“Ethical Omnivorism” is a False Moral Choice

Yesterday the Toronto Star published an article with the title, “Why eating vegetarian may not be the most ethical diet.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen one of these kinds of misleading articles, so I guess we’re about due for one. This is less bad than most but the article title and lede (“loading up on fruits and veggies at the superstore won’t save the planet — or your soul”) are unfortunate, and like most lazy controversy journalism the article offers a set of quoted points and counterpoints without offering relevant background information.

What it gets right is that the ethics of food consumption are contextual and can involve competing ethical concerns. But instead of looking at the actual contexts of food production, it offers weak hypotheticals and false dichotomies. A representative quote:

“For example, compare a highly mechanized chicken-processing plant that may commit “unsavory animal treatment” to an heirloom tomato from an organic farm that relies on precarious human labour.”

Ignoring the adjective “unsavory” (better would be “horrific,” “inhumane,” or “cruel”), this assumes that workers in industrialised meat production are treated better than workers on organic farms, and moreover, that this is a real choice one needs to make. As if one actually needs to balance the suffering of animals and all the attendant environmental consequences with the well-being of workers. Even if that were the case, we should address the contexts and causes of poor working conditions for human labourers and the ills of meat production. Surprise, many are the same!

But insofar as we’re talking about hypotheticals, let’s at least consider their feasibility. The “ethical omnivore” who strives to “eat only local, organic and humanely raised meat” is a myth, unless their meat consumption is incredibly infrequent; at most once a week, but probably less.

Putting aside the ethical concerns of killing animals for food, like most North American consumptive practices, the consumption of meat is entirely unsustainable. There just simply aren’t enough resources on the planet for everyone to eat a typical North American diet. If you eat meat regularly, it is inherently unsustainable. Even if you exclusively eat “ethical and sustainable” meat, it is just an illusion; systemically, the meat industry must resort to factory farming to meet demand.

And any misleading statements about soy farms destroying rainforests and the environmental consequences of mono-crops need to be understood in the context of meat production.

Those soy farms destroying the Amazonian rainforests are used to feed livestock (whose grazing areas are made by razing those same forests). In the United States 70% of all grain production is used to feed livestock. Globally, that number is 40%. So to the extent that industrialised farming of grains is unsustainable, a major factor is the production and consumption of meat. Indeed, if everyone on earth adopted a plant-based diet, the net production of plants and grains (and the net associated environmental costs) would be less than it is currently.

Making any sort of ethical consumptive choice is challenging, given that structural effects make options limited and that it is hard to make behavioural changes. I still eat meat maybe once a month for a variety of reasons, mostly social, but also because of a lack of food options and personal resolve.

The production and consumption of a plant-based diet can and does have ethical and environmental consequences, and the latter are unavoidable if we are going to feed over seven billion people. But both practically and ideally speaking, the “most ethical” diet – that with the least environmental and moral consequences – is inherently a vegan diet. Sure, you can be fatalistic about environmental decline, or believe ethical consumption is futile, or simply revel in the selfishness of eating food you find delicious, but there’s no need to couch that in false moral arguments for meat consumption.

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