I was nailing up boards in the corral yesterday afternoon when my phone began buzzing. It was my friend, and oft-times farmers market helper, Andrew Armentano.
“Hey Forrest,” he said. “Want to write a six hundred word article for the New York Times?”
That certainly got my attention. I finished my hammering, grabbed a cool drink of water, and headed inside to the computer. As it turns out, the Times is having an open competition on the subject, “Tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.” You can find the link here: New York Times Writing Contest
Naturally, I felt compelled to respond. The following is my 602 word entry (don’t worry, I can find a couple of contractions in there, somewhere!). I’ve got two weeks to edit it. Did I come close, or miss the mark? Or is this question simply the philosophical equivalent to ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ Let me know what you think…
Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?
As a farmer who is responsible for the raising and slaughter of thousands of animals each year, I check in with this question often. I’d like to reach the end of this essay with a definitive, persuasive explanation that satisfies all parties, but with ethical dilemmas, the answers are always shaded with nuance. Because of this, in order to treat the question fairly, I’ll provide a specific context.
In 1996, I returned home from college to an agricultural community being bulldozed into suburbia. Overnight, barns were demolished, and pastures paved. Agricultural prices that season for corn and soybeans, the food crops we raised, were terribly depressed. That first year back, my entire annual paycheck amounted to less than $20. Something had to change, immediately, or our five hundred acre family farm would cease to grow anything other than townhouses.
Certainly, these sorts of events were widely decried in the press, with journalists chronicling the demise of yet another another multi-generational family farm forced to sell out. Words like ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ were widely employed, as if by simply repeating these words, some cultural fire would spontaneously ignite a grass-roots outrage, stopping the bulldozers in their tracks. It was as though the media awaited some version of Tiananmen Square’s ‘Tank Man,’ intersecting with ‘The Waltons.’
Much like the price of the grain that we raised, this talk was cheap. Indeed, the bulldozers finally stopped… at the precise moment the housing bubble burst. No sentimental reporting on family farms, and certainly no pitchfork-wielding street rioters, effected this change. It was motivated not by ethics, but by economics.
For our farm, the solution that finally made our land economically and environmentally sustainable lay in the raising of animals for meat. Pastures of zero-input grass replaced the fields of chemical-intensive corn. Free-range, grass-fed cattle and sheep now flourish on our farm, with no additional amendments besides sunshine and rain. They even fertilize as they graze, eliminating the need to clean up manure.
Most importantly, they are able to convert something that humans can’t eat, namely grass and clover, into something humans can eat: meat. Our two hundred year old farm was on the precipice of being plowed under, then paved over. Grass-fed animals, and the complete protein they provide, preserved 500 acres of sustainably green open-space.
I was inspired to farm this way because of my farmers market customers, the fervently motivated people who sought us out. They wanted assurance that our animals were humanely raised, and slaughtered with a dignity befitting their sacrifice. They wanted to know about our butcher, and precisely how the animals died. Discussions about our environmental practices, chemical use, and antibiotics ensued. The questions they asked were a model of ethical inquiry. For many customers, our meat was purchased only after a thorough philosophical vetting and a visit to our farm.
If the definition of ‘ethics’ is “the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior,” and the definition of ‘moral’ is “right and wrong behavior and the goodness and badness of human character,” then I assert that our customers are purchasing ethically-raised meat, and eating it for ethical reasons.
Does this translate into “eating meat is ethical?” For our farm, and for our customers, the answer is ‘absolutely.’ I believe that the context, however, must always remain unique. Mother Nature does not equivocate; this is the intellectual privilege of mankind alone. Locate the intersection where these two paths cross, and the answer to the question suddenly becomes obvious.