The Reality of Our Meat Industry

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Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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  1. Avatar Ryan Noonan
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    says:

    Mike, this is a great post. As someone who regularly struggles with the conflict between my moral and aesthetic preferences when it comes the eating of meat, I found my own thoughts reflected here in a number of places.

    The perspective that thinking seriously about this issue gives is really enlightening, I find. I have very little doubt that 100 years from now, humans (at least the relatively wealthier ones) will look back and wonder how we could be so inhumane as to grow animals just to slaughter them in factories for our own gratification. I don’t want to Godwin the discussion, but I suspect it will be at least somewhat similar to the way we think about slavery (or not letting women vote, if you want something slightly less charged). It will just appear to be a random cruelty imposed for no particularly good reason. And the fact that I can’t really get out of it in the here and now is either a powerful indictment of me or a fascinating look at how ethics are deployed in practice.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Ryan Noonan
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      Ryan,

      Personally I don’t think we are going to stop killing animals for food until they safely bioengineer meat in labs. I think the technology will be there at some point and that’s when the meat industry will go away. Until then, I think raising these animals for food as humanely as possible is the most ethical choice. I’m 100% convinced humans are meant to eat meat so for me vegetarianism is not even a possible alternative.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        says:

        our gut’s all wrong for eating meat. it’s too long, and would tend to putrescefy within.
        carnivores invariably have shorter guts than we do.

        Humans haven’t evolved to eat meat to NEARLY the extent that they’ve evolved to heal burns. (which stands to reason, as cooked meat is much much less filled with parasites).Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Kimmi
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          our gut’s all wrong for eating meat. it’s too long, and would tend to putrescefy within. carnivores invariably have shorter guts than we do.

          We’re omnivores. We’re evolved to be very opportunistic and eat damn near anything, just like dogs and bears.Report

          • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to James Hanley
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            I don’t eat dogs! Bears, though…Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley
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            We didn’t evolve to eat anything.

            We evolved to not die when eating various things.

            There’s a very important difference, there.

            (FWIW, there are many more examples of animal flesh that we can safely ingest than there are examples of vegetable matter that we can safely ingest)Report

            • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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              says:

              I’m pretty certain color vision was evolved to allow us to eat more food sources, which helped us to not die through lack of food.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                Come on, Kimmi, you’re making the classical error of attributing direction to evolution (with natural selection).

                There ain’t no purpose there. It just does. Nature fiddles. Changes are made. The lion’s share of those changes are not beneficial or neutral, and they give no advantage, and they don’t become more or less common in the gene pool. Some are advantageous and they crowd out previous bits of the genetic material. There ain’t no “evolving to allow”. There’s no mover nor shaker there.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        says:

        That’s sort of why I set the bar at 100 years. At some point, we’ll figure out how to create meat or meat-like products synthetically, and that will obviate the need for eating meat. But that’s like saying the cotton gin made us all realize what a moral crime slavery is. It may be true, to a very large extent, but it’s not really to the point.

        But yeah, even in the meantime, a general societal horror about factory-farmed meat is pushing us to some sweeping changes. I don’t see any way to watch what we’re doing and conclude that eating meat will look much like it does now 100 years into the future.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Ryan Noonan
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          says:

          “Society has the morals it can afford” — Niven (and Pournelle, but I think that’s Niven’s voice)Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Noonan
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          I’d say it’s definitely a question of if not when on the subject of artificial meat. It is both an massively popular protein source and also a relatively expensive one. There’re already meat substitutes bopping around the market and they’re gradually improving. You can be sure that economics, especially in Asia, will jump on efficient meat protein synthesis with both feet. There’s an utter ton of money to be made in it.

          Heck at some point we may all be sitting around wondering if we have any moral obligation to pay people to keep meat animal breeds as stinky unpleasant pets to prevent the extinction of entire breeds.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        says:

        Mike,

        Why not eat less meat? (Maybe 5 times a week instead of, say, 14 times a week.)

        Spend the same amount of money that you spend buying cheap meat from Safeway, but buy it from somewhere the animals are ethically raised. Sure, you’ll get less meat, but you’ll eat ethically, and probably more healthily.

