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My struggles with ethical eating: How I lost my way with food

When Simon Friederich stopped eating meat, he didn't stop asking questions. Can we really avoid animal suffering when we stop producing meat and dairy, and rewild their pastures?

Photo: Cottonbro/Pexels

My wife Andrea has been a vegetarian since childhood, for the simple reason that she found meat disgusting. She would sometimes try to convert me to vegetarianism. She had no scruples in playing the ethics card, and she would sometimes act like she was a nice little piglet cuddling up to me and softly say: ‘Slaughter – that’s what you’re planning for me?’

I guess it was around that time when I started asking myself questions about eating meat.

I was in my early 20s, and at the University of Göttingen I took an ethics class. One of the topics being animal ethics, I seized the opportunity to read some of the academic literature on it. While I was on that course, convinced by the animal ethicists, I became a vegetarian.

Meals for Andrea and me became a lot more straightforward. However, things became somewhat more awkward socially; I annoyed my friends and my parents by asserting that our treatment of animals is a total disgrace and an embarrassment, and that they were to blame.

They didn’t look happy when I said so.

But things did not end with me becoming socially awkward. Some of you reading this will be vegetarians as well. Those of you who are will have faced critical questions about it – questions from others (and not only from meat eaters) and questions that you will have asked yourselves.

I annoyed my friends and my parents by asserting that our treatment of animals is a total disgrace and an embarrassment, and that they were to blame.

In the years after I had become a vegetarian the questions I found hardest to answer were those that implicitly criticized me for not being radical enough. Common vegetarianism, I discovered, didn’t actually make that much sense. For the cows to produce milk in a way that makes economic sense, they have to calve quite often. The cute little calves are taken away from them shortly after birth and slaughtered or confined in crates for veal, unless they are ‘fortunate’ enough to become dairy cows themselves. The cows are slaughtered after a couple of lactation cycles, by which time they are no longer economically useful.

A similar story can be told about chickens.

And so, the only consistent way of being a vegetarian, I came to believe, was being a vegan – not consuming any animal products at all. The questions I then asked myself were: Was that the right thing for me to do? Should I become a vegan?

From Simon's family photo album.

Perhaps you have tried veganism yourself. I tried it some days, but found it difficult. For instance, I still liked cheese a lot, and found it very hard to resist. But I also felt that eating it would be a bit unfair. After all, many people around me were still eating meat, including aromatic sausages from pigs kept in appalling conditions. Now, was I supposed to forgo my cheese fondue and Käsespätzle? Doing the ethical thing is nice, I thought – but not if the price is so high!

But this is not how the story ends. A couple of years ago I came across two interesting philosophies that impressed me in several ways. One of these is effective altruism. Effective altruists want to behave in a way that helps the most people. So they ask this deceptively simple question: ‘How can we do the most good with the resources that we have?’ One thing they have found out is that donating towards anti-malaria bed nets for people in Africa is pretty effective in saving people’s lives, with a good bang-for-buck ratio.

I found veganism difficult. Was I supposed to forgo my cheese fondue and Käsespätzle?

From the perspective of effective altruism, the relevant question about how we treat animals becomes ‘How can we improve the welfare of animals the most, given the resources we have?’ Coming back to veganism, the questions are, then, ‘Is becoming a vegan an effective way of helping animals? Is trying to convince your friends to become vegans effective?’

At this point, and before answering these questions, I come to the second kind of philosophy, one that has influenced many people affiliated with RePlanet; it is called ecomodernism. Ecomodernists believe that we need to invest in technological progress to solve environmental problems. The idea is that if people have all their basic needs covered, then they will be in a better position to protect the environment and will typically do that. While some traditional environmentalists criticize ecomodernists for accepting people's desire for a modern life, there is in fact a good deal of agreement between ecomodernists and environmentalists with respect to animals raised for food.

Applied to the animals-and-meat issue, a strategy that is interesting to both ecomodernists and traditional environmentalists as well as to effective altruists is to support delicious foodstuff that is not based on animals but can replace animal-based products, things like Quorn, or the products of the Netherlands-based Vegetarian Butcher – and perhaps not so far in the future real meat grown outside of animals via laboratory-based cellular agriculture.

Effective altruists tend to agree that making these products cheaper than animal-based products is likely to be highly effective, perhaps more so than consumers deciding to become vegan (though that would still be a good idea). The idea is that once these products are cheaper than those made from animals, people will buy the replacements. People who aren’t interested in the ethical considerations would eat less meat because the alternatives are at least as good – and cheaper.

Is becoming a vegan an effective way of helping animals? Is trying to convince your friends to become vegans effective?

To me, this sounded great. The more people buy these products – or, even better, create social support for them – the more it will bring down their prices, so it indirectly helps animals. Eating delicious meat replacement products, I felt, is a much more fun way of doing good than becoming a full-time vegan.

Another benefit of these replacement products is that they can also help with two other problems: the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Emissions from animal agriculture are among the more important drivers of global warming. The land use of animal agriculture is huge. My romantic vision – and I still intuitively like it very much – is that by dramatically reducing animal agriculture we will be able to restore all kinds of wild and picturesque landscapes and leave to our kids a lot more wild nature than we have inherited from our parents.

But this hopeful vision is not the end of my story, either. Because my confidence about having finally found the right answer to all problems related to animals and food took a big hit when, stimulated by a couple of unorthodox thinkers, I started to seriously ask questions about wild animals: animals that are not owned by any humans, whether they live in wild nature, in a city, or wherever else. I asked myself: ‘Is it really so clear that animals living in the wild nature that I would love to restore would be happier than animals in today’s farms?’

I found that surprisingly difficult to answer.

You might think that it’s obvious that wild animals have a better life than farmed ones: they can go wherever they want, they have space, and they are not slaughtered. But I learned that this is not the full story; most wild animals die an early death, typically from starvation or parasites, or by ending up as another animal’s prey. This can be long drawn out and painful.

For instance, lions tend to kill their prey by suffocating them, a death which can last several minutes. Seagulls sometimes peck out the eyes of cuddly little seal pups. The pups then die from starvation, and the gulls feed on their dead bodies. I asked myself: Is this really better than what happens to farmed animals?

Do wild animals really have a better life than farmed ones? Most wild animals die an early death, typically from starvation or parasites.

Things became even more perplexing when I started to ask myself which animals are the happiest animals overall. I have no clear idea, but I would guess that free-range cows and sheep have quite nice lives in comparison to many wild animals. So perhaps I should not so much support meat replacement products but rather return to eating meat while focusing on organic beef and lamb?

But this idea, too, has a big problem: free-range cattle and sheep need comparatively large amounts of land, and they release methane, a much worse greenhouse gas than CO2. All in all, as George Monbiot has argued recently, they may well be the animals with the most devastating environmental footprint!

For now this is the end of my story about animals and food. Having thought about these topics for twenty years I have probably become wiser, at least a bit – yet I’ve lost my way. While I still think that supporting plant-based products instead of animal-based ones is a great idea, beyond that I really don’t know what’s for the best.

My questioning has helped me demolish some simplistic ideas, but at this point it hasn’t given me a new and comprehensive vision. If you think you have such a vision and it answers my concerns, please contact me:

Simon Friederich is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He is also a member of RePlanet’s Advisory Board and the chair of RePlanet D-A-CH.


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