Friday, May 21, 2010

Why humane meat is an oxymoron - the Lyman v. Niman debate

Last night I attended an entertaining debate between ex-cattle rancher turned vegan Howard Lyman, author of Mad Cowboy, and Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkshop and wife of Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman. The event was co-sponsored by VegNews Magazine and Earth Island Institute and held in the impressive David Brower Center in Berkeley. (I know, where else?)

The subtitle of the event asked the question, Can you be a "good environmentalist" and still eat meat?

Full disclosure: this is not an objective review of what transpired. While I don't tend to put it front and center in my writing these days, I have been vegetarian (mostly vegan) for close to 15 years. My own thinking has evolved over the years and I now advocate more broadly for a mostly plant-based, whole-foods diet, which no educated person can argue with nutritionally. While I realize it may not harm your health to eat a small amount of meat here and there, I have decided for ethical reasons not to do so. I decided to write this post because much of what I heard last night was not adequately addressed by the speakers and I want to add my own thoughts.

The two authors began by agreeing that factory-farmed meat is a disaster and has no place on our planet. The debate boiled down to whether or not humanely and sustainably-raised animals were a viable alternative to the current system, from both an ecological and ethical perspective.

Ms. Niman certainly held her own when it came to the scientific and environmental arguments for sustainable meat, disputing Lyman's claims that any type of animal farming harms the planet.

But when Niman tried to argue that animals were essential to sustainable farming, she never did explain why they have to be killed in order to be part of the closed loop system she espouses.

Once the discussion turned directly to the ethics of killing animals for food, Lyman easily had the moral high ground. And Niman herself seemed uncomfortable making several tired and twisted arguments.

First, she said that humans have been eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, so it's a natural part of our diet. But humans have not been slaughtering cows and chickens for all that time. It's certainly true that humans have eaten meat throughout our evolution and Niman was right to correct Lyman when he claimed that we are natural herbivores. Humans are omnivores, which simply means that we can eat both meat and plants, not that we have to. The dispute is really whether we should.

The anthropological evidence is clear that early humans either ate the leftover meat that was killed by carnivores (when was the last time you chased down an animal and bit into it?) or killed small animals like rabbits, all for the purpose of survival when little else was available. Since modern agriculture  kicked in (along with modern marketing), humans have been brainwashed to eat a diet mainly comprised of animals, but that was not the diet of our ancestors. Rather, they subsisted largely on nuts, seeds, and fruit, and it is such a plant-based diet, according to decades of established science (not to mention Michael Pollan) that humans thrive on.

Next, Lyman and Niman disagreed on just how much destruction is caused by our conventional food system in general. Niman tried to argue that all food production causes harm to animals, presumably from various disruptive farming techniques. Lyman dismissed this argument by saying there's a difference between nematodes and cows, to which Niman responded that she also meant wild animals.

I am willing to accept the argument that conventional farming methods causes harm to animals, and that vegans cannot claim that their eating habits cause no harm. But because wild animals are harmed as a by-product of plant production is not a reason to deliberately raise and slaughter more animals who would never exist in the first place. Why not try to minimize all animal suffering?

Niman then proceeded to bury herself even deeper in the ethical morass by making the astonishing claim that animals suffer a lot in the wild, since it's such a dangerous world out there, and aren't they better off under the care of humane, kind ranchers like her husband? This sounded chillingly like the arguments for slavery. You know, blacks were really much better off getting free room and board and they weren't treated all that badly were they?

This argument once again fails to acknowledge that there is a vast world of difference between animals in the wild (who yes, have to navigate all sorts of dangers, that is nature and cannot be helped) and the breeding of countless animals who would otherwise never be brought into this world.

Next, Niman had to explain the disconnect between how she herself is a vegetarian and her defense of humane meat. She said in many different ways that being vegetarian is a personal choice and that she does not try to persuade others to make the same decision. But isn't factory farming also an ethical issue and isn't she trying to persuade those to perpetuate those immoral business practices to stop doing so? Why do her ethics of caring about how animals are treated stop at the point of slaughter?

Moreover, it's an ethical cop-out to claim that being vegetarian is a personal choice. Of course it is, but that doesn't mean we cannot as a society recognize moral standards we expect others to follow. We do it all the time in many contexts. For example, when we say murder is wrong, rape is wrong, driving too fast is wrong, etc. You name your law, I will give you a moral argument that backs it up.

I am not saying we should out-law meat eating, but claiming a decision is "personal" does not take it off the table for discussion. Again, slavery is a helpful analogy. At one time, slavery was acceptable, thought to be a personal choice (but of course, only for the owners, not for the slaves; similarly, the animals do not get a choice). In time we recognized as a society that slavery was immoral and then we outlawed it. That is the natural course of the evolution of human values. Our treatment of animals has also evolved over time and it can and should continue to do so.

When asked if she ever bonded with an animal, she talked about a cow she and her husband loved so much because she was "special" and so they decided to give her a "pass" from slaughter. How lucky for that animal, and how unlucky for all the others on the ranch who apparently were not special enough.

