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Notes on “Eating Animals”


More than nearly any other ethical question, “to eat or not to eat meat?” confronts us with the unfeasibility of removing all subjective considerations from ethics and relying only on our reason. At some point, meat-eaters will evoke happy memories of family meals or point out how tasty bacon and burgers can be in order to underline the normality of consuming cooked animals. Similarly, vegetarians and vegans often stress the revulsion and horror we would experience if only we would watch this one video…  Perhaps this is why arguments that appeal to rationality and utility, like those of Peter Singer, leave us cold. We need to feel something to be convinced of ethical arguments.

As the novelist and vegetarian Jonathan Safran Foer argues in his 2010

memoir Eating Animals reason should “be our guide in many important ways, but… being human, being humane, is more than an exercise in reason.” As Schopenhauer puts it, knowledge is always subordinate to the will.

Unfortunately, vegetarians and vegans all too often attempt to make meat-eaters feel shame over their dietary choices, an emotion which tends to have far less compelling power than we think. One sees the same mistake frequently befall the political left- when our parents and religious leaders shame us as children, it can powerfully shape our behavior. When friends and strangers try to shame us? More often it compels us to raise a single finger in response.

A vegan couple I know takes a somewhat different approach, most often pointing out the hypocrisy of meat-eaters. You are outraged when someone is cruel to a dog and would never dream of eating your pet cat, but have no problem with your dinner coming from an animal like a pig that is just as intelligent and cute? But this is really a variation on the shaming argument and, while I think highly of this couple, I’ve never found it particularly compelling. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, etc. Safran Foer goes so far as to offer a recipe for dog meat in Eating Animals, which he may or may not realize actually sounds delicious.

Nevertheless, I think we generally recognize there is an ethical question here. There is something deeply wrong not quite so much with meat-eating as such, but with the way that meat is produced today. Industrial agriculture – or factory farming – has produced genetically mutated animals that live short existences of significant suffering in such great numbers that it has revolutionized how the world eats and how certain species exist in relation to humans. Schopenhauer would also argue that we can’t understand human nature without first understanding animal life, but we have utterly removed ourselves from that equation.

Thus, Safran Foer spends much of his book detailing how the largest meat suppliers undertake factory farming and it is sufficient material to trouble even the most keen meat eater. The current industry model is inefficient, exceedingly risky to public safety, excessively cruel, and will surely and ultimately prove unsustainable. Treating living beasts like cogs in a factory process has made unimaginable horrors commonplace (which is why we prefer not to imagine them) and resulted in very bad food. It seemingly has as much to do with farming as a Ford plant has to do with building a hot rod in the family garage.

I actually began thinking about meat for two reasons that fall outside of Foer’s book, and of most arguments by vegetarians. First, a few years ago, I was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, an annoying but treatable condition that is not uncommon in vegetarians. My doctor wrongly assumed I am a vegetarian, in fact. Since I began treating that cheaply with vitamins, however, I had fewer concerns about going off meat.

The other incident was reading the startling info that industrial agriculture has eliminated the vast majority of crops that were grown in North America one hundred years ago, and in many cases has made the species extinct. Safran Foer cites the equally striking fact that Americans eat one quarter of one percent of the known edible foods on the planet. We eat almost nothing that we could, which I find somehow even more depressing than the facts of meat production.  What sort of experiment are we willingly taking part in here?

On the other hand, though, this means that we rely on a limited number of animal species for food. So, for the New Year, I simply stopped eating beef. It was easy – certainly easier than cutting out processed sugars has proven. Before this post, I never even told anyone I did it. Now that I’m also cutting out pork, which has consistently given me more heartburn than any other food, I find myself, strangely enough, finished with mammals. It’s pretty hard to find rabbit around here, not that I’m looking hard. I know where to get kangaroo meat, but it’s not worth the trouble.

Fish and fowl are harder steps to take. Safran Foer argues for the sociability and smartness of those with feathers and fins, but there’s something unsettlingly dead in the eyes of a living fish, a wider existential gap than that lying between us and other mammals. When I was a child, we raised chickens on our small farm for the eggs and I have to say that I never found them endearing or clever. Werner Herzog’s description of the fiendish stupidity of chickens is not entirely off the mark.

