue, is not to become compassionate carnivores and support alternative systems, but to pursue do the most effective thing a consumer can do to dismantle industrial agriculture and, in the process, improve his or her health and the health of the environment: become ethical vegans.

The health benefits of veganism are well documented, but it’s amazing how hard it is to promote them.  For example, despite the overwhelming medical evidence supporting the benefits of a plant-based diet, the AHA has said yes it’s good for your heart but too hard for people to follow, so they won’t officially recommend it. How lame. The environmental benefits are equally obvious. But again, those who would seem to be the most logical choices for promoting veganism won’t do it. Take the Worldwatch Institute, which recently put out a report on the environmental problems of meat production in a world of 7 billion, concluded that we need to eat more organic, pasture raised meat. This is astoundingly stupid.  But, the point is this: there are huge health and environmental gains to be achieved through veganism–whether those who should be promoting this message are doing so or not. I now want to focus on two other benefits–if only because they are mentioned less than the health and environmental reasons.

The first is that veganism promotes genuine and full compassion for animals. And compassion for animals translates into compassion for people. We’ll never have a truly morally healthy society when we lives in denial of the mass slaughter we executes on billions of innocent, sentient, emotionally sensitive animals.  But when we choose to avoid animal products we help reduce suffering overall. When we find the decency in our hearts to help prevent animals from unnecessary slaughter we tap something deep within ourselves. We tap and nurture our innate capacity for tolerance, empathy, and affection.  This can only improve the way we treat others. Vegans are often asked why we don’t focus on human problems first, and then focus on animals. This question fails to consider that, in overcoming speciesism–in treating animals with due moral consideration–we lay an essential foundation of compassion that allows us to make essential strides toward confronting racism, sexism, homophobia–and all the other prejudices that keep us from respecting each other as human beings lucky enough to be alive, experiencing pleasure, seeking improvement in our lives.

The final benefit I would mention about veganism is that, with respect to food, it is the absolute purest and most powerful form of activism. And it’s available to everyone, right here, right now. Ten billion animals are killed every year. This mass slaughter is at the core of industrial agriculture. Do we really think that tens of thousands of consumers buying locally sourced, humanely raised meat are going to do anything significant to alter the fate of these 10 billion? We must move beyond this boutique activism. We have to take stronger action. Veganism cuts to the heart of industrial agriculture. There is nothing more direct you can do to fight industrial agriculture than to go vegan.

As a concluding remark I want to implore you to expand the anti-factory farm dialogue. We’re always going to hear about the alternatives. Let’s hear about veganism. There’s more than one way to vote with our fork. Taking on factory farming is a battle; but taking on eating meat must be the real war.





Gag: Foie Gras and Horse Meat

» December 3rd, 2011


Early last week Congress voted to lift the ban on horse slaughter in the United States. [] The act, buried in a much larger bill, has surely sent a gagillion horse-crazy people into deep depression. But the message I’m getting from many in the animal welfare world is that this decision was a good one for domestic horses. Turns out the most common destination for U. S. horses deemed ready for slaughter was Mexico, where slaughterhouse regulation is comparatively weak. Horses killed in the United States, I’m told, will assuredly be better off than if they’d been killed in Mexico. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, partially in deference to this logic, supported the measure.

This justification makes sense–at least as it’s framed. But what I find especially disturbing is the frame. Think about it: we’re up in arms over where an animal should be slaughtered rather than thinking seriously about whether or not we should be slaughtering it at all. Such an ethical by-pass is a stark reminder of how, in a food world defined by growing inquisitiveness, our thinking about the place of animals in our diet remains deeply impoverished. How can it be that, in a culinary culture that’s never been more aggressive about investigating food, we refuse to even remotely entertain the prospect that eating a horse might be a tragedy?

