There are two schools of thought: animal welfare and animal rights. Whereas animal rightists seek to dismantle the institution of animal agriculture altogether, those in favor of animal welfare advocate a situation where farmed animals are treated well in life on family ranches and meet as quick and painless a death as possible before becoming the food on our plates.
In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer, who is himself a vegetarian, criticizes fellow author and professor Mike Pollan for grappling with the issue of welfare vs. rights in The Omnivore's Dilemma, only to come to the conclusion that "locavorism" or eating locally produced foods is the best option for the environment.
Basically, Foer is a rightist and Pollan is a welfarist.
Here's why the "animal welfare" stance doesn't hold up.
1) There is no respectful way to kill.
Welfarists believe that farmed animals can be treated with respect in both life and in death, but there is nothing respectful about taking a life. To kill is inherently the utmost act of disrespect. So-called "ethical" free-range, family-run farms are not only even more unsustainable than factory farms, but they are a myth. For as long as animal agriculture exists as an institution, animals will suffer.
Like patriarchy and even slavery, animal agriculture is an exploitative system. Because it is an entrenched, hegemonic ideology, it is often not given a second thought, simply seen as "the way things are." However, it is an intrinsically abusive system. Is there such thing as ethical slavery, or does slavery as a concept evoke an abuse of power due to the profound hierarchical imbalance? The institution of slavery requires us to treat some humans differently than others, and now that the Transatlantic Slave Trade has been abolished, the practice of treating others differently based on status of birth seems not only outdated but uncivilized. Similarly, many animal welfarists own pets and vehemently profess their love for animals. As Melanie Joy notes, they never question why they are petting their dog with one hand and eating their steak with another. Both cows and dogs are intelligent, loving, sentient beings with a lot of character. Why is there this arbitrary divide between farmed animals and pet animals, just as there was once an arbitrary divide between a free man and an enslaved one?
I'm sorry welfarists, but if you love animals, you can't eat them.
2) It isn't a zero-sum game.
As a welfarist, although Pollan acknowledges that the arguments put forward by animal rights activists are powerful and difficult to dispute, he tries desperately to refute them, resorting to illogical comebacks and non-sequiturs. He argues that since harvesting crops will also result in the killing of field mice and woodchucks, "if America was suddenly to adopt a strictly vegetarian diet, it isn't at all clear that the total number of animals killed each year would necessarily decline," (p. 306).
Although Pollan tries to treat our food choices as a zero-sum game, Foer's not buying it. He recognizes that it's impossible to make a completely blameless choice, but questions why we need to frame the conversation in absolutes at all. In his discussion with Alternet, he compares vegetarianism to environmentalism, saying that "the notion that the first time you drive in a car or fly in a plane that you should throw your hands up in the air and say, 'Okay, well I give up. I'm not going to try at all anymore,' is crazy."
It's not just crazy; it's lazy. Deep down, those who support animal welfare over animal rights are too stuck in their ways and ruled by their tongues to take a cold, hard, look at facts objectively --hence Pollan's strange obsession with steak.
3) Scientific fact outweighs sensory perception.
Moreover, Pollan thinks that being vegetarian would require a "highly industrialized" and fossil-fuel dependent food chain. Although animal agriculture contributes to greenhouse gases more than the transportation sector, Pollan ignores this fact. The best solution to him is to kill as few animals as possible by eating the largest ones: "grass-finished steaks for everyone."
Further, Pollan's section "Homo Omnivorous" is backed by pseudoscientific justifications: how can humans possibly be biologically inclined towards vegetarianism when we aren't built like ruminants? He cites anthropologists and draws his own conclusion that our evolutionary history as meat eaters is "reflected in the design of our teeth, the structure of our digestion, and, quite possibly, in the way my mouth still waters at the sight of a steak cooked medium rare," (296).
Many scientists whose studies weren't funded by agribusiness have found that meat is ill-digested by humans. Pollan appears to be unable to overcome his socially conditioned cravings for steak. There is nothing biological about it. Eating cows in some cultures is just as off-limits as eating a dog in America. However, there are other cultures that permit feasting on farmed dogs. Would Pollan's mouth water at the sight of a golden retriever cooked medium rare? As Joy illustrated in the best book trailer I have ever seen, probably not.
Pollan (296) asserts that we should "at least acknowledge that human desire to eat meat is not, as the animal rightists would have it, a trivial matter, a mere gastronomic preference. By the same token we might call sex--also now technically unnecessary for reproduction--a mere recreational preference. Rather, our meat eating is something very deep indeed."
Is it really? To compare the life-giving act of sex to the life-taking act of eating animals is absolutely absurd. And what exactly is so "deep" about eating meat? Pollan never tells us.
An animal welfare proponent, Pollan thinks that we simply need "a different set of ethics" to guide interactions in the natural world, but humans are already a part of nature. This is what Pollan and a lot of welfarists don't understand. He treats vegetarianism as a modern Western concept, industrialized and detached from Mother Earth, but vegetarianism isn't new and it doesn't entail what he has called transcending our "inheritance." Our teeth are not built for ripping through animal flesh nor are our stomachs suited to digest flesh, and there are cultures outside of the Western world that have thrived on meatless diets for millennia.
We should all work towards not only decreasing the harm we cause but also consider ways in which we can benefit nature and live in harmony with animals. Turning the lights off when you leave a room, biking to work, and yes, not eating meat make an ecological difference. Humans are more intelligent than animals, but we should use our intelligence to protect and care for them, not abuse or kill them.
When it comes to animal rights, "welfare" will not do. We need to jump down from that fence and decide what we really stand for.
(For a more detailed investigation of animal rights vs. animal welfare, visit my personal blog.)