Nevertheless, Safran Foer’s book makes me glad for the few changes I’ve made and eager to make more. Interviewing numerous farmers, animal advocates, and factory farm workers, he succeeds in painting a deeply unsettling, if not damning portrait of the industry. The majority of us would want the animals we eat to lead relatively pain-free lives and have easy deaths, but the industry defines those things in ways that amount to lying (Safran Foer uses the more agriculturally apt term “bullshit”) and the reality of how we make food of animals approaches an unending atrocity. Interestingly, the strongest voices for animal welfare in the book come from the small farmers Safran Foer interviewed.

But this raises the question of whether meat-eaters would do more good by supporting those small and ethical farmers than by going off meat. It’s not exactly impossible – most areas still have farmer’s markets and they tend to be cheap. Most vegetarians would say “no”, this doesn’t help, because small farmers are such a miniscule percentage of meat producers, but I wasn’t so sure and Safran Foer comes down more strongly on the side of opting out of the factory farming system one way or the other. But what percentage of people are becoming vegetarians now? How do working people manage to change their diets in a major way when just getting the time and money together to keep the refrigerator stocked can be daunting? How do you even broach the question when most people would rather discuss their most embarrassing high school memory?

And what happens to the animals next? It sounds like a flippant question, but a major argument for vegetarianism is the ecological damage caused by dedicating so much land to animal production. So, what happens if we all stop eating meat? Where do all the cows and chickens and pigs go?

Then, of course, if we stop eating meat, there is the dismal feeling that it makes very little difference, given that most people won’t stop eating meat, not to mention that industrial agriculture is only a single facet of our tragic disconnection from the natural world and our own humanity. It comes to mind that it has been years since I’ve even seen a living pig or chicken and I can’t be alone. Add in war, ecological devastation, racism, genocide, pollution, and the overall manner that we live our lives now and it’s hard not to think we’re waging a war of extermination against our own species along with many others.

But I suppose we do what we can. A more traditional way of understanding ethical choices is that they exist at a level deeper than reason, at the level of will or a place “written on the heart”. In that case, it matters little if we save a single being or the world entire. But we’ve still got a very long way to go.

-Rufus F.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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83 thoughts on “Notes on “Eating Animals”

  1. I don’t think you wanted to use the words “genetically mutated” as I don’t think we’re actively exposing our food supply to teratogens. Evidence to the contrary would be appreciated.

    Boars will go into the suburbs where they will murder suburbanites instead of farmers.
    Cows can go to the Hari Krishnas.

    Comrade Wesson and his ilk are currently working on “meat in a vat”. Eventually, we may not need to murder to eat.

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      • I have posted links on previous tech days that have talked about the successes with vat grown meat. The day is coming.

        Also, there is a growing movement to improve the diversity of seeds (Open Source Seed movement). The history and causes of the decline in dietary diversity in the Western world is an interesting and sometimes confusing tale.

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        • The thing I like about vat meat is that it will finally allow giant agribusinesses to drive simple ranchers out of business and make whole nations dependent on corporate controlled technology. Bye bye Mongolian steppe herders. Bye bye Argentinian gauchos. Bye bye mom and pop sheep and goat ranchers.

          The question is how will they harvest the grass, which is all that grows in some of these places, and how will they convert it into a nutrient source for the vats? I’m guessing regular lawn mowers with grass catchers, probably driverless, and also dependent on corporate technology and the oil industry.

          Then we can start squeezing them. Perhaps those that are loyal to the corporation can get extra food rations.

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      • I understand that many vegetarians and vegans are debating the virtues of vat meat. One faction accepts it because they realize that most humans like meat and they aren’t going to give it up unless you can provide a very good substitute. Real animals don’t have to die with vat meat. The other faction thinks this is something like cheating and that real vegetarianism and veganism must entail a total abandonment of meat or all animal by products. Good luck with that.

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  2. I’m a meat eater. But I too am at a loss on how to reconcile that and the “industrial meat industry” and the cruelty that exists within it. It’s one thing to hunt down and animal, kill it, and eat it, like I used to do growing up. The mule deer stood a decent chance of escaping me, and so did the chukkar. Where possible, and affordable, I try to do my part.

    Second, I’m surprised by the limited diet I see people eating so often. I grew up eating all kinds of things. Game, fish, a wide assortment of veggies we grew, and fruit. The taste of some “fresh food” has very little “taste” anymore. Strawberries are a good example. Even in season, the non local stuff is bland.

