It seems everywhere you look, consumers are demanding that the animals we exploit for food be, well, exploited more “humanely.” Back in 2006, New York Times article titled, “Meat labels hope to lure the sensitive carnivore,” described what is still a growing trend: “humane meat.” Here at Temple University, for example, students are urging Sodexo to go “cage free.”
A small note to begin: human beings aren’t carnivores. We are omnivores, meaning we derive our energy and nutrient requirements from a diet of both animal and non-animal food. I understand that saying you are a carnivore means you don’t have to justify exploiting animals for food, because actual carnivores don’t have a choice in the matter, but don’t be dishonest even if doing so happens to be convenient for your argument.
“Humane” is defined as done without inflicting any more pain than is necessary; showing the better aspects of the human character, especially kindness and compassion.
To begin, we need to deal with the first definition because the “humane meat” trend suggests at once that eating animals is in fact necessary? But is it? No, it is not.
The conservative American Dietetic Association found that a well-planned vegan diet is healthy at all stages of the life cycle. In fact its latest report suggests that a vegan diet may offer protection against many degenerative diseases.
Eating animals is not necessary as a nutritional matter. It’s just a choice we make because it tastes good, it’s maybe a bit more convenient and we’ve always done it. Of course, none of those excuses makes it necessary.
It follows that any harm an animal experiences to become our food is unnecessary. So, by definition, eating animals when alternatives are available – as they are to those reading this right now – is inhumane.
So what about the second definition: acting out of kindness and compassion? The kind and compassionate thing to do is obviously not to cause unnecessary harm! That is, don’t be inhumane, especially when you are doing so, in the end, just because you really like eating animals.
Just a little deconstruction seems to expose this trend for what it really is: a self-serving attempt to justify eating animals and to disguise doing so as an ethical practice.
By saying that what we’re doing is humane, we can avoid the more important question: Why are we eating animals in the first place when it is unnecessary to do so?
It is this point that should press against those who think seriously about their food choices – those who are pro-farmer or anti-factory farming, activists in the local and organic food movement, and all “foodies” alike.
Food ethics are not exhausted by some form of the question, “How ‘real’ does it taste?” or, “Is it ‘natural’?”
In fact, that question only ignores the much more ethically pressing one: why are we causing unnecessary harm and death in the first place?
If you really want to eat consciously, if you really want to be a humane eater, you should go vegan. Going vegan is not sufficient, of course. Veganism, after all, is a process that goes well beyond eating. But it is undeniably necessary for anybody interested in taking their food choices seriously
I recognize that this is a simple analysis. But sometimes this can be useful to clarify some – not all – of the moving parts of an argument or position. I hope I’ve done that here.
Alex Melonas is a member of the Temple Vegan Action Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.