Meat consumption research – Part 8 Ethical considerations

See Introduction/aim of research for the background to this work.

Fundamental ethics of meat-eating

As discussed in parts 1-4, historically, meat-eating has been a fundamental part of life throughout human history and for our evolutionary ancestors. Indeed, modern humans may never have evolved if it was not for the meat in their diet. In nature, the hunting and consumption of other animals by carnivores and omnivores is part of a survival strategy and philosophical questions regarding the ethics of eating of meat have only been available to relatively modern humans. Before the introduction of agriculture the consumption of animal meat appears to have been almost essential for human life. Therefore, it’s possible that hunter-gatherer humans had a similar relationship and dependence on hunting as carnivores such as the tiger.

However, there are clear differences between the instincts of an omnivore like man and an instinctive carnivore. Human meat-eating is generally a cultural, learned activity and observation of human children’s behaviour towards a small animal differs from that of carnivore’s young. This inherent absence of killing instinct coupled with the co-operative group strategy of our species may help to explain why human behaviour tends toward peacefulness, co-operation and non-violence in the absence of provocation or desperation.

With the introduction of agriculture, humans created a system that provided enough plant food to survive on, therefore giving themselves the possibility of a vegetarian diet. Or rather, they reinstated that possibility, considering our descent from distant herbivore ancestors.

Within some powerful early agricultural societies, the concentration of culture, knowledge and learning led to complex philosophical theory and debate. This stimulated some societies to build the concept of peacefulness and non-aggression into their social structure. This lead ancient Greek and Buddhist-influenced societies to marginalise, to varying degrees, the killing of animals for meat.

What is perhaps not so clear is how modern advanced Western society has progressed to such an extent with relatively little moral debate over the issue. Few leaders, except perhaps Mahatma Gandhi, have been noticed raising the possibility of a link between the treatment of animals and wider moral issues.

Religion, with its frequent dominance in the areas of philosophy and morality has to take some responsibility for this lack of debate. Neither Christianity nor Islam have done much to promote vegetarianism.  Texts have placed humans on a different moral level to other animals thereby cementing the ethics of the hunter rather than evolving towards those available to the farmer. It is also clear that historic food insecurity for much of the population left moral arguments little power in a world with frequent hunger and desperation. Perhaps climate also played a role, the more northerly latitudes of the power base of Europe and North America made a vegetarian diet impracticable in the past even with agriculture. And finally, food preferences and culture are a very strong power for continuity within diets.

Animal production ethics today

Today however, science has explained evolutionary adaptation, shown how closely related we are to other animals and how little our DNA differs. It has proved that feelings of pain, stress and discomfort are similar for most complex animals. Our legal systems give extensive protection to animals in some circumstances. In Western countries many people keep animals as pets, often going to extraordinary lengths to ensure their wellbeing. However, there is little general debate about the ethics of livestock welfare or meat-eating in general.

Perhaps this lack of enquiry is because meat-eating can be practiced with little or no reminder of the violence required in the production process. Perhaps this has created a new type of consumer – one whom is essentially vegetarian in philosophy but eats meat because modern meat-eating only conflicts with that philosophy if they are confronted with the reality of that choice. If this type of consumer does encounter the reality behind their meat production they may become vegetarian, sometimes fleetingly or become a better-informed, realist meat-eater.

Attitudes are certainly not uniform across Europe, the West or the wider world. In many countries people are still closer to the production of their food and are more aware of the realities and choices they make. However, the fast progress of modernisation can easily leave consumers uninformed about current production realities.

In the UK, the first country to industrialise and revolutionise its food production system, we also find the first formalisation of modern Western vegetarianism with the establishment of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. Perhaps industrialisation, in systematising livestock production brutality and sometimes increasing it in the pursuit of profit has been more likely to cause vegetarianism in a population removed from the realities of nature and food production. It seems also to have mainly been a reaction of the middle classes who, perhaps, were distancing themselves from the squalor and brutality of life for the social classes below them at that time.

Today, vegetarianism seems to be more popular and accepted in many cultures. There have been long-running campaigns to encourage moderation in meat consumption and there have been numerous health scares affecting the meat industry. However, the statistics on rates of vegetarianism show virtually no changes in the last couple of decades. In the US around 3% of the population are thought to be vegetarian (Singer & Mason 2006) and in the UK, limited sample surveys suggest adult vegetarian rates of between 2% and 5% of the population (Vegetarian Society 2009). Over the same time, the total amount of meat consumption estimated by FAO statistics has continued to rise in these countries, from an already considerable base.

