Meat Is Murder



(photo by Jill Goodell)

Meat is murder on the conscience, as this week’s appalling recall of 143 million pounds of beef reminded me. The meat was recalled because the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company was processing cows too sick even to walk to the slaughter and treating them unbelievably cruelly them on the way.  I couldn’t even stand to watch the video taken by the Humane Society, so there won’t be a link.

Meat is murder on the environment, too, at least the factory raised kind.  Mark Bittman, who does a food column for the New York Times called "The Minimalist," wrote a fantastic piece a few weeks ago comparing meat to oil in terms of its environmental costs and suggesting it’s time to shed the "meat guzzler" as much as the "gas guzzler."


(photo by John F.)

Bittman points out that the world, getting richer as a whole, is eating more and more meat.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce meat industrially.  While manure is the best gift you could give a vegetable gardener, industrial feedlots turn it into a hideous pollutant, just because of their inhuman scale.  The methane produced by cows is a major greenhouse gas.  And with intense competition for grains from fuel producers and meat producers, the losers are the world’s poor, who need cheap grains to feed themselves.

Bittman’s not a vegetarian and neither am I.  He suggest pasture-raised meat as part of the answer to the environmental quagmire.  And since the world cannot produce as much meat on grass as it does in factories, Bittman recommends that we all eat less. 

Apparently, I’ve got sustainable tastes.  I haven’t bought a package of hamburger in a supermarket for the last ten years at least–the grass-fed meat from my local farmers tastes a million times better. And the food I like best is peasant food that uses meat as a garnish in a stew of vegetables and/or grains.  Give me four ounces of bacon, and I will give you dinner for six. 

But I’ve got other qualms that moderation doesn’t answer.  All of my contact with birds convinces me they are scarily intelligent, so what am I doing, regularly boiling them up for stock?  And science seems to be knocking down that Chinese wall between human intelligence and animal intelligence block by block.  So let’s not flatter ourselves that the cow soul we see behind those cow eyes is so very different from our own.

I don’t flatter myself. Clearly, for the pure of heart, eating no meat at all is the answer.  But I love to cook, and frankly, could hardly bear the narrowing of horizons that would occur if I had to give up meat entirely. So moral ambiguity is the country in which I dwell, and I suspect that this has been true of humans as long as we’ve lived on the planet.  We like the sizzle, but not the killing.   


  1. We’ve become so remotely separated from our food sources, that it’s no wonder that industry has gotten away with industrialization of our food supply, with its accompanying industrial horrors. We don’t see the horrors. We rarely even see the butcher behind the counter cutting meat any more. We see a clean piece of meat on a clean white plastic tray, hygienically wrapped in clear plastic with a USDA stamp of approval.

    My college-age students aren’t naive enough to suppose that food only comes from “the store,” as young children so often do, but while they know that food comes from “a farm,” and that somehow dirt is involved, they are clueless as to the realities of industrial meat and milk production. Many of them have a happy picture book image of “a farm,” where cows and chickens run around the pastures while a guy in a straw hat and a lady in a polka-dot dress tend to them.

    So when I do an ecology unit, and talk about food chains and food webs, I bring it home with the human food chains, both grass-fed and industrial.

    If I had my way, the prerequisite to taking General Biology would be a summer course spent growing a vegetable garden and touring nearby farms. Then we’d have a concrete experience to build on.

  2. Thanks for this post–considering the occaional ferocity of opinion expressed on this blog, I think its fairly brave of you. There is nothing in it to suggest any “moral ambiguity” on your part, more an awareness of your all-too-human ability to let your personal desires make a mockery of your conscience.

    I think that as Americans become less influenced by European gardening traditions, we will have increasing choice of ornamental cultivars among native plants. A couple of generations of gardeners from now, our native plant selection may look very limited. You might think about cooking without meat that way–not as a limitation, but as a developing newer cuisine that you could explore.

  3. Everyone’s favorite author of the moment, Michael Pollan, covers this in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_. It’s a good read — better, I am told, than his more recent book _In Defense of Food_.

    He too struggles with the ethics of his food sources, but he has the journalist’s drive to participate in as much as possible and then write about everything from industrial feedlots to a hunt for feral pigs to organic agri-business.

    See, for example,

  4. Probably the main reason I went veg 14 years ago was because I looked at the dogs and finally said, well, I wouldn’t eat you; looked at my friends and said, well, wouldn’t eat you either- so why am I eating anybody? If I’m willing to eat it, I should be willing to kill it (not willing, so that takes care of that). My own moral ambiguity comes with still eating diary and eggs, although I’d be perfectly willing to raise chickens for eggs if I had the room. And the dairy industry of course contributes its own horrors. Corporate animal farming is raping this country and our kids are going to pay the bill. We can all make a difference, whether we eat meat and dairy products or not, by finding out where our food comes from and choosing the least damaging, most health supporting options. We don’t have to let agribusiness choose for us.

  5. I actually think finding out animals have intelligence, or even souls, does not point straight to vegetarianism; it points to awareness and compassion. If everything you might eat has a soul, you have two choices: reconcile yourself to harming another soul to eat, or die.

    Since dying is not my preference, I’ve got to find a way to eat that I can live with. So, letting my chickens and beans and kale live as they were meant to, and taking their lives or leaves with the least trauma and most respect is my approach.

