The Right to be Eaten


I have in front of me this month’s edition of “Djurens Rätt”, the magazine of the Swedish animal rights organisation, Djurens Rätt (which translates to, basically, “Animals Rights”). The people at Djurens Rätt are, understandably enough, trying to define and defend the rights of animals and promote vegetarianism (among other things, by getting some of their cuter members to pose on the back cover wearing their snazzy new figure-hugging t-shirts).

Now this whole topic of eat-meat or not-eat-meat makes me a little confused and flustered. I was a vegetarian for many years, and my reasons for doing this can be summarised as follows:

  • I have a strong distaste for industrial farming
  • The fewer things that have to die, the better for all of us
  • Meat production, as it stands today, is incredibly wasteful of resources
  • Meat eating is unnecessary for many of the people in the world, and comes usually from a lack of imagination or a way to prove status

Now, unlike most vegetarians, I did not feel “sorry” for the animals, or think that they are “cute” – animals are not humans, and human rights cannot be applied to them. And no, meat isn’t murder either – murder is defined as the killing of a human, no matter what Morrissey says. Sure, meat may be killing, but murder it ain’t.

And then almost all the arguments I encountered in favour of eating meat were rubbish. The argument “but it’s natural” can be heard very often as a defence, and usually from people who do so many unnatural things in their lives – take medicine, use contraception, live in houses, work on computers – that they may as well be robots. Other arguments are barely better, and the last couple of years I have been struggling with a desire to eat meat (it’s very tasty, you know) and a worry that I might be burning up my karma with every succulent bite.

dilemma2.jpgAnd then I found the truly excellent book “The Omnivores dilemma”, which takes a very wide look at food and the food industry. In one chapter the author looks at vegetarianism and realises that, morally, vegetarians may in fact be right. So he becomes vegetarian while he works through the ethics and philosophy to see what he can work out.

He concludes the following – in terms of animals killed, vegetarianism may not always be better that omnivorism. Take the example of a hectare of Soya beans. When the beans are harvested, a large number of animals are killed through being hacked up or having their burrows destroyed. Compare this with the killing of a single animal – a cow – for a large quantity of protein-rich beef. If quantity of death is our main moral yardstick, then surely the well looked after cow should die before the multiple denizens of the Soya field.

As well as this, Soya beans require masses of water and fertiliser and deplete the soil unless the crop is carefully rotated with something else. The cow, on the other hand, is pretty self-going and actually makes the land richer with its manure, its hoof prints and its cropping of the grass. And yes, Soya beans don’t fart but then again the left-over vegetable parts of the bean harvest will usually decay and release methane.

Also there is a lot of land in the world where crops cannot be grown, but where grazing animals can live, giving us an important way to convert otherwise wasted sunlight into food. And don’t forget that domestic animals are part of a complex recycling process which is absolutely necessary if chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) are to be avoided and traditional farming kept alive.

veggie-mouse.jpgWe have, simply, become too far removed from the reality of food and food production. Animals are a part of our biosphere and represent a necessary, simple and extremely valuable way to convert things we can’t eat (grass and vegetable waste) into things that we can (meat, milk, eggs). The main problem with meat ethics is that the act of death has been moved so far away from the consumer that they are barely aware of it.

Death is a part of meat eating, and we would all be better off if that connection was made clear and obvious. Your kilo of beef will therefore cost you not just money but also the knowledge that you are responsible for a certain percentage of an animal’s life and death.

To conclude: Animals raised in a completely natural way (there’s that word again), allowed to wallow in all of their animal instincts and killed in the best possible way may be eaten with a clear conscience. An even better option is to raise the animals yourself to guarantee that their lives have been good. And if you cannot bring yourself to kill an animal, or even think about its dying to give you dinner, then you should piss off and eat something else.

And finally, getting back to the magazine. They discuss, on page 8, a new “guilt free” way of eating meat in the future – by growing cloned cells and tissue in large science-fiction vats. Now does this seem just a little bit ridiculous to anybody else? In effect this will force the production of food into an even greater dependence upon industrial techniques, and increase the amount of energy needed, as well as remove the role of animals in renewing the soil we need to grow our food, just to assuage some human guilt.

