Humane Meat? No Such Thing
by Sunaura Taylor
I recently debated Nicolette Hahn Niman at an art event in California. Niman is a cattle rancher and author of Righteous Porkchop. I am a 28-year-old disabled artist, writer, and vegan. The event was held in a largely inaccessible building in front of an audience that had just dined on grass-fed beef—a rather ironic scenario for a wheelchair-using animal advocate like me!
My perspective as a disabled person and as a disability scholar profoundly influences my views on animals. The field of disability studies raises questions that are equally valid in the animal-rights discussion. What is the best way to protect the rights of those who are not physically autonomous but are vulnerable and interdependent? How can society protect the rights of those who cannot protect their own, or those who can’t understand the concept of a right?
Throughout the debate I argued that limited interpretations of what is natural and normal leads to the continued oppression of both disabled people and animals. Of the 50 billion animals killed every year for human use, many are literally manufactured to be disabled—bred to be “mutant” producers of meat, milk, eggs, and other products but unable to function in many ways.
Niman and her family are leading proponents for raising animals humanely for slaughter. But during the debate, we agreed on something rather surprising—a basic tenet of animal rights: Animals are sentient, thinking, feeling beings, often with complex emotions, abilities, and relationships. We agreed that livestock animals can experience deep suffering and pleasure.
Former cattlemen Howard Lyman and Harold Brown also agree that animals are sentient, but this realization led them to become vegan. They gave up their livelihoods and risked alienation from their communities for something greater: their consciences.
Lyman and Brown reject animal slaughter on both practical and moral grounds. They point out that meat is not necessary for human health, a position endorsed by organizations from the World Health Organization to the American Dietetic Association. They cite growing evidence that animal agriculture is a major contributor to environmental problems: A 2009 report from Worldwatch Institute estimated that livestock production generates close to 51 percent of global greenhouse gases.
But Lyman and Brown go beyond the merely practical: An animal, they say, is not a piece of property for human beings to use but instead an individual creature living a life that should belong to him or her alone. As Brown says on his website,“Animal rights, to me, is quite simply respecting animals as the sentient beings that they are.”
But Niman—along with others who support sustainable meat—says that animals’ emotions are not an argument against eating meat—just an argument against cruelty. These conscientious omnivores argue that the justification for meat-eating lies elsewhere. They say we must overcome our empathy with an individual animal’s will to live to grasp something greater—Nature.
Nature is one of the most common justifications for animal exploitation. The arguments range from romantic declarations about the cycles of nature to nuanced discussions of sustainable farming. But the assertion that something is “natural” (or “unnatural”) has long been used to rationalize terrible things.
As a disabled person I find arguments based on what’s “natural” highly problematic. Throughout history and all over the world, I would have, at worst, been killed at birth or, at best, culturally marginalized—and nature would have been a leading justification. Disability is often seen as a personal tragedy that naturally leads to marginalization, rather than as a political and civil rights issue. Many people now reject using “nature” to justify things like sexism, white supremacy, and homophobia but still accept it as a rationale for animal exploitation and disability discrimination.
Michael Pollan, one of the pioneers of the conscientious food movement, would say I am missing the point when I apply human standards to animals. Pollan argues that animal husbandry isn’t oppression but rather a “mutualism or symbiosis between species”—the very reason domesticated animals exist. But our understanding of nature cannot be separated from human culture and biases, especially because we understand nature through a long and pervasive historical paradigm of human domination over animals.
The distinction that Pollan makes is especially troubling when one considers that slavery and patriarchy were both seen as simply natural at one time. The argument that co-evolution justifies animal exploitation is similar to an argument that patriarchy is justified by thousands of years of history, culture, and genetics. One cannot argue that the domesticated animal chose slaughter any more than one could argue that women chose patriarchy.
Niman uses nature as a justification for animal slaughter in another way, arguing that, since it is normal and natural for animals to eat other animals and humans are animals, we are justified in eating meat. But violent, painful deaths are also “normal and natural” in nature. Would Niman argue that we have no moral obligation to kill animals humanely?
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