On Tuesday, bioethicist Peter Singer delivered a talk on the ethics of human-animal relations. He contended that humanity has unjustly ignored the interests of animals for the sake of producing meat, and indicted in particular the modern practice of factory farming, which crowds huge numbers of animals together in miserable conditions, fostering virulent diseases and dangerously concentrating enormous quantities of waste. Singer is a gifted intellectual provocateur who has taken a number of controversial stands, and we certainly do not endorse all of his opinions. But we do recommend that Brown actively pursue more humane, healthy, small-scale and ecologically sound meat production, not only for its own consumption, but for that of its peer institutions and omnivores around the world.
The scale and techniques of modern meat production cause enormous suffering that cannot be ignored. For the sake of increased productive efficiency, factory farms routinely confine animals for nearly their entire lives in spaces so small they cannot stand or turn around; their only release is slaughter. So far, a handful of states have restricted such practices.
But the case against factory farming and the current level of meat consumption extends well beyond altruistic concern for animal well-being. These gargantuan operations concentrate their inhabitants’ excrement in huge lagoons that regularly seep or burst, befouling nearby waterways and wrecking livelihoods based on fishing. And through their heavy use of machinery and their vast numbers of animals, factory farms contribute heavily to the tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide released each year overall by fostering, processing and transporting livestock.
The usual defense of factory farms is their efficient production of vast quantities of meat. But this is not an unalloyed good. The overabundance of meat in the United States has helped fuel an epidemic of obesity that now affects roughly one in four of our fellow citizens. And the difficulty of tracking and inspecting this huge excess as it is transported and mixed into products such as ground beef has led to E. coli outbreaks like the one that recently killed two people and sickened many more in the northeastern states.
To his credit, Singer admits that for all the problems with modern production, meat is still an absolutely vital source of key nutrients for poor and under-nourished people worldwide; children of all backgrounds rely heavily on meat to provide iron and protein for their growing bodies. This means that the most privileged members of the human race have to provide the impetus for reducing the scale and inhumanity of meat production. Whether or not you want to admit it, that includes all of us.
In cooperation with other institutions of higher learning in the Providence area, Brown can help lead the way. In particular, partnership with Johnson and Wales’ culinary college would directly influence choices about the production and use of meat across the country. The University can seek local meat sources with verifiably healthy, humane and ecologically sustainable practices; it can also research and promote such techniques. As a University, we can make sacrifices and take the initiative to reduce meat farming and make it more humane and sustainable. Or we can allow factory farms and other reckless practices to take a staggering moral and ecological toll on this country.
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