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is meat for dinner?

March 30, 2012

Why do you eat what you eat?  One of my cousins recently shared a link to a dairy farmer Raechel Kilgore Sattazahn’s essay, Defending Meat.  In her essay, she posits human exceptionalism–that we are unique in the animal kingdom as a moral species, possessing rights and duties–and then she offers three reason why eating meat is a very human thing: first, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were omnivores; second, meat offers nutrients humans need that are difficult to obtain elsewhere; and finally, we’re part of the circle of life.

In a separate post on the Go Beyond the Barn blog, she describes the tension in the room when, in a debate with an animal welfare advocate, an animal rights activist tried to convince a roomful of young leaders at the Holstein Foundation’s Young Dairy Leaders Institute that animals are equal to humans and that everyone should only consume plant-based foods.  That debate left these young dairy farmers asking how to answer the views of radical animal rights activists.  The answer at the leadership institute, and her answer, is to remind the public, “Farm animals are not the same as companion animals.”

While I think she raises an important point, I left her a comment that the point only addresses half the issue:

…you asked, “how do we compete with the radical animal rights views,” and your answer only half-way answered your question. Among truly radical animal rights activists, there are many that disagree with your earlier point that humans are exceptional. Some of those radicals are quite politically motivated to push their non-exceptional view of humans on everybody else. If people aren’t exceptional, then what does it matter whether farm animals are companion animals or not? Across your industry, for the message that farm animals are not companion animals to stick, you’ve got to first convince people (and policy makers) that humans are exceptional.

Provide a strong basis for the uniqueness of humans, and you’ll have a strong basis for your argument that there are humane ways to farm animals, to provide safe, quality, affordable food to all us non-farmers.

I believe humans are exceptional, people are unique.  Most of the time, what’s good for animals will be good for people, too, but if its a choice between sustaining a human life and an animal’s life, the person has priority.  Treating farm animals inhumanely isn’t wrong because we’re not giving animals the same rights as humans, its wrong because doing so would make us less than fully human.  That’s part of human exceptionalism: we’re different from animals, and when we treat our animals badly, we’re not living up to what it means to be human. Paradoxically, promoting animal welfare almost always results in human welfare: if our farm animals are cleaner and healthier, their milk will be better, tastier; their meat safer and more delicious, which in turn is better for those farm businesses and their customers.

What is the basis for their belief that humans are exceptional?  Why are people unique in the animal kingdom?  If answered correctly, and worked out through business processes and structures, and communicated loudly to the public as the motivation behind the industry, this could transform modern farming into an industry with the trust of the general public.

I eat a lot of lentils, beans, and rice, because legumes are healthy, tasty, and help me save money.  I eat a lot of meatless meals partly because I have a far more sedentary life than my ancestors did, and partly because saving money allows me to splurge on better, more expensive meats when I eat meat.  I really enjoyed the Norwegian salmon I had last night.

So is meat for dinner?   Yes, decently raised farm animals and wild game, but we don’t eat the pets, because humans are exceptional.

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