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The pro-meaters

(article, Culinate staff)

Remember the pro-meat essay-writing contest thrown by the New York Times back in April? It was intentionally controversial (writers were asked to demonstrate, in 600 words or less, why eating meat was ethical) and unintentionally embarrassing (many bloggers complained that the judging panel, consisting entirely of white men, excluded, well, everybody else, chiefly women). 

Plenty of folks weighed in unofficially on the topic via the ever-popular format of the website comment. The Times itself asked readers to vote for their faves; the populist winner was the entry by Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (better known by its acronym, PETA). 

Newkirk's entry — which combined poignant memoir with enthusiasm for lab-concocted meat — trounced the competition, garnering more than twice as many votes (thanks to a PETA email encouraging supporters to vote) as farmer Stacey Roussel's second-place entry. Here's Newkirk's conclusion:

bq. In-vitro meat is real meat, grown from real cow, chicken, pig, and fish cells, all grown in culture without the mess and misery, without pigs frozen to the sides of metal transport trucks in winter and without intensive water use, massive manure lagoons that leach into streams, or antibiotics that are sprayed onto and ingested by live animals and which can no longer fight ever-stronger, drug-resistant bacteria. It comes without E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella, or other health problems that are unavoidable when meat comes from animals who defecate. It comes without the need for excuses. It is ethical meat. Aside from accidental roadkill or the fish washed up dead on the shore, it is perhaps the only ethical meat. 

Jay Bost's entry, however, was the one the official judging panel deemed the best. Bost, a former vegetarian, laid out a pro-meat argument based on production: "Eating meat raised in specific circumstances is ethical; eating meat raised in other circumstances is unethical. Just as eating vegetables, tofu or grain raised in certain circumstances is ethical and those produced in other ways is unethical." He clarified:

bq. If what you are trying to achieve with an “ethical” diet is the least destructive impact on life as a whole on this planet, then in some circumstances, like living among dry, scrubby grasslands in Arizona, eating meat, is, in fact, the most ethical thing you can do other than subsist on wild game, tepary beans, and pinyon nuts. A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human. This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human. 

Bost sidestepped the issue central to Newkirk: is the killing of a sentient being ethically defensible? And Ariel Kaminer, the New York Times_ Ethicist columnist, didn't share much in the way of opinions from the judging panel (Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan, and Peter Singer) as to why they picked Bost's entry. Nevertheless, the conversation was a good one.