Animal treatment and welfare

The realities of the livestock and meat industry have never been completely palatable to consumers, as evidenced by reactions to the 1906 book The Jungle which exposed dangerous and unsavoury practices within the Chicago meat packing industry. That book prompted legislation to be brought in to clean up the industry. Some elements of humane practice within industry legislation are relatively recent, it was only in 1978 that the US introduced rules to mandate the stunning of cattle and pigs before killing in slaughterhouses (Marcus 2005). Despite many advances, today’s industry still prefers that its practices remain unpublicised due to adverse consumer reaction to publicity. Adverse consumer reaction can lead to the implementation of changes and extra regulation both of which can add extra costs for the industry.

Industrialisation of the livestock industry has gradually reduced the relative cost of  meat.  This has been achieved by concentrating more animals under fewer, less skilled workers, using faster growing animals and cheaper feeds. The fierce competition and constant quest for economic efficiency that has reduced costs and all but destroyed production profit margins has had a heavy toll on the lives of the animals in production. To highlight some of the conditions seen in intensive livestock production (which accounts for the majority of production) in the US…

Egg-laying hens


Hens for egg laying perhaps have some of the worst conditions in intensive livestock systems. Male chicks are generally killed immediately on hatching as they have no value for meat production. These chicks may be ground up, live, in a machine or thrown out, live, in refuse sacks. Hens have the ends of their beaks cut off to prevent them from pecking neighbouring birds in the close confinement. They are usually raised in battery cages with as many as 8 birds per cage. Each bird can have less space than the area of an A4 sheet of paper. Large operations may have tens of thousands of birds per shed and sickness and death often go unnoticed. After around 15 months the birds’ egg production becomes too low to be economic for the operator and the birds will be killed. Alternatively, the birds can be starved for up to 2 weeks to re-stimulate egg production, but this practice has now been banned by some US egg-buying corporations. (Marcus 2005)

Meat chickens (broilers)


Chickens raised for meat don’t suffer the cages of egg laying hens but they can be packed into sheds to the point where they have little more room per bird. The birds have been bred for extreme efficiency and reach slaughter weight in as little as 6 weeks, three times faster than chickens in the 1950s. Their growth is so fast that sometimes their hearts can not cope with the speed of their metabolism and there legs are not strong enough for their weight gain. Up to 90% of the chickens have detectable leg problems due to this abnormal speed of weight gain. Slaughter of chickens, due to their greater numbers and speed of operation makes it more difficult to ensure humane treatment for each animal than in systems for larger animals. Furthermore, in the US chickens are not required to be stunned before slaughter. (Singer & Mason 2006)



Pigs are usually kept in enclosed sheds with concrete floors which offer little opportunity for natural behaviour. Pig excrement and urine can create a highly toxic environment causing respiratory problems for many of the pigs. Sows are often kept in gestation or farrowing crates which almost completely restrict movement. Piglets have their tails cut off and males have their testicles removed without anaesthetic. The pigs are often raised to slaughter weight in pens in darkened (to reduce aggression) sheds with as many as a thousand pigs per shed. For slaughter, they may have to be transported long distances, around 80,000 per year die on the journey. The speed at which large slaughterhouses operate makes it difficult to ensure suffering is avoided at the time of killing. (Marcus 2005)



Intensively raised beef cattle perhaps retain the most natural lives within industrial livestock farming in the US, at least for the first part of their lives. They mostly start life being born outside free-ranging on a cattle ranch. They remain on the range with their mothers until around six months old when they are moved to a feedlot. At this time males will be castrated, horns are removed and they are branded, all painful operations for the calves. On the feedlot they are penned in with many other animals but are usually outdoors. Unfortunately, the cheapest feed for cattle is corn-based which is not ideal for a cow’s digestive system which evolved to digest grass. The animals suffer various side effects from this diet, some of which can be reduced with the use of pharmaceuticals. After 4-5 months at the feedlot animals are transported to slaughter. Slaughter of cattle in many US slaughterhouses has been significantly improved recently by changes forced by McDonald’s and other fast-food chains in an effort to improve welfare and reduce consumer disquiet. However, the speed of operation of many slaughterhouses can compromise the guarantee of humane treatment. (Marcus 2005)

In terms of animal welfare, the relative decline in beef and rise in chicken consumption means that overall, the quantity of suffering behind meat consumption has risen. This is because it takes a far greater number of chickens to produce similar quantities of meat as one cow and conditions for chickens are arguably worse than those for cattle.

While any livestock operation is likely to involve some suffering, however brief, modern intensive production with its systematic reduction of animal’s lives to extreme types of solitary and not so solitary confinement with almost no ability to express their natural instincts appears to be particularly barbaric. That it is done almost exclusively for economic efficiency with consumers rarely being given the information and opportunity to make decisions about what level of welfare they would be willing to pay for it, makes the situation indefensible.

