Rancher vs. Vegan: A Debate in Berkeley

The Atlantic has a great story up today, written by livestock rancher and environmental attorney Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (2009).

A vegetarian herself, Niman recently took part in a panel discussion with Howard Lyman, a former cattle-feedlot operator turned vegan and author of Mad Cowboy. Her account of the debate raises some interesting questions about the ethical and environmental consequences of eating meat.

It is quite impossible, of course, to change the mind of someone who fervently believes that it's immoral to eat meat, and I've never endeavored to do so. (To get the picture, just imagine standing before a large group of zealous pro-lifers trying to explain why you volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic). My modest hope for the evening was to make the case that there is more than one way to eat environmentally and ethically.

Here's the essence of what I said on the ethics question. Humans and their ancestors have been eating meat for 4 million years. About 1.5 million years ago, we markedly increased our meat consumption, an event that many anthropologists believe is closely connected to the dramatic expansion of our brains and the success of our lineage. Flesh eating by humans and other animals is an integral part of the ecological cycle: sunlight and rainwater create vegetation, certain animals eat this vegetation, converting it to flesh, other animals eat those animals, those animals eventually die, all of which returns nutrients to the earth, which in turn feeds the plants. Individuals certainly can choose to opt out of this system, but I can find no basis for a moral imperative to do so.

Nonetheless, eating animals is frequently compared by vegan activists to human slavery or, as Lyman did the other night, to the Holocaust. These are emotion-triggering analogies, but they are poor ones for many reasons. For one thing, throughout nature, killing members of one's own species is rare and aberrant behavior. Animals generally kill for their own physical nourishment, and they subsist by eating animals of other species. This is precisely what humans are doing when they eat a goat or a pig, utterly unlike what the Germans did to the Jews in World War II. 

Suspecting that many Jews and African-Americans would strenuously object to slavery and Holocaust analogies, I asked Jonathan Safran Foer (who has written on the Holocaust and, more recently, on meat eating in the bestselling memoir Eating Animals) for his reaction. He agreed with me that the analogy is offensive and, in his words, "intellectually cheap." "It implies that one is incapable of explaining or understanding what is wrong with the meat industry on its own terms," he told me. "I am convinced that if the average American were to have an honest and clear-eyed introduction to the truth about factory farming, he or she would have no problem understanding what's wrong with it. To reach for a human catastrophe is not only repugnant, it's unnecessary."