Will Being a Vegetarian Save the Planet - Part VII: We Need to Talk about Ethics

I couldn’t reasonably write a piece like this without considering ethics at some point. For many people, it’s not the environmental concerns that drive them to be a vegetarian, it’s the ethical treatment of animals. I think it’s important to unite the two as well, as some of the methods we now use to produce meat on an enormous scale are, at least, morally dubious, and some of the ways I’ve discussed to reduce our environmental impacts could also improve animal wellbeing.

I've tried to keep away from introducing bias and my own opinions as much as possible (although I do confess to finding some arguments unconvincing), but when writing such a thing it's impossible to do so fully, therefore I'll make it clear where I stand from the beginning. I grew up eating meat; I was a vegetarian from ages 19-23, for the reason of trying to do my bit for the environment; I now eat meat again. I think animal cruelty is abhorrent and I define cruelty as any unnecessary harm to an animal. That being said I eat meat relatively guilt free, but I feel that is largely due to me not considering the animal in that process. I think rearing animals for meat isn't inherently cruel, but current aspects of meat production appear to be. I'm not going to claim I'm necessarily consistent in these beliefs either, I waver, so this article is as much for me as it is for you.

Right... now that's out of the way, let's get down to it.

Ethical treatment of animals is an important issue for many, as such there is strict legislation about how meat should be produced. Obviously to produce any meat an animal must be killed. That is an undeniable truth of meat-eating. Legislation then focuses on the death of the animal to make sure it is as ‘humane’ as possible.

How we kill animals

Animals are taken to slaughterhouses to be killed, these buildings are designed in a way to limit distractions, devoid of poking and prodding, and use every technique possible to make sure the animal is calm when it reaches the killing floor[1]. Once the animal reaches the moment of slaughter, except for kosher and halal, most animals in the developed world are made unconscious immediately preceding killing, this is known as ‘stunning’. After being stunned the carotid or jugular veins are slit, causing the animal to die quickly and without pain. This is the most humane way to kill an animal[1].

However… things can go wrong in this process. Sometimes animals are improperly stunned, leading to distress during the moment of death. This is particularly true in chickens, who are typically stunned using an electric bath, which some argue doesn’t knock them out properly[2,3]. Sometimes animals are made unconscious using gas, which, while effective, will likely cause an amount of distress from lack of oxygen just before being knocked out[1]. Even with the most effective instantaneous measures of stunning (such as mechanical bolts struck at the right part of the head), unintentional cruelty can seep in.

Many of the animals killed are social animals and may face distressing separation on the way to the slaughterhouse and may even witness the death of their kin. Overworked and stressed slaughterhouse employees make mistakes as well. With 400 cattle processed per hour, it’s bound to happen[4]. Humane as you like, as well, they’re still killed… Moreover, it appears that the moment immediately prior to their death could be the most humane part of their lives.

How we make animals live

With increasingly high demands for meat, a lot of production has become consolidated and focused on the most amount of food in the smallest amount of time. This quest for high efficiency has resulted in so-called landless practices, which can be exceptionally cruel: packing enormous numbers of animals into tiny spaces.

In the US, for example, there are only guidelines, no actual rules, on the production of chickens. Even the guidelines only recommend the chickens have space the size of just over an A4 piece of paper[5]. Pigs don’t fare much better with 0.65 metres squared, which is about the size of a small desk. Canadian and European rules don’t improve on this very much, only offering slightly larger spaces[6,7]. Cattle tend to get the better deal if only because they’re larger and reared on pasture, even then when they are sent for fattening in massive feeding operations they are forced into tight confinement[8]. This tight confinement of animals can lead to anxiety, stress and even overheating and death of the animals[4].

Because of confinement in chickens they have begun to attack one another, which is why it is common practice to cut their beaks short, so they can’t damage each other too much. In some cases, the chickens even cannibalise each other[9,10]. Moreover, breeding for increased growth has meant that many chickens have huge nutritional requirements that aren’t being met, meaning that they’re almost constantly hungry[11].

You may think that free-range animals have a much better life, but the reality is that free-range only has to be for some of the time, many animals still spend the majority of their time in confinement[12-14].

It is little wonder that there have been calls to abandon meat-eating as a cruel practice.

Arguments from Philosophy

The philosopher Peter Singer goes so far as to call our treatment of animals speciesism(1) and morally indefensible. In his book Animal Liberation[15], Singer says:

“If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering - insofar as rough comparisons can be made - of any other being”

Singer clearly feels that we cannot simply turn our back on suffering, therefore any animal capable of distress should be treated as we would a human. Singer feels that we should give animals an equal consideration of interest: animals have interests that should be considered like we would humans. By extension, animals wish to avoid pain and we should endeavour to allow this, to do anything else would be to put ourselves above animals. Saying we’re better than animals may sound fine, but consider how you would feel if an alien race came along and did the same to us.