To expand the frame a bit, consider a duck. A significant number of ethically concerned consumers deem foie gras nothing short of a diabolical slice of suffering. Famous chefs have sworn off the stuff, and I wish I had a dime for every omnivore I know who passionately opposes foie gras on ethical grounds. What’s interesting is that this opinion prevails despite humanity’s relatively remote relationship with the duck–we’ve never worked or lived closely with these creatures. Their history is hardly intertwined with ours. Still, we’re vehement about protecting their livers. This position, of course, stands in stark contrast to the collective yawn we just let out upon hearing that the horse–an animal with whom we’ve plowed fields, colonized continents, waged war, and (with thankful rarity) buggered [[]]–may be coming to meat counter near you.

If duck liver is verboten but horse meat is in, we have some explaining to do. The most common response to this disparity will be that it’s the the way an animal is raised that matters when it comes to eating ethically. Ducks suffer when tubes are shoved in their throats and their livers are fattened; horses, however, can (so we’re told) lead a good life and die in peace in the comfort of a loving abattoir. You know this drill. But such an argument only perpetuates a mentality that ensures we’ll never make progress when it comes to improving the lives of animals. In sum, to eat horse meat (or condone it) while deeming foie gras ethically unsound is to perpetuate what you clearly disdain: the poor treatment of animals. Let me try and explain why.

Most opponents of foie gras come to their position after hearing about or seeing videos of ducks being force-fed mush through a tube jammed into their gullets. Even if it’s true that ducks lack a gag reflex, these searing images disgust us. It’s worthing thinking about why. Is it because we believe an animal deserves equal moral consideration and, as a result, should not be force fed so humans can pay $40 a plate to eat their internal organs? No, for many of us, this is not the problem. After all, many (most?) people who won’t eat foie gras are probably just fine eating the duck itself. Instead, our opposition, however unlikely, arises from the fact that humans can gag. Every one of us has choked on something in our lives and we know that its a crappy feeling. Can you imagine your whole life with a tube stuck in your throat? Yes, we can, and it’s for this very reason that we can also directly empathize with ducks in confinement and, no matter how distant our shared past, no matter how foreign we are to them, declare force-feeding, and hence its products, abhorrently inhumane.

Now take the horse. Because we know horses as well as we do, because they’ve been integral to so much of human history, we also know that they’re capable of living exceedingly happy lives. Our bond with these animals has been enduring; our past with them tight. Why is it then that most of us are able to discuss their slaughter–even PETA!–as if where the most natural act in the world? How is it that even the most openly welfare minded of consumers can casually subjugate the ethics of slaughter to the logistics of location? I’d say the answer has to do with empathy. That is, whereas we can empathize with having a tube shoved into our throats, most of us cannot (thankfully) even remotely empathize with being shunted off to a slaughterhouse.This prospect is quite fortunately beyond the realm of even the more sordid of our imaginations. We literally cannot relate to such a scenario.

Which brings me to the upshot. Because we cannot imagine what it would be like for ourselves to be culled and killed, we have the luxury of fabricating what the experience is like for the animal we want to eat. Herein lies the heart of the distinction between the hatred of foie gras and acceptance of horse meat. Our actual inability to empathize with what an animal endures when it’s slaughtered allows us to project whatever we want to project upon that inherently tragic moment. They lived a good life. They didn’t know what was coming. Temple Grandin designed the slaughterhouse. They sacrificed their lives for us. And so on. We cannot make the same rationalizations for ducks raised for foie gras for a very simple reason: we would know, as a result of our own experience, that any positive projection we came up with would be a distortion of reality. We would know this because, alas, we gag.

The deeper value of the “empathy test” is that it reiterates the most essential similarity humans share with animals: sentience. Humans, just like animals, experience pleasure and pain. Our empathy provides the bridge between our sentience and theirs. The fact that so many consumers reject foie gras because of the painful manner in which ducks are fed, and the fact that the way they are fed is a phenomenon to which we can directly relate, is ipso facto proof that many consumers already recognize the moral baseline of sentience. Anyone who thinks that it’s possible to eschew liver but eat horse–or any animal product, for that matter–is choking on self-deception.