The Meat of the Matter

A few weeks back, the NY Times launched an essay contest for readers to answer the contentious philosophical question that puts many food-enthusiasts on edge: is meat-eating ethical? In a social moment of heightened vegetarian, vegan and global warming awareness that have lunged the topic of meat and overall food consumption into the limelight, a few highlights worthy of consideration stood out among the passionate responses.  Considering the current flooding of health-initiatives, complex diets and a focus on farm to table politics, the contest highlighted the sometimes-contradictory and always opinionated debate on the ethics of meat-eating.

One woman who grew up on a farm discusses the most basic levels of interconnection between crops, animals and humans–one that relies on animals to graze the fields upon which they naturally fertilize and that people need to consume to keep in step with a natural order. She stresses the fact that a balanced and healthy life is one in which we should not dismiss part of this self-sustaining cycle where animals need to be eaten, if not for any other reason than to make room on an increasingly crowded planet. Another essayist discusses that after forty years she will start eating meat again, but not the kind that comes from a farm. Though her own father was a “meat-eater’s meat-eater” and relished in such carnivorous delicacies as sea turtles, she announces that perhaps the only ethical meat hails from natural in vitro methods that negate the harmful side effects of unethical animal abuse or possibility of E. coli. Partially fascinating, partially Frankensteinish.

However, contest winner Jay Bost offers the argument in “Give Thanks for Meat” that the production of tofu can be just as ethically wrong, wasteful or harmful as raising over-sized chickens in an unsanitary coop. But if the methods to produce either meat or tofu manage to be ethically sound, then there should be little to worry about when it comes to enjoying your buffalo wings or tofu burger.

The question of what ethical production actually consists of is perhaps best left to the experts, but we can generally agree that non-exploitative, low-carbon emissions and minimized pain (on people or animals) is an integral part of good food production that won’t guilt you into starvation. Bost offers this helpful “greater or lesser than” visual to help shape his perspective. “Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.” Ultimately, he emphasizes that the primary source of conflict between a carnivorous and vegetarian lifestyle really dwindles down to our own human gift (or curse, perhaps) of being too conscientious and morally uneasy about animal pain. In fact, many of the final essays address the issue of mortality and allude to the circle of life and death that keeps a delicate earth cycle going ’round and ’round.

Bost offers this final philosophical musing: “For me, eating meat is ethical when first you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form.”