Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?

//Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?

Can Eating Meat Be Ethical?

What’s the ethical framework (and backstory) that allows us to take animals from pasture…

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

…and have them end up at your local farmers market?

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.’

By definition, ‘ethics’ is all about people… and so are we. Here, last summer’s cooking class is observing how we move our herd of cattle onto fresh pasture each day.

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.

Kimber Herron, seasoning grass-finished steaks on the front porch of our farm store.

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.

Super-star employee Patty Childs is glazing empanadas, made with the meat of our free-range cows and pigs.

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.

Check out my books, all about food, farming & living the good life!

Growing Tomorrow (with 50 recipes!) is NOW AVAILABLE, and Gaining Ground is a New York Times bestseller.


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By | 2018-05-22T22:16:17-04:00 March 22nd, 2012|Farm|8 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in the Washington DC area for two decades. Pritchard's books have received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, NPR, and more.


  1. Bodil P Meleney March 30, 2012 at 10:23 am - Reply

    Way to go Forrest. I have just Tweeted this page. You should get a Tweet button on the site. Bodil

    • Forrest Pritchard March 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm

      Thanks Bodil! Will think about it… :^)

  2. Chris Nolte March 30, 2012 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    “Mother Nature does not equivocate; this is the intellectual privilege of mankind alone.” – Good stuff. Chris

    • Forrest Pritchard March 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm


      Once upon a time, I had a college roommate who enjoyed debating… it’s where I honed my limited skills!

  3. Wojtek Nowakowski May 2, 2012 at 8:54 am - Reply

    Well written words of wisdom. I’d gladly buy from you my meat!

    • Forrest Pritchard May 2, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Hi Wojtek. Please stop by the farm for a visit some day, and thanks for friending us on FB!

  4. Wojtek Nowakowski May 2, 2012 at 9:36 am - Reply

    I’d love that but we’re in chicago-kinda out of the way 😉

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