James McWilliams is spouting nonsense again.
In an earlier piece, McWilliams makes the argument that no matter how meat is raised, eating it is bad – essentially, we should all be vegan. Only, McWilliams dances around his veganism and never unequivocally cops to it. Apparently, being vegan in no way makes you biased and perhaps not the best possible (or even a marginally useful) evaluator of animal production systems. If I hate chocolate, I’ve got no business judging a goddamn truffle contest.
From the piece:
“The predictable response to the conundrum is to note that there’s a difference between raising an animal in hellish conditions and killing it and raising an animal in idyllic conditions and killing it. Sure there is. But such a difference is less than it might seem, and hardly enough to justify the radical distinction we draw between free-range (good) and factory farming (bad).”
[somewhat graphic videos ahead] Watch a video of downer cows at a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), and tell me there’s not a radical distinction between that and this. Take a look at Joel Salatin‘s chicken processing killing operation, and tell me if it even remotely compares to this. (I suppose there are chickens involved in both). CAFOs and industrialized animal production are far worse for animals (and in turn the people that eat them), full stop. Equating a giant CAFO like Tyson with a small, sustainable producer like Salatin is completely inaccurate. McWilliams goes even further:
“Here’s another (admittedly experimental) way to consider the comparison between free-range and confined. The confined animal lives a mercifully short life of brutality and is dispatched; the free-range animal lives a much longer life full of relative freedom and is dispatched. From the perspective of happiness lost, the latter scenario is more tragic.”
Yes, you read that right. Those downer cows? At least they were never going to be “happy”!
In his latest piece for the Atlantic Food Channel, he attempts to refine his earlier argument by saying that animals are sentient beings, and therefore it is wrong to kill and eat them. Not an argument I personally agree with, but so far, so good. The trouble comes with his definition of “sentient.” If sentient means, according to McWilliams, “capable of suffering,” where do we draw the line? And if animals are so sentient, doesn’t that make a farm system where they suffer less, if at all, dramatically better than one that causes nothing but suffering for all of the animals and many of the people involved?
A fish does not register “pain” or “fear”. It might exhibit a rush of stress hormones when confronted with a lethal situation, but plants also release stress hormones, especially as a result of any sort of damage. Like when you snap a tree branch to pick an apple. Or shear off leaves from a spinach plant for salad. I’m not making the argument that plants are sentient beings, but as long as we’re “lifting veils” and performing “mental exercises,” to use McWilliams’ parlance, we might as well go whole hog, don’t you think?
Bottom line: whether you should eat animals and how they should be treated if you do eat them are two completely separate conversations.