During the Q&A session, I tried to ask Niman how exactly sustainable meat could ever work on a mass scale considering that her husband's own company failed to live up to difficult economic challenges. (See this article for how Niman Ranch was forced to merge last year with its largest investor due to economic hardship; Bill Niman himself left the business back in 2007 over ethical standards disputes.)

She bypassed the heart of the question, instead explaining how an academic report showed that it's theoretically possible for humanely-raised, sustainable meat to feed the world, but only if people cut down on their meat consumption, a concept which she supports (on this point we agree).

But she failed to acknowledge that in our current profit-driven, capitalistic society, it's extremely difficult for anyone who wants to run a business "ethically" to compete, again, as her own husband learned the hard way. Lyman tried to make this point by saying the system is rigged in favor of the large, unethical producers. This is exactly right, as the recent oil disaster also proves.

Moreover, I don't hear any "eat less meat" messages coming out of the American Grassfed Association. Rather, you can learn at an upcoming meeting, about "growing your grassfed business." And herein lies the rub. In order for any large business to succeed in our economy, it must grow or die. Growth and sustainability simply do not fit in the same sentence.

At the end, Lyman got to the heart of the ethical question when he asked, would the Holocaust have been OK if the Jews had stayed in 5-star hotels and been fed lavish meals before they were escorted to their deaths? This to me sums up the moral conundrum that people such as the Nimans must face.

Last night, I became more convinced than ever that humane meat is an oxymoron.


Tys said...

good stuff. I agree with your breakdown of the logic (though I am not a vegetarian, just a low consumer)

What are your thoughts on wild meat- i.e. hunting and eating that?

Michele Simon said...

Hi Tys, while I could not myself kill an animal and don't think the ethics are much better, I do think that if you are going to eat an animal, you should be willing to kill it.

So in that sense, people who hunt and then eat the kill are more honest, although doing it just for sport is crazy. (Sorry NRA!)

If everyone who was eating meat now killed their own animals, my guess is that we'd have many more vegetarians, certainly a majority.

GrowingRaw said...

I understand your argument about humanely raised meat still not being the ideal goal - however, for many people it's a useful step along the way to vegetarianism.

For my family it went something like this; wanting to eat organic for our own health and preferring to eat humanely raised animals from a welfare perspective... eating less meat that is of a higher quality (and price) but also more sustainably and humanely raised.... realising that although we were eating much less meat we certainly weren't craving the amount we'd been eating previously... learning about vegetarian alternatives and recipes to fill the gaps... starting to consider cutting out meat all together seeings as we were enjoying the vegetarian meals more anyway.... going vegetarian (or at least flexitarian.)

Michele Simon said...

Thanks, GrowingRaw for that observation. I certainly agree it can serve as a useful step. I also think that treating animals humanely is important and better than factory farms, so support those efforts.

Trouble is that many in the humane meat camp don't see it as you do, but rather promote it as a way to "still eat meat" as if giving it up altogether isn't a worthy goal. I have even heard stories of vegetarians who went back to eating meat since now it's "ethical." It's these arguments I was addressing.

Also, the way it's priced, it can only be available to relatively few people, so it's not a social justice solution to feeding everyone well.

Matthew said...

This, to me, proves again how cut off from nature humans have truly become. Highlighted by the assumption that death is a bad thing, whether it come from the hands of a human (who are natural phenomenon) or by other means. Either way, when the animal dies it is being recycled back into the web of life, whether it be eaten by humans or microbes.

There also seems to be an arrogance with which we grant ourselves in deciding where to draw "ethical" lines. Which life is of more value, a grasshopper or a cow? And why does a human have the natural authority to decide this? Agriculture destroys millions upon millions of lives every day in rodents, birds, insects, and microbes, yet we say that somehow this is a better alternative? Life depends on death, in all circumstances.

I am by no means saying that people shouldn't be vegetarians. But we shouldn't forget that this is the only time in human history when it has actually been feasible in the long term for large populations. Weston Price did a wonderful job of pointing this out by noticing that nearly all traditional societies subsisted and maintained excellent health through regular consumption of animal products. Almost always was this through necessity because there was no other way to get the required nutrients and calories from local plant sources alone. There was no supermarket full of soy and grain products yet.

As an omnivore, I think it is possible to strike as close to a balance as we can between pasture raised animals and agriculture. A permaculture that creates a natural, sustainable cycle without one dominating over the other.

Denis said...

So Matthew, if someone kills you or your family, you'll just accept that as a natural phenomenon?
If so, I think your post has merit. Otherwise, your ideology is speciesist. You think death through killing is normal and acceptable, but only against non-human animals.
And the whole, millions of insects and small animals are killed by agriculture argument is unconvincing. Many people are injured and killed worldwide in order for us to have gas in our pumps. But we don't consider driving a car the same ethical lapse as directly killing someone. Or do you? If so, either everyone or no one will be in prison in the world you suggest.

Samira said...

Matthew, it doesn't make sense to say that human vegetarianism is a result of our being "cut off from nature," when one considers that our closest relatives in nature, chimps and bonobos, eat a plant-based diet.

