I get predatory and intimidating threats from people who are passionately against killing animals; it just goes with the territory; I run a meat business.
I have thought about the morals of killing animals for food much more than the average person, and I’d like to share some insights with you.
Killing animals is not something I take lightly; it takes either a heartless person or someone who has completely squared the process with their conscious, to run a meat business – I still can’t watch Watership down without crying!
I was brought up in nature and from an early age was involved in farming. On a livestock farm the reason you keep animals is to produce food; mostly – apart from dairy – livestock must die for the food to be yielded. Not only do you regularly load animals for slaughter or intervene to end the suffering of a sick animal, but as the custodian of several hundred animals you will see animals that have simply died of ‘natural causes.’
I watched animal cartoons and cried the same as every other child, but I was never under any illusion that animals thought or acted as humans do. When you handle animals daily you get a sense of their level of consciousness and understanding of the world they occupy. Animals vary between species but are wired and driven by hormones and instincts more, and cognitive ability less, than humans.
The sheep that bleat after the lambs are weaned are not necessarily doing so because they are imagining the dreadful fate of their loved children; their powerful inbuilt mothering instincts are on overdrive because they’ve misplaced the youngster they are wired to rear. Many sheep don’t even notice when one of their two lambs is missing; most sheep don’t count! When animals lose a companion, I doubt they’re depressed because they are imagining a lonely future of chewing the cut solo; they know something has changed and they don’t like it, their herd has disappeared and they feel vulnerable. Ruminant animals are herd creatures and their protection comes from being part of a mob.
We used to get occasional ewes we called ‘ambulance chasers’ on the Farm. These feisty ladies would pinch other ewes’ lambs and frantically run after the trailer as every new family was taken to the next field. These ewes have strong instincts and made great Mothers when they eventually had their own lambs, but they didn’t fully understand what they were doing, their actions were driven by a flush of hormones and the instinct to protect something that wasn’t yet born.
I have owned and bred dozens of different breeds and characters of dogs; some pets, some working; they all act differently. Some dogs will pine the loss of their puppy’s for a while, but most are back to normal after a day. When my dog goes back to the Farm and meets his Mum and Sister he certainly doesn’t give them a hug and kiss – they have the bite wounds to demonstrate that they have no idea they’re related. When my Jack Russel sniffed the body of his lifelong companion (our beloved Collie who sadly died recently), he was vaguely curious for a moment but then immediately went back to the task of reminding me it was time for a walk, we, on the other hand, were in pieces!
The level of intelligence varies widely in animals; elephants and chimps are high on the scale, in my experience sheep and turkeys are lower! They all deserve our respect and kind treatment. I’m simply highlighting it may be wrong to assume that animals analyse and contemplate death in the same way humans do.
I have seen sheep making good use of the insulating properties of a dead member of the flock as they lie on the comfortable body. I have seen animals shot dead in front of other animals, they notice that that animal’s behaviour isn’t what they expect from a functional member of the herd, but I’m convinced they’re not thinking; ‘oh my god, my mate’s just been murdered, perhaps I’m next!’ Animals aren’t shocked by death, humans are.
Now, this doesn’t mean under any circumstances that it is ok to treat animals badly or cruelly. I struggle to watch images of animal abuse the same as most, and feel guilty all day if I run over an animal on the road – I certainly always go and check it’s not left suffering.
I have driven countless loaded trailers of animals to the local abattoir – usually, they’re ‘lairaged’ in bedded pens the night before to allow them to settle. On arrival, I quietly herd our animals into the big pens within the abattoir where the other animals are lying down and chewing their cut. These animals aren’t stressed or sensing their impending death from the smell of blood. I’m sure there are many slaughter houses where the experience is different, but as a farmer/meat business, we decide which system to support, just as an individual killing their own food would decide if it’s best to shoot an animal in the head or cut its throat. The design of abattoir infrastructure and handling of animals as they approach slaughter can make an enormous difference to minimising stress and how quickly and efficiently a slaughter can be performed.
As customers, YOU have the choice to influence this decision if you take enough time to source your food from people who care.
Most people aren’t exposed to this level of contact with farm animals or wildlife so they never get a sense of the difference between humans and animals. If you watch any of the amazing David Attenborough wildlife programs, you’ll see the harsh reality and beauty of ecosystems in action.
Watch this clip, it’s is a great example of the amoral natural process of seeking food.
Millions of animals are dying and being born in the natural cycle of life all over the world all the time – we just don’t see ourselves as part of this process anymore.
On one hand, some say ‘we should rise above the desire to take another animal’s life’ because we are morally and consciously superior. In the next breath, we say they feel pain and loss like humans and should be treated as equals. I’m confused as to the rules.
