Not everybody can or wants to become a vegetarian. But for those of us who insist on eating meat, that doesn’t mean we have to be complete dicks about it. Here are some helpful ideas on how to be a conscious carnivore.
Right off the bat I want to make it excruciatingly clear that eating meat is in no way more ethical or justified than vegetarianism. This article is as much an exercise in pragmatics as it is an effort to get people to be more conscious of their food choices. The world is nowhere close to adopting an exclusively plant-based diet — though we may eventually be forced to do so; and in our meat-pornographized society, there really isn’t huge impetus behind efforts to do so. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work to minimize the degree of animal suffering and the detrimental impacts of factory farming.
And sure, the argument can be made that so-called conscious carnivores are in denial. It's a claim that may even be true. But as noted, this article isn’t about taking an absolutist position; it’s about raising awareness and working to reduce — not eliminate — the suffering of farm-raised animals.
Eat With Thoughtful Intention
Which leads nicely to the first point: The recognition that eating meat causes harm.
Indeed, it’s harmful to the animal, it’s harmful to the environment, and it’s harmful to developing nations (i.e. issues like food justice and food security). In most cases, an animal’s life is taken prematurely — a life that’s experienced in often less-than-ideal conditions.
We eat meat for various, often highly personal, reasons. But justifying it on the grounds that it somehow makes us feel more masculine (a disturbingly common attitude among men — and one that feminist animal rights advocate Carol J. Adams took apart in her seminal book, The Sexual Politics of Meat), or that it’s our prerogative — or even a basic right — given that we’re atop this mythical thing call the “food chain,” is wholly inadequate. We eat meat on account of our privileged status as the dominant species on the planet, and that needs to be recognized.
While I’m not trying to suck the life out of the meat eating experience, the act itself should be considered a serious, if not sober, event. We should always approach the dinner table with no small amount of gratitude as we think about the animal whose life was taken for our benefit.
And make no mistake — intentions matter. A society that extols carnivorousness with no sense of the consequences can scarcely be considered an enlightened one.
Take the Dalai Lama, for example, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism — and person who, on paper, would be the last person we would suspect of eating meat. But owing to health concerns, the Dalai Lama is a carnivore. Still, he has this to say:
It is always dangerous to ignore the suffering of any living being, of whatever species, even if we think it necessary to sacrifice an animal for the benefit of the majority. To deny the suffering involved, or to avoid thinking about it, is a convenient solution, but such an attitude opens the door to all kinds of excesses as we witness in wartime. It also destroys our own happiness. As I often say, sympathy and compassion always end up proving beneficial.
Buddhists, while striving to alleviate suffering, still recognize that moral perfection is impossible. (Image: National Geographic)
Relatedly, Catherine Friend — author of The Compassionate Carnivore — put it this way:
Most of us have distanced ourselves from our meat, protecting ourselves from the truth that we are eating animals. Yet we don’t need to protect ourselves. Ignorance is not bliss. Being a carnivore who’s asleep at the wheel means someone else is driving. Being a carnivore who wakes up, looks around and engages means you’re in charge. Being in charge is good.
Friend, along with her partner, have their own farm where they raise their own meat.
Minimize Meat Consumption
Like the Dalai Lama, many of us can’t give up meat even if we wanted to. Some people, after experimenting with vegetarianism or veganism, experience sub-optimal health or other medical concerns (like low levels of iron, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, calcium, and other nutrients). It’s also socially and culturally difficult to give up meat given that we live in a meat-obsessed world. Of course, that’s no justification for it. But the inconveniences of vegetarianism can often be overwhelming, whether it be while traveling or visiting relatives.
But we can certainly work to minimize meat consumption. And indeed, we need to get over this false dichotomy our culture has created which says we need to be one or the other, a carnivore or a vegetarian.
Take semi-vegetarians, or flexitarians, for example. These folks have a diet that’s primarily plant-based with the occasional inclusion of meat. Flexitarians typically choose this sort of diet for health, environmental, food justice, or economic reasons.