  6. Not quite sure what you mean about narrowing horizons if you gave up meat Michele. I’ve found the opposite to be true. Eating and cooking vegetarian food broadens your horizon as you come into contact with so many food stuffs you’d never heard of and tasted before. For me it was a wonderful way of discovery!

  7. Thank you for your post that validates that it is okay to show empathy for animals.

    Living in an area where hunting is popular sport for adults and children it is unpopular to speak of such things. I look at my deer herd on cold wintery nights foraging, nuturing, and playing. How can someone bait and shoot these half tame deer.

    Have not eaten any meat since the videos of the California slaughterhouse has been made public. Too disturbing for my appetite. The commericals for Happy California cows comes on the TV and I wonder how they have not pulled that ad. Those downer cows shown in the video were dairy cows.

    No meat for me. When others say that animals are worth nil, I know better because my deer herd knows my voice.

  8. Wow, Squirrelgardens, you are a gentle soul! I think deer are pretty too–and groundhogs are cute–but once any creature eats my vegetable seedlings or chews up my newly planted fruit trees, I have NO MERCY whatsoever.

    Fortunately, I don’t own a gun, so I go the passive route–fencing and more fencing. But the next time I find my brassicas nibbled down to a nub, I may very well get murderous.

  9. Michelle,
    We are lucky enough to live where we can raise our own chickens for meat – as well as eggs – and where I can buy the small amount of meat we eat from a local butcher. I appreciate the arguments put forth by Diet for a Small Planet, and the sensibilities of moral vegetarians (of which a daughter is one) but in these discussions I never see mention of the problem of what to do with all the unproductive male animals in the world. We want milk and cheese and wool, but we don’t need all those male animals. How do we handle that problem? Only so many males are needed to keep the flocks and herds of productive animals going. I don’t have the answer, and have never seen one put forth.

  10. For this reason, I’m moving more and more to veganism. I stopped eating meat not grown locally and sustainably back in November. I eat less and less cheese, eggs, and dairy, as well. My town has an ordinace against raising chickens in town, and I may try to fight it, so I can get eggs. Or I may move to the country. The environmental reasons are enough for me, but the recent videos showing the animal cruelty? That touched a heart string.

  11. Oh, by the way… I love to cook, too. My meat-eating fiance loves that I’ve turned to vegetarianism because he says he eats better now – healthier and better tasting food – than he did before I made this choice.


    It’s actually not hard for me at all to do this. I turn a lot of meat recipes into vegetable recipes using things like veggie crumbles, although I try to stick more with things I can grow myself in my garden. 🙂 But it’s always nice for a change to have “lasagna” and other meat-less meat foods.

  12. Yolanda and Jen(aside), hats off to you! I could not cook without chicken stock and a little bit of pork product to flavor my beans. The rest I could give up if I had to.

  13. Hey, Michele–re your original post…doesn’t it suggest that you have to? Actually, chicken stock is really, really easy to give up. Vegetable stock can be wonderful. Welcome to your crossroads…dang it, there are so many in life, aren’t there?

  14. The bottom line is that all food equals death. Grind a wheat berry to make flour, and you’ve killed that grain of wheat. Dig up that carrot, and you’ve killed that carrot. Chop off the chicken’s head to boil up some stock, and you’ve killed that chicken. Crack the egg — oops, another chicken won’t be hatched. But animals with big brown eyes have the advantage and advocates to make us ashamed to kill — them. Meanwhile, back to the killing fields — of wheat, carrots, and chickens. If we are to live, something must die. That’s the dark side of life. But it is life and reality.

  15. We could also become aware of Holistic Management which offers some very intensive, dense, short term grazing which, contrary to what enviros claim, actually keeps the soil food web alive by pruning the perennial grasses(grazing), fertilizing the plants(droppings taken underground by dung beetles) and briefly disturbing the soil(hoofing it), then moving right on. These ways keep bacterial grasslands alive and allow the fungal foodweb to reestablish, holding the soil together. Surrounding the deserts with carefully herded flerds could slow and even reverse our current problems and offer plenty of meat regeneratively.

  16. I don’t have a problem with an animal dying so that we can eat it. I do have a problem with an animal being treated inhumanely. And I have a problem with the way corporations process animals which result in unhealthy meat and many other problems. So like many others I try to only eat meat that is free range and organic and processed humanely. I eat alot of vegetables and only use meat occassionaly as a part of a dish. However I am not perfect, sometimes I even eat a fast food chicken sandwich, because it is food and I am in a hurry. I just do my best to support sustainable methods. That’s all any of us can do.

  17. Well Bob(alink), those wheat berries and carrots don’t have a central nervous system like animals do. I don’t see how people who are against killing an animal would be ok with killing a chicken, aren’t they an animal too?

    Also, eating eggs does not stop all chickens from hatching. The eggs you eat are unfertilized, in fact most eggs laid are unfertilized and will never be fertilized.

  18. Michelle,
    I am a vegetarian in a family of hunters. Don’t think that doesn’t make for some interesting conversations! I’ve been a vegetarian for several decades, and I totally enjoy the astonishment when carnivore friends and fam realize that not all vegetarian meals are tasteless sawdust. I found the news report disturbing but not surprising. Reliable reports confirm that such incidents happen often. I’m surprised that self preservation isn’t enough reason to edge more people toward vegetarian choices.

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