Last night I attended an entertaining debate between ex-cattle rancher turned vegan Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy, and Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkshop and wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman. The event was co-sponsored by VegNews Magazine and Earth Island Institute and held in the impressive David Brower Center in Berkeley. (I know, where else?)
The subtitle of the event asked the question, Can you be a "good environmentalist" and still eat meat?
Full disclosure: this is not an objective review of what transpired. While I don't tend to put it front and center in my writing these days, I have been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for close to 15 years. My own thinking has evolved over the years and I now advocate more broadly for a mostly plant-based, whole-foods diet, which no educated person can argue with nutritionally. While I realize it may not harm your health to eat a small amount of meat here and there, I have decided for ethical reasons not to do so. I decided to write this post because much of what I heard last night was not adequately addressed by the speakers and I want to add my own thoughts.
The two authors began by agreeing that factory-farmed meat is a disaster and has no place on our planet. The debate boiled down to whether or not humanely and sustainably-raised animals were a viable alternative to the current system, from both an ecological and ethical perspective.
Ms. Niman certainly held her own when it came to the scientific and environmental arguments for sustainable meat, disputing Lyman's claims that any type of animal farming harms the planet.
But when Niman tried to argue that animals were essential to sustainable farming, she never did explain why they have to be killed in order to be part of the closed loop system she espouses.
Once the discussion turned directly to the ethics of killing animals for food, Lyman easily had the moral high ground. And Niman herself seemed uncomfortable making several tired and twisted arguments.
First, she said that humans have been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, so it's a natural part of our diet. But humans have not been slaughtering cows and chickens for all that time. It's certainly true that humans have eaten meat throughout our evolution and Niman was right to correct Lyman when he claimed that we are natural herbivores. Humans are omnivores, which simply means that we can eat both meat and plants, not that we have to. The dispute is really whether we should.
The anthropological evidence is clear that early humans either ate the leftover meat that was killed by carnivores (when was the last time you chased down an animal and bit into it?) or killed small animals like rabbits, all for the purpose of survival when little else was available. Since modern agriculture kicked in (along with modern marketing), humans have been brainwashed to eat a diet mainly comprised of animals, but that was not the diet of our ancestors. Rather, they subsisted largely on nuts, seeds, and fruit, and it is such a plant-based diet, according to decades of established science (not to mention Michael Pollan) that humans thrive on.
Next, Lyman and Niman disagreed on just how much destruction is caused by our conventional food system in general. Niman tried to argue that all food production causes harm to animals, presumably from various disruptive farming techniques. Lyman dismissed this argument by saying there's a difference between nematodes and cows, to which Niman responded that she also meant wild animals.
I am willing to accept the argument that conventional farming methods causes harm to animals, and that vegans cannot claim that their eating habits cause no harm. But because wild animals are harmed as a by-product of plant production is not a reason to deliberately raise and slaughter more animals who would never exist in the first place. Why not try to minimize all animal suffering?
Niman then proceeded to bury herself even deeper in the ethical morass by making the astonishing claim that animals suffer a lot in the wild, since it's such a dangerous world out there, and aren't they better off under the care of humane, kind ranchers like her husband? This sounded chillingly like the arguments for slavery. You know, blacks were really much better off getting free room and board and they weren't treated all that badly were they?
This argument once again fails to acknowledge that there is a vast world of difference between animals in the wild (who yes, have to navigate all sorts of dangers, that is nature and cannot be helped) and the breeding of countless animals who would otherwise never be brought into this world.
Next, Niman had to explain the disconnect between how she herself is a vegetarian and her defense of humane meat. She said in many different ways that being vegetarian is a personal choice and that she does not try to persuade others to make the same decision. But isn't factory farming also an ethical issue and isn't she trying to persuade those to perpetuate those immoral business practices to stop doing so? Why do her ethics of caring about how animals are treated stop at the point of slaughter?
Moreover, it's an ethical cop-out to claim that being vegetarian is a personal choice. Of course it is, but that doesn't mean we cannot as a society recognize moral standards we expect others to follow. We do it all the time in many contexts. For example, when we say murder is wrong, rape is wrong, driving too fast is wrong, etc. You name your law, I will give you a moral argument that backs it up.
I am not saying we should out-law meat eating, but claiming a decision is "personal" does not take it off the table for discussion. Again, slavery is a helpful analogy. At one time, slavery was acceptable, thought to be a personal choice (but of course, only for the owners, not for the slaves; similarly, the animals do not get a choice). In time we recognized as a society that slavery was immoral and then we outlawed it. That is the natural course of the evolution of human values. Our treatment of animals has also evolved over time and it can and should continue to do so.
When asked if she ever bonded with an animal, she talked about a cow she and her husband loved so much because she was "special" and so they decided to give her a "pass" from slaughter. How lucky for that animal, and how unlucky for all the others on the ranch who apparently were not special enough.
During the Q&A session, I tried to ask Niman how exactly sustainable meat could ever work on a mass scale considering that her husband's own company failed to live up to difficult economic challenges. (See this article for how Niman Ranch was forced to merge last year with its largest investor due to economic hardship; Bill Niman himself left the business back in 2007 over ethical standards disputes.)
She bypassed the heart of the question, instead explaining how an academic report showed that it's theoretically possible for humanely-raised, sustainable meat to feed the world, but only if people cut down on their meat consumption, a concept which she supports (on this point we agree).
But she failed to acknowledge that in our current profit-driven, capitalistic society, it's extremely difficult for anyone who wants to run a business "ethically" to compete, again, as her own husband learned the hard way. Lyman tried to make this point by saying the system is rigged in favor of the large, unethical producers. This is exactly right, as the recent oil disaster also proves.
Moreover, I don't hear any "eat less meat" messages coming out of the American Grassfed Association. Rather, you can learn at an upcoming meeting, about "growing your grassfed business." And herein lies the rub. In order for any large business to succeed in our economy, it must grow or die. Growth and sustainability simply do not fit in the same sentence.
At the end, Lyman got to the heart of the ethical question when he asked, would the Holocaust have been OK if the Jews had stayed in 5-star hotels and been fed lavish meals before they were escorted to their deaths? This to me sums up the moral conundrum that people such as the Nimans must face.
Last night, I became more convinced than ever that humane meat is an oxymoron.