What Should I Eat, Animals or Plants?
Is going vegan the answer to inhumane practices of factory farming?
Posted Mar 10, 2020
Actor Joaquin Phoenix raised this question a few weeks ago in his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the Oscars. He alluded to practices of dairy farming, characterized them as an example of speciesism, and suggested that going vegan is the solution to both inhumane farming and speciesism.
Let’s take a closer look.
In the U.S., inhumane farming happens: No question about it. As commentators and critics, including Phoenix, have documented, factory farm practices can be equivalent to torture. Hens spend their lives indoors, packed so tightly in cages that they cannot move, with their beaks cut and their feet growing into the bars of their cages; cows spend their lives indoors on concrete, packed into a barn, fed corn and soybeans, and shot up with growth hormone. These are just some of the animals that deserve our fierce and ardent protection.
Yet if a majority of the country went vegan, while the demand for animal products would surely plummet, that drop would do nothing to guarantee the safety and well-being of animals who had been farmed or were still being farmed.
Further, simply going vegan will do nothing to ensure that practices for farming fruits and vegetables do what we need them to do: enrich the soil, foster just human interactions, and stem fossil fuel use, as well as feed the planet.
There is nothing inherently good about buying and eating a vegetable.
That vegetable could have been grown in a monoculture, saturated with herbicides and fungicides, irrigated with water diverted from critical plant and animal habitats, and then harvested by workers who are denied basic human rights. It could have been processed in ways that deplete its nutritional value, and transported by vehicles spewing carbon emissions (Montgomery, 2018).
The solution to inhumane farming practices is humane farming practices.
We need policies in place that guarantee farm animals a life lived in good health with relative freedom. We need policies that rebuild the soil and protect the air and water. We need people to police these policies. And we need trade policies that protect farmers who farm humanely from being undersold by farmers who don’t.
If we are truly concerned with finding a way to nourish ourselves that is good for animals and plants, and good for the planet, then we need to prioritize the how over the what. What we eat is less important than how it is grown, raised, harvested, and shipped, as well as how it is cooked, served, and whether or not it is wasted.
Is it possible to farm animals humanely?
For some people, the answer will be no: All animals are sentient beings with rights akin to our own. While this principle is relatively easy to apply when it comes to wild animals such as primates who have been captured and caged for human pleasure or scientific experiments, it is less easy to apply when it comes to domesticated farm animals. Many farm animal species have evolved to depend upon humans to take care of them, and they have, over time, succeeded in getting that care by providing humans with something humans want in exchange—food (Shipman, 2010; 2011).
Farm animals work for their living.
Said otherwise, the process of “domestication” is a two-way street. In the case of cows, chickens, hens, pigs, and sheep, for example, the variety of breeds is not just a result of humans selecting who and how to nurture. The animals have evolved traits that make them appealing to humans.
In a number of cases, these animals produce more of a substance than they need. Domestic chickens, ducks, and geese lay eggs nearly every day, whether or not those eggs have been fertilized. Dairy cows, after giving birth, provide gallons more milk than their calves require. And yes, these animals also provide more young than they need to reproduce themselves.
In providing these goods, these species have succeeded in securing care and protection from humans. Regardless of whether it is raining, hailing, or 20 below zero, I must go outside and take care of our cattle. I depend on them. They need me, and they have trained me well.
If we are no longer going to farm animals, then what happens with these species? Should we prevent them from reproducing? Is it right to abandon them to natural environments after they have evolved to rely upon our protection? If my family let our chickens run free on our 96 acres, foxes, coyotes, and hawks would have a quick and easy meal. Our cows would be prey to coyotes and human vehicles and have difficulty finding food in winter.
Should we keep these animals as pets? If we do, isn’t that just another form of coerced control, restricting their movement and their reproductive processes for human pleasure?
If farming animals is inhumane, at which living organism do we draw the line, and on what grounds?
Eating vegetables does not provide a magical exit from killing sentient organisms. Scientists such as Daniel Chamowitz (2012) increasingly aim to quantify that plants feel and remember pain, communicate with other plants, take care of their young, and mount strategies for competing with invasive species. Plants sense and respond to the challenges of their environment, developing innovative ways to perpetuate their kin (See also Calvo, 2016). And as with domesticated animals, domesticated plants have evolved to depend upon humans to eat, reseed, and replant them year to year (Pollan, 2001; Diamond, 1997).
What right do we have to eat a head of broccoli? Or the families of cultures that turn soybeans into tempeh and tofu? Are we only willing to grant rights to organisms that inhabit the same general time/space coordinates as ourselves? Is it just a matter of size?
Further, the lives of plants and animals are miraculously entwined. Even if you do approve of killing vegetables but not animals, the plants that produce those vegetables thrive in soil, and the soil is comprised of living bacteria and microbes, as well as dead animal bodies and worm poop. Is it possible to grow a vegan vegetable? What would its nutrient content be? Even plants grown in hydroponic solutions are regularly fertilized with fish manure from farmed fish.
Every animal and plant species on this planet is somebody else’s food.
That includes humans. We would not exist if we didn’t provide homes for countless bacteria and viruses, before and after our deaths, who feed on us while helping us with essential biological processes. We rely on such microorganisms to digest our own food and defend ourselves against disease and depression (Lowry et al., 2007).
Every living creature eats and is eaten. Speciesism is thinking that we can somehow live outside of this cycle. We cannot. Rather, the question is: How do we participate in it responsibly?
Farm plants and animals together to help the planet.
It may be that sustainable, humane farming of animals and plants together is a valuable part of the solution to both the climate emergency and food crises that loom on the human horizon.
For example, if chickens run free, rotated across fields that are farmed organically, they can reduce insect pests, fertilize the soil, and provide a source of protein—eggs—that offers a nearly perfect match to human need. If cows are allowed to graze on grass, they don’t need prophylactic antibiotics or soybean feed, and their eating and walking churn up the soil in ways that help to sequester carbon, rejuvenate depleted soils, and nurture the return of grasses. A number of innovative agriculturalists are identifying these synergies and teaching us how to make use of them, including Joel Salatin (1998), Wendell Berry (2015), Vandava Shiva (2015), and Ben Falk (2013).
Our methods of farming create much more than food. They create communities. They create human relationships. They create, or not, a healthy planetary organism capable of sustaining human life.
What should you eat? Rather, ask: How is it grown? Whether you are vegan, omnivore, or somewhere in between, choose foods whose processes of production support the ongoing renewal of the Earth, and the health and well-being of all plants, animals, and people involved at every step of the way.
Even better, raise and grow your own.
Berry, Wendell. 2015. The Unsettling of America. Counterpoint.
Calvo, Paco. 2016. The philosophy of plant neurobiology. A manifesto. Synthese 193, 1323–1343 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1040-1.
Chamowitz, Daniel. 2012. What a Plant Knows. Scientific American.
Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton.
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Salatin, Joel. 1998. You Can Farm. Polyface Farms.
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Shiva, Vandava. 2015. Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. North Atlantic Books.
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