Ethical Beef, Part 3: The Environmental and Moral Concerns of Eating Meat

Consumers can make a positive change when buying and eating meat from farmers who raise livestock properly.

Environmental and Moral Concerns of Eating Meat

“Building a food system that is more ecological and more humane is far more important to me than whether or not so-and-so is eating meat.”

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Is eating meat ethically wrong or right? In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, environmental lawyer Nicolette Hahn Niman aggregates the research and personal insight to explain how eating meat is beneficial for humans and for the planet, stating that there is a need for meat to be produced the right way. This excerpt, which addresses and resolves some of the moral and environmental concerns about eating meat, is from the section, “Final Analysis: Why Eat Animals?”

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The Environmental and Moral Concerns of Eating Meat

The other aspect of the moral question about eating beef is whether it’s acceptable for humans to eat meat at all. In answering this, I’d like to rely less on data and statistics and bring some of my own personal experiences to bear. It’s been 14 years since I began working on farm-related issues for Waterkeeper. Although the job was focused on addressing pollution, to me the animals were equally important. While other environmental groups were publicly advocating addressing problems from industrialization with more effective waste containment or treatment, I found those approaches far too narrow. They ignored factory farming’s greatest evil: animal cruelty. Even worse, by endorsing steps geared toward pollution reduction that failed to improve farm animals’ lives, they were further entrenching the current system.

Fortunately, my boss felt the same way. Bobby Kennedy Jr. has cared passionately since childhood about every creature from sow bugs to blue whales. He heartily endorsed my advocating for farming that was ecologically sound and provided animals good lives. Having closely viewed the brutality of industrial production, we felt morally obligated to seek improvements in farm animal welfare.

Over the years, my writings and speeches often addressed the ethics of how meat was produced, but until a few years ago they never spoke to whether or not it is ethical to eat meat at all. Then I was invited by an ecological journal to write an essay arguing that an environmentalist need not refrain from meat eating. Following publication of the essay, I was extended invitations to participate in several live debates about the ethics of meat eating, two of which I accepted. Both times (somewhat ironically, since I am still a vegetarian) I represented the “pro meat” position. I later wrote a piece for TheAtlantic.com titled, “Can Meat Eaters Also Be Environmentalists?” Even though I never sought to focus my energies on the question of whether people should eat meat, it seemed important to refute the increasingly prevalent notion that people who cared about the environment should avoid it. I was becoming a de facto vegetarian meat advocate.

My first piece, titled “Animals Are Essential to Sustainable Food,” proposed that today’s debate over meat is characterized by polarizing, oversimplified rhetoric, pitting an implacable, defensive agribusiness in one corner against equally intractable vegan activists for abolition of all animal farming on the other. “[The abolitionist vegans’] fervent advocacy echoes prohibitionists at the dawn of the twentieth century,” I wrote, “some of whom attacked apple trees with axes because they were the source of hard cider. Like the prohibitionists, activists against meat are fueled by the excesses of the day.” Factory farms, not animal farming, are the real problem, I urged. And industrial methods have fostered a growing disillusionment with the meat industry among broad swaths of the American public, well beyond vegan and vegetarian circles.

I will be the first to agree that industrial methods for raising farm animals are indefensible, and I believe all people should join in rejecting them. Having seen it in all its gory details, I have no qualms about calling industrialized animal production a routinized form of animal torture. While Prohibitionists attacking innocent apple trees with axes seem absurd to us today, a lot of discussion over the ethics of meat eating likewise focuses on the wrong villain. Industrial animal production is rightly vilified; animal farming, on the other hand, is not.

What has really fostered my interest in the debate over meat eating is not a desire to encourage meat consumption but a longing for some nuance in the discussion. The issue is far from black-and-white, and polarized camps lobbing accusations at each other only hinder movement toward a better system. Building a food system that is more ecological and more humane is far more important to me than whether or not so-and-so is eating meat.

I believe the real issue is whether we humans are living up to our responsibilities of good stewardship of animals and the earth. Michael Pollan and others have proposed the idea that animals “chose” domestication based on a sort of “bargain” with humanity. I put the words chose and bargain in quotes because, quite clearly, no individual wild animal made a conscious decision that its species should become domesticated. Instead, domestication likely happened gradually over many generations as some animals found advantages to having a certain amount of human contact. Humans “agreed” (again, in quotes, because the bargain was entirely implicit) to provide essentials to animals—food, shelter, and protection from predators being foremost among them—in exchange for the animals providing humans food in the form of eggs, milk, and meat. (With dogs the terms of the bargain were different: For being provided protection and nourishment, dogs exchanged assistance in hunting, early warning, and self-defense). However, it’s reasonable to assume, as well, that animals would never have opted for such an arrangement if torture had been part of the deal. Stated simply: By raising animals in factory farms, humans are violating their age-old contract with domesticated animals.

With those raised for food, the very idea that the individual animal’s dignity matters seems to have been abandoned in the United States sometime around the mid-20th century. Just as confinement animal operations were becoming the norm, every agricultural college in America changed the appellation of its “animal husbandry department” to “animal science department,” which is emblematic of the shift in mind-set.

