On Monday, the College’s debate team took on Bruce Friedrich, the vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in a heavyweight smack-down between bacon and tofu. The debate centered on the ethics of eating meat, addressing the treatment of animals and the environment.
According to PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich, the choice is easy. “For ethical people, this is a no-brainer,” said Friedrich, who advocated switching to a vegan diet. “You don’t have to change any of your values to side with me. Caring for the environment is completely mainstream. The only thing more mainstream than environmentalism is the protection of animals. Ninety-seven percent of Americans believe that animals should be protected from abuse. So why are we still eating meat?”
Friedrich emphasized the adverse effects of a meat-heavy diet on the environment. “You can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist,” he said. “It’s just not sustainable or efficient. For every one calorie of meat we produce, it takes 20 calories of input.” Friedrich argued that it would be much more efficient for humans to eat a plant-based diet than spend huge amounts of energy on the cultivation of crops for animal consumption. “By eating meat, we’re wasting 95 percent of the energy we put into it,” he said. “They’re cutting down the Amazon rainforest to grow soy to feed animals. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Friedrich also appealed to animal welfare concerns, showing film clips of factory farms. The videos displayed chicken with clipped beaks, overcrowded henhouses and pig castration. “Chickens, pigs, dogs and cats all have the same emotions,” Friedrich said. “I challenge you to watch these videos on factory farms and decide whether you still think eating meat is ethical.”
The debate team responded with a pro-choice stance. “What do we even mean by ethical?” Paul Garofalo ’13 asked. “It’s a subjective definition. And just because something’s ethically good doesn’t mean it’s ethically obligatory. It’s up to each person to decide … but we don’t have an ethical obligation to the environment.”
Garofalo also employed the argument that eating meat is distinct from killing an animal. “A person is only responsible for what he or she directly does … I did not kill the animal. It was dead before I purchased it. So eating meat is not unethical per se,” he said.
David Michael ’13 also argued that eating meat is not inherently unethical. “Yes, there is a lot of energy put into meat production. But they control for that with price. I support using your economic buying power to exercise your beliefs, but there’s nothing unethical about eating meat in itself.”
The two sides disagreed as to the extent to which animal welfare should mattered in this context. “Man’s rights are derived not from our feeling pain but our rationality and ability to decide between right and wrong … Animals are not rationally capable and autonomous beings,” Farhan Gilani ’12 said.
“Animals are not on the same ethical plane as us,” Friedrich conceded. “But we owe them affection. Like vulnerable human beings, we should consider their interests. The idea that animals don’t have higher thoughts and desires is just not true.”
Garofalo argued the focus should be on changing undesirable practices within factory farms. “If poor treatment of animals on factory farms is what we’re worried about, why can’t we just ban these bad practices?” he asked. “And what about sustainable, free-range meat operations? Are those unethical too?”
Friedrich responded that truly humane meat production units do not exist. “You can’t find these hypothetical farms,” he said. “These animals from such places are still being taken to the same slaughterhouses. It’s just not a reality.”
The PETA vice president also criticized the College for its lack of an animal-friendly dining program. “Williams is right at the bottom of pile in terms of taking concern for animals seriously,” Friedrich said. “If you go to your dining hall, you are supporting the kind of abuse that would turn your stomach. You’re knocking the top off the U.S. News rankings charts, but you’re way behind other schools when it comes to animal welfare.” Friedrich applauded Yale, Princeton and Swarthmore for finding more humane suppliers. “It’s time that students demand that Dining Services stop supporting these factory farms. Williams needs to switch its dining contract to Bon Appétit.”
The debate ended on friendly terms, however, with each side voicing respect for the other. “College is about critical thought,” Friedman said. “It’s useful for the pro-vegetarian side to consider the best of both sides and hear the arguments of meat-eaters.”
Michael agreed. “When Bruce approached us about hosting a debate, we thought it was a great opportunity. It’s a great forum to talk to students, to voice our opinions,” he said.
Ultimately, as is usually the case in arguments concerning meat consumption, neither side budged. It appears that the carnivores among us lend their unrelenting support to bacon even in the face of a formidable opponent.