The Omnivore's Rationalization

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The Omnivore's Rationalization

By Jill Howard-Church from Animals and Society Institute
April 2009

I’ve been perusing the gardening catalogs that are filling my mailbox almost as quickly as dandelions are filling my lawn. As any catalog shopper knows, once you get on one mailing list, you’ll soon find yourself on several others. But they all interest me because all have an organic gardening component, and I do my best to survive in suburbia without resorting to the dubious chemicals I see being sprayed from large trucks onto other lawns on my street. I welcome any device or product that helps me grow the most flowers and veggies with the least amount of harm.

Earlier this month I attended an organic gardening conference, a first for me. I was drawn to the event because the keynote speaker was Michael Pollan, an author I admire if not always agree with. I found his book “The Botany of Desire” fascinating, and read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” last year. I wanted to hear his views about modern agriculture (knowing that he’s a critic of factory farming and pesticides) and meet other people who presumably share a more enlightened vision of what and how America eats. Alas, Pollan's address focused on the need to change farming practices without specific mention of changing eating practices (e.g., the reduction of meat consumption even if one wanted to support so-called "sustainable" meat production). Vegetarianism was never discussed as a means of reducing one's impact on the planet.

The conference was attended by both commercial farmers and backyard gardeners, some of whom looked like stereotypical hippies (and I mean that in a nice way) and others who looked no different from people you’d see at the mall. There were few ethnic minorities, although the gender balance was pretty even. Although lunch included both meat-based and vegetarian chili, the dinner featured large platters of cow and pig flesh (in greater quantities than any of the vegetable offerings), and I met no other vegetarians or vegans there (although I assume there had to have been at least a few). There was no mention of vegan organics at all.

I attended several workshops, including ones about the Slow Food movement, the politics of the federal Farm Bill, and, out of sheer curiosity, a presentation by two organic ranchers who run their own small-scale slaughterhouses. It was the latter that disturbed me most, because I struggle to understand how people who claim to be sensitive to harm in the environmental sense still manage to justify the taking of animal life. The slaughter workshop had more men than women, and mostly young men in their 20s and 30s. They all spoke of slaughtering animals as “moving product,” and the word kill was never used, nor was slaughter mentioned much: the term of choice is “process.”

To me, “process” is what you do to paperwork, not a living being. The farmers spoke about treating the animals better than in industrial farming, and their small operations kill fewer animals in a week than a commercial slaughterhouse does in an hour. But that only made me wonder, if these are animals they’ve come to know as more than numbers, what goes through their minds as they stand there in the shed and deliver the fatal blows. The conditions and methods at the small vs. large slaughter operations may be noticeably different, and I see some merit in that, but in the end, the people who run them share the bottom-line view that animals are “product,” and that, to me, negates much of the moral distinction between them.

I stopped at an exhibit table run by a woman who owns a small farm where animals are raised for organic meat. Her display showed large photos of cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys outside in the grass and sunshine. If this was so much nicer, I asked (politely, I swear), then why didn’t she also have pictures of her slaughter facility? Well, she said after a brief pause, they get processed –

“Killed,” I gently corrected her –

at a regular processing facility –

“Slaughterhouse,” I said –

but supposedly up until then have a somewhat decent life. She said she used to be vegetarian, but she and her husband decided that if they could raise animals humanely, they could go back to eating them – and now they’re selling them, too.

That rationale has been popping up in the media more often due to the rise of the “humane meat” market. I’ve read several articles lately about vegetarians returning to meat-eating with a surprising amount of confidence in their ethical reasoning. This new subset of “ethical omnivores” is no doubt associated with Pollan, who finds mass production of animals distasteful but finds the animals themselves tasty enough to justify their continued killing (which he does personally as he describes learning how to slit chickens’ throats in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”). Their argument – which I call “The Omnivore’s Rationalization” – seems to be that if your meat doesn’t come from a factory farm, then your ethical obligation to the animals stops there and you can happily eat your steak with a clear conscience. Although I understand the intent of this reformist approach, it conveniently sidesteps the fundamental issue of whether we human beings, with the many options available to us, have a right to bring billions of animals into this world with the sole intent of destroying them for a nonessential purpose.

I believe we do not. Dilemma solved.

Jill Howard Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of  The Vegetarian Society of Georgia.

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