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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, December 9, 2023

Ethics of the Environment: The nuances of vegan morality

As the climate crisis worsens and veganism gains momentum, our dietary habits, especially regarding meat and other animal products, have come under scrutiny for their role in aggravating global warming and leading to the inhumane mistreatment of livestock. However, the issue is not as clear-cut as many activists would have you believe.

The role of animal husbandry in climate change has been known for years now: livestock cause around 14% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with 110 pounds of greenhouse gasses emitted for every 3.5 ounces of beef protein. Additionally, the desperate lives of most livestock in factory farms in the United States are not a secret: the practice of cutting off the end of chickens’ beaks, tail docking in pigs and cows and the extreme confinement are all found in factory farms. In the face of this cruelty, many vegans have stated that the consumption of animal products is universally wrong, yet these claims raise interesting moral questions not only about how we raise meat but also how we view culture.

If, as vegans state, consumption of animals or their products is wrong, then when did it become wrong? The Agricultural Revolution? The Industrial Revolution? If today’s humanity is wrong to eat meat, which parts of humanity are morally jeopardized by doing so? Those living in developed countries? Those who consume factory farmed meat? The water is a lot murkier than it may seem based on overarching claims about veganism. 

For example, the Inuitsubsist largely on meat in the winter months, relying on animals like arctic char, seal and caribou to sustain them without viable agricultural land. Does that make the Inuit immoral, or is living in the Arctic immoral? Is it not more environmentally damaging to import farmed food at great carbon emission cost rather than hunt wild, stable populations? If cultural practices include the consumption of meat, does that culture become immoral? These are a few of my concerns with a blanket determination that meat consumption is wrong. 

Meat aside, other animal products like milk, eggs and wool also face similar criticism from animal rights and climate activists, yet the ethics are equally as cloudy. Feeding livestock an edible resource like grain is undeniably wasteful, yet livestock can survive on food we find inedible like grass, leaves and weeds, turning these resources that otherwise would have been wasted into milk, eggs, wool or leather. This seems not only morally just but also environmentally prudent, especially as resources get scarcer. If the animals were to be treated well, why should this be frowned upon?

The deciding factors in the morality of animal husbandry lie in the treatment of the animals involved, the resources used in raising the animals and the reliance on animal products for sustenance. If all of those criteria are in balance with our climate goals and animal welfare standards, then we have nothing to fear, morally, from consuming meat in moderation.