Dan Murphy: The Importance of Being Ethical

Animal rights activists, veganistas and eco-warriors have coalesced on the message that raising livestock and eating meat is unhealthy and unethical. Guess what? So’s the alternative. ( Texas A&M )

Animal rights activists, veganistas and eco-warriors have coalesced on the message that raising livestock and eating meat is unhealthy and unethical. Guess what? So’s the alternative.

Twenty years ago, if you asked someone why they don’t eat meat, you would likely have gotten a range of answers: It’s wrong to abuse and then kill sentient creatures; or that red meat is horribly unhealthy and unsafe; or that raising livestock is destroying the world’s rainforests, just so Americans can enjoy “cheap” burgers.

Now, anti-meat messaging has solidified around a shorter, simpler mantra: Meat kills animals, people and planets, and anyone who disagrees has neither morals nor ethics.

Let’s break that down.

“Ethics” is formally described as a branch of philosophy, an academic discipline that involves analyzing, defending and promoting concepts of right and wrong. But in practical terms, ethics is best understood as a set of moral principles that govern people’s behavior.

With regard to animal agriculture and meat-eating, activists contend that those moral principles are principally focused on environmental protection, and to a somewhat lesser degree, on animal welfare. In other words, if a person stops eating meat, ethically, hey are protecting the environment from harm and saving animals from abuse and/or demise.

Neither of those assertions are accurate.

The impact of plant-based foods

First of all, most of the world’s accessible, arable land is already in food and fiber production, so replacing the multi-trillions of calories consumed by eating meat, dairy and eggs with plant-based nutrition would require a substantial increase in farm acreage, according to nearly every scientific analysis.

Of course, anti-meat activists always claim that A). people could simply eat the feedstuffs currently fed to livestock — welcome to cornmeal mush at the center of your plate; or B). the newly developed technology of cultured foods will deliver the necessary calories without needing the land or inputs or the energy needed to raise crops the “old-fashioned” way.

Both suppositions are partially correct, but neither would fully address the challenge of replacing all animal foods globally.

More farm acreage would need to be brought under cultivation to replace meat; there is no escaping that fact, and since a majority of the world’s livestock subsist either on forage from prairies, rangeland and savannahs unfit for growing row crops.

Moreover, let’s not forget the fact that farming destroys native vegetation, big time. Take Australia, for example.

In a report on SBS.com, the online website of Australia’s public broadcasting networks, it was estimated that since Europeans arrived there 225 years ago, the continent has lost more than half of its unique native vegetation. The cause is straightforward: cultivation of crops intended for human consumption.

The report stated that, “Most of Australia’s arable land is already in use. If more Australians want their nutritional needs to be met by plants, our arable land will need to be even more intensely farmed. This will require a net increase in the use of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and other threats to biodiversity and environmental health.”

Does that sound like high-minded ethics to you?

But wait — there’s more.

“Or, if existing laws are changed [so that] more native vegetation could be cleared for agriculture, an area the size of Victoria plus Tasmania would be needed to produce the additional amount of plant-based food required” to replace animal foods

By the way? Victoria and Tasmania comprise a land mass equal to Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana — combined; about 118,000 square miles.

And it cannot be overlooked that the undeniably serious impact on the global environment that would result from the world’s food-producing countries (somehow) shifting from a mix of food and feed crops, plus animal agriculture, to producing strictly plant-based foods would also result in the deaths of millions upon millions of birds, rodents, reptiles and insects when wild and native habitats are cleared, drained and plowed under for grow more crops.

Again: Are those really the ethics we want to embrace?

Perhaps years from now, refinements in the technology of cell-cultured food ingredients will significantly improve the efficiency of producing food ingredients. But remember: there is no free lunch (literally) when it comes to food production.

More than 300 years ago a scientist named Isaac Newton postulated that total energy within a system — like, say, the Earth — can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one form to another.

In the centuries since, it’s become abundantly clear that Sir Isaac got it right. There is no magic wand that can wave away the eco-realities of feeding what’s estimated to be nine billion-plus humans alive on the planet just a few short decades from now.

I’d argue that it’s seriously unethical for alt-meat believers and anti-meat activists to pretend otherwise.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.