I love a road trip. It’s exciting to get behind the wheel of a car, get out on the highway (or bi-way), and just go. The road seems to stretch out forever in front of me, full of possibilities, adventure, and fun. Again, this summer I drove two thirds of the way across the United States from Virginia to New Mexico and back again. I varied my route because why not? The country is vast and diverse. I want to see as much of it as I can. The broad, open, colorful skies of Texas and New Mexico. The wheat fields in Kansas. The green, rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. On this particular trip back to Virginia, though, one of the sights disturbed me deeply.
The second day of my journey eastward, I drove from Amarillo, Texas, to Springfield, Missouri. All along the panhandle of Texas and into Oklahoma, I encountered feedlots. These are places where cattle live for several months in order to fatten up before slaughter. The animals are fed grain (mainly corn), growth hormones, and antibiotics. They live in crowded spaces and in the feedlots I saw, the cattle had difficulty walking due to the layers of muck, mire, and manure all over the ground. I could smell a feedlot long before I saw one. The stench nauseated me.
My first response to seeing these places was grief. Sentient beings in these places are needlessly tortured and exploited for profit. Why is it that, for the most part, we turn a blind eye to the suffering of animals raised exclusively to become food on our dinner plate? In the U.S., most of us don’t tolerate the torture and killing of dogs, cats, and other animals we consider to be pets. We even have organizations in place to protect these creatures from cruel and inhumane treatment. Yet, what we call farm animals—cows, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, and chickens—these beings are cruelly treated day in and day out, month after month, year after year before being killed.
From a pragmatic standpoint, it seems wasteful to use tons and tons of grain to fatten up cattle. With far less negative impact to our fragile environment, that grain could go far to feed the world’s population. Rather than feed grain to cattle in feedlots—a practice that pollutes the air we breathe, the land we live on, and the water we drink—we could put a huge dent in eradicating hunger. After all, it takes a lot less grain to feed a hungry person than a hungry cow. In addition, contrary to what many people believe, animal protein is not essential for human growth and well-being. One can easily obtain all the essential amino acids needed to sustain health from grains and vegetables.
The growth hormones and antibiotics given to farm animals, of course, find their way into our own bodies when we eat meat. For years we’ve had to battle what the medical establishment calls super-bugs—bacteria that have become antibiotic-resistant due to our overuse of these drugs. Most antibiotics are consumed by farm animals prophylactically to keep them disease-free in preparation for their slaughter.
I grew up consuming animals and their products, believing for a long time what I had been taught. Eating meat was all within God’s “perfect plan” for human beings. The Biblical story (Genesis 4) telling about God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering (animals or “firstlings of his flock”) and not Cain’s (plants or “fruit of the ground”) somehow made meat-eating seem like a holy act. In my experience, eating meat translated into doing God’s will on earth. I’ve heard people say, “It’s just un-American NOT to eat meat” and “Even Jesus ate fish” within the context of their striving to live a righteous, Biblical, and godly life.
Almost all meat in our markets today is factory-farmed. Animals live in tortuous, squalid conditions, awaiting death—something that often happens slowly and painfully. (There are many videos filmed undercover available to see on You Tube showing these atrocities.) I realize that not all animals raised for food are factory-farmed. Some animals, especially in rural areas, are raised on family farms and are not subject to the cruelty of feedlots. For me, though, the unnecessary death of sentient beings outweighs any argument in favor of consuming them.
My argument, I realize, is not water-tight. After all, don’t plants have consciousness? Are they not sentient? Do they not also enjoy life and want to prolong their own existence? What right do I have to kill plants in order to sustain my own? All good questions. When people raise such questions, I’ve found it’s often because they want to continue eating their hamburgers without being “harassed” as they sometimes complain. My question as response is: Why would I continue to eat meat knowing the suffering cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, goats, and sheep endure on their way to my plate just because I am unsure about the nature of plant consciousness?
I don’t have crystal-clear answers. Is “plant consciousness” the same thing as “animal consciousness?” What difference, if any, does that make? What I DO know is that those factory-farmed sentient beings we call animals live out their lives in horrible conditions and die painful deaths in order to satisfy our palates. Since I do not need to consume animals in order to sustain my own life, why would I eat them knowing full well that they suffer cruel lives and deaths?
In this time of political upheaval, many of us have vowed to live kinder, gentler lives. Why not start making an impact in places where we know suffering happens instead of speculating about whether or not suffering happens in other places? Exercising compassion right here, right now on our dinner plates. As culture moves forward and we evolve, we may see more clearly. When we see better, we can then do better.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.