by Marion Nestle
Mar 28 2012

The ethics of meat-eating: A feminist issue?

Staunch feminist that I am, I am greatly enjoying the fuss over the all-male judging panel for the New York Times’ contest calling on “carnivores to tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.”  The Times’ ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, announced the contest in Sunday’s magazine:

So today we announce a nationwide contest for the omnivorous readers of The New York Times. We invite you to make the strongest possible case for this most basic of daily practices.

We have assembled a veritable murderer’s row of judges — some of the most influential thinkers to question or condemn the eating of meat: Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light.

In the graduate course in food ethics I taught at NYU a couple of years ago, I had the class read:

  • Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
  • Michael Pollan’s critique of Singer’s views in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
  • Jonathan Safran Foer’s critique of Pollan in Eating Animals.  

I also had them read a scientific paper on the nutritional benefits of adding meat to the diets of children in developing countries (Whaley et al.  J Nutrition 2003;133: 3965s–3971s).

Discussions, to say the least, were lively.

As for the other two: Mark Bittman writes eloquently about ethical issues in food choice for the New York Times.  Although I am not familiar with the work of Andrew Light, a quick Google search reveals that he writes about the ethics of climate policy.

All happen to be white men.

On her blog, the “vegan-feminist intellectual” Carol Adams,  author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, says:

Here’s the crux of the problem, our culture is heavily invested in the identification of meat eating with manliness…. How could an intelligent woman miss the fact that her own panel of “ethicists” is male-dominated and that such a choice is, itself, an ethical issue?

Michele Simon writes on her blog, Appetite for Profit:

When I asked why all the judges were male, Kaminer replied that she couldn’t find one female expert in food ethics with a fraction of the name recognition of the men. She argued that the famous male judges would bring far more attention to the contest, and in turn get more people to consider the ethics of meat eating.

Full disclosure: Michele puts me first in her list of ten women who should have been considered.

You can see why I am amused, no?

If you want to enter this contest—and please do!—send written entries of no more than 600 words to Entries are due by April 8.

  • brad

    I can’t credibly comment on the feminist issue, since I’m a man. But I’m pretty sure the New York Times contest is a set-up to demonstrate that in fact there is no ethical argument for eating meat. There are nutritional arguments, and therein may lie the only “ethical” argument: studies have shown that when you supplement the mostly plant-based diets of kids in developing countries with a little bit of meat, they are much healthier. But kids in developing countries don’t have the wealth of food choices available in the United States, nor do they have access to supplement. For us in America, the crux of the question boils down to “is it ethical to take the life of an animal (one that is clearly capable of feeling pain and fear) for food when alternatives are readily available?”

    Peter Singer has spent 30 years studying all the counter-arguments to his position of vegetarianism, and he studies them very deeply; he’s a brilliant logician. (If you want to become poorer, read his book, “The Life You Can Save.” He presents such a convincing case for why we should all give more to charities that save lives in developing countries that it’s impossible to read this book without reaching into your pocket.) I’m willing to bet that Singer will have already heard all of the arguments submitted by participants in the contest, and he will be able to demonstrate that none of them stand up to logical scrutiny.

    I say all of this as an omnivore who eats meat fairly regularly. I don’t think our model of industrial livestock production treats animals ethically and I try to avoid eating that kind of meat as much as possible. I think the line is less clear when it comes to wild game, or to livestock raised under more humane conditions, but it still boils down to the ethics of killing animals for food when we can meet our nutritional needs through plants and supplements.

    My guess is that the Times contest will either produce no winners at all, or perhaps a winning essay that comes closest to making a convincing case. But the real purpose of the contest is most likely to demonstrate to the world that it is impossible to make a logical ethical case for eating meat.

  • Cee

    I’d just like to point out that the only two names on this page that I, myself, am familiar with are obviously your own, and Michael Pollan. I have heard of Jonathan Safran Foer, but haven’t read his book yet or anything else he may have written. The other fellows only entered my radar with this post. Her ‘theory’ is flawed I would say.

  • Full disclosure … I’m a male.

    However, here’s what happens when you put men in charge … take a few moments to watch this video about heart disease and females …

    Mankind can and will screw up everything … look what we did to the magnificent tomato …

    Let’s boot the men out and put the ladies in charge!

    Ken Leebow

  • Middle Seaman

    You don’t have to be a woman to see that a panel of all men isn’t proper for “carnivores to tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.” I am not even sure that judging quality of men shoes should be done just by men.

    As we all know, equality and balance are a long way from accomplished. The way we go now, things may get worse before they get better.

  • Vegan Chef

    Phooey. They could have totally done this better. Make the panel a little bit bigger and a little more diverse. Ask for and get two reasonably or not-so-well-known women to be on the panel. Make it a little more racially/ ethnically diverse while you are at it.

