Thursday, June 14, 2012

Eating Grass-Fed Animals Will Not Save Us: Part 2 of 3

This is part 2, feel free to read part one on the environment, here. You can also read part three, here.  [Also, keep in mind this was written a few months ago, before the most recent series of ethics posts].

The Ethics

Let’s begin with what the author gets right, there is a real issue with the production of agricultural products. Lots and lots of animals are killed, and often killed horribly, in such circumstances. And for those of us who want a more just and kind world for other animals, this is surely something we need to pay attention to. One of the reasons that I tend to purchase CSAs (Community Supported Agricultural) is in order to decrease this effect. Furthermore, I certainly agree to the idea that we all have blood on our hands, that we are not innocent. Of course, innocence is not the point. The reason we need ethics is not because we need to learn to be innocent, but because innocence is foreclosed. And unless we want to face our post-lapsarian world with relativism, quietude, and inaction, we must learn to exist without innocence. However, the idea that not being vegetarian/vegan is somehow better or even just a wash as being a vegetarian/vegan, is simply not workable.

Much of the ethical arguments in the original article are mostly based around some sort of calculative consequentialist ethics. So, first I would point out that from that world, the environmental arguments from before are fairly important. A world that is inhabitable to most life will certainly be a world with a lot of death and suffering for all sorts of animals, including human ones. Also, on a more particular note, the grazing of animals on rangelands has resulted in a devastation of biodiversity. Moreover, there is always a cost-benefit analysis we have to engage in when we talk about land to have animals graze on. The article author would have us believe that this land will not usable for anything unless animals are grazing, but, as I said before, that seems doubtful. So, we can graze animals, we can let the land alone and have some biodiversity and natural carbon trapping return, or we can use the land for wind farms and solar farms. The single worse environmental use of the land would be to graze cattle with that, and therefore arguably the worse decision for animals.
Also, it isn’t as if grazing cattle doesn’t also entail a lot of direct killing of animals besides the cattle. “Ranchers have a long history of exterminating animals who could prey upon cattle or otherwise threaten their health. Just about any animal with a spine is considered a varmint and is liable to be shot, trapped, or poisoned. Ranchers have carried out a well organized and far-reaching extermination of wildlife. Over the past century, ranchers have killed billions of prairie dogs, as well as uncountable numbers of wolves, coyotes, and even bear. America’s indigenous cattle, the buffalo, have been nearly wiped off the continent to make way for beef cattle. Ranchers don’t do all this killing alone. The USDA’s Wildlife Services division exterminates animals likely to prey on livestock. In 2002, this division killed 86,000 coyotes, 5000 foxes, 380 black bears, and 190 wolves.” (Marcus, p. 198).
The original article author states and blames agricultural monoculturalism for feeding humans, which is, well, completely false. With the exception of certain sugar monoculturalism produced by slavery and colonialism, much of monoculturalism’s history is tied fundamentally up with eating land-based mammals.
It was not just the states that grazed cattle that were affected. Because people were paid by the poundage of the cattle, rather than each head of cattle, it made sense to make the cattle as fat as possible. It is also worth noting that in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it was uncommon for Americans to desire fatty cow flesh—what we now call the prime cut—however, that type of meat was desired in Britain and many other parts of Europe. This distinction matters because scarcity of meat in Europe shifted European demand to the United States. As Fernand Braudel put it, “In the modern period then, Europe’s privileged status as a meat-eating area declined, and real remedies were only found in the middle of the nineteenth century as a result of the widespread creation of artificial pastures, the development of scientific stock-raising, and the exploitation of distant stock-raising areas in the New World.” British money was invested heavily in building the American beef industry in the mid-19th century. Because of their desire for fatty beef, grass-fed beef became increasingly supplanted by corn-fed beef. The rise of corned beef created heavy demand for corn, and farmers realized that beef became a far more profitable way to convert their corn to money than selling it directly to people. States such as Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, western Kentucky, and others developed a monoculture based upon corn.
Meanwhile, fattening the cows with corn necessitated replace grazing with a different mechanism of feeding cattle. This was when the first feedlots were created. Cows were fenced in, fattened up, and taken to slaughter. In the old days of grazing, cows had between five to seven years to live, which was necessary for the cows to reach a profitable size and poundage. The corned-fed cattle not only meant that it was faster to fatten up the cows, but the rise of feedlots fundamentally shifted the contours of breeding cattle in the first place. Specialized breeders became common, and cattle became bred for certain genetic qualities, such as speed by which they could be fattened up, the size they could get to, and docility. These new, custom-made cattle fenced into feedlots had roughly two years to live, significantly increasing profits.
As the historian Revivel Netz put it:
The bison were now dead, replaced by railroads and farmers. As the Indians retreated to their pitiful reservations, the cow began its trek north of Texas, eventually to introduce there an economy based in Chicago. And this, finally, was the culmination of American history in the nineteenth century. Texas led to Mexico, which led to Kansas, which led to the Civil War, upon whose conclusion America could move on to destroy the Indian and the bison. The final act in the subjugation of the West was under way: the transition from bison to cow. This was the immediate consequence of the Civil War: the West was opened for America --- and America filled it with cows. (Netz, Barbed Wire, p. 10). 
And nothing about any of this has changed! “In 2006, more than a third of all grain produced in the world entered the mouths of animals destined for the abattoir. In the United States, an astounding 80 percent of all grain produced went toward animal feed” (McWilliams, p. 127). The idea that if we just ate more land-based mammals we would see less monoculturalism is absurd, to steal a phrase, it’s nonsense on stilts! And if we eat grass-fed animals, that would certainly be better than eating factory farmed animals, but we are not dealing with this problem because of vegetarianism/veganism, which is actually just as good (if not better) attack upon such monoculturalism.

But all of this talk in terms of a certain kind of utilitarianism does not address something else about the ethics of purposefully eating another being. Okay, time for a long quotation from Cora Diamond on this issue:
We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class. We do not eat them; or if we do, it is a matter of extreme need, or of some special ritual--and even in cases of obvious extreme need, there is very great reluctance.  […] Anyone who, in discussing this issue, focuses on our reasons for not killing people or our reasons for not causing them suffering quite evidently runs a risk of leaving altogether out of his discussion those fundamental features of our relationship to other human beings which are involved in our not eating them. It is in fact part of the way this point is usually missed that arguments are given for not eating animals, for respecting their rights to life and not making them suffer, which imply that there is absolutely nothing queer, nothing at all odd, in the vegetarian eating the cow that has obligingly been struck by lightning. That is to say, there is nothing in the discussion which suggests that a cow is not something to eat; it is only that one must not help the process along” (The Realistic Spirit, pp. 321-322, emphasis in the original). 
As Lori Gruen notes on this passage, “Humans are not food. Imagine how our interactions with one another might be different if we saw humans, or at least some humans, as consumable. If we saw each other as edible and, in fact, ate humans on occasion and really enjoyed it, this could lead to a breakdown in respect for one another and for humanity as a whole.” (p. 102). [Additional note, this passage should be thought alongside Matt Calarco's work on us as being possible subjects to be eaten, and Karl Steel's work on cannibalism].
There is something disturbing beyond belief about treating a life as pure instrumentality, as a being to be raised for us to slaughter and eat. I have trouble believing that the sort of relations necessary to alleviate the suffering and end the violence against other animals is going to come from a cycle of raising, slaughtering, and eating animals.

Part 3 here.