Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"If you consume dairy, you should eat veal."

A chillingly utilitarian rebuff to vegetarians.

The argument is that if you eat or drink dairy products, you're supporting the existence of male calves, since "dairy cows must give birth to provide milk." These calves "are unsuitable for beef production and too costly to keep on the farm." Something must be done with those animals, and the best result -- even just from the calves' perspective -- would be to humanely raise them for meat.

But even if I accept that practical argument as far as it goes, the only thing it would seem that I "should" do is: hope that veal is produced -- and eaten by someone (of course), but not necessarily me. That's different from saying that I "should" be one of the people eating the veal. It doesn't seem like I'd have that kind of moral obligation unless I somehow knew that the amount of veal being consumed were insufficient to use up all the male calves already being born.

By the way, this is a noteworthy passage from the linked article:

The renaissance of humanely raised veal is driven in part by small farmers who embrace old-fashioned animal husbandry and see veal as an extra revenue stream. But it also has been spurred by the success of animal rights campaigns and the resulting collapse in demand for veal. In 1944, Americans ate 8.6 pounds of veal per person annually, according to Agriculture Department figures. In 2004, the latest year for which data are available, consumption had fallen to less than half a pound. It hasn't topped one pound per person since 1988.
This illustrates Mark Bittman's principle: "Let's get the numbers of animals we're killing for eating down, and then we'll worry about being nice to the ones that are left." (Quoted here, from the video here.)

22 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

Why veal? Shouldn't we prefer full-grown steer so that the creature gets a longer life? Is life so bad for an animal when it is -- unknowingly -- slated to die by human hands at some point. Every animal, including human beings, is going to die. Is it better not to have been born?

John Althouse Cohen said...

It is better not to have been born if they're not going to be raised humanely. The linked article is encouraging on this front, but we're nowhere near a situation where all, or even most, veal are raised humanely.

Part of the reason the trends in the veal industry were considered remarkable enough to merit a WaPo article is that veal calves have famously been some of the most inhumanely treated meat animals -- confined in such small spaces that they can't turn around. That's torture. It's nice that there's less torture, but there's still plenty of it, and I'm also not going to assume that the calves that are counted as humanely raised for purposes of that article are living in some kind of idyll. (Maybe they are, and that would be commendable, but I just don't know.) The article notes that some veal are now "'group-raised in a barn with six to eight other calves" instead of "confined in crates." That sounds like an improvement, but it's vague.

If more lives were necessarily preferable to fewer lives, then being a vegetarian based on concern for animals wouldn't make sense. But I don't think more lives are necessarily preferable to fewer lives. If factory farming were to suddenly disappear, then I'd have to rethink this. But that's not going to happen anytime soon. And what would be the best way to reduce factory farming? More people minimizing (reducing or eliminating) their meat consumption.

LemmusLemmus said...

This post calls for this link.

Ann Althouse said...

@John I don't think you answered my question, which is about veal vs. full-grown beef. I didn't read the article, but my understanding is that calves are treated that way in order to preserve the whiteness of the meat. I'm saying that we ought to eat plenty of beef, so it will be worth it to raise all those calves to full size and let them walk around.

Jason (the commenter) said...

I don't think the article was a very good rebuff to vegetarians.

They may look down at the rest of us for eating meat, but because they eat dairy products (unlike vegans), they are causing baby animals to be born, taking the milk from their mouths, and letting them die in horrible conditions.

A meat eater may not personally butcher their meat, but at least they don't pretend like they're not causing animals to die.

Beth said...

How do intentions change anything? I can drink milk and hope someone else eats the veal. I can eat veal and not pretend to not cause animals to die. The outcome's all the same, despite my hopes or my lack of pretense.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Beth: How do intentions change anything? I can drink milk and hope someone else eats the veal. I can eat veal and not pretend to not cause animals to die. The outcome's all the same, despite my hopes or my lack of pretense.

In America, when we talk about anything, especially food, a lack of pretense is practically unheard of, so I can see how this discussion may seem odd to you.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Mom: Woops, I got sidetracked by your last two sentences. Sorry I didn't completely answer your question. But I also don't think my previous comment is totally irrelevant. If you combine that comment with the Mark Bittman quote in the post, that's pretty much my answer. Even if a sensible, ethical system would involve some cows being raised for beef, it doesn't follow that it's ethical for me, as an American, to add to the obscene amounts of beef currently being consumed by Americans. That sheer quantity is why animals are raised so inhumanely.

By the way, I recommend reading the article. It addresses the point about milky-white veal. Apparently more of them are now being raised to give a more reddish hue.