    The others who do have name recognition still draw tons of readers, and so does the topic, one many thinkers, writers, bloggers, and eaters are interested in.

    As it is, the panel is not exactly going to be taken as seriously, utterly defeating the point of the whole endeavor.

  • This is going to great PR for the beleaguered meat industry, post-pink slime. I’m still wondering why the NYT decided to do this. Was this just an exercise in intellectual masturbation for them? Was it to out the true defenders of the industrial meat complex? Was it so they could find a ready straw man?

    As for the issue of women, I find it a total insult that women were NOT included in the panel of judges. Not only are there plenty of women available to judge (including the lovely Ms. Nestle), but from a practical point of view, women still do 2/3 of all the grocery shopping in the US. Women also do the majority of cooking for families. These are the people that have skin in the game. We make the choices for millions of families – shouldn’t we be also the ones to judge how well these arguments work for the people we cook for?

    NB This is NOT to say that men should not be cooking. I always like to quote the intelligent woman above that “The greatest gift you can give your sons is to teach them how to cook.” I’m just stating the reality of food preparation in the US.

  • Susan

    I couldn’t believe you weren’t on Kaminer’s list, Marion. Reminds me of the groups of men recently pontificating on contraceptives. Just tell us what to do, guys! Re: the contest itself, I do find it an interesting exercise to think about the ethics of eating meat when you don’t have to. Not sure I have an answer but I find myself thinking about it.

  • Emma

    Brother– as though there are no women able to talk intelligently on the topic. No one along the lines of, say, Alice Watters or Vandana Shiva or, you know, Marion Nestle.

    Side note: Who the F is this Dexter character whose sole aim here seems to be flaming the blog? I just don’t understand the raison d’etre of these angry folks who revel in vitriolic postings. But presumably I’m a pudding-headed shrew of a crazy old hysterical woman.

  • Thank you for posting this entry. The minute I finished reading the contest specs in the magazine, I emailed the NYT re: the absence of women and people of color from the “murderous row.” I appreciate that Ms. Kaminer has written me personally to discuss my concern, but I stand by the criticism.

  • Cara

    According to marketers, women make over 90% of food purchases in this country! Isn’t that enough to warrant a place at the table?

  • Great piece, Marion. Lots of great comments here today. For me, two spring to mind. First: Nothing surprises me anymore; I imagine you agree. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about it, but, seriously. Second: Not only should you have been asked, but I also have issues with Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman being “bigger names” in the fields of food and nutrition than you. They’ve furthered the conversations on critical food, nutrition, and public health matters for sure, which is fabulous, and it’s nothing against them personally, but I’d prefer to hear a scientific voice leading these conversations, not a journalist. This is important for too many reasons to address succinctly here. (A woman scientist would be even better but now I’m showing my bias.) Remember over the summer when I misunderstood about you being on The Colbert Report, but it was really Michael Pollan? ‘Nuff said.

  • Suzanne

    I nominate the inclusion of Dr. Temple Grandin for the committee:

    Her nomination would bring some credibility to the panel!

  • phil

    Lierre Keith (author of the deeply insightful, The Vegetarian Myth, ) would have been an ideal candidate. She would have probably declined, but that’s another story.

  • IRememberWhen

    I especially am surprised the NY Times didn’t contact Lierre Keith, the former vegan turned omnivore, who so eloquently makes this case in her book, The Vegetarian Myth. Burning the rainforest in Brazil to plant GMO soy for Monsanto is a brutal, animal-killing practice as well, one that destroys the environment and harms humans as well. Apparently few have seen what happens to the animals in a field when the John Deere combine comes through – they are sucked up and literally cut to pieces alive. And by animals I mean cute fuzzy bunny rabbits, not just non-charming “other animals” that help make the land healthy but that don’t carry strong emotional valence for people.

  • phil

    Lierre’s ears must have buzzed loud for a few minutes here.
    Thank you IRememberWhen for letting me go first 😉

    I will also add that framing the whole issue in ethical (=logical) terms is a (big) part of the problems that Lierre found herself to struggle with and eventually overcome.

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  • iRememberWhen

    Hi Phil,

    Oh I agree. Joel Salatin and many other local farmers are devoted to sustainable, humane, ethical animal husbandry. Everyone agrees the CAFO/factory farm system is a moral problem. But there are alternatives – sustainable, practical, affordable, and they are rapidly springing into place across the USA now.

    Whereas many otherwise well-meaning vegans and vegetarians have yet to come to terms with the animal and environmental devastation of their own diet, as well as the way it servers to empower large food corporations over local farmers. Hopefully we can engage in respectful dialogue over these important issues. We can begin with basic agreement: animal welfare is important, environmental protection is important.

