Thursday, March 29, 2007

Reason, Reason Everywhere

When Dolly the sheep's life was announced in 1997, few thought of her as the Brave New World of meat consumption (itself a small cause for hope I guess). But many interesting posts to the blog recently on eating meat and responding to climate change have had me thinking about just how complicated being an omnivore is in our culture--and how much more complicated it is about to become. Companies like ViaGen have been arguing for years that cloning livestock might eliminate major sources of uncertainty in animal production and thereby reduce the moral and environmental costs that mass animal agriculture represents. For example, hatching only the chickens that are able to thrive in the confinement houses Pilgrim's Pride, Tyson, and the others maintain may be a way to reduce cruelty (it may even be the most profitable way). From my own experience with the Clean Water Act in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I can attest that making the use of phosphorous- and nitrogen-reducing chickens feasible for growers can be a big positive for a watershed.

But it is experiences like that which have me worried lately. I may have just enabled a bad industry to last longer. Americans don't seem to understand it is their very existence that equals environmental and moral tradeoffs. You want to begrudge Al Gore a 10,000 square foot house? It smells a little envious to me. If you don't eat meat (and I don't either, for 12 years), how much fossil energy does it take to bring you avocados or apples in January? If you've ever eaten locally for a winter (and I did so once), how many Americans do you see doing it long term? How many could afford to? Should you feed your infant only locally grown food? If the answer is yes to all of those, does that make ending subsidies to energy-intensive agriculture into a moral issue? I think so, but I'll bet there is someone reading this blog who could convince me it is not. Of the few people I know personally who are within, say, 200% of the poverty line, none of them are vegan. We have complicated modes of being good citizens and respecting nature here: we buy Priuses and point out hypocrites--but usually only hypocrites who are richer.

When FDA found at the end of 2006 that, from its research, it had no basis for requiring the labelling of cloned meat, bloggers and others dwelled on the question for a few minutes. Lots of high rhetoric flew and people pontificated about the morality or efficiency of cloning, disclosure, and the spectrum of issues in between. Nobody I read came right out and admitted they were befuddled by the number of variables that were beginning to intertwine in our talk about "sustainability" and cruelty-free food.

Of course, FDA never said it was "safe" to shift US livestock markets to cloned subjects. And the truth is, our ability to manipulate genetic events at the molecular level is dwarfed by our ambitions to do so. It seems that clones, at least for now, have serious health problems and die prematurely at much higher rates than real offspring. Should these problems be worked out by an eventual "perfection" of cloning technology, how should the ethical omnivore respond? Is buying cloned meat an incentive for (or reward for having conducted) such lethal research or is it the support of a potentially more sustainable form of mass agriculture that reduces cruelty? In my view, practical reason may be losing its bite in the face of these dilemmas.


Michael C. Dorf said...

Interesting points here Jamie. Two quick reactions:

1) I think those animal welfarist omnivores who aren't making the move to veganism but care about these issues should be supporting technologies that simulate meat at the cellular level rather than the oranism level. The fate of cloned animals seems little better than that of those born of two parents.

2) I agree that the moral duty not to cause more harm than necessary to survive is slippery. One can always go live in a cave. Indeed, even that may cause more suffering than is worth it, so why not starve oneself to death, as the Jain saints do? But it doesn't follow from the fact that one can do more that one should do nothing or almost nothing. (Not that this is your philosophy.)

Unknown said...

I would also add the frequently touted point that converting what we eat into meat is a remarkably inefficient means of getting food on our tables. Even if we could reduce the harm suffered by factory farmed animals through genetic engineering, we might still be wasting significant nutritional resources that could be used instead to feed the under-nourished and hungry the world over. The force of this argument, of course, depends on whether world hunger is a function of distribution or of supply, and I don't have the answer to that. Just thought I'd add it as a further factor to be considered in the debate over vegetarianism (in addition to concerns about animal welfare, human dietary needs, and the effects of our diets on the environment).

Jamison Colburn said...

In the end I agree, of course. On being a moral consumer, you do what you can without moving into the proverbial cave or doing wrong by those who depend on you. And with respect to animals and/or the "environment," that can be at either a duty or a policy level (as suggested already by Neil, Mike, and Carl). Finally, the individual consumer is in the best position to decide how much is too much for him or herself, certainly. My point (poorly articulated) was just that the criteria distinguishing those two (moral duty or policy) is vague and growing more so every day. And I worry that it is this dimension of our troubles to which we are paying too little attention lately to be prepared for the dilemmas on the horizon.

PG said...

What I find most disturbing about the FDA's decision is that in failing to require that cloned meat be labelled as such, it takes away the consumer's ability to decide for herself whether she wishes to support this technology. Suppose that all of the FDA's tests determine that cloned meat is safe; that doesn't take away my (perhaps irrational) desire not to eat such meat. As long as I'm not imposing my irrationality on others by demanding that cloned meat be banned, why shouldn't I be empowered to decide whether the meat *I* eat is cloned?

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