I submitted an entry to the New York Times’ essay contest. The challenge was to write on the subject “Is it ethical to eat meat?” Being the guilt-free omnivore that I am, I decided to enter. After culling through 3000 entries the Times’ judges left mine out of the six finalists’ pile. So I’m including it as a blog because I think it’s worthy of discussion. Here goes…
Is it ethical to eat meat? It’s as ethical as it was to be engineered to digest meat. Now we’re questioning the ethics of evolution or creation since we were constructed to be omnivores. Our digestive system is capable of processing meat, absorbing its nutrients and excreting its waste without requiring outside intervention to accomplish it or to stay healthy. Just like the human system can process plants and fruit. Is it ethical to eat those living organisms?
Animals kill each other to consume. The human animal has been eating meat for more than two and a half million years. Back in the days of African hominids there were no meat factories to grow their prehistoric buffalo or marketing to influence their taste buds. They crafted instruments to hunt food because their instincts were to eat meat, plus plants. There were no ethical dilemmas to consider or need to pander to political correctness. They were built to digest meat and that’s what they did.
Plants and fruit are as alive as animals are. Once they die they’re no longer nutritious; they must be consumed as living, breathing organisms. They don’t take oxygen in through their lungs as humans do, but they do exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through a process called respiration. In fact, in order to maintain human life, we need plants to inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, our most vital commodity for life. So there’s an argument to be made about the ethics of eating plants that must stay alive in order for the human species to exist.
The real question of ethics pertains to the way humans go about getting our meat.
Our species has a tendency to flaunt our position at the top of the food chain. We hunt animals for sport and cut off their heads to mount on our walls. We fish for sport and often throw the fish, now with a hole through its mouth or gill, back into the water when rules call for “fish and release.” We toss ropes around calves’ necks and hurl them to the ground and cinch a bull’s gonads while hopping on his back to see if he can buck us off. Why? Because some consider it fun. Those arrogant human traits are disrespectful of fellow living beings and unethical activities from a species with supreme reasoning power.
It’s also unethical to “grow meat” in industrial feedlots where cattle are fed grain they can’t digest, hormones to get too fat for their legs to support their bodies (because natural weight gain takes too long and is too lean), and given no room to move around thereby being forced to stand in their own feces. When they get sick they’re given antibiotics to treat the damage caused by eating corn that their bodies can’t digest. There are equally unethical conditions imposed on chickens and pigs raised in feedlots.
It is ethical, though, to raise cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep in their natural environments: pasture on which to graze, room to roam and provide other food their bodies were designed to eat. And when the time comes, to be killed in a humane, respectful fashion.
I eat plants and humanely raised meat. I also don’t hunt or taunt animals for sport. I’m an omnivore and lead an ethical life.
Now it’s your turn. Do you think it’s ethical to eat meat?
Here’s what the six New York Times’ essay finalists had to say.