I suggest that people who think that vat-grown meat is a good idea can get themselves a little farm, people it with chickens and pigs and then decide if they will pile up the animal carcasses, uneaten, in the yard, or give the creatures a noble and slightly quicker death and then put their flesh to some good use instead of just feeding it to the rats and maggots.

/ paddy


21 thoughts on “The Right to be Eaten

  1. Good post! I agree: any adult person who eats meat or feeds it to their kids should be prepared to slaughter a few large mammals every year.

    In discussions with ideological vegetarians, I always suggest that the ethically best meat is game. The elk trots around the forest eating leaves all its life, doing its elky thing. Then one day, BAM, it’s dead. One or two of my conversants have found it hard to stomach that hunters are better friends of Animal Rights than are organic beef farmers.

  2. Excellent post, I love the first picture so much! I’m not really a vegetarian, but don’t eat meat for health reasons. I see no reason to personally eat meat. I also have an enzyme deficiency, making at least red meat difficult to digest. A common problem actually. I just choose not to eat pork and poultry but partake in milk products, eggs and seafood. All these things agree with my belly well. I don’t personally agree with animal rights groups because domesticated animals are too dependent on humans now. Your point about non-arable land used for grazing is a good point and relates to the need for many people that need other sources of protein.

  3. kai: They wouldn’t taste very good, though…

    Martin: Thanks. And a good point – assuming the hunters will reduce their consumption of farmed meat whenever they get a kill, and not just increase their total meat eaten. Although I still have a problem with hunting as a hobby. If they really NEED the meat then fair enough.

    Kevin: Thank you sir. I stole that picture, of course. Personally I would be terrified if animal-rights people were running the world. We have enough fundamentalists already, thank you very much.

  4. I have to disagree with your statement comparing the harvesting of a given amount of land with killing a single cow. The cow requires far more land to sustain itself than a human being does. I believe that the ratio is something like 7 to 1. This land is all farmed in the same way that it would be if the food were being farmed for human consumption, so it is not
    (some large number of voles, titmice, small birds etc) : 1,
    it is
    (that number) : 7*(that number) +1

    Cows are generally fed corn as well, which has a worse environmental impact than soy beans.

  5. Ben: It wasn’t about a human being vs. a cow, it was about a certain area of ground being used for 2 different purposes – intensive soy beans or cows. And yes I understand the energy balance concept.

    And sure, the crop gives more energy to humans, but at a cost of water and fertilisers, usually chemical.

    And a cow on a pasture, as in the example, is of course grass fed. Corn, in this example, doesn’t come into it.

    And also consider that marginal land, useless for crops, can also sustain cows or goats.

  6. “[A]nimals raised in a completely natural way […], allowed to wallow in all of their animal instincts and killed in the best possible way may be eaten with a clear conscience.”

    As a matter of moral principle, definitely. Turning now to the messy world of empirical fact: do such animals exist? If so, where can one get hold of their remains?

    As to the ending of life: I’ve never understood why so many people think that meat-eaters should be “prepared” to carry out the killing and carving themselves. I don’t think I’d have any moral compunction about slaughtering a cow, but I’m sure I’d find it physically revolting — even in a school biology lab, blood and entrails make me dizzy. Given the choice, I’d much prefer to pay somebody else to do the dirty work. Where’s the inconsistency in that? (I don’t expect I would get much enjoyment out of harvesting a field of soy beans, either.)

  7. Tor: “where can one get hold of their remains?”

    This, of course, is the problem. Ideally, we should raise them ourselves and hand over the messy bits to a trained, muscular professional with a bolt gun. This whole thing with “prepared”, as you suspect, is mainly something that veggies use to start arguments.

    Although I am amazed at the number of heat-eaters who will not even discuss the fact that they are eating dead flesh. Personally I (a sometimes carnivore these days) have no problem talking about or imaging the actual killing.

    You’re all big pussies, you meat eaters, that’s the problem…

  8. Agree. Couldn´t have said it better myself.
    I was a vegeterian for four years but I really like beef, sometimes my body long for it and then I can´t resist. Raw beef tartar with onio, yolk, salt and pepper mmmm…
    I buy my beef from a nearby farmer, all his animals live a happy life on huge meadows and walk free all year around. The meat cost a little more, but it´s worth it.
    If I could kill cattle?
    Don´t long for it, but I would be able, of that I´m sure.

