Monday, June 26, 2006

The Ethics of Eating

I'm not sure how I feel about this short piece in the NY Times Week in Review about the ethical implications of our current dietary habits. On the one hand I think it's a decent overview of the subject, but at the same it's only an overview, and I think the article sort of leaves with you with the impression that the only people who make an effort to practice what I'll refer to as "ethical eating" are those who are squemish about how their food is killed and can afford to do something about it.

As you're probably aware there is a small, but growing, trend towards the purchase by consumers of "free range" or naturally raised animal products, that has developed along side the growth in popularity of "organic" produce and other food products. While the boom in organic foods has been motivated largely by a desire to eat foods that are produced using less preservitives and pesticides-and are thus presumed to be healthier-the desire for naturally raised animal products has been motivated not only by concerns over health (think mad cow disease), but by concerns for the well-being of the consumed animals themselves. While I would say that the vast majority of Americans still don't spend much time thinking about how a particular animal ended up on their plate, more and more people do seem to be considering it, as evidenced by the greater variety of naturally produced animal products that you can find not only in specialty grocery stores, but in mainstream stores as well.

Unfortunately, this concern for the well-being of animals destined to be our food is mired in contradictions. For one, people are more likely to be concerned about the fate of animals consumed as luxury foods, or that die in close proximity to the plate they end up on:

Foie gras and lobster may be drawing special attention because they're luxury foods whose consumption, like the wearing of a mink, cannot be defended on the grounds of necessity. But even that attention entails contradictions.

Eric Ripert, the chef and a co-owner of the seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in Manhattan, said he made a point of killing lobsters not by throwing them into boiling water — where, he said, "it looks like they're suffering" — but by slicing their heads with a sharp blade. "I feel good about doing that," he said in a telephone interview.

But where do the restaurant's lobsters await their appointment with the knife? For as many as 24 hours, as many as 40 lobsters inhabit a container that's just 3-feet long by 1-foot wide, he said. It doesn't sound much comfier than a Whole Foods holding tank. "I should be more compassionate, I guess," Mr. Ripert said.

As the author states:

...there is often as much sentiment as sense...many people make distinctions and decisions based primarily on the degree to which they have become familiar with the creatures they ingest, the degree to which they have anthropomorphized them.

Of course, it is much easier to anthropomorphize a lobster you've picked out for dinner, than a cow who ultimately becomes nothing more than shrink-wrapped ground up hamburger. Unfortunately, this sort of thinking seems to get things backwards:

Ample scientific evidence suggests that various creatures have varying levels of consciousness. "There really is a difference between the sentience of an oyster and the sentience of a lobster and the sentience of a cat," Mr. Pollan said. "These lines really can be drawn."

Displaying concern for how your food was treated en route to your stomach can also get you branded as a bleeding-heart, or worse, an elitist:

Are the calls for fundamental changes in the mass production of food simply elitist, the privilege of people wealthy enough to pay more at the checkout counter?

...Even in a country as rich as ours,some people can't afford chickens reared according to exacting standards. Other people's livelihoods depend on the status quo.

As the article is meant to be more of an overview, I can't really fault it for not delving into more detail about how people are presently handling these issues. But though many people may indulge in contradictions of thought (or outright hypocrisy) when it comes to this issue, there are actually ways to enagage in "ethical eating" that are principled and consistent. For one, there is always the old stand-by of vegetarianism. I consider vegetarianism, and it's more zealous counter-part veganism, the "opt-out" approach. As in if you don't eat it, you don't have to worry about it. But most people don't want to become vegetarian and in principle at least, neither do I. I don't believe that it's wrong to eat animals; I believe that it's wrong to raise animals in horrendous conditions and then eat them. For people like me there's the "middle way" of "free range", "grass fed" or other "naturally" raised animal products; animals raised in conditions that approximate how they might live in the wild, or at least, how they might live not in a factory farm. While these animals are still slaughtered for food, the hope is that raising them in such a way permits them the dignity of being raised in a humane environment before they are killed. Unfortunately, there is as yet no unified system for ensuring that animals raised in "free range" conditions are actually raised in conditions that we regard as humane. But I don't believe that's an argument against such an approach; rather, it's an argument for regulating and encouraging it. Eating this way, and then making choices such as the ones mentioned in the article-to avoid lobsters boiled alive for example-is one way to have a principled and consistent approach to ethical eating.

Of course there is still the concern over cost, and it's a legitimate one. If you've ever bought free range chicken breasts at the grocery store, than you know that they are substantially more expensive than the chicken breasts that Pilgrim's Pride is selling. Similarly, free range eggs cost more than traditional eggs, and grass-fed buffalo is more expensive than factory farm hamburger. And yet while it is inherently more expensive to raise animals this way, some of that expense also comes from the fact that these are products consumed by a minority of Americans. Factory farming developed primarily as a means to reduce cost, but even factory farming would be more expensive if most Americans ate meat raised in a different fashion. But at the same time I think it's fair to make the point that any savings gained by utilizing factory farm methods is not worth the moral and ethical cost. For example, we as a society have decided that it is worth the cost to impose a whole host of laws and regulations that regulate how businesses may treat their workers. It's essentially the same consideration when it comes to choosing naturally raised animal products over factory farms. And if you think the moral cost of factory farms is imposed only upon the animals slaughtered in them, read Fast Food Nation to learn about what they do to the workers who toil in them.

In short, while we are still grappling with the way we raise and eat animals, there are already alternatives to the old approach. And I think we will find that with time, it will seem considerably less riduculous to be concerned about what happens to our food before it ends up on our plates.


Nat-Wu said...

Worthy points. I must say though, that for the average person, the major concern is not where you get food, but that you get food. Too many families don't have a choice in the matter. A relative I know goes to Wal-Mart and only picks up the cheapest packages of meat, which you know are made in the meat-packing plants we despise. Of course they're also the fattiest cuts and the least nutritious. We have to get a start on solving that problem all the way around and include the issue of how we get our food.

Xanthippas said...

I agree with you 100% on that. I don't want to overhype Fast Food Nation, but that book and the avian flu issue has gotten many people to begin thinking that not only would it better for the animals we eat to overhaul the means by which we raise and slaughter them, but that it would be better for us also. Clearly there are studies that question whether or not it's really that good for us to be eating chickens that are force-fed antibiotics and growth hormones so they'll survive the awful conditions that they live in. Where I think many animal activists fail is in not emphasizing this angle enough; in making the argument for ending factory farming, I think one has to always emphasize how it would benefit us as well. AS for price concerns...I really would have to find some data which indicates how much more expensive food would be if we got rid of the factory farming system. I have a suspicion that the increase in price would not be so great if most or all Americans are getting their food "naturally", but I'd like to have something more definitive on the impact on prices.

Nat-Wu said...

As far as cost of production, I believe that it is not significantly more expensive. Actually, it depends on how you look at it. For ranchers, traditional methods have a higher profit margin (although that's not extremely high). Small ranchers, though, who are forced to participate in the industrialized system, have the slightest profits of all. Where the biggest profit lies is in the meat producers, those who package and prepare meats for shipment. Because of the Wal-Martization of the industry, you have gigantic meatpacking plants in a few locations where most meat is made. This is the most profitable model for the corporations. If somehow we were to turn back the clock to the days of the ranchers, I don't think we'd find meat to be all that much more expensive.