Reflections on Food Ethics

As a spiritual naturalist, I take the ethical view that reducing suffering in the world is a moral good. When the opportunity arises, and we can realistically and practically lessen another person’s suffering, then we should do so. Such a notion is widespread and shared across many spiritual and religious traditions. 

And I’d argue that this principle extends to animals, as well. Whenever realistically possible, we should reduce the suffering of animals when we can. Such an extension is rarely controversial, that is until it comes to dinner time. 

Whenever I think about reducing suffering, I inevitably am drawn into considerations of factory farming practices and the treatment of the animals we eat for food. 

I’d argue that there is a significant disconnect between the food on the dinner plate and the animals that provided it. Grocery stores are friendly, clean, and easy. Simply select your meat and pay for it at the counter.

Few of us connect the steak we bought with the cow in the stall or the eggs to the chicken in the battery cage. And the truth is, if we saw how these animals are treated, we’d lose our appetites. 

Factory Farming and Industrial Animal Husbandry
Factory farming, also known as industrial farming, is a system of agriculture in which animals are raised in large quantities in confined spaces to produce meat, dairy, and eggs. 

This system is designed to maximize production efficiency and minimize costs, but it often comes at the expense of animal welfare. Animals in factory farms are treated as commodities rather than living beings, and their basic needs are often neglected in the pursuit of profit.

I’m not one for sensationalism and won’t describe matters in gory detail.

In general, in modern factory farms, animals are raised in cramped, unsanitary conditions and are often subject to cruel treatment. They are fed a diet of antibiotics and hormones to promote rapid growth, and their lives are cut short to maximize profit. 

The meat industry today vastly differs from how humans hunted and consumed meat in the past. 

I’m firmly convinced that most industrial animal farms treat their animals inhumanely. I encourage any of my readers to explore the situation for yourselves.

A few years back, I started donating to and promoting a non-profit called Mercy for Animals, which advocates for better treatment of factory-farmed animals and eventual systematic changes to how we feed ourselves.

Other excellent groups are doing similar work, including The Humane League, Dharma Voices for Animals, and Compassion in World Farming USA. Thankfully, there are many other such groups out there.

Focusing on the Ethical Issues
There are many ethical issues that overlap with the above issues. Factory farming of animals, and crops for that matter, raise several valid ethical concerns. 

The meat industry is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and meat production requires vast amounts of water and other resources. In a world where resources are increasingly scarce, it is essential to consider the impact of our choices on the planet and future generations.

Others are convinced that eating animal products is bad for human health. Besides concerns over saturated fat, the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can pose a threat to human health. In addition, the conditions in which factory-farmed animals are kept can increase the risk of disease transmission to humans.

The above are all valid ethical concerns. But the one that stands out is the poor treatment of animals in factory farming. I am not ethically opposed to eating animal products as long as those animals are humanely raised and slaughtered. 

I’m also aware that a completely cruelty-free diet is nearly impossible. The production of crops leads to the deaths of thousands of birds and small field animals each year through insecticides, plowing, and other activities. 

Regarding food and eating, the ethical issues are layered, nuanced, and many. I respect the opinions of those who disagree with me. I am not trying to tell others how they should eat. 

I encourage everyone to read and reflect on what works for them and what they find suitable and ethical.

What Are Some Alternatives?
One option is to adopt a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. While this may seem extreme to some, it is a viable and increasingly popular choice. For many people, adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle is a matter of personal health or ethics and a way to live in harmony with the planet and other living beings. 

This is the basis of the philosophy of veganism, which holds that all living beings have inherent value and should be treated with respect and dignity. This includes not only animals but also plants and ecosystems as a whole.

Critics of veganism and vegetarianism often argue that these lifestyles are impractical or unrealistic and fail to consider meat consumption’s cultural and economic significance. 

While it is true that meat is deeply ingrained in many cultures, this does not mean that we cannot change our attitudes and behaviors. Many people worldwide are already adopting plant-based diets, and the trend is only expected to continue.

Another option is obtaining animal products from small, humanely operated local farms. These exist, but you often have to spend some time discovering them and what they offer. While this may be an option for some, often the price of such products is too high for many, or the inconvenience too great. 

Finding Solutions That Work for You
I encourage everyone to research and explore these issues for themselves. Then ethically reflect on what you discover. Opinions and choices will differ. 

My solution is to eat mostly a vegan diet, allowing myself to eat mollusks (oysters, clams, and mussels) and only animal products from humane sources. 

Humans are ethically obligated to explore these issues and overcome the disconnectedness between our dinner plate and the animal that provided the meal.  As consumers, we can make a difference by supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices, such as organic and pasture-raised systems. 

I welcome your comments and questions.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Food Ethics”

  1. Many thanks for writing this, Gregory. One of the reasons I joined the SNS a few years ago was because of the quality of writing and ideas I found the website. Your piece is another prime example of such thoughtful, and provocative, essays. The article also comes at a good time for me as I educate myself on the so many disturbing aspects of the factory farming system (which you summarize/analyze very well), and change my eating habits accordingly.
    Much appreciated.
    Eddy
    Tucson

    Reply
    • Thank you. Yes, I’m always impressed by the quality and depth of members’ essays and articles.

      Reply

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