Sunday, December 19, 2010

James McWilliams: Why Free-Range Meat Isn't Much Better Than Factory-Farmed

James McWilliams has a thought-provoking essay at The Atlantic called "Why Free-Range Meat Isn't Much Better Than Factory-Farmed".

Now he's saying that he thinks eating the meat of animals killed for food is wrong, regardless of how the animals are produced.

Previously, he attacked factory farming, but then also attacked non-factory farming. Non-factory farming has a number of health, environmental and animal welfare issues that most people don't know about about. When they find out about them (via folks like James McWilliams), they realize that non-factory farming isn't the panacea they've been told it is - but that doesn't lead to them dropping all farmed meat (according to McWilliams).

So now that he's realised that the proponents of non-factory farming can't be convinced to give up meat, he's attacking the eating of all meat of farmed animals, on the grounds that it does the animals maximum harm (albeit potentially without hurting them), because it denies them their lives.*

He even points out that killing a high-welfare pig (in a non-factory system) makes the world a worse place by reducing happiness more than killing a miserable pig (raised in a factory system).

I tend to be philosophical about what I do (I've touched on many of the same issues as James on this blog), so I had a number of thoughts when reading this.

1) It looks like McWilliams should have no ethical issues eating roadkill or other animals that just drop dead of natural causes. His problem seems to be that people are purposefully killing animals. As a thought experiment, one wonders if we stocked a piece of land next to a freeway, and methodically harvested the roadkill, if he'd object to people eating the (artificially more numerous) roadkill. I think so - he'd argue that whoever set up that system (aka "roadkill farm") was making the world a worse place by creating a world where more animals died unnecessarily.

2) To what extent does McWilliams value some lives over others? Mosquitos have potential too. Pretty much everyone thinks the world would be a better place if mosquitos weren't part of it. If he's going to start distinguishing between some species versus others, based on their innate "potential", what about the stupid animals (raise enough animals and some will be really dumb), who have less potential than others - can we eat them without feeling bad?

3) McWilliams ignores the fact that factory-farmed animals have evolved to live in factories. They really don't mind their circumstances as much as people like McWilliams would like to think - because they've been bred that way. That's why they outperform yesterday's animals, raised on yesterday's farms. If you put modern animals out in the wild, they don't cope as well as the less selected ones. This point is moot now that McWilliams is against all farmed animals - but I bring it up because it seems he's ignorant of this point, which buttresses his argument that different farming systems are more similar than meets the eye. E.g. a hoop building isn't that different from putting pigs in a barn (aka "confinement"): in both cases, you are keeping the pigs in a building so that you can feed them easily and keep them out of the elements.

4) What about in vitro meat? I'm guessing that James and I will be the first in line to champion that stuff. I really look forward to the day when we can eat delicious, tasty Mangalitsa-like food without having to raise and kill animals. I took a knife and severed the arteries of 2 pigs a week ago - watching their dark red blood gush out of them. It wasn't fun for me - it was a dirty and dangerous job that I had to do to get my meat.

The pigs didn't like the pre-slaughter experience much either - part of killing them was disrupting their routine so that we could kill them, and they don't like being woken up and herded around. I don't think they knew what was going to happen to them (they'd have fought a lot more), but pigs get spooked by new stuff, and they were definitely spooked.

5) What if we bred animals that weren't sentient? Most of us view mosquitos and parasitical worms as machines and hence don't feel bad about killing them. With technology, we can breed animals that don't think or feel. In McWilliams's terms, they won't have "potential". They'll be like really plants, just made out of meat. If we could "construct" such animals (via breeding or genetic engineering), would McWilliams feel OK about eating them? I would argue that to some extent, by domesticating and breeding pigs (and chickens), we've already done that - particularly with the Meishan, a spectacularly lazy and docile pig, and with the modern sows that perform so well in gestation crates. Obviously, they aren't that stressed by living in a little box, or they wouldn't perform so well. The same is true of "battery hens"; they have evolved to thrive in little cages.

6) If McWilliams is so concerned about animals living (as opposed to dying), he should be promoting (as most farmers do) modern innovations (aka "factory farming") in pig raising. Basically, with improving echnology, laws and incentives, we can make farming what we want. If farmers must use traditional methods, there's no way to improve animal welfare or reduce pollution.

It's a fact that modern (aka "factory") farms wean more pigs (because they avoid preventable death losses), and healthier pigs, than non-modern farms. It's a fact that modern farms can recover their manure and apply it to fields, as opposed to primitive farms (like this one), where the waste just goes into the lot's dirt and stays there. Finally, when it becomes possible to monitor the welfare of a pig (by monitoring its brain), modern farms will be able to design systems that keep pigs measurably happier than other farms.

7) When consumers focus on details like "outside access", they set themselves up for failure. Basically, people focus on the easily specified stuff ("outdoor access"). What the farm actually does and how much the animals on the farm would be better or worse in a different system (a clear function of the animals' genetics) are different things.


McWilliams ends his essay:
In any case, by choosing death for an animal, humans choose the seduction of taste over an animal's right to its future. Until someone can convincingly prove that this denial does not constitute unnecessary harm, I'll continue to view free-range farming and factory farming as gradations on the scale of cruelty.
I applaud McWilliams for being so logical, principled and direct. Meat (at least, non-roadkill meat) necessarily means intentionally harming animals.

Hopefully in the future we'll have in vitro meat or other technological innovations that will allow us to get meat without harming animals - that will be good, because those "meat machines" will be more efficient than our current animals, and raising them will result in less pollution.

Until we've got that, I agree - if your main problem is that farming animals means killing them, the details of how the animals are raised doesn't matter much.