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC: Even if a sensible, ethical system would involve some cows being raised for beef, it doesn't follow that it's ethical for me, as an American, to add to the obscene amounts of beef currently being consumed by Americans. That sheer quantity is why animals are raised so inhumanely.

For lots of people we already have an ethical system.

Also, beef is America's favorite meat, so the fact that Americans eat lots of it is hardly obscene. Germans eat lots of sausages and the Japanese lots of fish. Maybe I laugh about it, but I don't use terms like "obscene" to describe the practice.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Jason: Are you basically saying it's OK since a lot of people do it? I wish I could feel so contended with society, but I'm afraid things are more complicated than that. We should always be open to the possibility that we're doing the wrong thing.

By the way, I don't think my points are particularly radical or inflammatory. It's become commonplace (and not just among vegetarians/vegans) to note the ethical horrors of factory farming, the ecological effects of our overconsumption of meat, etc.

Jason (the commenter) said...

JAC: Are you basically saying it's OK since a lot of people do it? I wish I could feel so contended with society, but I'm afraid things are more complicated than that. We should always be open to the possibility that we're doing the wrong thing.

I can hear the Puritanism in your writing. Reformers never apply this philosophy to their own reforms.

By the way, I don't think my points are particularly radical or inflammatory. It's become commonplace (and not just among vegetarians/vegans) to note the ethical horrors of factory farming, the ecological effects of our overconsumption of meat, etc.

You are basically saying it's OK since a lot of people do it. Remember back in time, one paragraph of your writing ago? Something like that would have been an issue. I could use your entire first paragraph to respond to your second.

Many parts of the world are caught in what is called the Malthusian trap. Any decrease in the cost of certain staples only leads to an increase in the number of people alive there, at a lower living standard. Shift food consumption away from beef and you make their lives worse off.

By purchasing McDonald's's hamburgers I'm making the world a better place, even if I throw them away.

Beth said...

The practices of factory farming are horrible, and worth addressing whether one agrees that we should decrease the amount of beef we consume. I don't foresee nothing but small-farm beef on the market, but simple changes in the big farms would be humane. Animals stand in their own wastes mixed with mud for hours on end. That's barbaric.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Beth: The practices of factory farming are horrible... ...That's barbaric.

They serve a purpose. They allow poor people to have access to foods that would otherwise only be available to elite groups. They help drive up the price of corn that would otherwise increase misery in Africa.

In my last job we took thousands of chicks a week (the male ones that would normally go through a meat grinder), injected them with a virus which gave them leukemia, then drained off all their blood a few days later. I didn't consider that barbaric. I don't consider cows standing in manure barbaric.

Humans resorting to cannibalism some day, people raping and mutilating each other to control resources, people treating animals like people, those sorts of things I consider barbaric and inhumane.

So you see, it's just a matter of opinion.

Beth said...

Jason, there's a lot of room between treating animals in the meat industry more humanely and driving poor people to cannibalism because of high food prices. I'd say that's a false dilemma.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Beth : Jason, there's a lot of room between treating animals in the meat industry more humanely and driving poor people to cannibalism because of high food prices. I'd say that's a false dilemma.

But I'm envisioning people being driven to cannibalism because of low food prices.

Since populations tend towards the maximum sustainable by the food supply in Malthusian societies, cannibalism after disruptions becomes much more likely.

Decrease meat consumption in the US and the poor here can switch over to now cheaper grains. Those cheaper grains also get shipped overseas where they feed people in Malthusian societies. There, populations rise and they become even more sensitive to food disruptions.

Maybe you get cannibalism, maybe you get genocide. You're going to get misery somehow.

Beth said...

Or maybe neither. Not every beat of our little butterfly wings causes chaos elsewhere.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Beth: Or maybe neither. Not every beat of our little butterfly wings causes chaos elsewhere.

We've gone from an industry with factories to something so small and insignificant that changes in it will be no more influential than the beatings of little (not even big!) butterfly wings.

Beth said...

Exactly - changes in how we treat animals within that industry are as butterfly wings in the big picture. Not nearly the population-changing zombiefying results you envision, Mr. Swift.

Beth said...

Exactly - changes in how we treat animals within that industry are as butterfly wings in the big picture. Not nearly the population-changing zombiefying results you envision, Mr. Swift.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Beth: Exactly - changes in how we treat animals within that industry are as butterfly wings in the big picture.

Good, then we don't need to make any.

Beth said...

Funny, but willfully missing the point - which is, I suppose, your point.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Beth: Funny, but willfully missing the point - which is, I suppose, your point.

You gave no particular reason for discounting my point. I simply applied your reasoning to your statements. It's a matter of taste, and you think yours are the best.