According to an interesting book I read recently (Bittman, 2009), the rise of factory farming has made the lives of the animals we eat a "living hell." I'm not going to go into whether or not this is true in this entry; for purposes of this essay I'm going to assume it's true and discuss what to do about it.
The way I see it there are two ways to combat the problem.
1. Change laws so that animals are treated ethically.
Wouldn't this be great? Then we'd only have to deal with the other reasons not to eat meat.
2. Reduce demand.Reducing the demand for meat reduces animal suffering simply because fewer animals are raised. Using the advice in Bittman (2009), I've been trying to be vegan before dinner, and I've reduced my intake of meat considerably. He argues that the demand must be reduced, because the world needs factory farming to supply the current (and rising) demand for meat. That is, even if we wanted to raise the animals ethically, we just don't have enough room and other resources to do it.
Now I'm feeling bad whenever I eat meat, which is a problem, because I adore it.
I had an idea yesterday: buying meat credits. Here's how it works:
There is some cost to eating meat, in terms of animal welfare, the environment, etc. Let's assume that you quantify this cost, given the type of meat you eat, where it comes from, and how much you eat. So, for example, (and I'm just making up these numbers here), a hamburger costs the world 20 points and a chicken wing costs the world 3.
Now, let's assume that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are out there reducing the problems associated with meat, through lobbying, public relations to reduce demand, etc. Let's assume that giving money to these organizations has some effect on the state of the world. Of course, some are more effective than others, and choosing is difficult, but let's hold off on how to choose for another blog post. Let's assume further that we can quantify how effective a given donated dollar is. For example, and I'm making up numbers again, but giving one dollar to NGO x helps the world out 1 point.
If we could somehow get these numbers, then you could potentially purchase meat-eating credits. Suppose the numbers I made up above are accurate. Then, if I wanted to eat a hamburger ethically, I would donate 21 dollars to an appropriate NGO and eat the burger. I understand that this is not the way people typically think about ethics, but the reasoning is sound-- if you are doing this, then every time you eat a burger you are improving animal welfare in the world. I picture getting a piggy bank and putting money into it every time I eat meat, according to some table of how much each costs the world, and every once in a while I empty it, count it up, and write a check.
So even though you're hurting the world by eating the meat, you're having a net benefit through the donation. It's important that this donation is above and beyond your normal donation rate. See my previous blog post on this topic.
I anticipate a harsh reaction from vegetarians, who will probably say that you should donate and don't eat meat. Fine, yes, that would be better. But for those of us who are not ready to give up meat for whatever reason, this is better than doing nothing at all. And the more meat they eat under this system, the better the world gets. Not only that, paying extra to eat the meat (it's in addition to the monetary cost of the meat, of course) might prove to be a disincentive to eat meat, encouraging people to eat less of it, reducing demand.
And every rational person should agree to this for some set of numbers. For example, if Bill Gates vowed to give a million dollars to animal welfare NGOs every time he went to McDonald's, I should think the vegetarians would prefer him to go to McDonald's than be vegetarian.
I want these numbers. How do we get them?
It's a perfect job for economists, who are expert at quantification and making a common metric for the comparison of apples and oranges. If anyone knows of an analysis like this, I would love to know about it.
In the meantime, maybe I should just make up numbers, because now I'm donating nothing.
Pictured: pigs at a factory farm. Factory farms are cramped and stressful for animals, but have benefits of reducing fighting between them. See the wikipedia for the controversy.
Bittman, M. (2009). Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Simon Schuster Paperbacks.New York.