Is a meat-free diet morally superior?

Published 20151020

There is an evangelical fervour starting to emerge in debates about farm animal welfare and meat-free diets. The argument that a diet that is free of meat is somehow morally superior is frequently used by opponents of livestock farming, but exactly why this would be the case is not supported by either evidence or logic.

There is no doubt that many people who advocate in favour of a meat-free diet and who are opposed to livestock farming hold very strong views about the innate cruelty of livestock production, and the moral superiority of those who oppose it. An example of these views featured in an opinion piece published by the Sydney Morning Herald on 20/10/2015, headlined “We’re crueller than ever but too selfish to change” The online version carried a more specific headline “Are we the cruellest we’ve ever been? The way we treat animals suggests we are.” and incorporated a picture of a pig in a cage with the heading “Factory farming has all but replaced traditional farming methods, making the paddock-to-plate process invisible.” It then argued that humans are only able to consume meat by ignoring what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the ‘better angels of our nature” – self-control, empathy, fairness and reason – effectively putting vegetarians and vegans on a much superior moral plane to the rest of humans.

Dealing with factual issues first, the claim that factory farming has all but replaced traditional farming methods begs a number of questions. The first is whether this is in fact the case, and the second is whether it automatically follows that so-called factory farming is more cruel to farm animals. In Australia, the domestic livestock industries consist of approximately 26 million beef cattle, 1.7 million dairy cattle, 75 million sheep, 2.1 million pigs and around 570 million chickens. Of these, virtually all of the cattle and sheep are managed on pastures, which presumably does not count as factory farming. There is capacity for approximately 1 million cattle on feedlots, where some cattle are held in pens and fed grain for periods averaging around 100 days prior to slaughter, and these might be considered to be factory farms. In relation to pigs and poultry, most would be managed under what are referred to as factory farming conditions, although these increasingly incorporate requirements for the animals to be able to range freely, and the major retailers have proposed that all egg production will need to be based on free-range systems in several years time. In fact, if anything the trend in Australia is for less rather than more factory farming of livestock.

That leads to the subsequent question, which concerns the assumption that intensive livestock production systems are cruel. This is the implicit and unchallenged assumption that underpins opposition to intensive livestock production systems, but unfortunately (for anti-livestock proponents) the available science on animal welfare does not support this. As eminent animal science researchers have pointed out in recent research published by the Australian Farm Institute, biological indicators of animal stress (such as plasma cortisol measurements) and animal behaviour indicators do not support the contention that intensive livestock production systems are inherently more stressful for animals than free-range systems. In addition, mortality and disease rates are much higher under free-range conditions, and when offered choice, many farm animals exhibit a preference for housing and shelter, rather than to range freely and be exposed to the elements and potential predators.

The assumption that intensive livestock production systems are automatically more cruel to animals seems to be largely founded in an anthropomorphic assumption about what animals ‘like’ or would find less stressful. It is interesting that these assumptions are most frequently made by humans who choose to live in ‘factory housing’ in major urban centres.

The underlying moral assumption of many of those opposed to livestock farming (including the author of the article carried in the Sydney Morning Herald) is that those who choose to consume meat are somehow morally inferior – they lack “self-control, empathy, fairness and reason.” Whether this also applies to all other higher order omnivores and carnivores (everything from spiders to lions, tigers, gorillas and sharks) is not canvassed in the discussion. It does however beg the question – is eating meat morally questionable, or is it the manner in which that meat is raised and slaughtered where the moral issue arises?

If the former, then this immediately casts all carnivores and omnivores as morally inferior, although exactly what the ‘moral’ basis is for making that judgement is not clear. Presumably, in the eyes of those opposed to meat eating, half of all nature is somehow immoral.

If the latter – that is it is the manner of raising and slaughtering meat that brings in the moral issues, than the logic of the arguments about human meat-eaters becoming more cruel and selfish reaches a difficult point. In fact the way in which modern humans produce and slaughter the meat that they eat seems immeasurably less cruel (in terms of subjecting animals to pain and suffering) than the way that predators in nature stalk, kill and consume the meat they need for survival. Modern meat production is also much more efficient and humane than was the case even fifty years ago, and certainly less cruel to animals than the practices of our hunter-gather predecessors.

Ultimately, most people in Australia are fortunate enough to be able to exercise free choice about the food they consume, safe in the knowledge that Australian farmers have some of the highest standards in the world when it comes to freedom from pests and diseases, freedom from chemical and other harmful contaminants, and freedom from animal cruelty. These are not just parroted lines, but are widely recognised characteristics of Australian farm produce in the international marketplaces in which Australian products sell at a considerable premium to those from other nations. 

There are a multitude of different reasons that individuals choose whether or not their diet includes meat, eggs, seafood, dairy products or processed foods, and many also exercise choice about whether they prefer organic produce, non-gmo products, or food from a specific region or production system. People are, and should be free to choose what they want to eat, but those who choose to avoid meat should not delude themselves that their dietary choices are somehow morally superior, and nor should they lecture others from this position of delusional moral superiority.   

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