Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Misguided Vegetarian Case Against Free Range Meat

Free range chicken
James McWilliams at The Atlantic provides what may be the exemplar of what letting "the perfect be the enemy of the good" in food politics look like, while being a pretty typical oomnivore vs. vegetarian vs. vegan ethics measuring contest:
Opposing factory farming on welfare grounds affirms an important premise: Thoughtful consumers do not want animals to be needlessly hurt. That is, we believe animals deserve living under conditions that allow them the chance to seek happiness (which is not to say they won't become another animal's lunch). Accepting this premise means more than we might think. For one, it means we have an obligation—again, in the spirit of being deliberate eaters—to consider the issue of animal welfare as it plays out everywhere, even under free-range conditions.

And it's here where things get more complicated. Relatively speaking, free-range animals experience less harm than do factory-farmed animals. It's on this point that the vast majority of concerned consumers who choose free-range meat rest their case; if we're content to think in these relative terms, there's really not much to argue about. In fact, it's on this point that nearly every popular media report on the benefits of free-range farming screeches to a convenient halt. And why not? When it comes to farming methods and harm, free range is better.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it's more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn't killing an animal we don't need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm? This, as I see it, is the free-range albatross.
So basically, factory farming is terrible and free range is better but still bad: so be a vegetarian. Fair enough. If I was trying to convince someone who cared deeply about the suffering of animals to be a vegetarian that's probably the way I would go too... but in taking the position that free range farming isn't good enough because it's still killing animals, he seems to be missing the entire point of being a vegetarian (in my "not a vegetarian" view anyway). Isn't making the choice of vegetarianism implicitly acknowledging that while you can't personally stop the killing of animals, your diet choices can make it happen less. So shouldn't you really be for anything that lessens the suffering of animals? Anything that causes fewer animals to be killed?

We've been having this same moral and ethical argument about meat consumption since well before McWilliams and Jonathan Safran Foer came onto the scene... Indians have been doing it since 500 B.C.... and being that meat consumption keeps rising, it seems obvious that it isn't very effective. If we accept that one of the goals of any socially conscious vegetarian should be to lessen meat consumption overall, then the only proven way to do so is to make it more expensive. Luckily for us, caring more for animal welfare is more expensive: giving them land to run around in and making sure they are humanely slaughtered costs money. While I understand trying to recruit socially conscious omnivores into vegetarianism, it seems entirely counterproductive to treat free range as merely a marginal improvement over factory farming. Why don't we worry about which dietary and lifestyle choices are the most ethical and free from hypocrisy after we've dealt with the evil of factory farming, which is the thing we can all agree on?