The Agroecological Argument for Eating Meat


Dan Hicks


April 21, 2012

The New York Times has announced the six finalists in its Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat essay contest. Readers have until April 24th to vote for their favorite. Notably, three of the six essays give what I’m going to call the agroecological argument for carnivorism.  In this post, I’m going to explain this argument and respond to it.  

I think the final paragraph of the essay ‘We Require Balance. Balance Requires Meat.’ states the argument quite nicely:

A farm animal is not a pet or a wild animal fending for itself. The farm animal and the small farmer must cooperate to build a stronger herd or flock; we literally cannot survive without each other. The eating of animals is paramount to the production of food in a system that embraces the whole of reality. This is why eating meat is ethical. To not consume meat means to turn off a whole part of the natural world and to force production of food to move away from regenerative systems and to turn toward a system that creates larger problems for our world.

Basically, truly sustainable agriculture – agriculture based on ecology, thus 'agroecology’ – requires the cooperation of animals; and this in turn requires eating some of them. So, for an environmentalist – someone who is committed, among other things, to sustainable agriculture – it seems that some degree of carnivorism, not vegetarianism, is required.

As an environmentalist, I find the agroecological argument compelling. Not convincing, but at least compelling. Indeed, it’s the only argument for carnivorism that I find remotely compelling. Claims that humans are ethically superior to other animals ('Meat is Ethical. Meat is Bad.’) strike me as ignorant and odious. Nebulous appeals to holiday feasts and tradition ('For What Shall We Be Blamed – and Why?’) are hand waving at best and uncritical apologetics for atrocities at worst. On the other hand, I personally know farmers who are trying to create a sustainable agricultural system. For nearly three years, I’ve eaten their vegetables and, occasionally, the eggs from their chickens and ducks. The agroecological argument speaks to some commitments that I share with these farmers, and some biological and economic realities that they face in trying to realize those commitments. In terms of either economics or nutrient cycling, they can’t afford to keep laying hens around for years after their egg production falls off.

But the agroecological argument is limited, and in a way that I think is quite serious. The argument does not apply directly to our contemporary, highly industrialized, food production system. Almost none of our vegetables are fertilized with composted manure. Almost none of our dairy or beef cattle graze on grasses. Almost none of our chickens scratch in the dirt for maggots. Except for a small number of people – those who are either 'grass farmers’ themselves or know someone who is – the conclusion of the argument is hypothetical: carnivorism would be required ifwe produced our food agroecologically. Since this is not the way we produce our food, the argument is basically irrelevant to our lives.

In some old lefty jargon, a description of a perfect world that does not include any explanation of how we might bring it about is said to be 'utopian’. A vision of a perfectly egalitarian society that is miraculously free of envy and fear is utopian in precisely this sense. And, to be clear, the term is pejorative: a utopia is, at best, a daydream enjoyed during a break from the hard work of actually changing the world; more likely, it is a distraction that makes us forget the necessity of this hard work. Even if the utopia is what motivates us, we need to understand the problems of the world we live in. And the utopia gives us no way to understand the problems. It can tell us that our world is imperfect; but presumably we already knew that. To paraphrase one of my students, you don’t need to talk about environmentally perfect agriculture to show me that CAFOs are bad.

The agroecological argument, I think, is utopian. It describes an ideal system of food production – 'ideal’ in several senses. Insofar as our system deviates from this ideal, the argument provides a criticism of our system. But that doesn’t tell us why our system has failed to achieve this ideal. Why, in other words, do we have lots of CAFO-raised cattle, and almost no grass-raised cattle? Why, after four decades of the organic movement, does organic agriculture only make up less than one percent of US farmland? Or, how do we go about realizing the agroecological ideal? The argument, by itself, can’t answer these questions. Again, since this is not the way we produce our food, the argument is basically irrelevant to our lives.

You might object that I’m demanding too much from the argument. It’s intended to answer one question – Is it ethical to eat meat? – and I’m suddenly asking a very different question – What’s wrong with our food system? My criticism should be targeted at the New York Times, for posing (what I think is) the wrong question, not the argument given to answer that wrong question.

But the question is open to interpretation. Consider these two ways of clarifying it:

The agroecological argument only answers the first question; it gives us nothing, one way or the other, in response to the second question. And only the second, I’m arguing, is relevant to the real ethical decisions we have to make here and now. So when someone answers the original question with the argument, they are reading that question in its first, 'some conceivable situation’ version, and avoiding the genuinely relevant question.

What would a more adequate argument tell us? The most important things, I think, would be that industrial meat production is enormously profitable and that meat has enormous cultural importance, not just in the US but globally. Meat is the food of the wealthy and powerful – especially, Carol Adams would add, wealthy and powerful heterosexual men – and, so long as there are fossil fuels to fertilize the corn and transport it to the livestock, entrenched industries that dominate the marketplace, and political patronage to help prop the whole thing up legally, industrial meat production is the cheapest way to meet massive consumer demand. Proponents of the agroecological argument themselves typically recognize that, in their system, humans would eat much less meat than contemporary Americans do. But then this system cannot satisfy the demands of a meat-hungry population. This is even more true to the extent that an agroecological system would genuinely respect its nonhuman animal members by ensuring them opportunities to lead good and full lives and slaughtering them only when it was necessary to maintain the ecology of the farm. The economic incentives, coupled to the cultural value of meat that create consumer demand, lead us inevitably to CAFOs, not pastures. And, after all, we leave under the reign of the almighty dollar.

So this, I think, is the important limitation of the agroecological argument. The problem is not 'internal’ to the argument; I have not argued here that one of its premises is flawed. (For that debate, see this piece and this response.) Rather, my problem is 'external’. Whatever merits the argument has on its own terms, it deals with an imaginary system of food production, and does not help us diagnose the problems of our actual system.