As in so many areas of existence, despite great advances in education, technology and material wealth and despite there being a general willingness to limit human and animal suffering, other interests prevail. As Wendell Berry declared, “Eating is an agricultural act”. Therefore, eating meat would be a livestock production act. It would be interesting to see how well modern intensive livestock production methods survived if consumers were fully aware and taking responsibility for their food choices.

Welfare revolution?

Since the 1980s there has been growing coverage of some of the welfare issues of modern livestock raising. In the UK, where this has perhaps been most advanced, there has been a strong public reaction leading to a significant shift in production methods. By 2005 only 50% of eggs in the UK were still being produced by “battery” style caged hens (Marcus 2005). In 1999 the UK introduced improved welfare rules for pigs including the banning of sow stalls which prevent almost all movement of the pig. Recently, there have been television campaigns by famous chefs to inform consumers of the realities behind intensively produced meat and encourage them to buy chicken and pork raised in free-range or improved conditions. The UK, which has generally had less welfare restrictions than much of Europe now has above average welfare regulations in some areas. Unfortunately, due to slightly higher costs, this has made UK pig farmers uncompetitive compared to external importers therefore threatening the sustainability of the improvements in the absence of consumer understanding and support.

In the US, where even Whole Foods Market was still selling battery-cage produced eggs until 2004 (Singer & Mason 2006), there are now signs of movement. Surprisingly, this has sometimes been lead by the fast-food industry which has come to realise, from previous disasters, that it can be beneficial to be ahead of mainstream public awareness. The costs of welfare improvements are often small for the industry, especially when compared to the costs of consumer anger and distrust. There has also been an explosion of interest for alternative and more local food supplies. Farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture have been closing the distance between producers and consumers. Organic agriculture has become the fastest growing sector of the food industry with many large food operators becoming involved. Organic production standards tend to guarantee much higher welfare standards for animals than those found in non-organic production.

Ethics of eating meat and its wider context

In The Nature of Design David Orr (2002) contends that, while our individual ability to learn and communicate can be very fast, our collective knowledge is very slow to develop. Our apparent exponential growth in knowledge has, more than ever, hidden the complete lack of growth of profound wisdom within our society. This has resulted in the use of incredibly clever thinking such as nuclear physics being used for ever more “stupid” applications such as the nuclear weapon arms race that resulted in enough weapons to destroy life on Earth.

The Western domination of recent times has left a significant proportion of the world’s population living in incredible material wealth. That this wealth is so poorly distributed worldwide is the cause of considerable and growing unrest. Due to population growth, the weight of humanity combined with unsustainable resource and environmental use has become a threat to much of life on earth as we know it. There is hope that Western science and technological ingenuity will provide replacements for unsustainable practices so that life can continue as normal. Better replacements may well be found but the refusal to question the underlying ethic of continuous exponential growth may prevent serious progress.

It appears to be difficult for humanity to understand and accept how large it has become and the power of its influence. In our personal lives we rarely understand the reality of large numbers of people. We may see thousands of people at a football match or tens of thousands at a large concert. The full enormity of population sizes such as those of countries or the world is totally incomprehensible to most people. This prevents them from understanding how their actions, when repeated by enough of the rest of the population can have catastrophic consequences. In the absence of understanding and responsibility, defensive denial is often the outcome as has been seen over the issue of climate change.

If humans are to survive and progress, we are going to need to employ some deeper wisdom in the creation of a truly sustainable existence. A significant proportion of the population, especially those living above poverty levels will need to take responsibility and action to ensure that sustainable levels of consumption are not breached. A more enlightened handling of injustice, violence, suffering and aggression should be part of this process and could bring man closer to a true definition of civilisation. The issue of how livestock is treated and meat’s role in modern diets should be part of the debate.

Fair distribution of meat as a food

One last ethical consideration for the consumption of meat is the distribution of the resource. At present, richer populations eat considerable amounts of meat which require enormous quantities of agricultural and other resources in its production. If the whole world were to eat similar quantities of meat as the populations of the West, Vaclav Smil (2003) estimated that the world would need 67% more agricultural land than currently exists. Due to high levels of calorie consumption, meat in the Western diet contributes to over-eating and all its related problems. At the other end of the scale, the poor of the world struggle to survive in a world where crop prices could be lower if there was less competition from livestock farmers. For these people, who often eat very little meat at all, the addition of more meat to the diet could be nutritionally beneficial.


Marcus, Erik. 2005. Meat Market: Animals, ethics, and money. Brio Press.

Orr, David W. 2002. The Nature of Design: Ecology, culture, and human intention. Oxford University Press.

Singer, Peter and Mason, Jim. 2006. The way we eat: Why our food choices matter. Rodale.

Smil, Vaclav. 2003. Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences. Population and Development Review 28:4, 599-639


One Response

  1. This is super interesting 😀

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