There doesn't seem to be a simple answer.
Human beings don't need animal flesh to survive. While vegetarian diets may not be pleasant to the palate, and may require special planning and preparation for people to get their necessary protein allotment, they are certainly sustainable in the long run. This means that for modern humanity eating meat is an option. An option that I, like billions of others, am no stranger to. I am fully aware that animals suffer unspeakable horrors so that I might enjoy that delicious hamburger or piece of chicken. I bite into my food having been educated on factory farms and tail clipping and all the rest of the barbarism that goes on in the American meat industry.
So why do I do it? Short answer, because it's delicious. The longer answer is that I think meat consumption is a complicated ethical issue. It's not just about taking life to sustain life, all animals do that. Plants are alive and nobody sheds a tear when they are killed by the millions to make our bread and tofu and salads. So what then? Is it a central nervous system? Insects have them, but do we really care about them? Do they feel in anything like the way that humans do, in a way that requires we be ethical towards them? Most would agree they don't, they're not psychologically complex enough. They don't seem to have intelligence or feel pain. Native American cultures used to eat grubs as a treat, was that unethical? What about shellfish? Do clams feel love or pain? Where do we stop? At vertebrates? Does anyone feel sorry for flounder or trout when they end up in the pan? Perhaps some do. I don't.
Things get more complicated when you move up the food chain to mammals, specifically large ones. Certainly many people wince at the thought of eating monkey flesh since the primates remind us of ourselves. On the other hand the pig, an animal whose parts are consumed at every meal of the day, has intelligence to rival that of many simians. Do we give a second thought about biting into a piece of bacon or a pork dumpling? Pigs are raised in inhumane conditions throughout the country, force fed to be fattened up, kept snout to tail in tiny pens without the opportunity to exercise or engage in social behaviors, and shot full of drugs to mitigate the disease that can spread like wildfire through factory farms.
This is indisputable fact. I still enjoy a nice ham sandwich. Why?
Up until now I've focused on the critical arguments against consuming animal flesh, with my only argument in favor being that it tastes good. Hedonistic pleasure is not an excuse for bad behavior, but what about instinct and human nature? Humans are a flesh-eating species. Yes we are omnivores and primitive man's diet had its share of berries, roots, and nuts. On the other hand our eyes are located in the fronts of our head, a setup designed for depth-perception, the mark of a species that is more hunter than hunted (hunted animals have eyes on the sides of their heads allowing a greater angle of view so they can note predators.) We have sharp teeth in our mouths for the rending of meat, up front, as well as flatter ones in back to crush plant material. We lack the herbivore's complex digestive system to break down cellulose into digestible energy in exchange for a shorter tract that can break down protein more efficiently.
We were designed to eat meat.
And I for one crave it. I like the taste of chicken, I like the taste of beef. Don't get me wrong, a salad can be good, but it's not as savory as a nice piece of chicken. Rooting around at the bottom of the bowl for scraps of carrot or lettuce is no match for cleaning a drumstick of all edible meat and sucking the marrow from it. I don't think this is just a learned behavior. Primitive man loved meat, and the Innuit people for one live on it almost exclusively. Every other meat eating animal that can get at flesh will eat it, from omnivorous bears who could conceivably make do on foraged plant material to carnivores like the big cats of the African plains who take down zebra and wildebeest with no ethical qualms.
Indeed prey species have evolved to rely on predators for population control. In New York state farmers and ranchers shot most of the wolves and the deer have gone out of control, creating an overpopulated mess that hunting can only partially solve. Many are sick or malnourished, and they continue breed at levels that require culling that wolves are no longer around to do.The cycle of life was set up to include meat eaters.
Okay, so humans might be designed to consume flesh, but there's a big difference between a Native American tribe stalking bison and you or I eating a burger from a factory farmed cow. The killing of the bison was a ritual that indicated some sort of symbiotic relationship and respect between the two species. It didn't involve locking it in a stall for its whole natural life, mutilating it, and finally killing it and throwing away much of the carcass.
This is true, and it is also true that most people in today's urban societies have no time or skill for the hunt, not to mention that wild animal populations couldn't sustain 6.8 billion men with guns gunning for their flesh. We need farming, and we need controlled predictable sources of meat. Yet we cannot justify the factory farm unless we accept that anything that's not human is ripe for abuse and mistreatment, and that despoiling the environment and poisoning our food supply is a reasonable price to pay for cheaper meat.
I don't think it is. The solution to our current problem is, in my opinion, the traditional farm. Where I had a country home in my youth there were many of them. These were places where the cows grazed happily in the fields in the spring summer and fall, and spent the winter in a barn being fed not liquefied flesh from their brethren but rather a diet of corn and oats. From my observations as a young person cows enjoy corn and oats. They probably did receive some level of medication, but not the level of drugging that factory cattle endure, and the ranch hands who took care of them had both affection and respect for the animals. Granted these were dairy farms, but there's no reason that beef cattle couldn't be treated in the same way. In some places they are. There's plenty of open land in this country, enough that there's no reason for the factory farm to exist.
No reason except price.
The factory farm is an example of the brutality of unfettered capitalism. It's cheaper to lock cattle in tiny stalls and feed them liquefied flesh than it is to let them roam and give them corn, so the former is what we do for the most part. The beef industry doesn't really talk about it so the consumer doesn't really know, and assumes the cows he's eating have lead relatively happy lives grazing in bucolic fields before being humanely slaughtered for their meat. It's a big lie, and it works. People eat meat, most don't feel guilty, prices are low.
It's wrong. Using organic farming techniques that utilize animal waste as fertilizer it is likely that we could switch to a more sustainable and humane form of animal husbandry without sending the price skyrocketing. We'd have to cut consumption some, and pay a little more, but that would have the added benefit of reducing the obesity epidemic and creating a healthier public. It would also make a world of difference to the animals. A pig who has spent his life rutting in the mud outdoors playing with his friends in a family farm pen can be happy. When he is made into a pulled pork sandwich he shuffles off this mortal coil having spent his life happy as...a pig in shit. He is part of the grand cycle of life and symbiosis and the rest of it. A big who has his tail clipped and spends his life in a giant building being pumped full of food and drugs? That's a different story.
But Americans are consumers, and we don't really care what happens to our food so long as we don't have to see it. Cheap wins out over safe and moral. Every time. This needs to change. I don't think you can ban factory farming except insofar as it is unsafe to humans, but you can hope to create a sea change in the culture where we'll start to care more about our impact on the world than what we can acquire and how quickly we can get it.
I for one believe in small steps. I buy organic chicken and beef when I can (at restaurants it's often not an option) and if it costs a little more or I get a little less that's okay. Of course I also consume the occasional McDonald's hamburger or Wendy's chicken salad, so I'm not blameless, but it's not an all or nothing proposition. Torturing fewer animals is better than torturing more, even if torturing none would be best.
I don't think we have to be vegetarian to be an ethical society, but we do need to change the way we produce food and care for animals. A lot of animal rights activism is a little bullshitty to me, for example the cute animals get a lot more attention and work than the ugly ones who might be just as smart or smarter (See pigs) but the activists are right that we shouldn't torture and maim just because we can. How we treat animals is just a symptom of the brutal commodification of life that is 21st century America.
Here's to turning it around.