A recent study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Americans cut their beef consumption by nearly one-fifth from 2005 to 2014. For those who care about animals and the environment, that’s a hugely promising development, right? Ethically speaking, it’s a little more complicated than that.
The basic concern that some animal advocates raise is rooted in the following observation: When people stop eating cows, they don’t eat tofu steaks and mushroom burgers instead; they generally don’t become vegetarians or vegans. What a lot of them do is simply eat more chicken. Many people may have made the switch not out of concern for animal welfare but because they’ve heard about the health risks of eating lots of red meat. They’re “switchetarians,” moving from one kind of animal consumption to another.
If that’s the case, then their choices might not actually translate into an overall drop in animal consumption. In fact, the National Chicken Council shows that when pork and beef consumption decreases, poultry consumption goes up. After all, current science, and the resulting science-section news articles, place less emphasis on the health risks posed by eating chicken and fish. (Though the presence of antibiotics and mercury mean that these still may not be the healthiest options.)
Their own health aside, people might also be eating less red meat because of growing awareness of how much cows, in particular, suffer on factory farms. Cows — pigs, too, for some people — seem to inspire more compassion than chickens and fish. They are mammals with big soulful eyes, and their slaughterhouse deaths, wherein they are electrocuted via the brain or the heart then hoisted in the air to have their throats slit, are gruesome.
From a strict animal rights perspective, however, the fact that mammals like cows and pigs generate more compassion than non-mammals tells us nothing about whether they deserve more compassion. As the philosopher Peter Singer and the advocate and writer Karen Dawn have argued, it is not clear, despite people’s intuitions, that chickens and fish feel less pain than mammals do.
Singer and Dawn go on to make another observation, one rooted in utilitarian logic: Because chickens and fish are so much smaller than cows or pigs, many more individuals must be killed in order to yield the same amount of meat. If we replace our burgers and steaks with chicken fingers, turkey bacon, and fish sticks, the total amount of animal suffering worldwide — in terms of the number of creatures who live diminished lives, suffer, and die so that we might eat them — might actually go up rather than down.
This is the dark side of cutetarianism, defined on Urban Dictionary as a diet “in which a person does not eat ‘cute’ animals.” It’s not only the charismatic animals who feel pain.
Why PETA argued (facetiously) that people should eat whales
Cutenarianism is not exactly the most rigorous ethical approach. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made a point similar to Singer’s and Dawn’s back in 2001 with their somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Eat the Whales” campaign. Knowing full well the emotional attachment many people have to whales, and hoping to challenge the arbitrary lines we draw when it comes to the animals we eat, PETA observed that the meat we get from killing one whale is equivalent to the meat we could get from killing about 1,200 pigs. The advocacy group suggested that people who want to do less harm with their meat eating, yet can’t abide the thought of going meatless, ought to switch to consuming giant singing cetaceans.
Given the widespread ban on whaling, that would be illegal in most countries today. But plenty of us could choose to eat cows and pigs instead of chickens and fish, switching to physically larger animals if we thought this would be a good way to reduce animal suffering without major sacrifice. Then there’s the environmental component, which also may be contributing to the move away from beef.
Studies conflict on the exact percentage of greenhouse gas emissions directly linked to animal farming, but there’s no doubt the number is high, and that methane from cow burps constitutes a massive part of it. Moreover, the inefficiency of converting land, water, and crops into beef also helps to make cows the worst animals to farm from an environmental perspective. Drastically reducing our beef consumption may be a really good thing to do if we want humanity to stick around for a while.
But for now, let’s stick to the ethics of meat-eating from the animals’ perspective. In a popular post entitled “Vegetarianism for Meat Eaters,” the blogger Scott Alexander explained his own take on switchetarianism, and added yet another twist. He wrote that he cared about animal suffering, detailing how chickens are “mutilated [and]...experience severe musculoskeletal pain.”