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    • Damon,
      I like our farmers’ market — i truly don’t understand why people eat out of season things. They taste wrong, and they’re just not right. (Particularly green beans. The way Northerners eat them, they’re a purely spring thing. Plump Pole beans are summer, and make a great chili).

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      • I was surprised by Safran Foer’s claim that small farms are a minor and insignificant fraction of the whole of American food production. I live in a city (sort of ) and we have a great farmer’s market right downtown.
        https://hamiltonfarmersmarket.ca/
        I’m actually about to go there for spinach and cheese. Surely, it can’t be that hard to buy from small farms in the states- most of the territory is rural.

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        • Rufus,
          For now, we are a net food producer. Assume that a bunch of it is headed to Mexico (where NAFTA killed the native corn crop). More goes to biofuels. Then there’s the dogfood and catfood. Not to mention the alfalfa we send to China.

          And a lot of people are poor enough (and in food deserts) that they can’t find a decent market. These are the people who eat at McDs for tomatoes.

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        • It is less a production issue than a distribution issue.

          We could, if there we needed to, significantly ramp-up small farm production… I’m running about maybe 1/20 capacity… but the distribution nut is harder than it looks (if anyone looks at it), and drives more production decisions than we even start to realize.

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          • Excellent point. Where I live, I can get grass-fed (alfalfa hay in the winter) beef, humanely killed at a small slaughterhouse near where it was raised, then butchered (and usually flash frozen). Much of the focus when you shop is on transport. Of course, I have to have a big enough freezer because the smallest amount I can order that way is a quarter-carcass. And there’s no way that supply chain could be scaled up to meet the demand of the metro area.

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    • No kidding! It’s the same with tomatoes- grow em in your garden and it’s kind of a pain trying to eat them all when they come up, but the flavor is world’s apart from what the grocery store calls tomatoes.

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      • One of my proudest parenting accomplishments is that my oldest daughter refuses to eat store-bought tomatoes. She said after growing up being able to eat them out of our garden, she just sees no point.

        I have found a couple of varieties at Costco that are non-terrible, but mostly i just try to raid the farmer’s market as much as possible this time of year. Hopefully we’ll eventually be able to get our erosion problems fixed and crappy soil amended enough that I can finally garden again at the new house.

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    • I think that’s intentional. Tomatoes are evolved to not squish in stacks and be consistent, same with apples. If that makes them taste worse, agribusiness doesn’t care.

      One can buy heirloom varieties, but they’re more expensive, more likely damage in shipping, and (of course) still not as good as homegrown.

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      • Modern tomatoes are the result of an accident. Tomatoes had bumpy shoulders that ripened slower than the rest of the tomato. You still see that in a lot of heirloom varieties. But one day a farmer found a tomato that lacked the shoulders and ripened uniformly. Almost every store bought tomato is a descendant of that plant. Unfortunately, it turns out that a lot of flavor genes were lost with the shoulder gene, being near it on the chromosome. The shoulders ripen slower, but as they do they’re adding a lot of flavor compounds and sweetness. So the smooth shouldered tomatoes taste more like cardboard.

        Lots of scientists are working to fix the problem.

        Meanwhile, I highly recommend Tasti Lee.

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  3. Really liked this piece Rufus..

    But this raises the question of whether meat-eaters would do more good by supporting those small and ethical farmers than by going off meat.

    This is the argument I regularly make to vegetarian friends. By opting out of the system, they no longer have a say in things (it’s the same argument we make about citizens not voting). If they participate and create a bigger market for ethically-produced meat, that would help tremendously. Of course, their newest argument, which my daughter has taken up with a passion, is that all those cows are destroying the planet. There are vegetarians/vegans that are seriously advocating for making it illegal to eat meat (admittedly, this is a tiny % of that group).

    Safran Foer goes so far as to offer a recipe for dog meat in Eating Animals, which he may or may not realize actually sounds delicious.

    When Lewis & Clark were on the Pacific coast, the local tribe traded with them for two sources of meat: salmon and dog. The men preferred dog. Also, when Roald Amundsen’s team became the first explorers to reach the South Pole, this was achieved because they planned to eat most of their sled dog team on the return trip home. The dogs were fed to both the other dogs AND the men. They left with 52 and arrived back with 11.

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    • Mike,
      20 years from now, America will be about to support around 200 million people, food supply wise. So, like it or leave it, we’ll be having to reduce our meat consumption (2 lbs of grain for 1lb of chicken, and pretty much everything else is worse).

