Some philosophy to start the day. 🙂 This may be controversial, you have been warned.
I disagree with veganism on ethical grounds. Not the veganism which is based on some (incredibly rare, but real) allergies or food intolerances to any sort of animal protein, but the sort which is based on an ethical regard for animal welfare. I have quite a lot of vegan and vegan-tending friends, and I know this’ll touch a nerve for most of them, but – I still think it’s true.
This is not about not wanting to eat dead animals. I get that. I understand the idea that killing an animal or having one killed for our benefit, when we don’t actually need it (vegetarian proteins are entirely adequate for human health) is a bad thing. I especially respect people who say that they couldn’t personally kill an animal, and as such they think it’s wrong for them to eat meat. I feel a lot more comfortable eating my own animals – animals which have had good lives, have been fed well and given as utopian an environment as I can manufacture for them, and which I know for a fact to have been killed painlessly and with as little stress as is humanly possible. I don’t feel good about eating an animal which has suffered for my benefit. I literally call traditional intensively raised chickens “torture chicken” to my friends & family, to make them think about the difference in the lives of higher welfare and free range birds. I’m increasingly inclined to only eat animals which I have raised, or which have been raised by people I trust to give them the kind of life I would want them to have.
I even understand not wanting to take advantage of animals which are raised to produce milk, or eggs, or leather, or honey. Dairy cows arguably have a worse life than beef cattle do, and dairy calves are usually killed very young (and not even as veal for human use – we’ve gotten so fussy that a lot of dairy calves aren’t a good enough grade for use as human food, so they’re mulched or made into pet food) to keep their mothers producing more milk for human use. Male chicks from chicken farms breeding laying birds are ground up alive to make high-protein meal, which is often then fed to the layer and breeder birds. Overbreeding of honeybees has led to such weak queens that the hives’ immune systems are weakened and the hives are susceptible to diseases and parasites which add to Colony Collapse Disorder (although not as much as neonicotioid pesticides do). So don’t think I don’t get it. I do. I would miss honey, but if I thought bees would be better off if I gave up honey, I would do it. (I gave up tuna because I feel bad about eating endangered species which can’t be farmed, even though it’s really delicious and I do miss it.)
But there are two problems.
First – refusing to engage with animal-based agricultural industries means that your preferences about the welfare of the animals no longer affect the decisions of the farmers keeping those animals. You are effectively arguing that everyone should be vegan, otherwise your choice makes very little difference to the animals whose health and happiness you are concerned about.
Second – humans and our various associate species (domesticated animals) made an agreement a long time ago, between their ancestors and ours. We agreed to provide them with a good life, an easy life of always-available food and water, safety for their babies, and what medical care we could give. In return, they agreed to provide us with the products of their bodies – meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, wool – and with companionship, support, and labour. But while we have the option to get out of that agreement, they no longer do. They rely on us entirely, and so we are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire species as well as their individual wellbeing.
When we refuse to use animal products, we make it economically unviable for farmers to maintain the species who produce them. And we owe those species. We owe them care and food and an easy, good life for their descendants, forever. Because we have changed them through domestication to the point where most of them can no longer survive without us, we cannot in good faith simply abandon them. If we no longer need them, then we will no longer keep them, and they will become extinct. How many people would really keep pet cows, goats, or sheep if milk and meat and wool weren’t a factor, or chickens if we couldn’t eat their eggs? Enough to maintain genetic diversity in the species, and keep it alive? How many people even have enough space to consider keeping that sort of pet? How many people keep pet horses (not including horses kept for riding, or for pulling carts of various sorts for human recreation)? Horses, which are intelligent, loyal, genuinely affectionate companions equivalent in many ways to a dog. There are very few pet horses which don’t also serve a purpose through their labour.
I think it would be a tragedy to allow these species, in all their diversity, to go extinct. We would lose something intensely human by losing those old relationships with our associate species. I think we are responsible for them, and as such we should work to breed healthier animals which live well and don’t produce obscene amounts for our benefit at their expense – but that are still useful to keep. Heritage breed chickens which lay every couple’ve days are healthier and happier than battery-bred birds which lay every single day and live half as long because they use up the calcium in their bones to make egg-shells. Heritage breed sheep and cows are often smaller and friendlier than the modern types which are bred for pure production potential, and we should be keeping those breeds if we can, and maintaining them. We should care if our pork comes from heritage breed free range pigs, or factory farmed animals which can’t be free ranged at all because they get such bad sunburn if they go outdoors. We should care if our chicken comes from heritage birds which mature healthily, or from cross-bred “broilers” which are killed at six weeks old because if they live any longer they are literally crippled (broken legs, crumbling bones) by their muscle growth outstripping their bones ability to hold them upright.
So I think we should, generally, eat less meat. Maybe even less dairy (or at least we should be willing to pay the actual costs of production for dairy products – and other foods). But I think opting out of consuming or using animal products at all is not actually the most ethical decision. I think it’s a much better option, ethically speaking, to be very aware of where your food and clothing comes from and to actively support farmers who are offering their animals (and plants!) a good life and high welfare.
I hope this sort of idea encourages people to think about their food choices more carefully. If you don’t want to consume animal products, that’s your choice, absolutely. And if eating animals or animal products squicks you, totally don’t do it. But if it’s an ethical choice, maybe you could think about how ethical it actually is, and how you could do the most good for animal welfare through your purchasing and consumption choices.