And there is no arrogance in humans doing the best they can to draw ethical lines about such a matter. The way I see it, to honor and respect the interests of the other species with which we share this planet is a humble pursuit.

Humans are the only animal that can consciously make this kind of far-reaching, moral decision. Why shouldn't we?

As you mentioned, now is the time that a healthy, well-rounded plant-based diet is totally feasible for large populations. Meat is so unnecessary to the human diet it's almost funny how attached people get to it.

Delianth said...

Yeah, but... here's the main thing both of you and Niman get wrong.

Nature isn't malicious or cruel, especially compared to the system we've built.

1. Humans aren't herbivores or omnivores - they're frugivores. We're not meant to eat grains or beans any more than we're supposed to eat meat.

Deer will occasionally eat pieces of dead fish that they find lying on the ground - does it make them omnivores? No. Rats and mice get sick faster and die sooner on any kind of animal protein, but they'll still willingly eat it.

Herbivore/omnivore/frugivore is not about what you will eat, it's about what is healthiest for you. And yeah, that's pretty much irrefutably fruit and vegetables and a handful of nuts every now and then (... for adult humans, mind), with veganism a vast step up from carnism.

You, and many other people I know, seem to be laboring under the delusion of "natural scarcity" when there just isn't any such thing. Humans found scarcity in Europe, Asia and the Americas because humans are not native there. We never adapted to it and, for all natural intents and purposes, we were never supposed to go there.

For every animal, your natural habitat has an abundance of things you can eat and thrive on. This is pretty basic, because the ecosystem must produce an "excess" - more than the animals in that ecosystem will consume - in order to continue. The soil, water, soil in the water, soil stability, etc. relies on that excess. There's a reason birds and deer will eat just a bite from fruit and move on; they aren't facing scarcity of any kind. If they were, they couldn't afford to do that.

The idea that humans ate meat to survive requires the idea that humans weren't getting enough food in general, and if you actually look at how nature works (instead of how capitalism works - which produces an artificial scarcity to function, or else no one would consent to being sold food that's growing from the ground, nor to being worked for the money to), well... it just doesn't hold up.

2. Animals actually don't have that hard a time in nature. Humans have more trouble from other humans than most animals do from predators. A lot of that has to do with the excess thing I talked about earlier - there always have to be more "prey" animals than can be conceivably eaten by the predators in an area - but a lot more of it is just pretty simple logic. They live here. This is their home. They've lived here so far, so obviously they're pretty well-able to deal with the "dangers" present.

I find it an interesting similarity that the pro-civ people do the same thing that carnists do. Carnists, when faced with veganism, generally subconsciously know that carnism isn't acceptable in any form, so they spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy coming up with reasons as to why veganism isn't a viable option. The pro-civ people do the same thing. "Well, there's just so much disease..." "Well, there's just so much starvation..."

Of course, the answer to carnists is always, "No it's not, and this is why," and the answer to the pro-civ arguments is always, "No it's not, and this is why, and actually CIVILIZATION makes that the norm which is why you think that, and this is how".

Speciesism is a human, seeing a young ibex literally prancing among the cliffs, who says, "Oh, that must be so terrifying."

Anyway, I'm off my soapbox now. I got referred here by Bold Native. Hi! I'll make sure to check out the rest of your blog too, this was interesting.

Tanya Petrovna said...

Yes I was there too. I couldn't quite understand her ethical arguments as why she was a vegetarian for personal reasons at a debate was like saying "just 'cause" and as a business owner I find it an odd business model when one is in the business of selling meat but advocates eating less of it.

Oh well. She did say she only recently read Lyman's book in preparation for this debate, maybe seeds of change or taking place as I type.

Anonymous said...

Survival of the fittest.
If, as Samira stated, humans were not meant to live in Europe or other climates that do not produce fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts during their winters, we humans should have stopped reproducing and outgrowing our environments. Notice that chimps or bonobos still live in climates that have year-round growing seasons.

Every species in our world is born with the instinct for survival.
Every system crashes if the balance is too far off. Some species evolve to survive, some cannot. We live on a constantly changing and evolving planet.

I am an omnivore for health reasons. As a vegan/vegetarian I had to take pharmaceuticals to survive. Need I explain how I felt trying to justify survival by chemistry that is tested on animals? And therein arose my ethical dilemma.

I have chosen to remain healthy in the most natural way my body can. This is my instinct for suvival. As a member of a highly evolved species on our planet, I have also chosen not to reproduce so that no additional human needs to suffer.

Michael Bauce said...

Time magazine debunked the theory that our ancestors ate so much meat in the 70's. If we ate meat for so long a period, would we not have sharp, pointed teeth that resemble carnivores? Sharp teeth are needed to rip flesh. We have 6 times as many flat teeth than pointed ones, indicating that our ancestors ate mostly grains and vegetables as their main foods.
Evolution doesn't make mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I attended the same lecture -- over and over Niman stressed how healthy it is to eat grass-fed meat, how good it is for the environment and how fine the animals have it. Given these beliefs, why is it, she's a vegetarian? I think personally she knows it's abhorrent to eat animal flesh, but their ranch is how she stays a millionairess...she's got a marketing job to do.