Friday, October 17, 2008

Animal Rights: inefficiency of meat, disconnected views

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion for World Food Day, and a colleague (an animal rights activist) gave a presentation on how the inefficiencies of meat production contribute to world hunger. She pointed out that it takes many more acres to produce meat than it takes to produce the equivalent amount of edible plants. She also pointed out that it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef, highlighting the inefficiency.

There were many agriculture students and several agriculture professors there, and the hostility to her arguments was palpable. One professor raised an objection that got wide approval from the audience. He noted that the argument assumes each acre is the same. That's not true: there is some land that cannot be used to grow plants, but can be used to raise animals, so we can use that land to create meat.

But that misses a key point. Those animals that are using land that can't sustain plant crops are still using the land that can sustain plant crops. If animals are fed crops, even if the animals aren't being raised on land that can grow crops, that land is still being used to create meat. And while many animals may graze on the available grass (thus using resources that couldn't otherwise be used for human food), animals on factory farms are fed plants that are grown on available land--so basically, the land that is available to grow plants is being used to produce meat. And since 16 pounds of grain is essentially filtered through the animal to create one pound of beef, that is still an inefficient way to make food.

That's the key argument: not how we use the acres, but the total inefficiency of resources. We grow food to feed to animals to produce less food.

This is the issue that's been gnawing at me, and I sometimes use this blog to address issues that are gnawing at me. But I'd also like to observe what I saw as some fundamental disconnections between the opposing sides (which I'll glibly call "agriculture advocates" and "animal rights advocates," though those terms are problematic) when the discussion moved to animal cruelty. These disconnects can lead people to talk past each other, and should in some way be addressed.

1. Experience. For some of the agriculture advocates, I think the argument came down to this: "That's not happening on MY farm, so therefore it must not be a problem, or the cruelty must just be on a small number of the worst of the worst farms, or those are old problems that have been solved."

2. Connotative definitions of terms like "cruel" and "humane." Animal rights advocates consider many of the basic, accepted aspects of agriculture to be cruel. It seems to me the agriculture advocates perceived "cruelty" as outright neglect or vicious brutality, and therefore considered basic agricultural practices "humane." The differing uses of these terms can make a shorthand discussion difficult.

3. The philosophical, moral underpinnings of the conflict were never really addressed. Given our knowledge of animal intelligence and feeling, how should we treat them? Do animals exist for humans to use? To what extent should humans use animals? If humans do use animals, what constitutes responsible, compassionate treatment? I don't think it was the proper forum for those questions, but at the core of the conflict is the differing philosophical, moral positions on whether and how humans should use animals for our own purposes.

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