Passing the buck
To exist is to eat, and to eat is to inflict suffering — either directly or indirectly — on animals.
“I shot a deer — and I still believe it was the ethical thing to do,” proclaims environmental journalist George Monbiot. His point is that the ethics of food — e.g. plant-based vs. omnivore — is not as black-and-white as is often suggested.
There is still unnecessary suffering, exploitation and killing of sentient creatures associated with plant-based and vegan diets. It’s simply been shifted from cows and chickens to rodents and other small creatures.
“Between these poles — kill nothing and kill almost everything — lies the pragmatic aim of maximizing the diversity and abundance of non-human life on Earth, while securing our own survival.”
One study from Australia, for example, found that ploughing pasture for wheat and other grains kills up to 25 times more animals (small mammals, snakes, lizards, etc.) per kilogram of useable protein compared to rangelands beef. Australian grain production experiences a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500–1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice. Furthermore, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities each year.
In the United States, one-third of its crops (including broccoli, blueberries, cherries, apples, melons, avocados, plums and lettuce) would disappear without the exploitation of honeybees. “Migratory beekeeping” is a method that unnecessarily exploits (and kills) millions of honeybees each year. In California’s Central Valley alone, more than 31 billion honeybees are exploited each February to pollinate almond trees. Migratory beekeeping is one of the primary reasons that so many bees die each winter as well as an explanation for colony collapse disorder. The honeybees that do survive are deprived of the far more diverse and nourishing diet provided by wild habitats, sometimes pushed into borderline starvation.
I was vegetarian/pescatarian for almost a decade, stemming from my concern for the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture. I began eating meat again, however, due to a growing recognition that the act of eating involves more than just reflexively labelling entire groups of foods as “good” or “bad,” or reducing a food down to it’s associated carbon emissions. It’s much more complicated than that.
Eating is a social and joyful act, one that carries with it cultural and aesthetic values that cannot be as easily dismissed as many advocates of plant-based diets would have you believe. These values matter, too. It’s undeniable that the treatment of animals in the industrial agriculture system is inhumane and efforts should be made to improve their welfare. But I think a plant-based diet is anti-social: it is a denial of the fact that we are creatures embedded within a complex (and messy) social and environmental ecosystem.
Eating is a social and joyful act, one that carries with it cultural and aesthetic values.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t other reasons (environmental, economic, social) why one may want to reduce their personal consumption of animals exploited in factory farms, or increase their consumption of locally grown organic produce. But it does suggest that the ethics of food isn’t as binary as plant-based vs. omnivore. As Monbiot concludes: “Between these poles — kill nothing and kill almost everything — lies the pragmatic aim of maximizing the diversity and abundance of non-human life on Earth, while securing our own survival.” In other words, we should seek to minimize unnecessary suffering as much as pragmatically possible.
Like most issues worthy of deeper reflection and consideration, deciding what to eat isn’t so black-and-white. To exist is to eat, and to eat is to inflict suffering (either directly or indirectly) on animals. All of us — including vegans — have blood on our hands.