A bone to pick with the food ethics debate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 April, 2012, 12:00am

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There's a food debate taking place on The New York Times' website, but it's not in the food section. Rather, it's in The Ethicist column, and the discussion centres around the ethics of eating meat.

As you'd expect, the divide is primarily between omnivores and vegetarians. I've never been a vegetarian except by accident, and never for more than a meal or two. The reason I eat meat isn't because of my lack of ethics - in fact, I've never thought of eating meat as being unethical. Cheating people out of their money, or forcing your beliefs on others - those are unethical acts, what I choose to eat is not.

I realise that we don't need meat to survive, and that there are plenty of vegetarian alternatives to meat protein. I'm also aware that it takes a large amount of land to raise a relatively small number of animals for food, and that the land could be put to better use growing fruit and vegetables that would feed a lot of people more economically. I refuse to consider the argument used by some vegetarians that animals have souls and that killing them is as bad as killing a person.

I also reject the claim by some meat-eaters that vegetarians are 'killing' plants in the same way we kill animals. Nor do I accept the belief that humans are at the top of the food chain, so it's our right to eat other animals.

I reject the call for becoming vegetarian on so-called ethical grounds for a number of reasons. People who say eating meat is bad for the environment might be right, but so is importing ingredients from other countries: transporting them uses fossil fuels and causes pollution. The '100-mile diet' is great if you live in California, where there's a year-round abundance of locally grown ingredients, but it's just not practical for most people.

I'm sure there are people in Hong Kong who would be satisfied with seasonal vegetables grown locally, but the territory's agricultural business isn't nearly large enough to sustain our population.

The use (and abuse) of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and chemicals by agri-businesses means that vegetarianism isn't necessarily better for the health of the planet, nor does it guarantee glowing health for those who consume those fruits and vegetables.

Having said all this, I think we have a responsibility to the animals we eat. They deserve to be raised humanely, and killed with as little pain and trauma as possible. But while many of us have enough money to buy free-range chickens if we choose to, who are we to tell a person living on the poverty line that they should stop eating battery farm-produced eggs if that's all they can afford?

From my ethical stance, people are much more important than other animals.