First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The Ethics of Eating
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Readers debate the ethics of U.S. food production, meatless diets, and more. Share your own thoughts via

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Think of the Chickens

Here’s a followup from the reader who served up yesterday’s chart on the varying numbers of animals killed for the same calorie count:

Regarding your reader’s reply in the update, the chart was in response to the crazy notion that eating plants kills more animals than eating animals. What do some people think we feed to the animals in the torture factories? Rocks? Furthermore, the notion that chicken suffering is to be discounted seems quite wrong to me. I agree that pigs are among the most intelligent and sentient beings abused for their flesh. But chickens are right up there with them. From “The Startling Intelligence of the Common Chicken” in Scientific American, outlined here:

Chart of the Day: Killing for Calories

A reader sends it:

This is my graphical response to your readers who worry about the mice killed when grains are harvested, and other such considerations.

The Ethics of a Vegan Diet, Cont'd


A farmer from our inbox responds to our earlier discussion about animal deaths and vegan diets:

First, let me make quite clear that I am a farmer, an organic farmer, and an omnivore. I have no problem whatsoever with vegan diets, vegetarians, or any other dietary choices. We all have different bodies and different nutritional needs, as a growing body of scientific research is discovering.

However, I do take issue with vegan and vegetarian claims of less bloodshed. This is disingenuous and quite naive. Do you know what organic farmers use instead of chemical fertilizers? They use blood meal. BLOOD meal. Or feather meal. Yup, real feathers ground up, and those feathers were not graciously donated by a flock of generous fowl living in bird paradise on earth.

If we go back a hundred years, all farmers kept livestock—not just for milk and meat, but to provide an integrated and natural source of fertilizer for their farms. Today, we have specialized agribusiness to the point where farmers may have 1000 acres of corn or a 1000 head of cattle, but almost never both. Historically, you could run a small family farm and lovingly care for a few cows or goats who produced milk, constant fertilizers, and meat when they grew old.

This cycle is terribly broken. And we all suffer, including vegans in their attempts to remove cruelty from their diets.

Modern Farmer has discussed the sometimes-creepy use of blood meal to feed plants and animals. As for the larger ethical question of eating vegan, does intent matter? This reader thinks so:

The difference between insects and small animals like mice being killed to produce vegetables, soy, or any non-animal food and killing cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other living beings for food is that in the former scenario, the carnage is an unfortunate consequence; in the later scenario, the carnage is the point. I think as an issue of ethics, the question of intent is the key point to focus on.

Ethics aside, the same reader believes we should discuss the bigger questions in food production:

The Ethics of a Vegan Diet

James Hamblin sat down with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons to swap strategies to defend vegan diets from common counter-arguments (e.g. “I can’t give up meat, because meat is delicious.”):

Among the counter-arguments they didn’t discuss: That a vegan diet may not be entirely bloodless. One reader summarizes this somewhat-disturbing take below. (Warning: You might not want to read this while eating.)

There is no such thing as a vegan. Every piece of food you eat is crawling with little animals. Your stomach is currently slaughtering millions of worms and other critters. Furthermore, to get your soy, they killed thousands of mice and other ground dwelling animals. Not to mention the insects.

Mmmm, dead mice in your soy—delicious. So how accurate is the argument? Scientific American’s Kyle Hill covered the bugs we accidentally digest each year:

Try as we might with insecticides and other engineered poisons, bugs crawl all over our food to feed (and procreate) on it. When we harvest and package our crops, a lot of bugs come along for the ride. Be aware, all the hitchhikers aren’t removed. At least there are limits on how many bugs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lets you unknowingly eat.

The FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook lays it all out.

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