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Humane Meat? No Such Thing

Should we eat animals? My disability gives me a unique view on the oxymoron “humane meat.”
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Niman and others have suggested that vegans aren’t helping to change the world’s food production systems, whereas conscientious omnivores are. I’d suggest it’s the opposite. For a movement that supposedly advocates eating minimal meat, the humane-meat movement sure praises and glorifies the stuff. Trendy, socially conscious events serve sustainable animal products, while articles praise the mouth-watering taste, showing glamorous photos of young hipster butchers and “compassionate” farmers.

What is the best way to protect the rights of those who are not physically autonomous but are vulnerable and interdependent?

Of course all of these articles mention that we need to be eating less and better meat, but one doesn’t have to be an advertising expert to see that what is being sold is “delicious” animal foods—not lentils and kale.

A 2008 Carnegie Mellon University study showed that avoiding red meat and dairy one day a week achieves more greenhouse gas reductions than eating a week’s worth of local food. A vegan is also able to easily buy organic and local or, if that’s not possible, to buy fair trade, which, according to the book The Ethics of What We Eat, is arguably just as environmentally vital as buying organic and local, if you are considering issues of global justice.

Studies show that being a vegan or a conscientious omnivore (whose animal products actually come from small, sustainable farms) are about equal in environmental impact. 

But I believe we must weigh environmental impact against other ethical concerns, such as the treatment of animals and global access to food and water. The more important question is which diet is more just for animals and more realistic for a planet with nearly 7 billion people and counting? The Worldwatch Institute calls for quick replacement of livestock products with other protein sources. Scientists are not saying that sustainable animal farming can’t be done, but many are saying that it’s not a realistic solution for a planet as hungry as ours.

Another argument is that veganism isn’t realistic—that we can’t grow sustainable food without farm animals. The principal claim is that manure is necessary to maintain soil fertility. But animals do not need to be killed to poop. In fact all of the supposedly necessary effects that domesticated animals have on crops and soil come while the animals are alive.

Even if a practical argument in favor of eating small amounts of meat can be made—whether based on soil fertility or on use of land that can’t support food crops—that doesn’t answer the moral argument against it.

In fact, vegan-organic farming may be a realistic option. Farmers in the United Kingdom have developed a certification process for “stock-free” farming, a term that “broadly means any system of cultivation that excludes artificial chemicals, livestock manures, animal remains,” and so forth.  Humans have not prioritized farming methods that minimize harm to animals so we actually have no idea what is possible. That animal-free methods are not widely known says more about the belief in human domination over animals than it does about the possibility of sustainable, compassionate agriculture.

Humane meat is an oxymoron—and it seems that its advocates’ consciences know it. Conscientious omnivores appear to struggle with their own empathy toward animals: From Michael Pollan overcoming his hesitance and shame in hunting a wild boar, to newspaper stories on the new meat movement where people try to overcome their uneasiness about killing animals by taking a butchering class, to the Nimans’ own stories of their grief when sending their animals to slaughter.

Eating Animals illustration #1Just the Facts: Should We Eat Meat? We can feed the world and still eat meat—but only a little bit.

Ex-cattlemen like Lyman and Brown show that empathy should be something that human beings have toward animals not only while they are living on our farms or after they have been killed and are on our plates being thanked or prayed over, but at that crucial moment when the decision is made to kill them for food or not.

Nicolette Hahn Niman and I agree about the horrors of factory farming. We also agree on the importance of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices. But I don’t agree with her that slaughtering sentient animals for food is righteous—even if it’s done on a small family farm.

There are better ways to be humane.



Sunaura TaylorSunaura Taylor wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Sunaura is an artist, activist, and writer. She’s currently working on a book on animal rights and disability, forthcoming from the Feminist Press. For more of her work visit


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