      Dog, like horse, is supposed to be really tasty. It’s cat that everyone universally hates to eat.

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    • I’m pretty skeptical about the argument that cows are worse for the environment than cars. Where I am more sympathetic to animal rights groups is just the simple fact that, if you have tens of thousands of animals in one place, they’re going to produce a massive amount of shit and I don’t trust the factory farms to dispose of it well if the fines are cheaper than doing so. That’s a more significant “externality” to my mind than what the cows are eating.

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      • Better or worse, the meat of cows is more easily replaced in most cow-eaters’ lives, than cars are in most car-drivers’ lives.

        Nearly eliminating beef from one’s diet just requires changing a few words on a grocery list and maybe learning a few new recipes.

        Nearly eliminating cars from one’s transportation routines is a pretty big adjustment – there’s not a thing that is just exactly like a car except that it’s better with tarragon.

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    • But this raises the question of whether meat-eaters would do more good by supporting those small and ethical farmers than by going off meat.

      Probably any meaningful amount of the former is going to involve a significant amount of the latter – small and ethical farmers and their small distribution networks have to charge a lot more for the meat they sell than large factory farms and their large scale distribution networks.

      For the same weekly grocery budget, you could grocery store bacon every day at breakfast and meat every evening for supper, or locally and ethically produced bacon at weekends for breakfast and veg suppers four evenings a week and meat the other three.

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  4. Here is what I am curious about regarding the whole issue with whether humans should eat meat or not, it is the issues regarding the debates about what if anything separates us from the rest of animals.

    There is a lot of evolutionary evidence that suggests humans are meant to be omnivores and it is eating meat that caused our ancestors’ to develop really big brains. If we remained foragers for nuts and berries, we would not have evolved to what we are.

    I’ve also seen articles stating or arguing that other animals might or do have consciousness and this is not what makes us human.

    But this raises questions for me. Do other omnivores and carnivores feel bad about eating meat? Do they argue for eating less of it? What is it about human nature that causes us to question our own biological and evolutionary nature and needs? A week or two ago, I saw an article about how it is a thing to give babies and infants soy milk instead of diary milk among a certain set of woke people because using diary is ethically bad. Medically this might be bad for the babies and infants though.

    The other things you can see in evolutionary arguments is that most or all humans are very pick and choose. They will use evolutionary arguments when it fits their needs and discard them when it does not. Here you see the radical vegetarian and vegan arguing against evolution. In other places, you see right-wingers attempt to use evolutionary psychology, or something they confuse for evolutionary psychology, when making arguments on innate gender differences but they will disregard science when it comes to climate change or the age of the earth.

    The thing I’ve noticed about a lot of vegans and vegetarians is that they have this hyper-inflated sense of justice, something like you would see in a five-year old. There is no nuance, no gray. There is just a seized passion of how can you eat an animal or wear/use something made of leather. They represent the strain of environmentalism that declares humans were the worst thing ever and need to go the way of the Dodo. Do wolves and lions and dolphins argue that they were the worst things ever?

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    • I’m not a huge fan of evolutionary psych arguments in general because they tend to be so circular. “Why do we do X? Because X has evolutionary advantages. How do we know this? Because we do X.”

      I tend to agree with Schopenhauer that animals have understanding and not just instinct, while humans have ‘abstract concepts of reason’ in addition. For him, this is why we’re capable of greater (mental) suffering. We can reflect on our own experience in a way that animals cannot. I think this would apply to all sorts of behaviors. We couldn’t mate the same way animals do without ethical problems, for instance.

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    • There isn’t much evidence at all for Humanity coming from eating meat. Humanity, the essence of what makes us human, is more equivalent to brain damage than a gradual evolutionary process.

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    • Another thing that I don’t understand about vegans and vegetarians is what do they think will happen with all the domesticated animals once humans stop eating meat and cheese, drinking milk, wearing leather and wool, or having pets. When trains, cars, and planes replaced horses as the main means of transportation and farm labor, humans slaughtered most of the horses. The same thing is going to happen with cows, sheep, dogs, cats, and pigs.

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      • I guess they could sterilize the existing herds and try to manage them for non-extinction. Turn them loose on the prairie and wish them luck. I’ve also heard the argument that dogs should be allowed to stay domesticated because we have made them so dependent on humans. Something tells me though that if we also turned them loose, they would do just fine in the wild. But hiking in the forest might suddenly become a lot less safe.

