Whither the cow?

As the European Union looks out for the environment by driving meat out of the human diet, Sean Craig looks at whether animals will also be looked out for or new ethical issues around protection of livestock will arise
Illustration by Dom McKenzie

By Sean Craig

Sean Craig is a business and investigative journalist who has contributed to The Daily Beast, the Financial Post, BuzzFeed News and Vice

17 Jan 2023

There are dozens of lifestyle tweaks  — from ditching short haul flights for regional trains to swapping out diesel fuel in heavy-duty trucks for cleaner power sources — that will be required in the next century as humanity races to suppress the rising mercury in the world’s thermometers. None may be as significant as slicing meat out of the human diet. 

According to a report by the Changing Markets Foundation, the European Union will struggle to meet its goal of cutting methane emissions, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases, by 30 per cent by 2030 if it can’t convince enough people to consume less meat. But if 10 per cent of EU citizens plated a weekly menu with fewer courses containing meat and dairy, methane emissions could fall 34 per cent. 

It’s therefore no surprise that a key plank of the EU’s €10 billion Farm to Fork strategy to transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system involves investing in plant-based and alternative proteins. Whether it’s pea protein patties with beets added to give the colour of minced flesh, or a newfangled future of lab grown meat produced by culturing animal cells in vitro, the human diet will ideally call for a lot less livestock. 

The reasoning why is obvious: a transparent need to cut back on a wasteful livestock system that not only produces too many emissions but consumes too much water and too much land —  in the Brazilian Amazon, for example, animal agriculture, has been linked to 75 per cent of deforestation, according to Climate Nexus. 

What is less obvious is a moral hypothetical tied to a future shift in consumption: whither the cow? What happens to species that haven’t evolved in the wild, that are the way they are because of selective breeding? If, in the distant future, livestock animals aren’t needed as a protein sources, does humanity have a duty to preserve them, just as we take extraordinary lengths to preserve certain wild species? 

Last October, when the question came up during a panel on food and energy security at the EU Bioeconomy Conference organized by the European Commission, one of the participating speakers said there wasn’t enough time to begin to unravel that moral complexity. 

Thankfully, the world has experts who are expert in wrestling with life’s difficult questions, even and especially where answers are unclear. 

“I think part of the response to that is that industrialised breeds don’t necessarily live very happy lives, especially as far as poultry, which have a lot of chronic health conditions that come from the choices that were selected to make them get bigger, faster, and so on,” says Elan Abrell, an anthropologist at New York University, who studies human-environment interactions including ethical dilemmas around caring for rescued animals.  

He adds: “I'm cautious about how I frame that because I don't want to suggest that they don't or can’t have happy and meaningful lives if they're allowed to live to adulthood. One thing farm animal sanctuaries realised early on in trying to care for these animals is there were no geriatric industrialised cows and pigs and chickens, and so there was no veterinary science around how to care for them once they grew to adulthood and developed problems like joint pain.  

I think the labour of making food is a good thing, and it involves killing and eating

“So I think that the idea that we're losing something from a species value perspective, if those particular breeds eventually didn't exist anymore, is debatable, because I don't know what humans get out of making sure that there's always going to be some chickens in captivity.” 

The EU counted 142 million pigs, 76 million bovine animals, 60 million sheep and 11 million goats among its livestock population as of December 2021, according to Eurostat. 

“The numbers are unsustainable,” says Liv Baker Van de Graaff, a conservation behaviourist at Hunter College in New York City who studies wild animal wellbeing and has worked on sanctuaries for formerly captive elephants and whales. “So if you’re asking me my personal opinion it would probably be to let these animals die out naturally. But it’s realistic to suggest that we can develop sanctuaries for the animals that are that are still alive and were product of selective breeding. They're also not an animal developed in the lab — they are very, truly connected to their evolutionary past and their wild counterparts. What that means is, while certain breeds wouldn't be able to live unassisted in a wild setting, they can still live well.” 

Some EU countries have especially significant livestock populations — twenty five per cent of goats in the EU were in Greece, 24 per cent of pigs in Spain, 23 per cent of bovine animals in France, and 17 per cent of sheep in Romania. 

“Industrial animal agriculture is a leading driver of extinctions right now and causes massive amounts of deforestation, so even if we had to make a Sophie's Choice [between letting livestock species live or die], it would be accepting the extinction of industrial breeds that drive human extinction of all these other wild animals that we can't replace,” adds Abrell. "There are also heritage breeds, and there are feral versions and wild versions of all of these animals.” 

One famous academic has advocated for keeping some semblance of the old life. “I am not willing to see the critters and peoples who have developed farming over hundreds and even thousands of years become nothing but museum specimens,” Donna Haraway, the renowned biologist and feminist philosopher who taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the European Graduate School, said in a 2017 interview with the journal Theory Culture and Society. “I think the labour of making food is a good thing, and it involves killing and eating.” Haraway stresses humane care of animals and non-industrial livestock farming that is less environmentally taxing. 

Abrell proposes an even more interesting hypothetical future relationship between critters and peoples, if the technology to develop lab-grown cultivated meat scales to the point of mass production. 

“There’s a thought experiment in cellular agriculture, the idea of a town pig,” he says. “Imagine there's this pig, everybody loves the pig, they come and visit the pig in the town square. And they also take cells from her and everybody eats her bacon and pork chops using the culture technology that they have in the future. That’s one vision for a future where every town has a close relationship with a few animals that they're using to culture the meat from, and where they also should be given much better conditions than industrial animals, more like a sanctuary setting.” 


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