Some consider the act of managing farm animals at all a form of enslavement because they aren’t free to be wild and are forced into a premature death. Yet often those same people share videos like this….
It is apparently totally acceptable to keep dogs (which genetically speaking are still wolves) in hot stuffy homes, feed them a diet they’re not designed to eat and dress them up in fancy costumes! Are we keeping them against their will? Or are we ‘managing’ them to keep them safe?
Yes, dogs are domesticated and enjoy being around humans; but, so do cattle and sheep – especially when we feed them! No, we can’t just let dogs run wild, they’ll get run over; so will cattle and sheep. Most domestic livestock and dogs can escape if they really want to, but we offer them food and protection in exchange for something.
But no animal would choose to be killed in exchange for protection or food, would they? Let’s put aside the fact they simply haven’t the mental ability to take a measured decision. If I were a cow, would I choose to take a bullet to the head or be eaten alive by a pride of Lions? Mm mm….
All animals die at some point. Domestic animals have few natural predators, so as livestock managers, we take on the role of the predator but instead of ripping them apart we render them unconscious before releasing their blood pressure. The alternative death in a domestic situation is ‘old age,’ a long demise followed by organ failure or starvation. This isn’t ‘natural’ at all, in nature something would step in and finish you off!
Cows wouldn’t even exist if we didn’t eat them in the first place. Of course, it would be wonderful if all the wild areas of the world could just be allowed to natural and we could grow all our food from plant-based agriculture? No killing required. Well, sadly it’s not even an option.
Arable land is pasture or forest that has been ploughed to allow the growth of vegetables or cereal crops. Before it became arable land, it was a thriving and diverse ecosystem bursting with different creatures all relying on each other for food. These ecosystems provide services to our planet such as the exchange of Carbon from the atmosphere for Oxygen we breathe and they generate rainfall.
Most conventional arable land is mined of nutrients, releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere and only grows food because we irrigate, add petrochemical fertilisers and spray the ‘pests’ (otherwise known as wildlife) with poisons; all of which creates disaster in our rivers and oceans. On land where this has been happening for years the crops often simply fail; it’s not a long-term plan!
On organic and regeneratively managed arable land, techniques like cover cropping and grass leys are used. Grass leys are grazed by animals to naturally replenish fertility, the diversity in the system minimises pests and requires no artificial inputs. Plant foods from this system are healthier and more sustainable but it still needs the dead bodies or manure of animals to keep producing food long term – should these ‘default’ animals not be used for food?
Globally about 40% of these plant foods will be fed to animals in intensive systems; we have developed fossil fuelled animal agriculture that utilises the overproduction of ‘cheap’ cereal crops and waste plant foods. Both omnivores and vegetarians directly eat about 60% of the plant foods from these wide-ranging systems; we can all influence which system with our support when we either buy organic or conventional food.
About half of the world’s meat is reared on pasture. A lot of our world’s landscape simply can’t grow crops and vegetables so it’s the only reliable food source for a lot of the developing world. Even factory farmed animals may be reared for half their life on this ‘default’ pasture land before going to ‘finishing’ units.
Healthy pasture is an entire busy ecosystem on its own, alive with life. In an acre of healthy pasture, there is the equivalent mass of a whole cow made up of tiny critters living below the turf! Above ground the wildlife is abundant; from field voles, frogs, and butterflies to snakes, foxes, and eagles all these important species, and much more, rely on grassland for their food or home. Properly grazed land sequesters vast quantities of Carbon, utilises Methane and reserves water for use in drought, filtering and slowing the passage of water in heavy rainfall situations.
There are obvious sustainability and environmental issues with ploughing up enough land to replace half the world’s meat consumption with equivalent plant food calories. Some of the plants that were fed to animals can be re-directed to humans but a lot of animal food is made up of plant foods not suitable for human consumption; there’s a waste element in every food system and in sustainability terms it makes more sense to make more human food from wasted human plant food.
But leaving that aside, there’s a serious amount of death involved in the conversion of an entire balanced ecosystem supporting millions of animals into a sterile desert frequented by giant tractors who turn the world upside down with huge metal blades and spray all living creatures with poison!
The death of these animals is wholly uncontrolled and often involves; crushing, slicing, slow death from poisoning and starvation from loss of habitat. The dead bodies produced from this system don’t contribute to your calories so their deaths are wasted in terms of producing food.
One pasture fed cow could feed a family adequate protein for a year with either milk or a single death. To get the same protein from a conventional plant crop would result in the destruction of nearly all the animals living on the space required to grow that crop. It’s virtually impossible to quantify the loss of life from these conventional arable systems but certain studies suggest that you actually kill fewer animals on an omnivore diet.
