Environmental, vegetarian and Buddhist ethics

I do not want to be reborn as a factory farmed chicken - and nor do I want to eat prisioners

Greta Gaard recalls a conversation with her Dad about ‘my dietry freedom at the age of 11’.
‘What if I came up to you, and ripped your arm off, and ate it?’ I was practically yelling at my father. ‘How would you feel about that? And what kind of person would that make me?. Happily, he was silent. ‘Don’t you see? I’m not goint to eat Pookie [our dachshund], I’m not going to eat your arms and legs, and I’m not going to eat anyone else’s either’. This conversation was the formal beginning of my environmentalal ethic. Of course, I didn’t think of it that way at the time. [Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions edited by David R. Keller 2010 p.45]
I stayed in a hotel recently and the owner informed me that he only ate the flesh of animals which do not have a central nervous system. I did not ask about slugs but I did wonder about the religious and physiological aspects of his diet. I have read that humans could not have evolved to their present condition without consuming the proteins which come from animals and our place in the food chain is part of our ‘nature’. But have humans reached a point at which they can/should give up eating fish and meat? The Economist reports that ‘The world’s average stock of chickens is almost 19 billion, or three per person’ – and most of them are kept in ghastly conditions. Buddhists believe that accumulating bad karma can lead to one being reborn as a lower form of life. If I am to reborn as a chicken I most definitely would not want it to be in Africa, India or China. Nor would the US or Australia suit me well. I suppose the UK would be the best place, because the country has moderately well developed animal welfare policies, but even this would be grim.
Should good environmentalists be vegetarian? One consideration is that if all humans became vegetarian then the Earth could support a much larger human population, thus promoting the happiness of a greater number. But if man is ‘just another animal’ then (1) should we worry about the loss of 19bn chickens if humans became vegetarian (2) have we a moral obligation to extend human rights to the animal kingdom?
Battery chickens factory farming image courtery aleutia

Disclosure: I was a vegetarian for many years and am now as strict as I can be about only eating ‘organic’ fish and meat – but I have doubts about my dietry policy and took a guilty pleasure in an inorganic ‘Full English’ breakfast one day last week.

16 thoughts on “Environmental, vegetarian and Buddhist ethics

  1. jc

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” ~ Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. Roads.” ~ Environmental Defense Fund

    “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity… The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.” ~ United Nation Food and Agricultural Organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”

    “It’s not a requirement to eat animals, we just choose to do it, so it becomes a moral choice and one that is having a huge impact on the planet, using up resources and destroying the biosphere.” ~ James Cameron, movie director, environmentalist, new vegan

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    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Very useful set of quotes, thank you. But the human population of this planet has risen from 2.5bn to 7bn in my lifetime and switching to vegetarian diets would let it increase at the same rate in the next 60 years.

  2. Adam Hodge

    Reading these anti meat quotes is all a bit rich ,especially when we watch the devastastion wreaked in Brazil and places to supply an ever increasing clamour for soya bean products. The veggie brigade have a lot to answer for.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I think it is population growth which has led the devastation of the rain forests – and that many of those soya beans are used to feed livestock.

  3. Alex

    Being vegetarian is a matter of choice, nothing wrong or right in it. But there are places like in the middle east, where they have mostly desert and hence vegetables can not be grown, so those people had to resort to meat.

  4. Christine

    There are animals that eat other animals and animals that are purely vegetarian. I am not sure there is any morality in eating meat as long as we are not greedy, wasteful, destructive or cruel in obtaining meat.

    Obviously the practice of keeping sun bears in cages and chopping their paws off one by one while they are still alive is cruel in the extreme. Allowing a chicken to live a happy life free-range in a farm yard before it is finally killed and eaten is altogether different.

    Cannabalism is considered bad (disordered or immoral) both in the animal world and the human world, although it does occur in both. From an anthropological perspective, this practice occurs for different reasons (motivations) and rarely for the purposes of obtaining food, except in extreme survival examples.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Unlike militant vegetarians, I agree about the ‘food chain’ aspect of the relationship between man and the other animals. Most ecosystems would not work without carnivores. So I am very attracted to the Buddhist principle of ‘compassion for all living things’ as a solution to the problem. The photograph of factory farmed chickens is extremely non-compassionate. I do not think we should do it and I do not think we should eat animals raised in this way. I went of factory produced chickens about 40 years ago when I read that Brazillian boys who ate them were developing breasts (because of all the hormones pumped into the poor chicks).

  5. Adam Hodge

    Factory farming of any sort-cows,geese,chickens seems to have brought us to what we see being practised by the ‘factories’ because of the intense pressure from the corporate buyers to constantly ‘be cheaper’ which in its turn drives the ‘factories’ to find cheaper techniques and sustain acceptable balance sheets. It’s not dissimilar to the lowest wage syndrome. The only way to ensure good practise, as I see it, is to set legally binding base levels of acceptable standards or procedures at a national or even EU level. That way however much pressure is applied to the producers by us the customer they cannot descend below a certain level of animal welfare.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am all in favour of legislating against unsafe foods and against cruelty to animals but I think Defra also needs some grounding in marketing. They need to take note of the fact that higher quality products (like Prada and Porche) command higher prices than lower quality products. British farmers would love to charge premium prices for premium products. I heard recently that British pig farmers are able to export pork to Australia. This is not because the Australians do not have any pigs. It is because constant pressure from the animal rights lobby, in the face of the bared teeth of MAFF and now Defra, have forced the enactment of animal protection legislation in the UK. Since the Australians are rich, they like to have the pork which results from high welfare standards. I do not think you need degrees in geography or economics to join Defra so the staff probably know nothing about the profit margins on luxury goods – and they certainly show no awareness of the fact that the British Isles are surrounded by water – so that we could be a GM-free zone selling luxury farm products to the world. Then, when all the world becomes rich, every country can move to what is now the luxury end of the food market. I have no idea whether GM foods are safe or not (they probably are) but I am confident ot their being a massive demand for GM-free products for the forseeable future.