  9. Blackout: Now that’s the kind of beef I want – local and produced by somebody you know. Anybody know where this kind of meat can be found in Stockholm..?

  10. Some farms have their own butcher but surely there must be some place in our capital city where it´s possible to buy happy meat. Otherwise, ask for it. Demand it.
    I usually buy a quarter, or a half, of a cattle and a friend do the cut up, but it´s a lot of meat and it´s not possible to store that much in a flat.

  11. This is so marginally related to the OP that I won’t even try to justify it. From the BBC:

    Bronze Age Irishmen were as fond of their beer as their 21st century counterparts, it has been claimed.

    and then later:

    Mr Quinn said it was while nursing a hangover one morning – and discussing the natural predisposition of all men to seek means to alter their minds – that he came to the startling conclusion that fulachts could have been the country’s earliest breweries.

    The two archaeologists set out to investigate their theory in a journey which took them across Europe in search of further evidence. On their return, they used an old wooden trough filled with water and added heated stones.

    I can imagine what that “journey” entailed! (Being an O’Brien on my mother’s side I cannot be accused of casual ethnic stereotyping of the Irish!)

  12. Paddy, if you are ever heading out the the Falun/Rattvik area there are lots of local farmers you can just walk up to and buy from. We bought sheep’s milk cheese in Rattvik, it was great! Oh and the smoked herring in Vastervik was to die for! Brought in fresh that morning from a local fisherman. I am sure there are some sources online.

  13. RBH: Nothing is irrelevant (just futile attempts to escape the Borg)

    Kevin Z: Sounds nice! It’s a little far though. Can’t they put it in planes and fly it to Stockholm? It would taste better too…

    029: You’re right, I never thought of that…

  14. In response to your earlier response to me, Paddy,

    You make a good point about marginal land. I actually don’t know too much about farming. Maybe it is possible to use fallow for pasture.

    My understanding is that we would have run out of food in the 70s had it not been for the Green Revolution, as traditional farming practices would not have been able to produce enough food to feed all humans. My concern is that, after the rising price of oil makes it no longer feasible to indirectly be eating that oil (i.e. we are basically eating the energy from the chemical fertilizers) that eating meat will be an extremely wasteful thing to do.

    Just to be clear, I am a vegetarian for this reason, among others, including environmental impacts and concerns about factory farming. I agree that it is not so bad to eat ethical treated animals, but I have my doubts about how many people talk about doing this, but then don’t actually follow through. No offense personally, as we’ve never met of course. (Actually I love your blog; I subscribed after the post you made with the picture that said ‘If you drive a car, you drive with Hitler.’)

    Sorry for the TLDR post. :P

  15. Ben: Thanks for reply. The Green revolution was anything but, as it led to a vast increase in pesticides and water usage. It increased yields, sure, but has destabilised soils across the globe for short-term production increases.

    Meat can be grown on bad land using grass which uses sunlight. Also animal manure helps to bring bad soil back to life and make it useful for growing crops again.

    I think the best solution is a mix, a move to local food and a big reduction in meat eating. Meat animals seems to have a part to play in our global ecosystem, much as we don’t like to admit it.

    “…many people talk about doing this, but then don’t actually follow through” You are right. And I need to get off my own complaining arse and so something about it myself. :-)

  16. “And a cow on a pasture, as in the example, is of course grass fed. Corn, in this example, doesn’t come into it.”

    Well, then it is nothing like modern, feed-lot cattle. So, in that case, why not just hand-pick the Soya beans to avoid killing critters and practice careful crop rotation…

    Who’s the man now, dog?


  17. Sir Canyon: “Well, then it is nothing like modern, feed-lot cattle”. Sure it isn’t, and that’s my point. If you want to eat ethical beef then you DON’T pick a feed-lot cow. There’s lots of places that grow beef in the old-fashioned way. Really, look it up.

    And you, sir, are the man. And you always have been.

  18. shanine: And I hate your socks. Isn’t fair and honest argument just great? If you think I am wrong then please address the points, and I will reply. That is called a discussion. Otherwise just go away and learn how to argue.

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