Pound for pound, is there less cruelty in grass-fed beef than in a vegan diet? I have to admit that the headline and lead of Drew French’s Medium article, “Grass-fed Beef — The Most Vegan Item In The Supermarket”, struck me as nuts, but he seriously backed it up within about 400 words:

Probably the most vegan item you can buy in the supermarket is a pound of grass-fed beef.

I was thinking about that heretical idea as I drove through my neighboring countryside, scanning empty cornfields for signs of life and wondering at the hubris of mankind. When did we decide that we can own all the lands of the Earth and use every square inch of it for our own needs? About 10,000 years ago, actually, when we invented the idea of agriculture.

Sadly, in the practice of agriculture it is impossible to not cause endless suffering to many living creatures. One could argue that the most suffering of all is caused by annual agriculture, the cultivation of vegetables, including grains, beans, and rice, that only take one year to grow from seed to food. We displace countless wild animals from their homes and lands when we cultivate annual crops. Not only that, we also kill thousands of creatures when we till the soil.

A perennial agriculture, on the other hand, based on trees, shrubs, and livestock, allows nature to thrive.

I meditated on the empty corn fields for hours. In the end, what it represents is a graveyard for all wildlife, from the invertebrate worm to the feathery bird. The entire wild ecosystem is completely interrupted by our tillage of all arable land.

About 400 million acres in the US alone is used to grow crops, which is about 40% of all US land.

This use of arable land provides ample food for all humans, but it takes away the daily meals of billions of wild animals such as rabbits, bees, rodents, turkeys, earthworms, and endless insects, and it destroys their habitat, family structure, hunting grounds, and nectaries. Not to mention the terrible slave-like conditions that many farm workers in the field are subjected to. Humans are animals as well.

See, I don’t believe in any way that a vegan diet actually causes less suffering in the long run then any other diet. All annual agriculture provides fertile ground for the casual extermination of hundreds of species of animals on a yearly basis. If I include all the animals harmed in the grand picture of agriculture, not just the large mammals, I have to conclude that cultivating the cornfield is the most murderous of all activities.

That is why, in truth, a pound of grass-fed beef accounts for less suffering per capita then a pound of corn.

Although the article begins so sensationally, it leads to a more philosophical point that many people can agree with, regardless of their deeply-felt views of agriculture:

I would like to encourage us all to accept the fact that life feeds on life. We need to begin the healing process on the land, cultivating the spirit of regeneration, by respecting the life energy that resides in everything that we eat.

He goes on to criticize the vegan mindset as offering an unjustified “framework for moral superiority”. According to his own moral analysis, we should all be eating the foods that cause the less suffering to living creatures, with perennial plants and the animals that feed on them being at the top of the list. Cows that feed on grass which is never tilled or disturbed by agricultural machinery cause and free-range chickens and dairy are animal-friendly.

Let agricultural land go fallow, he suggests, and it will give rise to the stories of a million creatures.

He goes on:

We all leave a trail of devastation as we go through each day, because all life consumes life in order to thrive- -this is the natural way of things, as far as I know. Is your plastic fleece hoodie so innocent, and is your root vegetable lunch so kind to the earth?…

What is important right now is to focus on gaining perspective on the larger, overarching issue that have as a society: We do not respect the life force.

His ideas for respecting the life force: cultivate a real relationship with your food, eat locally, skip packaged foods especially those containing corn or sugar, eat meat and dairy and whole foods, and don’t get sanctimonious about your dietary choices.

Although I am dubious about some of French’s specific conclusions and also think some of his rhetorical posturing is unfortunate, I do respect the fact that he’s thinking deeply and creatively about one of the most important ethical issues of our day: food. Because our relationship with food is our relationship to the life force of the universe, and nothing gets more spiritual than that.

Criticize someone’s choices in food, and you can arouse the most emotional and raw reactions. Intentional or not, you are criticizing their spirituality in some of its most fundamental expressions. Use the word “murder” or “murderous” (as French did in his article to describe modern agricultural practices), and you are invoking feelings at their most passionate and intense. Many people will hate French for condemning agriculture, feeling they have been morally indicted as accomplices to murder; others will applaud him for speaking prophetically. They have all noticed that he is saying something important that cuts through trivialities and sets them to notice things we would often rather not think or talk about.

I would like to hear how French philosophically addresses the problem of assigning moral value to life. Does he acknowledge that some life forms are more biologically complex than others, with greater degrees of self-awareness, communication skills, and social systems? And if so, how does that figure into his philosophy? I would hope that he recognizes that there is greater moral peril in intentionally killing a cow — a complex ungulate — to feast on its flesh than in indirectly and unintentionally killing a beetle or earthworm by use of farm equipment to till a crop of corn? How many beetles or earthworms are equivalent to the life of one cow, in his view?

It’s not obvious to me that French has arrived at the best moral calculations with regards to his assessment of the morality of eating a meal of grass-fed beef compared to a corn muffin. In fact, I continue to think that even a store-bought, plastic-wrapped slab of cornbread is probably considerably less harmful to life than a T-bone steak.

At the same time, if someone eats the T-bone steak because that seemed like a morally reasonable choice given their family upbringing, cultural conditioning, the complexities of modern life with its incredibly powerful systems of agriculture and mass consumption of meat, and after considering other reasonable dietary alternatives for themselves, then who am I to judge? Who are any of us to judge?

There is often a gulf between a human being’s stated ethical values and the food they put on the dinner table for themselves and their children. Instead of judging or blaming or condemning, we are better off having compassion for ourselves and others as individuals and directing our attention to the area most in need of our moral concern: reforming the systems of food production and distribution themselves. (That’s a topic for another day.)

But I respect the level of complexity that French is bringing to his analysis and the overall spirit of his article. He is 100% correct that human beings are ensnared in a trail of devastation that ought to be of profound moral concern to us all. Life feeds on life. Any biologist can tell you that the phenomenon of life feeding on life goes “all the way down” to the simplest creatures all the way up to the most complex.

And among the spiritual traditions, Roman Catholic Christianity and some other faiths will tell you that the phenomenon extends to the spiritual realm as well: human beings are god-eaters, consuming the “body and blood of Christ” in a mysterious ritual of cosmic and divine self-sacrifice.

The more profound a spiritual perspective understands the mystery of life feeding on life, the less likely it is to get sanctimonious about particular dietary choices if those choices are made with reverence for life, an awareness of one’s profound embeddedness in a world of suffering, and a genuine effort to reduce harm to others in all domains of life in smart and practical ways.

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