The idea of not eating meat or dairy seems to do the average person’s head in. The reason is that most people believe that we absolutely HAVE to eat animals. Usually, their reasoning falls back onto the 3Ns – that is, eating meat is natural, necessary and normal.
Natural: “Humans are natural carnivores”
Necessary: “Meat provides essential nutrients”
Normal: “I was raised eating meat”
I suspect that many people put a lot of store by the “natural” argument. Humans are carnivores/omnivores, they say, and carnivores/omnivores have to eat meat. Never mind that human beings are natural omnivores, not carnivores, and that in our case, omnivory really just means that we can get nutrients from both plant and animal sources. Given we evolved from frugivorous ancestors, we don’t even need the animal sources as we can survive quite happily on plants alone. People just don’t explore the matter that deeply.
Farmers especially seem to favour the natural argument. This seems to stem from a belief that what they are doing is somehow akin to the behaviours of our hunter/gatherer forebears. They are out there on the land, fighting with nature and providing the food that we all need to live.
Both farmers and average Joes imagine that in animal farming, by the slaughter of farmed animals and the eating of them, humans are simply engaging in an entirely natural behaviour, a natural system that we have bent to our own advantage. And I think it’s probable that in thinking so, people believe that this system is inherently kinder than what happens typically in the unfolding circle of life everywhere around us.
On this view, what I think people have in mind is that in everyday nature, life is survival of the fittest. It’s kill or be killed out there and that’s exactly what we are doing, but with the added benefit that we do it “humanely”. As Temple Grandin, an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has said, people often forget that nature can be harsh. Predators kill other animals, and they may die a painful, lingering death. Storms and droughts can cause many wild animals to die. Much suffering occurs in the natural world.
Temple observes, “…nature can be very harsh, and death in the wild is often more painful and stressful than death in a modern plant. Out on a western ranch, I saw a calf that had its hide ripped completely off on one side by coyotes. It was still alive and the rancher had to shoot it to put it out of its misery. If I had a choice, going to a well-run modern slaughter plant would be preferable to being ripped apart alive”.
What this leads people to think, especially farmers, is that we are actually doing animals a favour by farming them. Were they to live in the wild, they should run the risk of a terrible death. Whereas, by farming them, we ensure that they are well looked after, and when death comes, it is quick and minimally harmful.
In other words, people cannot understand what vegans and animal rights activists are saying. Eating animals is necessary, people think, and we do it by treating animals more kindly than we might have done in the past, or how they might be treated in nature.
The truth of course is quite simply the polar opposite. Eating animals in modern Australia is not at all necessary. We do NOT have to eat animals to obtain satisfactory nutrition in our diet. As well, there really is no comparison with either how animals might once have been hunted and killed nor with everyday nature. We create the animals for our table, and we treat them as we treat them.
None of those animals will, or ever would, be hunted by our ancestors, nor will they, or ever would they, live in a natural setting. Note too that in a natural setting, most free-living animals do not die before child-bearing age. If 100% of them did, as is the case for many of our farmed animals such as pigs and chickens, there should be very few herbivores indeed. In fact it is highly likely that a very significant proportion of most free-living herbivores live quite long and relatively satisfying lives. Few farmed animals do.
And so, we can only judge the kindness or otherwise of our animal farming system on its own merits, because there is no other system in play for those animals. Worse, because our food is now part of an entertainment industry, the farming system is increasingly industrialised. Intensive farming, or factory farming, turns animal lives into mere commodities, units in a mass production line. Quality of life and capacity to suffer are entirely disregarded in these systems.
Modern animal farming is not natural, nor is it necessary. Human beings are not carnivores, nor even obligate omnivores. We can live on a plant-based diet. The animals who suffer in modern animal farming will never live in any other kind of system and the kindness of the farming system must be judged on its own merits, not by comparison to some other system.
When farmers imagine that their treatment of farmed animals is a kinder option than what might happen otherwise to their animals, they are quite simply wrong. All there is, is what they do to their animals in the absence of any necessity for doing so.