        And I think you also bring up a solid larger point which is that vegans/vegetarians are thinking much more with the hearts than their heads here.

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        • Eh, there won’t be a need. The Vaux populii are not going to get up one morning and cut out meat en masse. Assuming some kind of zeitgeist led to mass veganism you’d see a steady decline in demand for meat along with a commensurate increase in demand for alternative protein sources (and it’d have to be a Godzilla of a zeitgeist to keep the masses opposed to meat when non-meat protein prices soared and meat prices cratered). The herds would just naturally decline and dwindle away.

          But you’re absolutely right, we’d be looking at extinction for most commercial breeds of meat animals. The protestations of vegetarians notwithstanding most commercial meat animals are reeking bulky beasts utterly unsuited for keeping as social pets and entirely incapable (with the dishonorable exception of pigs) of surviving in the wild.

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          • I’d also like to know the solution vegetarians have for making the growing of vegetable crops a death-free experience. As I always tell my vegetarian daughter, “Watch a soybean field being harvested and tell me that you don’t cause animals to die.”

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            • Of course farming vegetable food causes animals to die. I’ve never met a vegetarian who didn’t think so. It doesn’t do it needlessly is the point.

              Human have to eat, so there has to be farming, with all the killing of animals that comes with it, that we might live. But devoting arable land to growing animal feed, just so we can feed it to animals to then kill and eat them, is not necessary.

              An acre of soybeans yields something like 50 bushels a year. 50 bu * 60 lb / bu * 570 cal / lb = about 3000 pounds of soybeans, or about 1.7 million calories of soybeans. Assuming people need an average of something like 2,200 calories a day, that’s 773 person-days of food, or two human lives supported by that one acre, and all the animals deaths involved in farming it.

              If instead that soy is fed to livestock (as most soy farmed in the US is), those killings are more than doubled – much more, depending on the animal.

              Chicken is supposedly one of the most efficient meats in terms of calories consumed by the animal per calorie available in its meat – it produces as much has half a pound of meat per pound of grain it eats. The energy density of chicken is about the same as soy, 570 cal / lb.

              So now sustaining those two human lives via chicken meat requires the deaths concomitant with 2 acres of soybean field instead of 1, plus the deaths of the chickens themselves.

              (Note I say this as someone who probably wastes more arable land than you do, by the sound of it – you mentioned that the meat you eat is mostly poultry, where for me it’s mostly pork – which is vastly less efficient at converting feed to flesh.)

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              • But we can’t switch to vegetarianism because then our cats will be eating higher on the food chain than we are. We didn’t claw our way to the top to eat vegetables.

                Also, much of the world’s meat comes from land that isn’t well suited to growing crops. In some places the people would have trouble surviving if not for vast herds of animals. Mongolia, for example, has an extremely short growing season. Only 1% of the land is crops, and frosts make those risky. What crops they do grow are almost entirely wheat and barley. Only about 1% of that 1% is vegetables, or 0.01% of the land area, almost all of which is used as pasture instead. They grow their vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, in a few oases in the Gobi desert.

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                • Oh yeah, caveats abound.

                  Here in Alberta, almost all chicken and swine is grain-fed, and a lot of cattle graze right next door (basically identical soil and climate conditions) to productive food crop fields before being fattened on grain at a feed lot. In parts of the south of the province, there’s not a lot of food crops going on as the land is more marginal – there beef farming may be not only the most profitable, but also the most food efficient agricultural use of the land.

                  Other parts of the world differ considerably, obviously.

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              • “Human have to eat, so there has to be farming, with all the killing of animals that comes with it, that we might live.”

                If you’re suggesting that farming is a necessary evil (ignoring other options), then why is raising animals for meat any different? For many of us, who strongly believe that eating meat is what Nature intended for us, doesn’t that leave us with the same problem? I’m finding it difficult to understand how your needs that = killing are somehow less bad than my needs that = killing?

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                • To be clear it’s not my personal position, or at least not to the extent that I’ve given up meat altogether.

                  I do think that to the extent we can minimize the impact of farming – wild spaces cleared for farming, animals killed in the process – it’s a good idea.

                  Where I live at least, most meat represents a much greater quantity of grain grown and fed to the animal, with all its environmental impacts. One meal of pork or beef had the impact of several vegetarian meals.

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      • Presently living meat livestock are going to be slaughtered no matter what.

