Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ethics of Meat

Build topsoil. Promote biodiversity. Treat all beings with dignity. Promote food security for the world's poor. Vegetarians often claim their diet uniquely manifests such principles. Their values are sound. Their reasoning is not. A diet based on monocropped annual plants, the staple grains and legumes of vegetarian diets, will always harm the land. A diet based on pastured meat can help the land. The ethical choice is to live on sustainably pastured local animal foods supplemented with fruit, nuts, and vegetables grown in biologically diverse systems that keep the soil covered and intact.

Lierre Keith writes, “So you're an environmentalist; why are you still eating outside your bioregion?” I live in Maine. I live on meat, eggs, and dairy raised on pasture right here, local vegetables and fruit, a little carefully chosen seafood caught by local fishermen, and wild plants and mushrooms I forage. Vegetarians here live on grain from the Great Plains and fats from the Mediterranean or the tropics. Theirs is not the sustainable or ethical choice.

Agriculture kills animals through habitat destruction and extermination of “pests,” “vermin,” and “varmints,” throwing ecosystems dramatically out of balance. Agriculture begins with ecocide. Every living thing is killed (euphemistically, “cleared”), leaving bare topsoil. Each year, more ecosystems are “cleared” for farmland. Untold millions of burrowing animals are killed by tractors. The notion that vegetarianism prevents the mass suffering and death of animals is false. Vegetarians simply don't eat the animals that die from agriculture, only the dead plants, denied their own spirit and intrinsic value, though indigenous peoples regarded (and regard) plants as sentient. All life feeds on life. We all become food. There is nothing wrong with predation. What is wrong is to upset the dynamic balance of natural systems. Indigenous people have always understood this, and they all eat meat. Killing is OK. Ecocide is not.

"Cleared" land will lose its topsoil to wind and rain. Any food system based on removing the root cover will cause erosion. The outcome is desert. Think of the “Fertile Crescent,” the birthplace of agriculture. It truly was fertile, covered in dense cedar forests and oak savannah. Then came agriculture.

Pasturing animals, in contrast to agriculture, can benefit the land. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA has been building topsoil (i.e. sequestering carbon) at the astonishing rate of nearly an inch a year through “rotational grazing,” mimicking the movement of wild bison. He produces an abundance of healthy food while creating soil fertility and managing a biodiverse prairie ecosystem. Thousands of ranchers are following suit. This food, rich in vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats, and protein promotes health better than carb and omega-6 heavy grains and legumes. This is crucial to the ethical case for meat, in terms of public health.

Vegetarians may contend that pasture-raised animal foods cannot feed seven billion people. I agree. Without cheap oil for fertilizer, neither can grain, and each successive grain harvest further mortgages the future. Our current population is, like the first world lifestyle, entirely unsustainable. A population can only be sustainable if it subsists without progressively harming the land. Moreover, less than 10% of the earth's land is even useable for agriculture. Most of the land on Earth is suitable to some form of pasturing. Pastured meat is critical to food security.

The ethical choice for humans is also the ethical choice for the land and the myriad living things. It is to abandon extractive agriculture and eat sustainable, local foods: rotationally grazed animals, and plants, mostly perennials, grown in biodiverse systems that protect the soil.