15 August 2008

Rethinking the Purpose of Cows

“Food must not only be good to eat, but also be good to think.”

The ethics of food arises from the fact that we are omnivores which, unlike squirrels, rabbits and lions, obligates us to choose what to eat. Few among us actually fulfill that obligation preferring to leave such hard work to our mothers and marketing strategists. The highly paid strategists at McDonald’s know that we will return to those few familiar dishes we grow to love as children which is why this blue blooded institution is one of the world’s top toy distributors.

This is but one of the many provocative and insightful ideas to be found among Michael Pollan’s writings and talks. I highly recommend listening to or watching his presentation at the “Food, Ethics and Environment” conference held at Princeton University in 2006
(found on iTunes U) at which time he had not yet published his wonderful book “In Defense of Food”.

Of course the above statements rest on the assumption that we are indeed omnivores. Admittedly most people don’t need to be convinced of this, but because he was talking to the type of people who would attend such a conference, he makes a compelling argument while addressing the issue of how to decide between an omnivorous or vegetarian diet.

We have, he states, a widely held, basic misunderstanding of domestication. “The animals on our farms, if you take an evolutionary view, are not figures of oppression or exploitation necessarily. Most of them have evolved in a specific direction
to in effect trade their independence, their wildness, for protection, food and the life that you can have under the roof of human culture. This is not a consensual thing in any kind of moral philosophical framework; it’s simply an evolutionary thing. Many animals and plants have refused to be domesticated. For some of them, strictly by trial and error, no strategy, no intention involved, no consent, have found that this life provided for their interests in a Darwinian sense, which is to say more copies of themselves, more habitat, more of their genes sent into the future. So for these farm animals … the good life depends on the good farm. Far too few of them have the good farm as their habitat and less now than ever before. But these are animals that when they do live on the good farm and have a humane life there, are realizing what they are on this planet to realize. Of course, animals will only be on farms to the extent that we eat them. From everything I have been able to learn … it will be very hard to create a truly sustainable agriculture without animals.”

The basic claim is that if we didn’t eat cows they would not receive our protection and, unable to fend for themselves, would disappear, become extinct, reducing biodiversity and important food chain elements.

This is the first time that I have seen a provocative and more academic version of the typical “…but if we didn’t eat cows, then what are they here for?” argument. I see several problems with this logic.

First, claiming that the purpose of the cow is to be eaten by humans begs the question about other animals. If you argue, for example, that the purpose of the gazelle is to be hunted and eaten by the lion, then what is the purpose of the lion? What is the purpose of the shark or the crocodile? Is it not enough that dogs are companions for humans, should we give them an even higher purpose by making them part of our diet? Of course, cows are domesticated and pretty defenseless while lions and sharks are not but just because humans have exploited willing partners such as the cow for many years does not imply that this is the most natural or ethical action. Custom is not the mother of ethics.

Second, is it impossible for us to concede intrinsic value to a cow? Who are we to decide what the purpose of a cow is? We have enough trouble figuring out what our own purpose is, so why waste good paper speculating about the purpose of cows? If there is one lesson we can take from the ecological disasters that we have caused, it is that regarding stewardship, nature is much more intelligent than we have so far proven to be. Speculating on this matter and getting the answer wrong is much more disastrous than focusing our minds on something more constructive and urgent like feeding the world’s poor.

Lastly, if we do the thought experiment, as Mr. Pollan would say, of imagining what would happen to cows if our diets suddenly excluded them, we are confronted with a situation similar to that of many other species for which we have become stewards. Bald eagles, many types of whales (including the killer whale), seals, turtles, many types of bats, bears, mountain lions, grey wolves, alligators, boa constrictors, foxes, jaguars, kangaroos, otters, clams, snails, insects and even a long list of plants receive special stewardship for being on the Endangered Species Act list. If cow populations became drastically reduced as a result of eliminating them from our diet, would there be one good reason that we couldn’t protect the cow as we do with all of the above plants and animals?

I agree with him that animals are essential elements to healthy farms although I don’t see how that implies making them part of our diet.

Despite several similarly unfounded and self-serving ideas in his books and talks, I definitely recommend reading what he writes, especially “In Defense of Food”, which will teach even the most indoctrinated a thing or two about the history, nature and consequences of “nutritionism” and our current food production system.


child_of_africa said...

i am listening to the audiobook of omnivore's dilemma currently and find it really eye opening and disturbing! what an important topic the ethics of agriculture is in terms of the way the industry is organized-- currently profit rules as opposed to considerations for human well-being as it does in so many realms of human life--what is up with that??

iguana said...

Yes, the practice of ensuring our food has long shelf life even if that means taking away all nutritional value is a clear indication of how our economic and food production systems are at odds with the people it is supposed to serve. If you listen to the "Food, Ethics and Environment" conference that I mention in the post, you will hear a rep from McDonald's talk about corporate responsibility! What's really amazing is that he fields questions in such a way as to indicate that they feel they are doing everything in their power to serve their customers. It becomes obvious through the q&a session, however, that as long as profit motive rules the food industry, real people and their interests will be left behind.

In "Creating a World Without Poverty" Muhammad Yunus talks about the future of capitalism and shows how the tide is slowly turning towards a true service motive in which companies are valued by the quality of their service or product and the community benefits that come from it. This is very exciting and urgently needs to be promoted and explored. He says that companies need to make enough money to support their business, but their purpose needs to be community service. Companies competing against one another to see who can serve the community better, that's the future it seems.

Jason said...

I also -i wish i could say read- heard on the radio that one of the major contributors to the production of methane, which destroys the ozone, are in fact the cows. The overgrowth on cows population (thanks to us -humans) is actually imbalancing the world and contributing to global warming. They were saying that a cow produces more methane than a car!!! So one of the initiatives to decrease global warming is to decrease the numbers of cows in the planet. At least decrease the amount of cow meat we consume in our diet will help...
Cows are definitely an interesting subject!