        They’re also not being allowed to reproduce freely – you don’t let a bull wander the cow pasture, you don’t let roosters wander the poultry barn. Their rates of reproduction are carefully controlled to match projected sales. As sales fall off, it will be almost entirely birth rates that will drop.

        Assume advocates of widespread vegetarianism suddenly start experiencing success beyond their wildest dreams – how long do you think it will be for the rate of meat consumption to drop to 3/4, then 1/2, then 1/4, then tail off toward nothing? Beef cattle are slaughtered at about 18 months of age, pigs at maybe 6 months, chickens at under 2 months.

        The meat farming industry would have no trouble winding down such short-cycle production, with respect to the births of the animals themselves. The far greater problem (assuming totally unrealistic rates of vegetarianization) would be what to do with the equipment and facilities, and how to retrain and keep employed former workers throughout the meat industry.

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        • They’re also not being allowed to reproduce freely – you don’t let a bull wander the cow pasture…

          The vast majority of cattle are the result of artificial insemination. For beef, the sperm are sorted to produce almost exclusively males (females only to the extent needed for replacement). For milk, things are almost that bad — champion bulls have thousands of daughters by artificial insemination, and very limited numbers of male offspring.

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            • When I was a lad in small-town Iowa, we were taught that they could be accurately separated because XY sperm swam faster, and that steers were preferable to heifers because (a) they gained weight faster and (b) yielded better beef. Skimming through assorted scientific papers this AM, I see that speed is now considered a completely unreliable test for sperm gender and that with contemporary practices there’s little or no difference in weight gain or meat quality based on sex. Wonder how much money the shysters extracted from farmers back in the day?

              And in the last 20 years or so, accurate separation methods have been developed on the principle Kimmi mentions: XX sperm are consistently just enough heavier than XY sperm to allow bulk separation if you have sufficiently clever machinery.

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      • To be fair, my impression is that the “keeping pets is evil” crowd is a pretty small subset o the overall veggie/vegan crowd. The veggie/vegans I have known have been more likely to be enthusiastic about keeping pets.

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    • I will say that, regardless of the fact that humans have seemingly always eaten meat, it’s safe to assume that we eat a lot more of it than we did in other times and places. For my grandmother, it was a weekly thing, not a three-times-a-day thing like it is for many of us.

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  5. The other incident was reading the startling info that industrial agriculture has eliminated the vast majority of crops that were grown in North America one hundred years ago, and in many cases has made the species extinct.

    I find this factoid surprising (and somewhat incredible, tbh). A hundred years ago (i.e. the first decade or two of the twentieth century), the population explosiion on the North American continent over the then previous 100 years was causing a level of enviromental degredation and species extinction that was bad enough to start to get the attention of even the rich and somewhat conservative.

    It was also the last era of ‘unscientific’ farming, including a tendency toward monocultures, that among other things, eventually led to massive crop failures and the Dust Bowl.

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    • There is a big push right now for heirloom crops and bringing back crops that are nearly extinct, which I find fascinating. Part of the challenge is just the amount of labor involved with certain crops. Bringing back some of them is quite a challenge as I understand from friends who’ve tried. So this National Geographic image gives an idea of what happened over the course of the twentieth century, but as they say, there needs to be a more recent survey done.

      http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/07/food-ark/food-variety-graphic

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      • Rufus,
        Something’s wrong with that graphic. REALLY wrong.
        The list of sweet corn varieties on wikipedia (of which I’ve eaten more than 6 myself, and seen more than that grown) is way more than 12. For goodness sakes!

        That’s really comparing apples to oranges.

        Large tomatoes are always a bit of a bitch (cherries grow like wildfire, anyplace I’ve seen).

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    • We just prefer our dust bowls wet and out of sight.

      The story of monocropping is complicated; the US certainly cash-cropped vast areas into denuded farmland that has taken decades to recover; but the current cash cropping method is fundamentally monocropping owing to the replacement of cheap N/P/K and the heavy costs of mechanized specialization … there’s some soil preservation cropping after corn tillage, but that’s not 100% and not really a sustainable soil replenishment strategy… and is still heavily sprayed leading to the wet deadzone.

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    • There are a lot of “foods” that people used to eat that they do not eat now simply because said foods were repulsive and eaten only because they had nutrient content. Now that people don’t ‘have’ to eat them; they don’t.