    The USDA itself not long ago issued a report showing how careful grazing methods with pastured animals actually improves the soil and increases its ability to host life and capture carbon to combat global warming. Read it on their site:

  • FarmerJane

    The usual urban “suits”, no rural “boots.” The NY Times almost always omits anyone related to agriculture or who has actually tended to the life of an animal, when doing a story. The meat ethics contest is no different.
    Suggestions above are excellent: Joel Salatin, Temple Grandin…both with deep lifetime experience in working with animals. How about a farmer who is not a livestock producer, but intimately involved and knowledgeable in rural America and the farmers and ranchers of our country…Fred Kirschenmann.
    If you are looking for a woman rancher who has written on ethics of meat, try Nicolette Hahn Niman.
    Tough being a farmer in the Northeast where Big Urban Media always frames the discussion with close to zero input from those of us whose hands tend the land.

  • Reader

    All of the panelists are wealthy and privileged. They have the time and education and resources to pontificate about what to eat. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But why not include just one of the millions of people in the world who face food insecurity? Or is the ethics of eating meat just a topic for the rich? The people with a choice? The people who live in the US? Maybe it is.

    Does survival ever trump ethics? Maybe we wouldn’t have to address that question if we addressed the ethics of food insecurity first.

    Thank goodness Singer is included in this panel. In his book, The Way We Eat, he profiled three families. It was apparent that the low-income family (still rich by global standards) would have the greatest challenge eating an “ethical” diet than the wealthier families.

  • brad

    Aldo Leopold, one of the patron saints of environmental conservation, used to say “you have to eat your breakfast before you can have a land ethic.” What he meant was that survival does trump ethics, but once your basic needs are being met and you can make choices about what you do or eat, then ethics can play a role in those choices.

    All of us engage in behaviors that could be considered unethical, but most of the time we’re simply not aware of it or we choose not to care. In Peter Singer’s book “The Life You Can Save,” he demonstrates through ironclad logical arguments that spending money on stuff we don’t really need instead of donating our “extra” money to charities that save lives in developing countries is the moral equivalent of walking by a child drowning in a shallow pond because we don’t want to ruin our shoes. For most of us, this analogy sounds offensive and ridiculous, and yet when you read his carefully reasoned arguments you see that he’s right. What you do next is up to you.

    The argument that eating meat is ethical because the production of vegetables causes just as much loss of animal life is probably not going to make it past the logic tests of most of the judges of the contest, especially Singer. He might agree that it makes the issue somewhat moot, because everything we eat involves ending a life (certainly the life of a plant, but the “bycatch” of industrial agriculture also results in unintended loss of life of animal lives as well). But it still doesn’t address the many other well-documented impacts associated with industrial meat production, including inhumane conditions, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.

    Singer does agree that if you’re going to eat meat, buying it from small family farms and others that are committed to humane treatment of livestock is the way to go. Or you can hunt wild game yourself. But the basic question remains: why kill if we don’t have to? I think that’s the ultimate test that has to be satisfied in the contest.

  • Brandon

    I’m a little confused by this.

    1) Our part in the food chain is that of omnivore, so I don’t see why it’s an issue to be eat meat.
    2) Plants are alive too, just watch Fern Gully/Avatar. They probably don’t like to be eaten/decimated either. The only ‘issue’ I see arising is when we produce more than we need and waste, or distribute it inappropriately, which is regardless of if the food is a meat or a plant.
    3) I don’t see why this is a feminist issue? Seems like peeps are grasping at straws? Why stop there? … Why were there no Asians on the committee? Or Blacks? Or ‘poor’? Or farmers?

  • Beth

    People in this country are not hungry (or grateful) enough.

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  • Dana

    As a feminist in 1970’s San Francisco, it was my understanding that the mainstream feminist take on vegetarianism was, “The double meaning of the word ‘abattoir’ is no accident. Females, children, people of color and all us other sub-humans had better stick together.”
    P.S.: This essay’s author surely has my sympathy, bless her heart, on getting stuck with the same name as the ultimate food-politics villains of the known universe, who for over 40 years have caused the agonizing deaths of newborn African babies, for the sake of selling a little more of their infant formula.

  • Mijnheer

    Readers here may be interested in this piece on “Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories”:

  • Ms Nestle, don’t let the conditions of the contest prevent you from submitting your own essay. If anything, I promise you that if your essay is not selected, it won’t be because they’re men and you’re a woman. Instead, it’s going to be due to the simple fact that they have already made up their mind on the matter. I see the contest as an accusation. We are accused of unethical behavior, and the burden of proof is put on the accused: Is it ethical to eat meat? In other words, we are guilty by default. That’s simply absurd. One of the basic human rights is that a human has the right to be deemed innocent until proven guilty. Therefore we have the right to eat meat by default. If there’s anybody who should prove anything, it’s our accusers. I submitted an essay which essentially puts the burden of proof back where it belongs: On the accuser. I posted my essay on my blog as well.

  • Kim-lee

    The fish is upside down.