        My family (on both sides, mom and dad) have been ranchers for generations. Even my ranching grandparents ate far less meat than the average city dweller today. Early hunter gatherers almost certainly ate less meat than we do. Our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom eat very little meat. Less meat is associated with lower choleserol, obesity, heart disease and all that. There is no health reason not to eat less meat.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Shazbot2
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          Erm… early hunter gatherers probably ate more meat as a proportion of their diet than we did albeit less meat in absolute terms (what with all the starving they did).Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to North
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            In some areas high meat diets are the only option. The Alaska Native and First Nations’ people all eat lots of meat since growing stuff just isn’t much of an option. Humans can live and thrive on a meat heavy diet. I’m not saying that would work well for most of us or is even a good idea in general. But human diet variation is just as varied as humans are.Report

            • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to greginak
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              Well, whale meat was the only option for the Inuit in the past. But, not now. (And killing whales and dolphins -some of the most intelligent, social creatures on the planet, some of which are endangered- bad morally and practically, regardless of the morality of killing animals in general, no?) I mean, natives living down here aren’t still living in teepees and eating pemican.

              Certainly some cultures have lived on meat only others on veg only others on both.

              The earliest humans and our great ape relatives really aren’t capable of catching much meat and our stomachs aren’t structured like the really “long evolved” predators like lions and tigers. Our stomachs hands and teeth are pretty close to our nearest relatives who eat meat only rarely.Report

          • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to North
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            Earlier humans almost certainly ate almost no meat, just like our great apes relative eat virtually no meat.

            It’s really, really unclear how much meat humans ate in the paleolithic era. It’s a long era with very different humans in different conditions. Some were probably strictly veg, some meat, some both. But the debate is a mess, IMO, Wikipedia says theories go every which way. (The claims of the paleo diet are pretty unsubstantiated here.)

            It appears cannibalism was common in the Upper Paleolithic, though, at least on some accounts.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic#Diet_and_nutritionReport

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Shazbot2
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          Shazbot,

          I think eating meat twice per day (in smaller quantities) is right for me. Rose Woodhouse recently wrote a post about her success on a low-carb/ high-protein diet at her sub-blog and I have been trying the same for the last 6 weeks. I’ve never felt better and the unwanted pounds are dropping off at a very healthy rate of 1-2 pounds per week. I stopped starting my day with meat for my first meal and I think that has been key for me.Report

  2. Avatar North
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    When I was in my late single digits my family got a calf. She was an amiable young cow and my siblings and I were quite fond of her. There wasn’t any ambiguity about why we had her; my Father named her Ribbles; but you know how children are about animals. We’d go to school and return, Ribbles would see us get off the bus and come running up to the fence and we’d pick grass and flowers for her and she’d do that wet cow nose thing all over our hands.
    Eventually Ribbles time came, I was present for Ribbles’ send off, a shot to the head, relatively painless I presume and I assisted with the butchering (this wasn’t a shock to me, I had to help raise turkeys and chickens and had been responsible for wielding the hatchet when they got stuck into the potato sack with their heads sticking out of the hole).
    I must say though, Ribbles was the most succulent and flavorful beef I’ve tasted in my entire life. I remain an avid meat eater but I’d definitely agree Mike that participating at least briefly in the process of obtaining meat definitely adds to one’s appreciation for it.Report

  3. Avatar Reformed Republican
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    But aren’t we all glad that we are fortunate enough to worry about the morality of what we eat, instead of worrying about where our next meal will be found?Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Reformed Republican
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      Reformed Republican,

      I agree 100%. As Anthony Bourdain best puts it, “Vegetarianism is a first world phenomenon.”Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        says:

        the FUCK it is! Plenty of countries do vegetarianism. China and India have entire cuisines that revolve around vegetarianism. Plenty more have meat as such a small part of the diet as to be nearly nonexistent (once a week???).

        Vegetarianism is poor people food.Report

        • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kimmi
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          says:

          Kimmi,

          Is that voluntary or involuntary vegetarianism? And when you say meat once per week, is that because they don’t want to eat it more often or because they can’t afford to?Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer
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            says:

            In India and China it is often voluntary (and considered religiously motivated, if not religiously required…).
            In most other 3rd world places, it’s … less voluntary. But the choice is not always between meat and not meat, in my opinion. it’s between culturally valuable cows, and chickens… or something like that.

            “can’t afford to” … what if it’s “can’t find enough game”?Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kimmi
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              says:

              “In most other 3rd world places, it’s … less voluntary.”

              And that is, I think, Bourdain’s point. In the first world people have the luxury of choosing vegetarism for moral reasons. The only country where that choice is also fairly common is India. In China very few are full vegetarians and many still eat seafood or occasional meat. In most of the world vegetarianism is not a voluntary choice.