I take this a bit further, and argue that consumers should make purchasing decisions based on what tastes good - because as I've explained before - and as the organic egg mess demonstrates:
To the extent that consumers pay more for identical things just because a salesperson says one was produced via a more virtuous process, all they are doing is encouraging fraud.


* You'll often hear advocates of meat eating say that people who attack one kind of farming (e.g. foie gras) are really out to ban all meat eating in an incremental fashion. James Mcwilliams is unusual because he's sincere and open about what he thinks. It seems obvious to me that if he was trying to get people to stop eating meat, he'd switch from attacking free-range pig farming to foie gras, or some other easy target. The fact that he's come out against farmed meat means that most people will find it much easier to ignore him.

4 comments:

Kevin said...

It strikes me that Mr McWilliams, and many folks that share his sentiments, are too far removed from the state of nature. They have the luxury of being preoccupied with concepts such as cruelty and ethics. This is naive. Nature is the cruelest of mistresses and farming is just the human race's way of managing what it can to ensure a constant food supply to thrive and survive.

Heath said...

Keivn, I'm reminded of "...what is natural is often good, but not always. ...much in the world of nature is unpleasant, indeed odious." --- there's more on that here: http://chronicle.com/article/Two-Cheers-for-Nature/125651/

veganelder said...

I was really surprised at the shallowness of the response by Heath Putnam…well not really. Those who profit from the exploitation and death of others are unlikely to provide much depth when examining what they do. Such behaviors and practices aren’t deep, just pervasive and tragic.

It is sad that the best he could do in rebuttal was to point to something else (referencing road kill, mosquitos, in vitro flesh, non-sentient life forms) or assert that the animals who are being deprived of their freedom and lives don’t care about what is happening to them.

Anyone who doesn’t apprehend that all animals love their lives and will fight or flee attempting to protect themselves is someone so out of touch with reality that looking to them for insight or understanding is beyond problematical.

Human animals kill other animals because they can….this behavior is a prime example of the notion that “might makes right”. Pretending that it doesn’t cause unnecessary pain, suffering, terror or harm is simply specious.

Using the feeble rationale of “eat what tastes good” doesn’t cut it. Exploiting and killing sentient beings because they “taste good” is indefensible.

We exploit and kill because of cultural and social conditioning and those that defend these practices are either benefiting from them, do not care, or are too indoctrinated or unmotivated to examine them in any depth. Humans do not need to eat animal products to live.

Remember this, no other species has agreed that human animals have the right to kill all others, we have appointed ourselves as the ultimate arbiters of life or death.

We have, at least in practice, said…if a living being doesn’t speak a human language…then that being counts for nothing (historically, and sometimes currently, even speaking a human language afforded you no protection…if you had no power).

Good grief, if you are going to behave like a narcissistic, violent, greedy sociopath toward other sentient beings...at least own up to it, instead of pretending otherwise.

Heath said...

veganelder - I will address you point by point.

veganelder: I was really surprised at the shallowness of the response by Heath Putnam…well not really. Those who profit from the exploitation and death of others are unlikely to provide much depth when examining what they do. Such behaviors and practices aren’t deep, just pervasive and tragic.

me: I think about these issues a lot. I look forward to the day when our food animals won't be unsentient, or when we can produce meat-like substances without animals.

veganelder: It is sad that the best he could do in rebuttal was to point to something else (referencing road kill, mosquitos, in vitro flesh, non-sentient life forms) or assert that the animals who are being deprived of their freedom and lives don’t care about what is happening to them.

me: James McWilliams has said he doesn't mind eating meat. He says his problem is with humans denying animals their lives. I point out two things: he ought to be willing to eat roadkill (there can be no moral objection) and if he's going to defend the lives of all animals, he'll be defending the lives of guinea worms and mosquitos - animals which, if they disappeared from the planet, would make all the remaining animals better off.

veganelder: Anyone who doesn’t apprehend that all animals love their lives and will fight or flee attempting to protect themselves is someone so out of touch with reality that looking to them for insight or understanding is beyond problematical.

me: pigs really don't fight much when going to slaughter. They fight a lot more over food. They resist a lot more when being moved from pen-to-pen. They really don't seem to understand what is going on at slaughter. The proof is simple: I've seen pigs resist things, and I have yet to see them resisting at slaughter.

veganelder: Human animals kill other animals because they can….this behavior is a prime example of the notion that “might makes right”. Pretending that it doesn’t cause unnecessary pain, suffering, terror or harm is simply specious.

me: I'm not sure if vegetarian diets are as healthy as diets that include animal protein. There's certainly evidence that little pigs do better on animal protein than vegan diets. In any case, we kill and eat animals, and have done it, as a species for a long time. If people have problems killing animals, they can always choose to scavenge; that way they can get the nutrients found in animal protein, without killing.

veganelder: Using the feeble rationale of “eat what tastes good” doesn’t cut it. Exploiting and killing sentient beings because they “taste good” is indefensible.

me: I'm presupposing that you'll eat meat. If you are going to eat meat, I advise you to eat what tastes good. I don't advise you to buy stuff that people say was raised naturally, raised by Birkenstock wearing Zen Buddhists, etc -- because in the end, you never really know if the stuff was really raised that way. To the extent that you pay more for identical things just because of credence-based claims, you encourage fraud.

veganelder: Humans do not need to eat animal products to live.

me: They can live. It isn't clear they can thrive. Show me a great civilization that was vegan. Little pigs can't grow as well on vegan diets.

veganelder: Good grief, if you are going to behave like a narcissistic, violent, greedy sociopath toward other sentient beings...at least own up to it, instead of pretending otherwise.

me: I own up to what I do. What makes you think I'm not doing that?