Agribusiness has long defended its methods by pointing to their prevalence. But we all know that just because something is widespread doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, let alone right. Factory farms are undeniably inhumane. The worst practices are narrow metal cages for pregnant sows, wooden crates for veal calves, and wire cages for egg-laying hens. But beyond that, the everyday workings of industrial facilities utterly fail to provide animals decent lives. Continually keeping animals in foul-smelling cramped conditions, depriving them of all pleasures and basic necessities like exercise, fresh air, sunshine, and a soft place to lie down, cannot be called humane. Whatever rationale is offered for these practices—“efficiency,” “cost of production,” “affordable food,” “feeding the world”—these systems remain morally indefensible.

Grazing animals, especially those raised for meat (rather than milk), have fared better than others. Their unique capacity to sustain themselves on grass has been their saving grace—keeping them outdoors on growing vegetation is often the most economical way to raise them. Nearly all cattle, including dairy heifers, spend their early life on grass. Once mature, most (although not all) dairy cows with modern genetics, bred for high-volume milk production, are confined and fed concentrates, which is the only way to achieve their genetic potential for milk production. Their time on grass is then over.

Beef cattle have it better. Those raised for meat (not kept for breeding) typically go to a feedlot sometime before one year of age. Even there, they are out in the open air and have the benefit of soft ground for lying and standing. The breeding beef animals (mother cow herds and bulls) are the most fortunate. Generally, they spend their entire lives on pastures or rangeland, having a daily existence not unlike that of their wild ancestors. Because a cattle ranch’s success depends on mother cows being able to survive and give birth without human assistance, beef cattle have long been selected for heartiness and good calving ability. In this, the interests of the animal and those of the rancher perfectly coincide. These traits help rather than hamper the quality of life experienced by the individual animal.

In fact, beef cattle are so much better off than other animals raised for food that, as I mentioned earlier, my Humane Society friend says he considers it better to eat beef than eggs. Soon after my work became focused on agriculture I, too, became persuaded that cattle raised for beef are the luckiest of all farm animals. And from an eater’s perspective, I’d much rather my food source had spent its life exercising, breathing fresh air, and grazing meadows than cooped up in a crowded, stinking metal warehouse. Why would I want to eat food that originated from a place I would never want to visit?

On top of those issues, there is the amount of meat per animal to be considered. Previously I noted that taking the life of a single steer provides more than ample meat for two families for an entire year, an industry average of 475 pounds of beef per carcass. In stark contrast, the industry average weight for a whole chicken carcass is 4 pounds, with about 70 percent of that being meat; a chicken will thus yield less than 3 pounds of meat. You have to kill more than 150 chickens to get as much meat as you receive from one steer. It’s hard to know how to compare the morality of killing 150 chickens versus killing one steer. But for me, it was among the reasons I began favoring beef over other animal-based foods even before first stepping foot on my husband’s ranch.

I’ve never adopted the view that eating meat is inherently wrong. We can debate until the cows come home about evolution of teeth, digestive tracts, and other aspects of human physiology to make a case either that humans are “intended” to eat meat or not. But to my biology-trained brain, those points were never very persuasive. Humans may have evolved from herbivores if you go back to a certain moment in time. But the ancestors of those animals were omnivores and carnivores. And it’s now believed human ancestors began eating meat at least 2.6 million years ago, with a major uptick in meat consumption occurring around 1.5 million years ago. Clearly, a great deal of evolving has taken place in those millions of years. Any way you slice it, modern humans come from a very long line of meat eaters.

My view boils down to this: Humans are animals belonging to a food web. That web includes animals eating plants, animals eating other animals, and even plants eating animals. As this article has been at pains to portray, all life starts from the earth and returns to the earth, the bodies of all plants and animals nourishing future generations of plants and animals in an endless cycle of regeneration. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. To me, something so fundamental to the functioning of nature cannot be regarded as morally problematic.

As I grew more aware of how animals in the food system live, it also brought me to the realization that, morally speaking, there is little difference between eating meat and refraining from meat if you are still eating dairy and eggs—in other words, practicing classic vegetarianism. Dairy cows all become beef eventually and, in many ways, their lives are not nearly as good as cattle raised for beef. Most laying hens spend their lives crammed into wire cages (so-called battery cages), then are usually unceremoniously vacuumed up for use in things like canned chicken soup and pet food. To feel any sort of moral superiority for not eating beef while eating dairy products and eggs seems absurd. Once that became clear to me, it bridged any ethical distance I might have once felt between myself and my husband’s vocation.

Want to learn more about raising livestock and eating meat? See these articles:

Ethical Beef, Part 1: The Benefits of Eating Meat
Ethical Beef, Part 2: The Efficiency of Cattle Grazing
Ethical Beef, Part 4: The Pleasure of Raising Livestock
Ethical Beef, Part 5: Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animal Herds


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Defending Beef.