Once I'd addressed the global warming question, I went on to stress that numerous other environmental issues must also be considered. The even greater threat, according to one of the world's leading ecologists, Cornell's David Pimentel, is soil erosion. "Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces," Pimentel said in 2008. Crop cultivation is the main culprit of erosion, while well-managed animal farming can actually counteract soil losses. "[W]hen plants have time to adequately re-grow from clipping," according to a study from Washington State University, "they replace their root volume so that each defoliation event results in increased organic matter to the soil" [italics mine]. Likewise, studies done by the Department of Agriculture and University of Georgia found that soil erosion and water pollution are both greatly reduced when cropland is converted to well-managed pastures for animal grazing.
Additionally, as Pimentel himself frequently notes in his writings, grazing animals put land that is unsuitable for growing crops into food production, an efficient use of natural resources. As the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service eloquently explains:
Ranchers ... conver[t] sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into a high-quality human food source. ... [M]ost of the land in the U.S., and indeed in most countries of the world, is not tillable and is considered rangeland, forest, or desert. These ecosystems can be very productive from a plant biomass perspective, but ... are generally non-farmable... However, grassland ecosystems ... produce plant materials that are highly digestible to ruminant animals. ... This is of particular importance to the sustainability of agricultural production systems because grasslands and rangelands have the capacity to produce millions of tons of this energy source. Grazing of native and introduced forages on grasslands and rangeland thus is a very efficient way of converting otherwise non-digestible energy into forms available for human use: milk, meat, wool and other fibers, and hide." [my emphasis]
Aside from these ecological questions, the Lyman v. Niman debate focused on the ethics surrounding meat eating. It is quite impossible, of course, to change the mind of someone who fervently believes that it's immoral to eat meat, and I've never endeavored to do so. (To get the picture, just imagine standing before a large group of zealous pro-lifers trying to explain why you volunteer at a Planned Parenthood clinic). My modest hope for the evening was to make the case that there is more than one way to eat environmentally and ethically.
Here's the essence of what I said on the ethics question. Humans and their ancestors have been eating meat for 4 million years. About 1.5 million years ago, we markedly increased our meat consumption, an event that many anthropologists believe is closely connected to the dramatic expansion of our brains and the success of our lineage. Flesh eating by humans and other animals is an integral part of the ecological cycle: sunlight and rainwater create vegetation, certain animals eat this vegetation, converting it to flesh, other animals eat those animals, those animals eventually die, all of which returns nutrients to the earth, which in turn feeds the plants. Individuals certainly can choose to opt out of this system, but I can find no basis for a moral imperative to do so.
Nonetheless, eating animals is frequently compared by vegan activists to human slavery or, as Lyman did the other night, to the Holocaust. These are emotion-triggering analogies, but they are poor ones for many reasons. For one thing, throughout nature, killing members of one's own species is rare and aberrant behavior. Animals generally kill for their own physical nourishment, and they subsist by eating animals of other species. This is precisely what humans are doing when they eat a goat or a pig, utterly unlike what the Germans did to the Jews in World War II.
Suspecting that many Jews and African-Americans would strenuously object to slavery and Holocaust analogies, I asked Jonathan Safran Foer (who has written on the Holocaust and, more recently, on meat eating in the bestselling memoir Eating Animals) for his reaction. He agreed with me that the analogy is offensive and, in his words, "intellectually cheap." "It implies that one is incapable of explaining or understanding what is wrong with the meat industry on its own terms," he told me. "I am convinced that if the average American were to have an honest and clear-eyed introduction to the truth about factory farming, he or she would have no problem understanding what's wrong with it. To reach for a human catastrophe is not only repugnant, it's unnecessary."
As I said at the debate, I don't imagine people standing at the top of some hierarchy with animals beneath them but rather as part of a complex and wonderful food web, in which all life has a role in the nutrient cycle. The thing I don't get in the vegan perspective is this: if humans and animals all have equal standing on the earth—a point of view I can accept—why do vegans feel the need to totally distance themselves from animals eating other animals, a behavior that is so much a part of the animal kingdom? As I see it, humans have no greater right to kill animals for food than other animals, but we do have an equal right. Condemning a person for eating a pig makes no more sense to me than condemning a coyote for eating a rabbit, a lion for eating a gazelle, or a bear for eating a salmon.
Although the Lyman v. Niman debate was dedicated to the question of whether or not to eat meat, Jonathan Safran Foer's comments reminded me of the common ground I share with many vegetarians and vegans advocates. We all agree on the need to rid the world of factory farms. At the end of the evening, we all shook hands and went home. No doubt, these questions will be debated for many, many years to come.
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