              Interesting link here:

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_countryReport

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                says:

                so, Taiwan (which, for religious purposes, I’ll count as somewhat more representative of China as “middle earth” and take current mainland china as an outlier) has about 10% vegetarians.
                So does Brazil (which in the article you cited is described as voluntary)

                These numbers rival or exceed what the first world is doing.

                The only difference I see is that the first world vegetarians tend to be more… militant.Report

              • Avatar Reformed Republican in reply to Kimmi
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                Personally, I was referring to those of us involved in the discussion. I am sure that even in the US there are people who do not have the luxury of giving a lot of thought to the morality of what they eat. Really, it goes beyond even vegetarianism. We have movements like locavore. Carbs or no carbs. Low-fat.
                I am not sure I really had much of a point beyond acknowledging how fortunate I am to be able t have so many options in front of me. I am not confronted daily with the question of “how am I going to find food for me and my family?” Instead, I get to select from an amazing variety of food. It was a statement of gratitude more than anything else.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Reformed Republican
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                +1
                it is well that we recognize how excellent we have it. it is yet one step towards helping others.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Kimmi
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                Taiwan is first-world. It has a higher PPP-adjusted GDP than France.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg
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                Per-capita, I mean.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Brandon Berg
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                read the parentheses. I’m contending, based on my knowledge of the current atheist currents, and the prior religious ones, that totalling vegetarianism in mainland china is not representative of China (where by we speak of a larger timeframe and country).

                Of course Taiwan is first world!Report

              • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Kimmi
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                PETA is militant. (Lots of advocacy groups are: the NRA, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Greenpeace, The Tea Party, etc. etc. I’m not defending any of these groups, but the existence of a militant advocacy group does not imply a wider militancy amongst, say, all gun owners or opponents of gun control.

                Have you ever met a militant vegetarian in your life.

                All the vegetarians I know get more militant “you should eat meat” attacks leveled at them than they ever level at anyone else.

                Calling a whole group, or most of a group, militant is a big charge and needs to be substantiated.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Shazbot2
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                says:

                yes, of course. then again, I do not presume to speak for any other people.
                (the vegan who was most distressed because his cat got out and caught a mouse was … interesting).Report

          • Avatar James Vonder Haar in reply to Mike Dwyer
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            says:

            Well, I think that they can’t afford to eat more meat is the point.

            “Vegetarianism is a first world phenomenon” implies that it’s a luxury only the rich can indulge in. In fact, meat is significantly more costly and makes up much more of the diet of rich people. Meat is a luxury, not something people have to eat to get by.Report

            • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to James Vonder Haar
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              says:

              James,

              The point is that when people can afford it, they usually chose meat. Bourdain is talking about voluntary vegetarianism i.e. not eating meat even when you can afford it. That is a first world phenomenon.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                says:

                I think Americans tend to overconsume meat. If you asked most people, in most of the world, how much meat they wanted per day, you’d probably get about 1 serving…
                Not three times a day!!Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kimmi
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                says:

                I will agree with that statement. I think over-consumption is a much more practical discussion for Americans. I know I have personally cut back from 3-4 servings per day to 2 and I think it’s the right amount plus a little less guilt.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                says:

                +1. I eat less than that, but it changes based on whimsy (I have done 2 weeks straight of pizza…)
                I’d really rather try to get people to eat a little more responsibly, rather than guilt trip people over something that they like — if you go whole hog, most people will just dig in their heels and say no.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                says:

                People in undeveloped countries do lots of things that are unwise and lots of things that are immoral. (So do people in wealthy countries, for that matter.)

                It does take time and space to to spend time thinking about animals and the morality of killing them or mistreating them. Lots of people in poorer places don’t have that time, so they don’t reflect much on the moral and practical dimensions of what they eat.

                People in poorer places don’t think as much about women’s rights, the value of education, women’s literacy, etc. either. Ideally, they should think about all of these things, but we give them a pass because they have immediate problems (hungry children, no clean water, local warlords, lack of literacy, etc.)

                So how is Bourdain’s claim relevant to anything?Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Shazbot2
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                says:

                Bourdain’s statement matches closely with what I have said for many years; my belief is that Nature intended for us to eat meat and I don’t believe our morlaity should trump that. And of course for me, there is no moral complication with eating meat so it is a moot point.Report

              • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Mike Dwyer
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                says:

                Mike,

                I’m curious about this.

                How do you know what nature intends? (I’m curious about how people know God’s intentions, too, but that’s a separate matterr.)