So you can see there’s no simple calculation that says it’s more sustainable or kills fewer animals if we eat only plants. Making such a judgemental statement simply highlights that you haven’t spent much time on farmland, with livestock, or studied natural habitats.
Some say the decision about killing animals for meat is about ‘intent’; that the deaths that occur as a by-product of a conventional arable system shouldn’t be considered because it isn’t their intention to kill these animals. Diana Rodgers covers this idea beautifully in her ARTICLE.
I would argue that if you know that conventional farming systems kill thousands of wild animals to produce your tofu burger then you have the same moral responsibility to make a better choice as that of a meat eater who’s choosing a pasture reared steak over a factory farmed one. And frankly, it is our responsibility to know.
Diana Rodgers tells a story in this article of her Husband explaining to her 10-year-old daughter who was upset after seeing a dead sheep; ‘He told Phoebe how the sheep lived a good life, had fed the coyote, and he how he buried the rest of the sheep’s body in the compost and it’s going into the soil to feed the vegetables.’ I think this is a great example of the closed loop of life; there’s no such thing as a true vegetarian, your plants need dead animals to grow.
The level of consciousness and intelligence expressed by animals is on a sliding scale depending on many factors such as species and instinctive behaviour, but plants are on this scale too. It may surprise you to know that some plants are capable of excreting poison when they ‘sense’ their leaves being munched. The excreted substances can be picked up by other species so they can pro-actively up their defences. Some plants actively trap live insect prey, and new research tells us that plants can be anesthetised, some even have the ability to learn!
In an interesting study, the Mimosa is a plant – which looks something like a fern – collapses its leaves temporarily when it’s disturbed. The study set up a contraption that would drop the mimosa plant, without hurting it. When the plant was dropped – as expected – its leaves collapsed. The contraption then continued to drop the plants every five to six seconds and after a few drops, the plant no longer responded. It learned quickly that being dropped wasn’t a threat. A control procedure also tested if the plant had simply got tired, but it still responded to an unexpected stimulus.
Some trees demonstrate ‘social’ behaviour and transfer nutrients from older more established trees to new one trying to get a start in life, through mycorrhizal fungi networks underground. This has been named the ‘wood wide web.’ (1)
Science can offer us glimpses, but really, we don’t fully understand how much pain the buffalo who’s being ‘chewed’ by those lions is actually ‘feeling’ any more than we understand how much ‘stress’ is being felt by a plant whose limbs are hacked off. It’s all about degrees of perception and we tend to assume that those with human-like mechanisms for delivering and understanding bodily messages feel pain, and those less familiar to us don’t. We certainly can’t say animals understand death and feel pain and plants don’t, and anyway what animals count? Do only fluffy ones with human-like face expressions feel stress and pain?
We’re all part of this cycle of birth, death, and decay and that’s ok. Let’s square up to the horror of seeing the baby gazelle being eaten by the wolf in the wildlife program. Try better to accept and understand that old or weak animals in the wild that aren’t picked off by predators will starve to death slowly because they can’t feed themselves. And stop kidding ourselves that there’s any way we can ensure all animals throughout the world die ‘humanely’ – animals aren’t human. What do we know about managing death anyway, some of my beloved relatives whom I have witnessed passing, sure as hell didn’t die a ‘humane’ death!
It’s we who project our ideals of a morphine cushioned demise onto an animal that doesn’t think about death until the end’s near, and then simply accepts it once the fight for survival is up.
We should stop kidding ourselves that there is a clean line over which those choosing to eat meat are responsible for hurting animals and behind which vegans are morally ‘off the hook’; no such line exists.
I respect anyone who takes action in the name of a cause – even if, in my opinion, their methodology is off the mark. My greatest hope is that we can stop the energy wasting arguments and distracting tactics and unite in achieving the 90% of the aims both ethical omnivores and vegetarians share; to see domesticated animals treated respectfully and to feed the world without destroying the planet.
I’m not desperately defending a bad habit because I’m too weak to give it up. I honestly believe from my years of research into human nutrition, my background in farming and my training as a conservationist that eating meat has to be part of a sustainable food system and a healthy diet. With this in mind, I’ve taken on the role of trying to get meat eaters to swap factory farmed meat for ethically and sustainably reared meat. It may seem like a stretch of the imagination to some, but I see this work as a campaign for better human and animal welfare and a way of saving the planet.
Be it buying holistically managed steak or choosing local organically reared vegetables instead of conventional soy bean burgers, we all vote with our actions and our money.