Tony Cenicola / New York Times

January 30, 2020

Food Ethics | Treat Animals How You Wish to be Treated

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By the 20th century, it kind of became assumed that humans should eat meat, and a good amount of it, to sustain a healthy, well balanced diet. Even more recently in Western food thought comes the colorful, or not so very, variety of fads and diets that dominate mainstream public discourse.

On one end of the spectrum you have the Paleo or “caveman” diet that consists of eating pretty much nothing other than red meat, while leaving out grains, beans and dairy or any other nasty pastoral food groups. On the opposite end of the spectrum sits the stoic and reserved vegan, who eats positively no animal products whatsoever. They even go so far as to feed their dogs and cats a strictly vegan diet, contrary to their carnivore nature. The myriad of “diets” between have ranged from cigarettes instead of sweets to diet pills to Atkins low carbs; even masticating and prayers were said to help you lose your love handles.

With so many options, how are we supposed to know what really works and what doesn’t, or at the very least what’s acceptable? For those answers we can turn to science and God. Religion has always had much to say on what people can and cannot eat, how certain foods are to be prepared and more generally the ethics surrounding all things animal.

Abrahamic scriptures have a number of conflicting ideas surrounding whether or not man is allowed to eat meat or not. For example, in Genesis, God only indicates that man is supposed to eat “every green plant for food”, but not the beast or the birds. Contrastly, in Leviticus 11:1-47 God speaks to Moses and Aaron and says, “These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.”

While Christianity still has some scripture to sort through, Judaism and Islam have much clearer and codified rules surrounding the consumption of meat and the treatment of animals. From the Jewish oral tradition of Mishna, whom Judith Prince put much into writing, came the concept of “tza’ ar ba ‘alei hayim” or “rules against cruelty to animals.” These rules are drawn from scripture and have a community agreement that legitimizes them, thereby working them into peoples’ everyday lives. From here the Jewish community sources its rules for Kosher. The Muslim community has a very similar practice for the processing of Halal meats, the only caveat being that the word of God must be uttered while slaughtering the animal. This is their way of recognizing the animal as a creature of God’s creation.

Buddhism and Jainism have even stricter rules surrounding the treatment of all living things. These rules stem from the ancient notion of ahimsa, meaning non-hindering or non-violence towards other living creatures. Jainism has some of the most strongly codified food ethics of any religion. The standard practice is that one’s diet must be fully vegetarian, except for anything that grows below the ground.

Coming back to our initial qualm, let’s now confront the science and history of frequent meat consumption. Taken to the extreme, the paleo diet tells us to drop “pastoral” foods like grain, beans and dairy. This diet’s philosophy is founded on the belief that our hunter-gatherer ancestors derived over half of their caloric intake from meat. This is just simply not true, as most hunter-gatherers only “get around 30 percent of their annual calories from animals.” In fact, it was the women and children, the gatherers, who provided most of the calories consumed by these groups; The Hadza, modern Tanzanian hunter-gatherers, get 70% of their calories from plants.

So, how did this misconception about nutrition come to be? It came through the proliferation of the, then mistaken, Western portrayals of early hunter-gatherer societies. In 1924, Raymon Dart, the archaeologist who first discovered early human fossils in Africa, popularized their image as carnivorous savages. This failed understanding of our ancestors led us to create our flawed notion that meat needs to be the centerpiece of every meal.

If that is the precedent, then how, with an exponentially growing population, are we going to provide for that demand? The answer: factory farms. Conveniently labeled by the industry as confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), businessmen have brought the logic of economies of scale to animal husbandry. As an example, David Kirby in his book Animal Factory models a CAFO for hogs. He says that for a 5,000 animal hog pen, sitting on an acre or two, there could be up to 650 animals per barn. The daily waste created by all these hogs would equal that of 20,000 people. In a space that small, there is no feasible way to deal with all of that waste — the land can’t absorb it. So, where does it all go then? Every now and then, it will get shoveled into a lagoon by a frontloader where it will sit and stink to high hell. Though these waste lagoons have capacities, they are frequently ignored because hiring trucks to haul it away would cost way too much money. This toxic waste is often times sprayed over fields as manure, but unlike normal manure, hog waste is filled with bacteria and pathogens that go airborne and can infect humans.

I feel like I’m speaking for most when I say that there seems to be a massive disconnect here, between the “ethics” of factory farming and those supported and practiced by religious persons. For instance, “…producers insist that farm animals are better off confined than set loose on pastureland, where they fall prey to the elements, predators, and disease.” We are lying to ourselves and consciously choosing to hurt animals and people if we believe such things. Producers at such high scales budget for mass recalls of contaminated meat and the unnatural die-off of animals. In no sane state of mind could anyone honestly claim that the animals raised as such are better off confined in these CAFOs. We are lying to ourselves for the sake of better profit margins, a notion that is propagated by the growth imperative of modern corporations in a highly capitalist and extremely unethical market.