In the ever-growing alternative food movement, the disagreement on the value of animals in agriculture is still able to divide people that are otherwise on the same team when it comes to improving the food system for everyone. Some say that there is no room for livestock in a sustainable food system. Other people (including myself) believe that livestock have an important, beneficial role to play in our ecosystem, and that animal products confer unique health benefits. In these dialogues it is easy to focus on how we disagree and lose sight of our common ground.
So I’d like to highlight the six things that ethically-minded meat-eaters, vegetarians (those who don’t eat animals) and vegans (those who don’t eat any animal products) can agree on.
1. Environmental health is of urgent importance
We have one planet and unfortunately, the scale of agriculture needed to feed everyone on it does more harm than good to our environment. Animal agriculture has been routinely characterized as the single biggest contributor to climate change and pollution. This position is one common reason for going vegetarian or vegan: to lessen the burden on the environment caused by the industrial meat industry. It’s also a reason for sourcing your meat from sustainable farms. While vegetarians opt out entirely of the industrial meat system, which is indeed a major cause of pollution (from the cultivation of GMO crops for feed to the disposal of animal waste in dangerously concentrated amounts), ethical omnivores choose instead to support farmers that are raising their animals in accordance with nature by letting them live outside and eat a more natural diet. These animals live off the land, making the natural ecosystem a priority for the farmer, and there is almost no waste, because the manure of the livestock is welcomed into the soil. Pasture-based farms also rely on cultivating perennials (like grasses), which improve soil health and help prevent erosion. Either way, together we are working to save the environment through our eating habits.
2. Animals are sentient beings worthy of respect.
It’s been proven long ago that even fish can feel pain, so there is little moral ground for the mental and physical torture of confinement farming, where painful and unnecessary physical alterations like beak-trimming are practiced. Vegetarians and vegans thoughtfully choose not to eat animals because of the suffering industrial livestock regularly endure. They give no support to the factory farming system, which is admirable. Ethical omnivores also avoid products from animals kept in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and instead support farmers that prioritize animal welfare above profit margin. Many pasture-based farms also refrain from spraying and plowing their fields, practices that are common in plant cultivation, and which cause the death and displacement of untold populations of wildlife of all sizes, from honeybees to deer. Ethical eating, whether vegan or omnivorous, should consider the way we treat our fellow animals.
3. We should eat local whenever possible.
Eating food that was grown close by is a great way to decrease the amount of fossil fuels needed to feed the community. It also helps strengthen regional economies. Eating local is easiest in the summer and fall, when most American states can grow their own food. Animal products, on the other hand, can be sourced locally year-round. When deciding what to eat, food miles (the number of miles your food travels from production to plate) are a significant factor in reducing environmental harm.
4. Pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics and hormones are bad.
No matter what is growing (vegetables, trees, grass, animals), we can all agree that agriculture would be better off without synthetic chemicals that disrupt the process of nature, cause pollution, and harm pollinators like bees, among other things. Conventional agriculture relies on artificial pesticides, often in amounts that are toxic to wildlife--that’s the whole point of using them. Industrial meat is usually fed on antibiotic- and hormone-laced feed that also has been treated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.* That is not to devalue small farmers who practice conventional agriculture on a local scale. But if you can't buy directly from a farmer, eating organic products, both plant and animal, is one sure way to avoid hormones, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, GMOs and synthetic chemicals.
5. Individual health is a personal and national priority.
With the rise of many degenerative diseases, the health effects of what we eat cannot be underestimated. One of the biggest reasons people choose a certain diet is that their health is important to them. And with evidence pointing every which way, it is becoming apparent that there is no one diet that is fit for every individual. Vegetarians feel best when they avoid animal products. Ethical omnivores feel better when they have meat, eggs and/or dairy in their diet, but they also understand that when animals are at their optimal health, they produce optimal nutrition for humans. Pastured animal products have proven to be healthier than their industrial counterparts: fewer calories and less fat, more vitamins (A, E, D), omega-3s and even antioxidants. There is evidence supporting many different types of diets, but your own diet should depend on what makes you feel physically and mentally healthy.
6. Individuals can (and should) make a difference in the food system.
Ethically-minded eaters are empowered by their grocery budgets. Each Meatless Monday or backyard egg erodes the power of the industrial status quo. The recent trend of cage-free eggs in fast food restaurants is one great example of consumer demand changing the system. The food industry is watching what you eat and responding. If you believe in a certain farming practice, you should purchase food that is produced in accordance with that practice with the intent to change how food is produced.
I can’t pretend I don’t enjoy the occasional--and respectful--debate with a friend who disagrees with me on this subject. Healthy discourse is actually very important if we are to grow and change the food system together. But don’t let the disagreement over one or two ingredients divide us. Stand up for what you believe in, but don’t let that stance alienate your allies just because you disagree on one aspect of a sustainable, healthy food system that is still taking shape.
*Added hormones are illegal in poultry and swine production.