Geez debate: Should humans eat non humans?

They found a skull in Tanzania. It showed signs of porotic hyperostotis – a nutritional deficiency commonly associated with a sudden lack of meat in the human diet. The skull’s age: 1.5 million years old. In terms of evolution, meat eating helped make humans human. By eating protein our brains grew. As our brains grew, our ability to survive grew. As our ability to survive grew, we thrived. And thrive we do.

What caused us to eat meat originally? Eat flesh over a million years ago? Perhaps a change in the climate, making edible plants less available to us. Perhaps other animals – carnivores – left meat on the fields. Perhaps early humans did not want that meat to go to waste. So they ate it – raw – and grew stronger because of it. Stone tool-making, perhaps for cutting at meat, started some 2.5 million years ago. We don’t have evidence of controlled fire until about 80,000 years ago. That’s a lot of years of eating meat raw. And it’s been a lot of years until now. A lot of years to, say, the Super Bowl this past February. On that day alone, humans ate approximately 1.3 billion (with a B) chicken wings. Domino’s Pizza (usually laden with processed meats aplenty) delivered over 11 million pizza slices.

We still eat meat. Lots of meat. It tastes good. It brings people together around a football game, or a Thanksgiving table with grandma, or a barbecue, an iteration of our long-distant primordial fires. Eating meat is in our evolutionary makeup and has been for thousands and thousands of years.

Rest assured, that human from Tanzania, the one who died from a lack of meat, would have loved to cheer on the Patriots with a chicken wing in his hand and a half-empty box of pizza nearby. Without meat, he didn’t
survive and we wouldn’t have either. Without meat – there’d be no humans at all. I couldn’t have written this sentence without some distant ancestor ripping at flesh with mighty jaws. Or this sentence. Or this one.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington.

Given the rising concern of global climate change, there is an ecological mandate for sustainability – that is, we need a system able to sustain itself cyclically and perpetually. Chief among ways to live sustainably – as a species – is to redesign our methods of food production so they better emulate ecological cycles.

Healthy functioning ecosystems depend upon symbiotic relationships that include life, death, decay, and regeneration. With the disappearance of wild spaces and limited conservation lands, farms are increasingly needed for ecological biodiversity and food production.

When it comes to the farmscape as an ecological landscape, animals are integral components in the system because of the role they have in generating the soil life that is crucial to soil carbon capture and fertility.

Some of these practices that mimic nature include agroforestry (trees grown among crops), rotational grazing, and permaculture-inspired landscapes that transition away from resource-intensive monocultures toward multi-dimensional perennial systems.

The reciprocity among sun, soil, plants, and animals reflects a natural sequence of things from which humans have, at least in modern society, sought to separate themselves. But we are not separate, and we need
to reconnect with habitats and natural life cycles essential to our survival.

An ecological diet includes meat. If an individual chooses to abstain, they have the right to do so, but landscapes without animals are ecologically incongruent from the regenerative patterns of nature. When animals are restored to their natural landscapes – freed from concrete floors and antibiotics – the expression of their created nature unfolds. Without a doubt, animals raised in industrial ways are cause for moral concern; but that is not the concern addressed by the practices of small agrarian landholders whose diversified, humane, and integrated farming methods actually feed most of the world. From this view, characterizing carnivorous behavior as immoral violence risks anthropomorphizing ecological relationships through complex moral reasoning, and projects ethical conceptions onto the natural world that do not exist in the predator-prey food web.

Species consuming other species is part of the natural order of things. It is up to humans – with our uncanny ability to disrupt that order – to responsibly try to restore it by humbly understanding ecological relationships and using our intelligence and compassion to design appropriately-sized, humane farms where we respectfully care for our animals in ways that positively affect our larger living environment.

Jake Olzen is a farmer, activist, organizer, and journalist. He lives and farms at the Lake City Catholic Worker in Southeast Minnesota.

The moral argument for veganism is simple and straightforward. It does not appeal to abstract philosophical notions like rights, moral agency, or personhood. It rests in a commitment to one simple, widely-shared principle: It is wrong to cause harm, such as suffering and death, unnecessarily.

I note the qualifier “unnecessarily” because causing suffering and death may not always be wrong. When a harm is necessary – for example, the sharp but transient pain a child feels from a vaccination when no other means of delivering the inoculation exist, or in our euthanizing a beloved companion animal suffering from a painful and terminal condition – it certainly is not wrong and may even be obligatory. But when harms like suffering and death are unnecessary, they are wrong.

Once we accept this basic principle, at least for those of us living in affluent societies with access and the means to afford a variety of foods, the conclusion of the moral argument for veganism – that it is wrong to consume animal products – follows.

