Most people involved in the beef industry are aware of the New York Times essay contest on the ethics of eating meat.

Though many of us considered the contest a joke because the Times writer Ariel Kaminer described a “veritable murderer’s row of judges” — which includes several vegetarian, vegan and/or anti-meat/anti-agriculture individuals — there were many from the livestock industry who did take the challenge of writing a 600-word essay on why it’s ethical to eat meat.

Matt Cherni, MS, DVM, Ranchester, Wyo., was one of them. I asked Cherni what his motivation was for writing the essay that probably would not be well-received by the biased panel (for a livestock-industry view on the bias of the contest, click here).

“I think most of us have some reasons in our minds when we raise cattle or other farm animals that allows us to understand that they will be killed and eaten at some time,” Cherni says. “I guess responding to this contest, which I knew would be severely biased when I submitted it, helped me attempt to let others know where we are.”

Cherni raises Wagyu cattle that are produced solely for very high-quality meat. “The only way you know that your breeding program is working is to sample what is produced, much like making wine,” he explains. “In a sense, the cattle are our partners in this endeavor.  As a result our herd has doubled over time, which means more of the cattle are alive than would be otherwise. We are truly in it together. I believe every ranch has this feeling.”

Read Cherni’s submission to the Times contest here:

Modern meat production has only emerged since the introduction of the internal combustion engine and electricity. In the not-too distant past, most agriculture operations were small and relied on animals for draft purposes first, and then milk production, and lastly as the animal became too old to pull, they would be harvested for meat before the animal died and the meat spoiled. 

The system of feeding most cattle prior to slaughter is fairly modern and became common after the end of World War II.  Huge amounts of grain that had been produced to promote the war effort were available and needed to be used. Many young men that had left the farms to go to Europe were now home using their GI bills for education and opportunity. Some had seen the large cattle of Europe and developed a scheme to use the grain and produce more beef than ever thought possible. Animals were no longer needed to pull plows so more land could be tilled to feed the expanding cattle population.

Consuming animals that could travel with explorers was far more convenient than hauling grain or other consumable material or relying on hunting once the destination had been achieved. The animals that chose to partner with humans gained a great deal from the relationship as well. Large herbivores only fear the top predators that also were a threat to humans. 

Other animals that would provide protection from these large predators were brought into the alignment. Some of the animals were then further domesticated to help move the herds of small herbivores or pigs that travelled with the pilgrims. If these accompanying animals showed signs of weakness they were consumed to reduce risk to the others in the group from infectious agents or predators. There was no ethical dilemma because humans would not survive without this arrangement. 

In modern times we have the ability to produce much of our food without the use of animals in the production scheme. To produce a food resource that is entirely grain based would take a huge amount of carbon based fuel, and would be at great risk from drought or fire. To protect the grain from wild herbivores many animals would have to be killed to prevent them from eating the plants before harvest. In some areas of the world this still occurs. 

Modern agriculture relies on animals consuming produce from farming that is unfit for human consumption. Humans only digest the seeds of many plants leaving the stems and stalks for ruminating animals that can digest this material to produce high quality protein and essential fatty acids. Without ruminants there would be much more after math to decompose producing methane and carbon dioxide.

Without the use of animals humans would not have been able to produce the societies of modern times. If current agriculture had not emerged humans would have little time to consider ethical issues as they looked for food to survive while hiding from the large predators.

Matthew J Cherni, MS, DVM
Ranchester, Wyoming