Yet Alexander didn’t think he could live happily as a vegetarian for very long — “I really, really hate vegetables” — so he devised what he felt was a prudent compromise. He decided to eat beef instead of poultry, on the grounds that fewer animals would die — and that, moreover, in his view, chickens lead more miserable lives in factory farms than cows do.
The twist was that he offsets the suffering he caused cows by donating to charities that work to reduce such suffering. Consider, he suggested, groups that encourage people to eat less meat (by lobbying for “Meatless Mondays” in school cafeterias, for instance). Estimates of the effectiveness of donations to such groups vary widely, but a conservative estimate he cited was that you can save one animal for every dollar you contribute. Carry that logic forward, Alexander observed, and you could theoretically be a more effective animal-welfare advocate by making targeted donations than by stopping eating meat.
This methodology feels morally icky. (Imagine the horror you’d feel if a friend justified owning slaves by donating to abolitionist advocacy groups.) Emotional objections and the appearance of hypocrisy aside, the strategy also fails to help us reach a satisfactory endpoint. There is a finite number of “convertible” eaters who Alexander’s funds could impact. As he himself points out, the more people who try this approach, the more expensive each conversion becomes.
But Alexander is on to something with his utilitarian switchetarianism. As complicated as it may be to weigh all relevant factors, if you’re going to be a switchetarian instead of a reducetarian or vegan, it makes sense to attempt a reasoned calculation about which meat you think does the least harm, and choose that one.
How to look at the bright side in the switch from cows to chickens, instead of seeing only irrationality
Which brings us back to the drop in beef consumption. Admittedly, if we’re taking the purely mathematical approach, it looks bad in the short term when we stop eating cows to eat more chicken and fish instead. But this drop is more interesting and hopeful when we think about long-term strategies to further animal welfare.
Even if things like adorableness — or irrationally distributed sympathy more generally — play a part in the choice to stop eating beef, maybe we should take progress wherever we can find it. Maybe animal liberation won’t happen all at once. Maybe it will come one species at a time.
A lot of animal advocates like to think about the end of animal exploitation in terms of a circle of moral concern that expands quite quickly. First all oppressed humans gain equal standing, and then comes freedom for all animals! But why should we assume it will happen for all animals at once? The dismantling of human oppression has obviously not been ordered or logical — and certainly not sudden
And the evidence is indisputable that plenty of people come to care passionately about some nonhuman animals while caring little about others. People love their pets without caring much about the equally intelligent animals they eat. The director of The Cove, a harrowing documentary that exposed the horror of Japanese dolphin hunting, kept on eating fish until he discovered that his mercury levels were ridiculously high. He had not been overly troubled by the inconsistency between being a pescatarian and opposing dolphin hunting.
Debates over switchetarianism bear a resemblance to disputes amongst animal rights advocates over the value of “single-issue campaigns.” These are defined by Rutgers University law professor Gary Francione as campaigns “identifying some particular use of animals or some form of treatment and making that the object of a campaign to end the use or modify the treatment.” Francione strongly objects to this approach, because he feels it fails to directly achieve his desired end: complete and total animal liberation. For example, the effort to ban veal crates leaves the rest of the cattle industry untouched — to say nothing of other animals.
Yet rather than quibble over the ethical value of a drop in beef consumption among people who continue to eat other animals, or criticize any reform that stops short of veganism, maybe it’s worth embracing single-issue campaigns — and by extension perhaps “single-animal campaigns” or “single-species campaigns,” too. Consider what might happen if we as consumers united in refusing to consume one particular type of animal. We could end the farming of that animal — full stop. What we lose in logical consistency we might gain in public attention and public sympathy.
At this point, it’s difficult to imagine consumers in the US uniting on that goal. But activists could get the ball rolling in that direction by focusing more of their activism on a particular species of animal instead of on farm animals as a whole. And for this strategy to be effective, it likely shouldn’t be chicken or fish. It would have to be a big, personable animal such as cows or pigs.