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  6. I believe that what people eat depends on what’s available and how hungry they are. Once simple hunger is satisfied, then other considerations come into play. Customs, cultural signifiers, solidarity with peers, and displays of status are some of those other considerations. I can remember when many Americans sneered a little at the Japanese habit of eating raw fish.
    A vegan diet is totally compatible with health. My taste preferences and desire to continue my family solidarity keeps me from that. I concede that “my taste preferences” are not based on a dispassionate rational analysis.

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    • I’ve cut my meat consumption way back, in an effort to shed some pounds. I’ve lost about 50 since last November by by eating meat once per day. I still firmly believe Nature intended us to eat meat and don’t see myself ever giving it up, but I will also admit that i was consuming way too much and my health was suffering as a result. It’s all about balance.

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  7. I also want to highlight this aspect:

    The other incident was reading the startling info that industrial agriculture has eliminated the vast majority of crops that were grown in North America one hundred years ago, and in many cases has made the species extinct.

    Last year, I watched the Michael Pollan Netflix documentary based on one his books. Each episode was dedicated to an element and/or essential aspect of cooking like fire, water, earth, etc. Michael Pollan’s big thing is about how humans don’t spend enough time cooking and we eat too much for convenience. He also discusses how a lot of stuff that we eat was scientifically created for appearance/durability over taste and possibly nutritional value as well.

    This is all fine and good but Michael Pollan’s whole away of being is also specifically designed for his very nice house in a very nice neighborhood of Berkeley with his very nice kitchen. So he has enough kitchen space where two or more people can be cooking at once and doing so comfortably and this lets him do complicated recipes which take a long time to prepare and cook. Or he would visit developing countries where the women’s job is basically to be in the kitchen all day.

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    • For a long time there was a whole blog called Say What, Michael Pollan? It’s inactive now but I used to enjoy reading it. (Despite also enjoying the earlier works of Michael Pollan, esp. the Botany of Desire which has the advantage of not containing huge chunks of stuff someone else already did better like some of his later works…)

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  8. In his book on Jewish ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has a section on Judaism and vegetarianism. It starts with a story that Franz Kafka allegedly visited an aquarium and told a fish that he could look at it peacefully because he did not eat them anymore. There have been Rabbis that argued that one of the reasons for the kashrut laws was too make meat eating annoying so that humans would give it up. Judaism teaches that God only permitted humans to eat meat after the Flood because animals no longer trusted us. Other Rabbis argue that the Torah permits the eating of some meat at least and if God didn’t want us to eat meat he would have said so.

    Humans have been arguing about the virtues and non-virtues of eating meat for centuries. Saul is right. Humans are biologically omnivores and were meant for some meat consumption. Some societies have more or less abandoned meat eating in its entirety and others, mainly European, treated meat as a big prestige item in human consumption. Vegetables and fruits were distrusted in favor of grains and meats until well into the 19th century. I don’t think this debate will end anytime soon.

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    • The Bible has no prohibitions on eating people.

      Indeed, after the flood God told Moses that he could eat anything. Genesis 9:3 “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” People are a moving thing.

      And more, Jeremiah 19:9 says “And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor…”

      Ezekiel 5:10: “Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers.”

      Deuteronomy 28:53: “And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you…”

      Advances in human cloning, and learning to grow human tissue in vats (vastly more research dollars are spent on growing human organs than on any other meat research), will soon put people on every table, served with fava beans and a nice chianti.

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  9. I eat meat because my species is an omnivorous endurance predator.

    Unless and until vat grown meat becomes a thing, my meat needs to come from animals. I’d rather not eat my pet dog but if I get hungry enough it’s an option. My wife has eaten pets (she grew up on a small farm).

    The ethical standard mother nature sets is it’s ok to eat things, even alive (witness the local snakes). A month ago I found the neighbor’s cat pulling baby bunnies out of their nest one at a time and torturing them to death.

    So, what happens if we all stop eating meat? Where do all the cows and chickens and pigs go?

    Without an economic need for these animals to exist, they won’t exist. That might mean one generation is taken out and slaughtered, more likely it means they’ll reproduce less.

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    • Actually the cows, pigs, chickens, goats, and sheep will just be allowed to roam free. Their unchecked populations will expand, they’ll get into the corn, and the only solution will be eating them until their numbers are once again checked.