Whether raised on factory farms or by producers of “humane” meat and dairy, food animals routinely suffer mutilation in the form of castration, dehorning, branding, ear-and tail-docking, and debeaking, all administered without anesthesia or analgesics. They are forcefully inseminated and kept perpetually pregnant, and all suffer undignified and bloody deaths, their throats slit often while fully conscious. This atrocity is reality for over 50 billion sentient beings a year. To respond by proclaiming, “They’re only animals” is speciesism, plain and simple.

With minimal hardship, an overwhelming majority of us can flourish without consuming animal products. Worst of all, we consume animals not because such products are nutritionally necessary, but merely because we like the way they taste. In what world does our desire to satisfy our palates justify the unnecessary suffering and death that the consumption of animal products causes?

Those of us committed to living lives of compassion, to minimizing violence, exploitation, domination, objectification, and oppression of our fellow beings, are obligated to consider the interests of all sentient beings. And veganism is clearly part of that practice.

Robert C. Jones is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at California State University. He is a speaker with the Northern California Animal Advocacy Coalition and also spends time arguing animal rights with local cattle ranchers in Chico, a small agricultural community in Northern California where he lives.

In response to the vegan, I say we consume the living. We survive by countless slaughter. Regardless of what we eat, we kill. What is the hierarchy of such things?

There’s an old joke by A. Whitney Brown, “I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals. I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”

When we categorize what can be eaten and what can’t, where does it end? Do mushrooms have feelings? Do lettuces feel pain when they’re ripped out of the ground? What will we eat if we come to the conclusion that a carrot has certain unalienable rights? A bean sprout? An apple that fell from a tree during a windstorm? Can you eat your veggie burger? Yes, go right ahead. Can I eat this buffalo burger? Yes. It’s our own death if we don’t kill.

In response to the humane carnivore, I can’t help but wonder what people in slaughterhouses eat for dinner after work. Or, on a weekend barbecue, what do all the employees at the feed lot eat? At the processing plants? The refrigerated truck drivers sending fresh packed chicken to markets near you? All those people – their spouses, their children, their friends, their communities – all eager to share in those meals.

All those workers would be out of jobs if we all of a sudden marched up to some imagined moral high ground and went on about how humanely we should kill the nonhumans we eat. Shutter the slaughterhouse! Shutter the meat packing plant! Shutter the chicken farm! Close them all down and what untold hardships would we cause to those that worked at those places? Lived in those towns? Were proud of what they did and who they chose to go to barbecues with? Church with? Broke bread with? What sort of dinner would they eat the night they got that pink slip? And what would they eat the following month when the money ran out? – Jonathan Shipley

Shipley claims that humans cannot flourish on a plant-based diet, but the American Dietetic Association states that a vegan diet is “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

Olzen claims that an ecological diet must include meat, since landscapes without animals cannot be ecologically regenerative. However, the growing numbers of veganic farms – incorporating principles of ecological permaculture, with minimal harm to animals – upend that claim.

Further, to infer that a practice or behavior is morally acceptable because it is “natural,” was once evolutionarily advantageous, could be ecologically regenerative, or involves “ecological relationships” is to confuse explanation with justification. Though controversial, there is some evidence that rape conferred selective advantage on our male ancestors. If true, would rape then be morally acceptable? Clearly, the implication underlying both authors’ arguments – that be- cause a particular behavior or practice is “natural” it is therefore morally acceptable – is fatal to their success.

Lastly, in focusing on the ecological justifications for eating animals, Olzen ignores the undeniable speciesist power dynamics of oppression, forced reproduction, and destruction involved with raising animals for food. – Robert C. Jones

The nutrient density of meat is unquestionably a part of human’s social history and evolutionary biology. Globally, we are interconnected by an industrial food system supply chain that makes chicken wings and Domino’s Pizza possible – but it also distorts and separates humans from other realities. While eating meat may have contributed to the development of complex social relationships and advanced technological societies, too much of it – especially of the factory-produced kind – leads to disruption of the ecological systems and environmental foundations that are primordially more important.

Similarly, the argument for the vegan diet fails to be fully situated in the ecological; it assumes a moral superiority that, in strangely arguing interconnectedness with all species, separates humans from nature and ecology. Farms, like humans, are a part of ecology – they interact and affect environment. A modern life without consuming animal products is fantastical because it is only made possible by large-scale agriculture; some- one or something else is bearing the environmental cost of the widespread veganic possibility. Animal-free products are largely products of unnatural monocultures; maintaining an agricultural monocrop necessarily means pest control which necessarily means managing – i.e., killing – nature’s inherent tendencies toward diversification and balanced predator-prey relationships. – Jake Olzen

Issue 38

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 38, Summer 2015, Animal Being.

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Issue 38, Summer 2015

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