There are other dietary options as well, including pollotarianism (chicken or other poultry, but no meat from mammals), pescetarianism (fish or other seafood, but no poultry or red meat from mammals), and pollo-pescetarianism (you can figure this one out).
Another thing you can do to minimize your consumption of meat is to designate a specific day (or days) of the week when meat is not served. Meatless Mondays is a good example.
Lastly, there are alternatives to traditional forms of meat that are more ethical, such as insect meat. It would be good to see people support these sorts of initiatives.
Avoid Meat From Factory Farms
There’s a world of difference between the life lived by an animal raised on a factory farm and one that was raised on an actual farm — and it’s a difference that matters.
Compare a factory raised cow with one that lived on a farm. One had a severely diminished life from start to finish — replete with cramped conditions, food that’s wholly unnatural (cows don’t eat grain), and cocktails of drugs (including hormones and anti-psychotics) — while the other got to live a reasonably normal life, grazing on grass, living outside, and rubbing against cattle mates.
Yes, the life of each was taken prematurely — but at least the farm-raised cow had a life worth living.
As Catherine Friend has noted, starting her own farm was like pulling her head from out of the sand. “I am fiercely proud of the farm we’ve created, and how we raise our animals...Because of my concern for the environment, the lives of animals, and my own health, I’ve spent the last ten years exploring how to make better choices in the meat I buy.”
According to Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth, we can’t end the suffering found in factory farms by refusing to eat animals. Rather, it can only be achieved by boycotting modern agricultural practices, which she calls “the most destructive thing that people have done to the planet.”
Indeed, the conscious carnivore, therefore, would be well advised to seek out meat products produced by local, small-scale operations. Farmer’s markets and organic grocery stores would be a good place to start. Even better, you should find an ethical butcher, or establish a relationship with a local farm. Get to know them and learn how they treat their livestock.
Unfortunately, eating ethically can be expensive. Admittedly, this may not work for everyone. A possible way around this, however, would be to buy large quantities (like a whole or half cow) and store the excess product in the freezer. Even better, find a group of friends to distribute the costs.
Oh, another good thing to do: Purchase eggs produced by free run chickens.
Support Lab-grown Meat Initiatives
Owing to advances in biotechnology, we may soon be able to have our cake and eat it, too — or in this case, meat. The prospect of lab-grown meat is very real, and it could resolve a number of ethical and environmental concerns.
Collectively, humans consume about 530 billion pounds (240 billion kilograms) of meat each year. It’s a voracious demand for animal protein that has resulted in environmental degradation, cruelty to livestock, and the spread of dangerous diseases (like avian flu). It has been estimated that cultured meat could reduce the need for land and water on the planet by as much as 90%. It could also reduce energy expenditure by up to 70%.
There are some yuck-factor objections to eating lab-grown meat. But I think we’ll eventually get over the apparent weirdness of eating meat that comes from a petri dish.
Some vegetarians and vegans also object to the prospect simply because it’s still meat that’s being consumed. That’s a rather precarious position to hold, however — one that fails to account for the relative harmlessness of the practice. We’re talking about meat that didn’t originate from an animal with an actual brain.
Speaking of which, there's another, albeit more controversial, idea — that we genetically engineer livestock to feel no pain. It's definitely a start, but it's no solution. Even though these animals wouldn't feel physical pain or emotional distress, there's still the quality of life that has to be taken into account. We have to ask ourselves: Are these lives worth bringing into the world?
But back to the in vitro meat. We're still a ways off, unfortunately. We still need to figure out how to make it tasty and how to give it the right consistency (giving meat a tough, chewy texture has been difficult owing to the lack of active musculature; it also has very little, if any, fat), mass produce it, and keep the costs down.
To that end, billionaire Peter Thiel recently invested $350,000 to a company called Modern Meadow, a start-up that's working on a 3D printing technique to manufacture meat [watch this TED talk by Modern Meadow co-founder Andreas Forgacs]. Similarly, Google co-founder Sergey Brin donated over $400,000 to a research venture.
A conscious carnivore would do well, therefore, to support such causes in any way they can, either by offering their technical expertise, money, or simply by being a cheerleader.