And doesn't it seem shameful to you to need medical help," says Socrates to Glaucon in the third book of the Politeia, "not for wounds or because of some seasonal illness, but because, through idleness and the lifestyle we've described, one is full of gas and phlegm like a stagnant swamp, so that sophisticated Asclepiad doctors are forced to come up with names like 'flatulence' and 'catarrh' to describe one's diseases?" This, roughly, is the reaction prompted by Kathryn Andersen '08's sermon on the consumption of grass fed cow corpse. Andersen appeals to two values — sustainability and health. Her contention is that eating grass-fed beef is consistent with those two values. Why should anyone believe this?
First, it is surely healthier for us to eat cows fed with grass than cows fed, as cows in this country typically are, with bird feces, remaindered pet food, commercial leftovers and masses of grain — right? Right. Supposedly grass fed beef also "helps fight cancer," though I for one am putting my bets on the American Cancer Society, which recommends above all else, a plant-based diet. It should be noticed at once, however, that in any case Andersen has in mind only the health of those rich enough to afford fancy carcasses. She omits mention of the world's miserable and starving, who might easily be fed of the copious grazing lands given over to grass-fed beef were used more efficiently for plant-based foods. (Not to worry, however, since the "buzzword hitting every establishment from Whole Foods to Chipotle" will free us Princetonians from any risk of contracting the E. Coli and salmonella that we, as she says, aren't contracting.). Discriminating, moneyed consumers may nevertheless elect to patronize grass fed beef for the sake of their own corporeal interests. But let them not flatter themselves the deliverers of mankind, whose famine they exacerbate by the disgusting and licentious abuse of unequal resources.
Andersen's thoughts are also quite obviously far from the health of the cows which, grass fed or not, we pay others to raise in execrable conditions so that they may reach our plates with speed and economy. Perhaps it will be said that, to the contrary, grass fed beef is much to the advantage of cows. Well, naturally it is better to feed cows grass than garbage. You will forgive me for being less than ecstatic. Small progress indeed for those pitiful creatures who pass their brief, wretched lives in tiny pens before being dragged off, alive, to the slaughter. (Who thinks of such things? What a crimp these animal people would put in Muffy's grass fed hamburger patty soiree!). Once we admit, moreover, of the relevance of the well being of sentient nonhuman animals, we cannot without self-deception persist in perpetrating their torture and death.
Andersen's second value of environmental sustainability is responsible for much of the saintly glow often associated with "green" activists. Such noble souls, these guardians of the planet. What, we may wonder, are the arguments behind the nimbus? Andersen herself confesses that grass fed beef "doesn't rid us of the greenhouse emissions, but it reduces them" (by how much we are not told). Sure, it's not perfect, but after all it's "about as low-carbon a diet as possible." And, like, we get to eat steak without feeling guilty, right?
I hasten to bring to Andersen's attention what has evidently escaped it, namely that, according to a recent study by University of Chicago geoscientists Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin, the single most environmentally friendly diet, measured in terms of highest energy efficiency and lowest greenhouse-gas emissions, is the vegan diet. This is hardly surprising. To quote a 1998 joint report of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank, intensive livestock farming, "acts directly on land, water, air and biodiversity through the emission of animal waste, use of fossil fuels and substitution of animal genetic resources. In addition, it affects the global land base indirectly through its effect on the arable land needed to satisfy its feed concentrate requirements. Ammonia emissions from manure storage and application lead to localized acid rain and ailing forests."
Just a moment now — doesn't Andersen purport to be concerned with reducing greenhouse-gas emissions? And isn't it, according to our best science, the vegan diet which generates the fewest emissions? Why, then, does Andersen instead advocate bourgeois beef, pretending it to be "about as low-carbon a diet as possible"?
The answer, of course, is that whatever pretence Kathryn Andersen and her colleagues make concerning for environmental sustainability, they are yet more concerned to fill their stomachs with the dead animals they've grown used to eating. Once again, appetite trumps ethics.
Dylan Byron is the co-president of the Princeton Animal Welfare Society . He may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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