Why is it Ethical to Eat Meat

Answering the New York Times Ethicist Query

“Tell us Why it is Ethical to Eat Meat”

On a cold day in December 2009 I stood on the steaming compost pile belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In”. I changed the words. “When the saints are of four hooves…”  and I carefully put each head, six lambs and one pig in the divots I had made and filled with wood chip in the center of the windrow. I knew each face by name. Now dead, their stares were blank. As I sung I thought of my Dad fighting in World War II and the ongoing wars around the world. It doesn’t compare, I know. Still, this is as close as I will get to war. Taking the life of animals for meat reminds me how fragile life is and how much is at stake with power dynamics. As a result I feel closer to humanity and our ongoing struggle for peace.

Fifty meters away my partner assisted Matt and Mark Durkee, two highly skilled gentlemen, as they wrapped the carcasses for safe transport to a custom cutter. Thanks to their talents each animal had died without any perceptible sound or sign of struggle, on pasture where they had rotated to fresh terrain daily. We bled them each out, collecting the blood in a sled so the nitrogen would also add wealth to the compost pile. A few months later it was another pile. I nestled in a single whole body, tiny – a stillborn piglet. “Oh when the saints are born right here, oh…” Growing meat makes me intimately connected with the full cycle of life.

Sharing our Thanks and Saying Goodbye

Some years earlier I had stood at the roadside while Ghanaian colleagues from the Wildlife Department interrupted the sale of a live spot nosed monkey. In this region, the forest is often referred to as “the bush” and wildlife, and the meat derived from it, is referred to as “bushmeat”. Conservationists struggle with the cataclysmic decline of wildlife populations amidst commercial, illegal and unsustainable hunting.  I understand poor rural communities rely on wildlife for their protein, but we must strengthen policies, regulations and enforcement to protect species where needed. Where scientific consensus deems appropriate, we can access perennial wisdom through maintaining hunting traditions.

Yet, around that same time other colleagues at Conservation International were looking at soy production and its devastating biodiversity impacts. My self-righteous identity as a vegetarian was no longer so simple— I too was driving biodiversity loss and also eating with a large carbon footprint. I began to shape my choices around a new “sustainitarian” identity.  I believe eating meat from rare animals is not ethical, nor is eating meat, or any food for that matter, from contemporary conventional industrial agricultural systems.   However meat raised humanely (www.humaneitarian.org) and sustainably (our definition) is ethical to eat.

Growing meat brings me closer to my ancestors and to people all over this world who farm and hunt. Essay contests, good conversations, farm websites, good journalism, etc. can help us create an ambient intimacy among those who grow meat in ethical relationship with natural and cultural systems and those who purchase and eat meat sourced from responsible and ethical sources. Ultimately, turning the tables towards ethical meat.

This week we feasted with friends and family. Friday’s Seder was chicken soup, Vermatzah and leg of goat. Sunday we enjoyed Easter brunch with farm fresh eggs and bacon.  We all knew that chicken, goat and pig. I am grateful for their happy and healthy lives as well as the protein and joy they brought to our table.

Mari Omland

April 8, 2012

The New York Times Ethicist Column posed the above challenge in its March 20th Column.

One Comment

  1. Kristian Omland
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Great essay to bring together disparate experience.