                I met a priest once who told me “nature intended” for all sex to have the chance to lead to procreation. I asked him how he knew this and he pointed to some such about biology. I poijted out that some people have sex for procreation some don’t and so both are natural.

                It seems to me that in the state of nature and different points in human development some people ate meat some people didn’t. Some engaged in cannibalism, and slavery, some didn’t. So it’s hard to say that eating meat or cannibalism or slavery or procreative sex are somehow natural or unnatural.

                The truth is, it seems to me, Nature (with a capital N?) doesn’t intend anything. There is no teleology in the universe. Rather, humans descended from apes who had stomachs, teeth, and bodies that weren’t very good for eating meat.(Our long, ape-like intestines with low acid levels make eating meat a bit of a problem, but possible if it’s cooked and or raw and really fresh and in small portions.)

                But then we also have super brains which gave us tool use and the ability to kill like an apex predator. Lots of early humans used that ability. Others engaged in more agriculture.

                Throughout human development thoughts about morality weren’t really a big factor. People engaged in slavery, meat eating, cannibalism, rape, etc., etc. but they rarely spent time reflecting on the immorality of it, and only late in history did our recognition of the immorality of some of these things change our behavior.

                We now have reached a point where we can decide to eat meat or not or how we will slaughter animals. We can’t escape that choice (one way or another) by appeals to what is natural.

                After all, natural and moral are distinct concepts.Report

              • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Shazbot2
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                says:

                Shazbot,

                When I say ‘Nature intended’ I mean that I think our biology is suited to meat consumption. Whether that was an evolutionary process or the intelligent design of a creator is for each to make their own decision about.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Noonan in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        says:

        The first world-ness of vegetarianism is what I was trying to get at it with my “at least the relatively wealthier ones” bit from my initial comment. A lot of things that I consider major ethical problems – including also climate change and the broader environmental movement – are essentially meaningless to people outside of a certain socioeconomic class.Report

      • Avatar Shazbot2 in reply to Mike Dwyer
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        says:

        “Vegetarianism is a first world phenomenon.”

        So is contraception.

        What of it?Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy
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    “I have been hunting for 25 years and in that time I have seen hundreds of animals killed. Even with that experience, this video is hard for me to watch. There is a stark difference between killing an unsuspecting animals in its natural environment and the factory process of slaughtering animals for market. The actual moment of the animal’s death is more quick and painless than the death of an animal in a hunting situation, but the detachment and efficiency of the process somehow makes it seem more unpleasant from my perspective. Odd how that moral reality plays out.”

    Mike-

    How much do you think your divergent responses are the result of the gap in experiences with the two processes? I know some folks with strong objections to hunting, almost all of whom have zero experience with hunting. I doubt the folks involved in the meat industry have much issue with their process, also because of familiarity. I dated a hardcore vegan in college who wanted to setup a video display in the bookstore of slaughter house footage. Her argument was that if people knew what went on, they’d never eat meat again. But I wonder if the opposite is true… if we shed more light on the process, perhaps we simply accept it and our moral outrage peaks before subsiding. Perhaps we view the slaughter house the same way you viewed those hogs growing up.

    Personally, I prefer meat that has been better handled throughout its life and processing largely because of taste. And while I am not organic by any means, I do adhere to the “Eat more food, eat less stuff” philosophy and tend towards things that are less processed. We don’t eat a ton of beef, so we’ll get our steaks at the farmer’s market and our ground beef (if I’m not grinding my own) is at least labeled as being acquired through better processes. Likewise with chicken and eggs. A majority of the meat I consume comes through our dining service at work, which has commitments to local and sustainable food sources. The moral bump is a nice one, but the taste and health issues are prime for me.

    Of course, I’m famously on record as saying I don’t think there exist such a thing as “animal rights” so… my moral calculus is a bit different.Report

    • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kazzy
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      says:

      Kazzy,

      “How much do you think your divergent responses are the result of the gap in experiences with the two processes?”

      I would say not much. I’ve seen videos of meat processing plants before and I was fully aware of the process. As I mentioned in the post I’ve also seen livestock slaughtered for meat on a small, family farm. For me it was really just the point where the animal is dispatched. It seems very impersonal and that is what makes it hard. I guess I feel like it’s such a ‘clinical’ end to the animal’s life and that is tough for me because I take that very seriously. When I hunt there is a lot of emotion involved in every kill. When we helped those neighbors slaughter their hogs, there was a degree of emotion, especially for some of their children.Report

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