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    • When I was a kid my family bought a cow. My father was opposed to our naming her since she was intended for food but, recognizing that his three children would simply name her if he didn’t, elected to dub the cow with the moniker Ribbles.
      Ribbles was a genial enough cow. She’d hang out in the pasture doing cow things. When we’d get off the bus from school she’d amble over to the fence and we’d pick plants and feed them to her. Seemed a nice enough sort. In the fullness of time Dad informed us that it was time to kill Ribbles and, being country kids, we accepted this with general equanimity. We weren’t present at the actual killing but I remember the sound of the gun shot despite being young. One thing I especially remember, though, is how incredibly delicious that cow was. Holy agnostic Jesus that was the most flavorful wonderful beef ever!

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      • When I was 5, the farmer down the street gave us a chick to raise. She lived with us all summer, and was even mostly housebroken. Her name was Chicken and she had the run of the house, for the most part. In the fall, she went back to the farmer, and I tossed her into the yard with all the other chickens. I then learned how to slaughter and clean chickens (from the beheading with a hatchet all the way through the cleaning and gutting).

        And I cleaned a small slaughterhouse/butcher shop from the age of 16 until I left home.

        Our sin is not eating animals, it’s that large swaths of the population have only an abstract idea, perhaps from reading, perhaps from watching some videos, of how meat is raised, slaughtered, and prepared. The percentage that have actually, literally gotten their hands dirty in that part of the food chain is pretty small.

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        • Sure, but in our increasingly urbanized world I see no way (short of some kind of really realistic and mandatory VR thing) to provide that kind of exposure.

          What it boils down to is dismal biology, dismal sociology and dismal economics: people like the taste of meat, they like eating it and they don’t want to pay a lot for it. The vegetarians are wrong: people can pop onto the internet and read all the factory farming horror they wish; they don’t want to. They don’t want to know and the vast majority, when shown such things, will shake their heads, say something must be done, then dismiss it from their mind. Vegetarians who actually want to end factory farming should be going whole hog on synthetic meat substitutes. It’ll only when they make something cheaper/tastier than meat that the animal farming will end.

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          • Meat has generally been a prestige item in the human diet except in the few places where religion mandated vegetarianism for everybody or something close to it. To have ready and easy access to meat, especially fresh rather than salted meat, meant you were wealthy. Once meat came affordable people latched on to it and started eating it as much as possible.

            Vegetarians aren’t going to latch onto synthetic meat for the same reason why many environmentalists eschew nuclear power. It just upsets their vision of how things should be. Many of the more idealist vegetarians are pastoral at heart and vat meat might not involve animal slaughter but it doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of things. Utopia can have no compromises.

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            • Which is fine, they simply will remain unsuccessful… which, ironically, would be the point. If they succeeded in converting the masses to vegetarianism then they’d have to go carnivorous or something.

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  10. I started reading Eating Animals, but I didn’t get very far because it just made me sad. If I recall correctly, Foer suggested that chickens and turkeys probably were treated worse than cows and pigs overall. Also I think Scott Alexander a while back had pointed out that since cows are much bigger than the other commonly-eaten animals, eating beef causes less suffering per ounce than other choices. So I think the common idea that eating only poultry is somehow a close cousin to vegetarianism is largely misguided.

    I’m a lapsed ethical vegetarian; for a little while after I converted to it, I was an obnoxious zealot, but what I found interesting is that even after I stopped evangelizing and kept quiet about it until asked, merely mentioning that i was an ethical vegetarian was enough to make meat-eaters defensive. Usually I got one of two responses — either they would try to argue with me, using a list of common and easy-to-puncture rationalizations for eating meat, or they’d give an apologetic “wish I could do that but I can’t” response.

    I finally gave it up, basically for the last reason you cited — the tiny little bit of difference it seemed to make was dwarfed by the feeling of deprivation that I could never shake. I still often feel guilty about it though, especially when I’m actually cooking it and dealing with the raw meat that doesn’t do a very good job hiding its origin.

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  11. A couple thoughts; I had a girlfriend in college who was a vegitarian, raised that way (7th day Adventist.) Never thought about meat. But when I would visit her parents, her mom would slip me $5 and tell me quietly to go to McD’s. Her dad was a pastor.

    I remember a Temple Grandin interview I heard once, she is a large animal specialist. She talked about commercial farming, but the big takeaway was that the real problem is the farming follows gov’t regulation to a tee, missing the conditions of the animals in the process. A more holistic approach is what is needed in her opinion. Which isn’t too far fetched, as many of the people who work in those fields spent a lot of time around the animals in school. I wish I could find the quote, but I think reading her would be right up your alley.

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