by Dr. Sharon V. Betcher

(Everything we eat has a story about where it came from and how it came to be on our plate. This post is to be considered a conversation starter, as it has become quite a robust discussion amongst our students this year...please engage, with respect for the wide and wild diversity of thought on this topic.)

Considering the ethical currency of the human plate is one way concerned citizens are trying to work towards a thriving planet.  Not only is the sourcing of our food and its miles traveled becoming an intimate way in which we attempt to assume responsibility for planetary ecosystems, but persons increasingly sort our sense of obligation into dietary tribes—from vegans to freegans, including vegetarians, flexitarians, pescatarians and omnivores.  Hosting a banquet becomes an all new challenge as we attempt to please not just the palettes, but also ease the conscience of all gathered.  Even omnivores may differentially distill the politics of the plate to commitments such as eating only animal flesh that has been grass-fed, free-ranged or humanely, even locally raised by small-scale farmers.  So does any plate in the end warrant the stamp “GF”—that is, “guilt free?”

Some scientists working between climate change and the human diet suggest not just reducing the load of meat in our diet, but, if we are to feed 10 billion humans, cutting it out completely.  Two critical questions seem to branch out from this proposal:  Is the vegetarian diet free of the use of animals and animal products?  And what then happens to the lives of domesticated animals?

Intensive vegetable production often replenishes soil fertility by the additions of blood meal, bone meal and feather meal to provide nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium.  True to their common labels, these are the by-products of the slaughter of animals.  Vegetable proteins cannot be grown in all bioregions.  The increased scale of soybean production has been eating away at the equatorial Rain Forest and its’ biodiverse canopy of creatures.  And almonds, that basis of the heart-healthy diet, not only relies upon intense irrigation (amidst increasing water scarcity), but the cross-continental transport of “livestock.”  The vast majority of all honeybees in the U.S. are shipped, by truck and rail, to the almond fields of California in early spring, every spring, before being routed back through fields in central Washington, Georgia, Florida and the Dakotas. While the goal of vegetarian diets is often to reduce animal suffering, such suffering may be simply off the plate but still in the bigger picture. 

Further, the scenario advocated by scientists who are worried about feeding the expanding human population simply jettisons from concern a huge swath of animal life that the human community has domesticated.  Yes, humans did over centuries colonize animal life as we also colonized vegetables—from the potatoes and tomatoes first developed in the Andes, then “discovered” and shipped to Europe, to today’s quinoa.  Around 80% of the remaining planetary megafauna are found among domesticated species.  Removing them from our plate, could, given their domestic status, effectively occasion their mass extinction.  That possibility would be no more guilt free in terms of animal suffering than the omnivore’s diet.

Most small scale farmers rely on the services of animals for compost and soil fertility, if not also—as in the case of poultry--pest control.  Intense rotational grazing of large animals can actually benefit the soil community upon which every human diet is dependent.   Animals raised in industrial scale hog or steer operations do often meet up against human callousness, and human suffering itself is often an unnamed concomitant of the industrial scale (Meat production is physically and psychically hard on meat packers).  If we want small scale farmers to be the keepers of the land, then livestock are sometimes the fiscal formula for sustainable small-scale agriculture.  Further, if we are concerned about human-scale hunger, the “fruits” of animals, like eggs, are amazingly palatable and affordable without necessarily becoming co-opted by the “cheap” methods of the industrial food system.

So how does human responsibility for domesticated animals, concern about their suffering as well as their futures, enter into the politics of the plate and care of the land amidst climate change?  Perhaps the first step in decolonizing our relations to “livestock” is to consider not purchasing meat produced at an industrial scale, where and when that is affordable.  The second step could well be “Meatless Mondays” and other comparable strategies for building menus with less emphasis on the centrality of animal protein.  But as we all struggle towards ethical integrity in what we eat, the presumption that there is some GF (“guilt free”) plate may not at this time sufficiently engage with the 21st century challenge of making sure everyone has safe and affordable food to eat, the complexities of fertile soil, or the well-being and futures of domesticated animals.