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Who We Eat Is a Moral Question: Vegans Have Nothing to Defend

Cows and pigs are sentient, brussels sprouts are not

A recent column in the New York Times "Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too". concerning our food choices presents some interesting ideas to ponder but has little to do with what is scientifically known about vegetables and other plants. In places this essay reads as if it's a convenient excuse, and not a very good one, for those who choose to eat animals to continue to do so. Rather than being "a small daily tragedy that we animals must kill to stay alive" as suggested in this essay, I find it an extremely inhumane act that must be curtailed, and one that can be easily terminated with insignificant changes in our daily eating habits.

As I point out in The Animal Manifesto we need to ask, "Who's for dinner?" not "What's for dinner?" when we're making decisions about our meals. There is no doubt that animals suffer and cry out for help when they're being prepared for meals - from the way they're raised, transported to the torture chambers of factory farms, handled when awaiting their own slaughter while hearing, seeing, and smelling the slaughter of others, and having a bolt driven into their brain, far too often inefficiently, so that they're not instantaneously rendered unconscious as existing laws require. The strong passage of Proposition 2 in California (63% of voters said “Yes, let’s improve the welfare of factory farm animals.”) and legislation protecting "downer" animals shows that people really do care about the suffering of animals who are served up as meals. In July 2008 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger strengthened legal protection for downer cows in California and in March 2009 the United States government banned the use of downer cows for food. The suffering of sentient animals in slaughterhouses around the world is indisputable and reprehensible and a sad comment on the choices humans make.

Now, what about brussels sprouts and other vegetables? Do they scream and suffer when they're wok-fried? There is no credible evidence that plants are sentient and suffer and feel pain or that they have a conscious desire to live. Vegetables don't suffer when they're prepared for meals, wok-fried, steamed, or otherwise cooked. Plants show intriguing and sophisticated tropisms - automatic reflexive responses to various environmental conditions - and do communicate with one another, but they don't have intentions and desires as do many animals. Thus, it's not valid to claim that a brussels sprout or carrot do not aspire to be wok-fried as a cow or pig might not aspire to be tortured in a slaughterhouse. Claims about animal sentience are not overblown or speculative, whereas claims about sentience in plants are entirely speculative.

Other questions also need to be pondered as we decide who to put in our mouth. Factory farms cause enormous environmental damage and this must be factored into our gustatory decisions. So, even if one doesn't give a hoot about animal suffering and death, he or she must consider what their choices are doing to the environment, local and otherwise. In many countries 50% or more of greenhouse gases come from cow gas and the use of water and land for the production for unneeded meat is huge compared to the amount of land and water needed to produce non-animal meals. For example, it’s estimated that by 2025 about 64% of humanity will be living in areas of water shortage. The livestock sector is responsible for over 8% of global human water use, 7% of global water being used for irrigating crops grown for animal feed. In New Zealand, 34.2 million sheep, 9.7 million cattle, 1.4 million deer, and 155,000 goats emit almost 50% of the country's greenhouse gases in the form of methane and nitrous oxide. Animals are living smokestacks. People are now talking about the "carbon hoofprint" (see also) to refer to the large amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by the livestock industry. “Producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emission as a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots, according to Lantmannen, a Swedish group.”

According to an essay in the New York Times (January 27, 2008) titled Rethinking the meat-guzzler “Global demand for meat has multiplied in recent years, encouraged by growing affluence and nourished by the proliferation of huge, confined animal feeding operations. These assembly-line meat factories consume enormous amounts of energy, pollute water supplies, generate significant greenhouse gases and require ever-increasing amounts of corn, soy and other grains, a dependency that has led to the destruction of vast swaths of the world’s tropical rain forests. … The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. In 2007, it was estimated to be 284 million tons. Per capita consumption has more than doubled over that period. (In the developing world, it rose twice as fast, doubling in the last 20 years.) World meat consumption is expected to double again by 2050 …” These are daunting and haunting figures that spell doom for much fertile habitat.

Even the United Nation’s Nobel Prize-winning scientific panel on climate change urged people to stop eating meat because of the climatic effects of factory farming. It’s been calculated that the carbon footprint of meat-eaters is almost twice that of vegetarians. Commercial meat production is not sustainable.

So, let's be serious about food choices and ask that our critics also be serious about their tongue-in-cheek criticisms. We can easily reduce suffering and increase our "compassion footprint" by being vegetarians and vegans. Of this there is no doubt. We're all responsible for the decisions we make. We vegans don't have to defend or apologize for our humane and ethical choices. If in the future we learn that some plants are sentient we will have to change our ways but as yet I'm happy to be a vegan and don't feel guilty for eating a non-protesting brussels sprout.

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