The case for starting with pigs
Even though beef consumption is what has dropped most dramatically, if factory farming is going to crumble one species at a time, I could see pig farming being the first to go. Many farmed animal species have impressive cognitive abilities (chickens can do math and fish have excellent memories), but pigs appear to be the most intelligent. They can recognize themselves in mirrors. They can play video games. They were the tyrannical revolutionary leaders in the classic dystopian novel Animal Farm. And they are the farm animal most likely to double as a pet.
Consider the case of Bob Comis, a former pig farmer featured in the new documentary film The Last Pig. Comis treated his pigs as well as any farmer could, but eventually stopped raising hogs and went vegan to escape the weight of guilt he felt for sending so many pigs to slaughter. The Last Pig shows Comis upending his life to satisfy his conscience, and the trailer is powerful. In it, Comis narrates while walking with his pigs:
They follow me. Curious. Interested. What they don’t know is that this communion is a lie. I am not their herd mate. I am a pig farmer, and sometime soon, I’m going to have them killed. I really love being around these incredible animals. I feel an obligation to give them the best life that I can. After 10 years of looking into thousands of pig eyes, I’ve come to understand that they’re never vacant. There’s always somebody looking back at me. I’ve taken 2,000 pigs to the slaughterhouse, and I’ve become haunted by the ghosts of those pigs. I don’t want to have the power to decide whether something lives or dies anymore. He is one of the last pigs that I will ever have slaughtered.
Imagine that instead of being a pig farmer talking about his herd, Comis was a poultry farmer talking about his chickens, or a fish farmer talking about his salmon. As an animal advocate who is concerned with animal suffering in all forms, I would not find this bizarre at all. But I expect that to the average person, talking to chickens this way might seem absurd. But audiences relate to the guilt Comis feels about his pigs. His love is similar to the love many of us have for our dogs and cats.
If we as consumers and activists were actually going to go all-in on the abolition of pig farming, there would be a lot of hurdles to overcome. Bacon is a big one — although I would like to think that improvements in plant-based meat alternatives, as well as advances in meat cultured from cells, could help with that.
But as difficult as this would be, the challenges to ending the farming of one animal species do not seem insurmountable. They are certainly not as intractable as those we would face if aiming to abolish all animal farming at once. A lot of people who could not be convinced to give up meat altogether — because they would miss the general taste and texture, or because they are persuaded that they need some meat for their health — might agree to give up the consumption of at least one species of commonly farmed animal.
If we stop farming one species, will we just step up our farming of every other type? Some people will indeed switch from beef to chicken and never give the issue a second thought. But for others, the move may show them they can fairly easily give up foods they may have thought they couldn’t live without. If they made the move for ethical reasons, further reflection might lead them to see that similar issues apply to other farmed species. And as meat consumption drops, better plant-based and cultured meat would continue to be developed, so that eventually we could give up all factory farmed meat without a shift in consumption levels.
Ponder, as well, the potential psychological impact of a once ubiquitous animal product disappearing from the shelves because people objected to the suffering and killing of that animal. Ending the commodification of even one popularly farmed animal would cause a widespread shift in perspective; all animal farming would likely be questioned to a much greater degree.
To be clear, I’m certainly not saying we should be eating fish and chickens instead of cows and pigs. But I do think the drop in beef consumption may be a positive development with respect to the long term. We live in a time when almost everyone considers it perfectly acceptable to eat as many animals as they please. If pigs and cows have an unfair advantage over chickens and fish because of their big eyes and lashes, we animal-rights advocates may need to accept that — for now.
This does not mean the moral sphere of concern will never reach the other animals we also want to save. In fact, it may be one promising road to our final goal.
Brian Kateman is president of the Reducetarian Foundation and editor of The Reducetarian Solution: How the Surprisingly Simple Act of Reducing the Amount of Meat in Your Diet Can Transform Your Health and the Planet.
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