Why, when people start avoiding animal products for ethical reasons, do they most often decide to avoid meat but still eat eggs and dairy rather than avoiding eggs and dairy but continuing to eat meat?
I am a conflicted omnivore. I am all too aware of the suffering of animals on factory farms and my purpose here isn’t to detail the instances of torture. I also want to say outright that I eat meat. I’m allergic to eggs and dairy, so avoid those, and I’m also allergic to gluten so I find that eating some meat is necessary for my health due to a restricted diet even though I’m not entirely comfortable with consuming animals. I’m certainly not going to judge those who eat animal products or those who don’t. My purpose here is to explore the decisions people make about eating animals and probe the reasons for eating some animal products while avoiding others.
I have noticed that when people first become aware of the horrors sustained by animals on factory farms and decide that they no longer want to participate in the systematic torture of food animals, they often make the decision to stop eating animal flesh, but they continue to consume eggs and dairy. I expect that this is because meat is a more recognizable animal product and one that has obvious dietary replacements like tofu and seitan. Eggs and dairy are hidden in a lot of foods so they are more difficult to avoid, so eliminating meat is the most straightforward way to consume fewer animal products.
But my question is this: if a person wants to decrease the suffering to animals but don’t think they can handle cutting out all animal products at once, why do they stop eating meat rather than eggs and dairy products? If the purpose of cutting out some animal products is to minimize suffering to farm animals I would argue that it makes just as much, if not more, sense to stop eating eggs and dairy while continuing to eat moderate servings of meat than to eliminate meat in favour of eggs and dairy. The reason for this hinges on the total amount of suffering endured by meat animals as opposed to egg and milk producing animals.
Both meat animals and egg and dairy animals on factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations as the industry likes to euphemistically call them, live in disgusting situations that many consider to be torturous. There are thousands of articles outlining the details of this torture so I won’t go into that here. What I want to point out is the life span of various farmed animals:
• A broiler chicken lives 2 months whereas an egg laying chicken has an average life span of 2 years.
• A beef cow lives 15-20 months. A dairy cow will live 3-4 years and will be kept constantly pregnant and lactating. The calves that are taken away from dairy cows are used for veal and have a life span of 14-16 weeks.
• See http://www.compassionatespirit.com/factory_farming.htm for more information on animal life spans in the food industry.
It is clear that the suffering of egg and dairy producing animals goes on much longer than your typical meat animal. And for animals living in appalling conditions, a swift end to life is probably a blessing. From the perspective of individual animals I would argue that it’s better to be a meat animal. If you assume that no enjoyment can be gleaned from life on a factory farm (and I think that’s a fair assumption) then a shorter life means less suffering and no enjoyment of life is lost because there was never any enjoyment available to these animals in the first place.
Egg and dairy animals will suffer longer, though it’s possible that more meat animals are processed in total due to their shorter life spans. If this is true then eating only meat means more animals die, but each individual suffers for a shorter period of time. If we eat only eggs and dairy fewer animals die but individuals suffer much longer before death. My suggestion is that if a person is trying to minimize animal suffering by eliminating some animal products from their diet eliminating meat is not a more direct route to doing so than eliminating eggs and dairy, particularly considering that not drinking milk means saying no to dairy products as well as the veal industry.
Perhaps avoiding meat is more immediately political. If you say no to meat people assume it’s for ethical reasons. If you avoid eggs and dairy people are more likely to think you have an allergy. Avoiding meat might be a more public ethical statement, but in terms of net decrease of suffering I see no reason to choose one route over the other. Clearly veganism is the way to go if you want to completely avoid contributing to animal suffering, but if this isn’t possible for you (and there are lots of reasons why veganism is a difficult dietary choice) and you still want to make a difference I would suggest that there are more options than simply eliminating meat from your diet. You could:
• eliminate eggs and dairy and eat moderate amounts of meat
• eat animal products only a few times a week
• stop eating meat, eggs, and dairy produced on factory farms and eat truly free range, organic meat products in small quantities
• only eat meat that would otherwise be thrown away (some friends of mine live like this and I think it’s a brilliant idea. If they’re at a party or a restaurant and others are going to throw away the meat on their plates they’ll take it home to eat later. Otherwise they’re vegetarians and never purchase meat themselves)
• stop eating land meat, eggs, and dairy, but eat moderate amounts of sustainably caught fish. Since fish live their lives in the wild they are subject to very little suffering before their deaths.
There are probably dozens of dietary permutations that would help to fight against the factory farm industry. Somehow avoiding meat has become the standard for political action on this front. I think we need to expand the range of possibilities so that more people can find a diet that accommodates their personal matrix of health, ethical, political, and budgetary concerns. You can save a cow by drinking coconut milk just as easily as you can save a cow by eating a veggie burger.