Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The blood footprint

More animal-friendly than a vegetarian? 
There are all sorts of ways in which people can alter their diets for ethical reasons, but the presumed reason that people become vegetarians out of ethical concern is that they don't want to cause any animals to die in order to supply their meal. Jackson Landers at Zester Daily puts forth the counter-intuitive position that sometimes not eating meat can cause more suffering and death than eating it. In A Better Choice: Deer, he compares eating hunted venison to soy burgers:
Meat is not the only food that is the byproduct of animals suffering. Other foods have what I call a "blood footprint," but the relationship is more subtle. It is possible for a vegetarian meal to require more suffering than a carnivorous meal. A thoughtful carnivore, especially if she is a hunter, can potentially eat with a smaller blood footprint than a vegetarian. 
Consider the typical blood footprint of that mainstay of a vegetarian diet, the soy burger. The meal itself contains no meat. But the production of soy and tofu on an industrial scale requires quite a lot of killing. Crop depredation by deer and other animals is a huge problem for most soy growers. The majority of states will issue depredation permits to farmers who are suffering crop damage, and as a result, deer are shot in high numbers in the name of protecting soy and corn crops. Some states require that the deer shot under these permits be left to rot, and forbid any meat from being taken from the animals. Crows, starlings, blackbirds and other birds are shot, trapped and poisoned by the millions every year in North America for the sole purpose of protecting crops. Millions of mice, voles and ground squirrels are trapped, poisoned or otherwise killed for the same purpose. 
All of the food harvested from these fields is technically vegetarian fodder, but how many lives were lost to produce that tofu burger? How much suffering was required? You won't find anything on the label about that. If your purpose in ordering from the vegetarian menu was to dodge cruelty, your mission failed. 
True, if you compare a tofu burger to a grain-fed beef burger, the tofu burger comes out ahead. Corn-fed beef involves all of the sins required to grow its food, and then the cow is slaughtered to boot. But a wild venison burger is arguably a more ethical way of putting lunch on the table. A wild deer requires no killing until the moment of harvest to produce some 40 pounds of meat, even from a smallish animal. The deer lives free of cages, electric prods, hormones or antibiotics. No other animals are trapped, poisoned or shot to bring it to maturity. The blood footprint of the venison burger may be less than that of a tub of popcorn. One life, divided among many meals. The deer lives a good life, and then has one bad day.
Obviously this is not a complete argument for ethical vegetarians to resume/begin being omnivorous. For one thing it isn't necessary that they consume soy, though this essay addresses the importance of considering the possible suffering caused to animals in the production of whatever food you do eat, because that too is part of your blood footprint even if no actual animal flesh is part of your diet. Not eating soy doesn't get you off the hook. For another, while it might be possible for all current vegetarians to become deer hunters and swap soy for venison, that's a) not a very realistic thing to imagine and b) as proliferate as deer are, it wouldn't be possible for all of us who currently eat meat with a greater blood footprint than venison to switch to that as well. America eats too much meat, period, for us all to switch to venison even if we wanted to. And plenty of us don't.

Still, this is an excellent reminder to differentiate between ethics and sentimentality. I wrote the following on this blog two years ago, as part of a general discussion on the morality of survival:
I'm not touching so much on the "meat vs. no meat" discussion here, because I think that's a somewhat different issue. Certainly that's an ethical matter as well, but I think bringing the discussion of whether eating meat is inherently unethical into the general topic of how to eat ethically muddies things quite a bit. There are more and less ethical ways to eat meat, and generally speaking they coincide with the more and less healthy ways to eat meat. For example, I think that people who object to factory farming but aren't vegetarians should be big fans of hunting, which often involves shooting a deer, putting it in the freezer, and eating from it for much of the winter. That white-tailed deer has lived in the wild all of its life, eating the plants that Odocoileus virginianus traditionally eats as opposed to dining on corn and standing in its own feces, and later is killed by a hunter to provide a family with meat that is nutritionally superior to that of a CAFO steer. And we have in this country a ton of deer, as anyone who habitually drives in the country and has to worry about accidentally hitting one can testify. Of course not everyone can hunt for their food due to constraints on both geography and population, but it's something that meat-eaters who are concerned about the interests of animals should enthusiastically endorse.  
There may be a cultural gulf between the type of people who hunt and fish and the people who shop Whole Foods for only the most humanely produced organic products, but there isn't really an ethical one. At least, not nearly as much as one might think. And at least not regarding food.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Gretchen. I try to be an ethical omnivore. I won't eat meat unless I know where it came from and that it wasn't abused. But while I've heard about the importance of eating local veggies to the environment, I haven't considered that knowing where your veggies come from is an important part of animal welfare, too.

  2. I've always said hunting isn't nearly as bad as factory farming, but it doesn't seem like a very popular thing to say among my fellow vegetarians...

  3. There is at least one distinction between eating an animal and eating vegetables for which animals were killed. One necessarily involves death, while the other only does by an accident of economics. Shifting the moral burden from producers to consumers in the latter case doesn't seem quite fair. Of course one could argue that factory farming is also a product of economic forces beyond the consumer's control... so maybe it's not such a good distinction after all. Hm. Thanks for the though provocation.

  4. I definitely get what you're driving at, Chris. I just don't think that ultimately those two factors can really be divorced. Buying the product is financially contributing to the process that got it into your hands. It's not easy to even know what the more ethical choices are to make, much less always make them (certainly not for me!) but I think the more these things are considered by the consumer the better.