The dream of the “Food Movement” is for all meat to be humanely raised and locally sourced so we can all be “conscientious carnivores.”
In The American Scholar, James McWilliams looks at a dilemma the Food Movement is facing: Can animals be raised humanely if the end goal is not for animals to live a full life, but to be butchered for human consumption?
Research shows that veganism, which obviates the inherent waste involved in growing the grains used to fatten animals for food in conventional systems, is seven times more energy efficient than eating meat and, if embraced globally, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from conventional agriculture by 94 percent. Any pretext to explore meat eating’s moral underpinnings—and possibly land upon an excuse for pursuing a plant-based diet as a viable goal—would be consistent with the movement’s anticorporate, ecologically driven mission.
But with rare exception, those in the big, lumpy tent have thrown down a red carpet for “ethical butchers” while generally dismissing animal rights advocates as smug ascetics (which they can be) and crazed activists (ditto) who are driven more by sappy sentiment than rock-ribbed reason. It’s an easy move to make. But the problem with this dismissal—and the overall refusal to address the ethics of killing animals for food—is that it potentially anchors the Food Movement’s admirable goals in the shifting sands of an unresolved hypocrisy. Let’s call it the “omnivore’s contradiction.”
Conscientious carnivores will argue that we can justify eating animals because humans evolved to do so (the shape of our teeth proves it); that if we did not eat happy farm animals, they’d never have been born to become happy in the first place; that all is fine if an animal lives well and is “killed with respect”; that we need to recycle animals through the agricultural system to keep the soil healthy; that animals eat animals; and that in nature, it’s the survival of species and not of individuals that matters most. These arguments create room for a productive conversation. But none of them carry real weight until the Food Movement resolves the contradiction raised by Bob Comis: How do you ethically justify both respecting and killing a sentient animal?