I agree with Singer in principle, it appears wrong to me to allow animals to suffer needlessly, when I don’t need to eat meat. It has been argued that this line of reasoning is unrealistic, as if we do not assert ourselves over animals, some of the time, we would starve[4]. Not in the way you’d think, from lack of meat-eating, but rather since many pests of crops are birds and mammals capable of suffering and as such, if we took Singer literally, we’d be unable to stop them ravaging our crops.

I’m not quite convinced by this argument either. There are certainly humane ways to prevent animals attacking crops and the biggest ‘pests’, in the broadest sense, are actually other plants[16]. My issue with Singer is instead, how do we draw the line? How do we know what animals suffer and what don’t? I’m not sure we’re capable of answering these questions conclusively.

It certainly seems as well, as if eating meat is a natural part of our diet, and we hardly begrudge the lion eating the antelope, do we?

This is a specious line of reasoning; the lion does not have a choice and it cannot reason, it can only eat meat. We, on the other hand, can choose. You could argue that many of the animals that we keep for meat would not exist if we didn’t use them as food, they could have gone the way of the dodo, like so many other species. I’m not sure I really buy this either. If I were to offer you a life of cruelty over non-existence I’m not sure which would be the better option.

I have no reasonable answer to the question of whether it’s moral to eat meat or not, only more questions, but hopefully some of these questions can allow you to find what your moral position is.

It’s fair to say there is a certain amount of cruelty in the way we raise animals for meat, but we can alleviate this cruelty by working hard for humane conditions and decreasing the pressure on the meat-industry. If we buy less meat, and focus our buying on meat that is as free from cruelty as possible, then we could perhaps make a difference. After-all, the quality of meat is better with higher standards of living[17-19], economic pressures prevent farmers from applying these better standards[20]. Whether we eat meat or not, I think we all want to avoid cruelty where we can, our buying choices can have direct impacts on this.

What you eat is up to you. But when you consider eating meat you must consider these issues, ask yourself whether this is something you can abide by.


Next time I'll be coming to my conclusions. Join me then!


(1) Roughly defined as: giving preference to our own species in the absence of any morally relevant difference

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1.         Temple Grandin. Making slaughterhouses more humane for cattle, pigs, and sheep. Annu Rev Anim Biosci. 2013;1(1):491-512.

2.         Freedman Boyd. Humane slaughter of poultry: the case against the use of electrical stunning devices. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. 1994;7(2):221-36.

3.         ABM Raj. Recent developments in stunning and slaughter of poultry. World's Poultry Science Journal. 2006;62(03):467-84.

4.         Vaclav Smil. Should We Eat Meat? Evolution and Consequences of Modern Carnivory: Wiley-Blackwell; 2013.

5.         National Chicken Council. Animal Welfare for Broiler Chickens 2012 [05/03/17

6.         ML Connor. Recommended code of practice for the care and handling of farm animals: Communications Branch Agriculture Canada; 1993.

7.         EU. Council Directive 91/630/EEC of 19 November 1991 laying down minimum standards fo the protection of pigs 1998 [Available from: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:31991L0630.05/03/17

8.         Marcy Lowe, Gary Gereffi. A value chain analysis of the US beef and dairy industries. Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness, Duke University. 2009.

9.         J Amanda Hill. Egg production in alternative systems--a review of recent research in the UK. Research and development in agriculture. 1986.

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12.       Assured Food Standards. Red Tractor Assurance for Farms – Chicken Standards: Free Range 2014 [Available from: http://assurance.redtractor.org.uk/contentfiles/Farmers-5619.pdf.05/03/17

13.       United Poultry Concerns. "Free-Range" Poultry and Eggs[Available from: http://www.upc-online.org/freerange.html

14.       British Hen Welfare Trust. How free range is your free range egg? 2016 [Available from: http://www.bhwt.org.uk/free-range-free-range-egg/.05/03/17

15.       Peter Singer. Animal liberation: Random House; 1995.

16.       E-C Oerke. Crop losses to pests. The Journal of Agricultural Science. 2006;144(01):31-43.

17.       Timothy A Powell, Michael C Brumm, Raymond E Massey. Economics of space allocation for grower-finisher hogs: a simulation approach. Review of Agricultural Economics. 1993:133-41.

18.       SF Bilgili, JB Hess. Placement density influences broiler carcass grade and meat yields. The Journal of Applied Poultry Research. 1995;4(4):384-9.

19.       JP Thaxton, WA Dozier, SL Branton, GW Morgan, DW Miles, WB Roush, et al. Stocking density and physiological adaptive responses of broilers. Poultry science. 2006;85(5):819-24.

20.       Brian D Fairchild. Broiler stocking density. Retrieved March. 2005;18:2009.