  6. Christine

    Consumer food choices are a very important part of the equation – as are the prices they are prepared to pay. The globalised marketplace for labour is also significant, as developing world food production competes with developed world food production both seem to be losing out.

    It was once unnecessary to question how anything that you consumed was being produced within Australia. Now it is not the situation. Anything could have happened from ground to factory to plate(sow stall production), from ground to factory to shop – as the situation in Bangladesh illustrates.

    This is not unlike the situation during the Industrial Revolution – but if everyone focuses on the profit equation and not the social consequences we will all continue to be worse off – if not strictly in the material sense, absolutely in the moral sense.

    It would be great if the new generation of social entrepreneurs would emerge to lead the way both in the developed and developing world.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Every single cow in the UK now has a number and its movement from farm to farm and then to slaughterhouse and then to sausage, or whatever, are traced. So I think the future is in making this information accessible to consumers, like a parcel tracking system. At present there is a great lack of information for the consumer. We do not know if the beef in the sausage comes from a cruel drug-using farmer or from a compassionate farmer who avoids drugs where possible and lets his stock graze on a wide range of leaves (instead of stuffing the poor cows with corn and soya). Food labelling is also inadequate. Everybody knows this but when the matter comes before parliament the lobby groups advance and the politicians retreat.

  7. Christine

    Yes, the ability to track food and to also have farmers certified according to farming practices would be a great step forward. Certification (like an energy star rating) could simplify the issue of needing to assess the farmer for multiple criteria and then communicate this to the consumer.

    I am sure most farmers would prefer to be compassionate – but as with Australian farmers are under such pressure due to a range of factors including climate – that it is sometimes them that come off worst in the equation.
    [ http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2008/s2339998.htm ]

    The parliamentarians need to be able to find a way of dealing with the complexity of the issues to arrive at a solution that assists both animals and farmers to thrive.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Is Australian agriculture without financial support, like NZ agriculture, or is it financially supported, like EU agriculture?
      The star rating system would be great if it worked but I wonder if it would work and whether it would be ‘official’ or user-generated. With hotels, the ratings agencies base it on things like the availability of room service and a 24-hour coffee bar. I find Tripadvisor ratings more useful, together with a figure for the room rate. For farm products, I think the primary requirement is transparency. Whatever information is available about the food ‘products’ needs to be accessible to the consumer.
      Re farmers, my limited experience is that some of them are kindly animal-lovers and others have the calous habit of treaing them like old tractors.

  8. christine

    It would seem Australian farmers get even less financial support than NZ farmers.[ http://farminstitute.org.au/_blog/Ag_Forum/post/Australia_still_at_the_bottom_when_it_comes_to_farm_subsidies/ ]

    I am thinking that the certification would need to be independent for anyone to have confidence in it. Ideally it would be a government agricultural body with responsibilities for standards in domestic as well as export markets. Of course, it would be up to farmers to specify which level of certification they would like to meet (ie three, four or five star etc).

    paddock to plate consumer information

    One star = cruelty free
    Two star = meets basic farming standards
    Three star = gm and drug free farming
    Four star = organic farming standards
    Five star = premium production standards
    Six star = luxury food standards

    The costs could then still be determined by the farmer’s ingenuity and the market.

    Assuming this system the lovable farmers would be three stars and above and the farmers that treat their animals like potatos would have difficulty meeting one star.

    Some sort of consumer blog and consumer critic system as you suggest might not be a bad idea either.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I like and admire farmers but think they are ‘corrupted’ by government subsidies and those I have discussed the subject with (not many) have said that they would much rather not have them, providing their removal did not diminish their incomes.
      It certainly seems a good idea for the government to run a rating system. But governments are wickedly subject to the lobbying system and I think it would be better if a public rating system was in competition with private systems. Debt ratings agencies, like S&P, Moody etc do a good job but were caught out by the 2008 banking crisis and found to be ignoring the bad practice of those who put a lot of business their way. For hotels, there are lots of competing ratings systems – and, despite people trying to rig it, I think it is the best.
      Perhaps the best hope for food ratings systems is when online grocery supply becomes more widespread and the firms begin to follow Amazon in operating a respectable rating system. A particularly good aspect of Amazon ratings is the combination of a star system with individual comments.
      My view of the government contribution is that it should concentrate on making information about tracability and ingredients available to consumers. This would have prevented the UK’s recent ‘horseburger’ scandal.

  9. Christine

    Yes, it is important to both know ingredients and to have confidence that what you are told about ingredients is true (ie there hasn’t been a substitution).

    My impression was that this issues were covered by food standards and rather than being directed at farmers, would be a requirement of the food manufacturing industry.


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