Is it better for one cow to die than for a nation of fish to perish?

Meal times are uncomfortable at my house.  For the past few years, I have rarely been able to cook without realizing that every time I select meat from the grocery store, I am participating in a slaughter of animals that takes place far away from sight and all too often from mind.  I am not a vegetarian, which would be the easiest solution to my guilt.  Currently, I’m the “eat meat sparingly” kind, though I do it in times of summer and plenty as well as winter and famine.   But our Word of Wisdom and scriptures make it clear that we should eat meat sparingly and that we have stewardship over the earth.  So, my question is, excluding the possibility of vegetarianism, how exactly should we decide which animals die so that we can live?  I’m taking it as a given that we should only buy meat from those who treat animals ethically.

Currently, I employ several different approaches to make this decision, each of which highlights a different way of forming moral judgments.  The approach that most frequently wins out for me is to select for my food those animals that least resemble humans.  Mammals are higher than chickens that are in turn higher than fish on my list of protected species, because mammals seem more likely to me to experience human emotion and suffering.  But let’s be honest: when it comes down to it, I just don’t want to kill cute animals like lambs.  Call me a cuteitarian.

At other times I try to gauge the impact of what I eat on the entire ecosystem.  Although fish trouble me the least to eat from an emotional perspective, it is hard to escape the environmental reality that many fish, such as Chilean Sea Bass (which became popular after its name was changed from Patagonian Toothfish), are being over-fished and are becoming endangered. See the Environmental Defense Fund for a guide to which fish are best choices to eat.  (Goodbye, cheap salmon.)  On the other hand, cows also take their toll on the environment, since we need to produce a substantial amount of grain just to feed them. 

Finally, I am motivated by numerical calculations.  Only one cow needs to die to feed several families, but about six shrimp need to die to form an individual meal.  I puzzle at times how I should weight these deaths – probably I need to consider the species reproductive patterns, their levels of intelligence, and their impact on other organisms in the ecosystem – but at a glance, it does seem that the death of one large animal goes farther.

Finally, I should point out that respect for nature is found even amongst people who don’t always share my belief (which stems from a tradition in which animals are pets) that animals have emotions that deserve respect, too.  I have discovered that people who engage in fishing and hunting, while not as sympathetic to arguments that advocate respect for animals’ suffering and emotion, are frequently amongst the strongest supporters of sustainable ecosystems.  At some point, I need to consider the impact that my choices have on human farmers as well, and recognize that many people around the world would find my ability to select my food “victims” at all something of a luxury.

This isn’t a post that offers solutions, but I do invite you to weigh in.

Bookmark Is it better for one cow to die than for a nation of fish to perish?


  1. iguacufalls says:

    the “eat meat sparingly” thing is hard one for me, since I’m a big fan of Brazillian Churrasco. Bring on the Picanha!

  2. Define sparingly :)

  3. Natalie, if you really want to know which animals to eat, try killing your own.

    Actually I’m not kidding, that would be an excellent test.

  4. “I puzzle at times how I should weight these deaths”

    And here you’re attempts at moral calculus cause you to go awry. You don’t weigh the death of an animal you eat, unless you belong to weight watchers or pay by the pound…

    Do you pause to consider the fish that were chopped up in the rudder of a boat that delivered your sneakers?

    Or the leather from the animals that were skinned for your sneakers?

    Or the bird that crashed into your window and broke its neck?

    Or the flock of birds that crashed into the windmill so you could have “green” energy?

    Or the other flock of birds that had to find a new home, invariably leading to some of their deaths because you built your house where you did?

    Or the cow that wandered out of gate and was hit by a semi truck that was only trying to deliver your fresh fruits and veggies?

    You don’t weigh these deaths. You can chose not to weigh them because you come to the logical conclusion that it’s just not “worth it” to do so. Or you can realize that you are vastly more important than an cow and a fish or a bird, and spending a lot of time on moral calculus to figure out “just how much more” important you are compared to a cow vs. how much more important you are compared to a school of fish is irrelevant.

    Sure there is probably some difference between an insect and a cow in terms of their intellect. But when it’s so far down the other end of the spectrum when compared to sustaining and growing and supporting human life and development it pales in comparison.

    This doesn’t mean it’s free game to run around sadistically killing animals and deriving pleasure from it.

  5. “trying killing your own.”

    Actually I’m quite certain that if you try raising your own, and do so for 10 years you’ll be quite happy to kill any and all of em. Except for the pigs perhaps. But bacon tastes good so you’ll do it anyway.

  6. Yeah, I come from a family of hunters, and I have to say, even though my dad loves to blast ducks from the sky, he not only eats everything he kills, he is a huge proponent of wetlands and wildlife preservation. Strange bedfellows? I dunno…

    But I do know I would rather consume something he killed than a factory-farmed animal that was treated without respect. Is a solo man killing an animal for sport worse? Having been hunting with him, I can say that it is far better. He respects the animals that feed him- and would never countenence their suffering. A duck downed but not dead is promptly and mercifully killed.

    Splitting hairs? I have no idea.

  7. sam, I totally agree with you – but not everyone would come to that conclusion. I do think, however, that having a greater sense of reality for our meat would increase our reverence and have a moderating effect on our consumption.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree with Steve. I watched a TV special about how the answer to these ethical battles is to gain experience with the actual killing process, instead of leaving it as a distant abstraction you don’t have to think about.

    For me, I just sear my conscience with a hot iron and go to the Brazilian steakhouse…

  9. Natalie,
    My wife and I were fish-terians for a while under the same guise. But eventually stopped for a variety of different reasons. Now I just respect and appreciate the food that I eat. I never over-indulge in any meats and whenever I choose to eat meat, I eat it all (i.e. waste none of it) and recognize that something died for my health. It sounds odd, but I really feel like it makes me a better person.

  10. Also, it was pointed out to me by said father, all things kill to live. It’s just what being alive means. Something has to die for you to be sustained. Part of living in a fallen world, I suppose.

  11. Scott B says:

    I created this infographic a couple of years ago when my neighbors in the ward expressed disgust at the idea that my dad would hunt mourning doves. I was told that size was the primary reason this was so objectionable, which seemed out of harmony with bugs.

  12. I try to make that moral calculus as I eat, too. I try (albeit not always successfully) to eat animals that were raised ethically and, ideally, locally, not in distant factory farms. I eat fish I buy at the farmer’s market that was caught by humane measures.

    My thought, and what allows me to continue eating meat, is that, even if I were to become a vegetarian, there would still be meat eaters in the world, and there would be animals raised inhumanely. But if I stop eating meat, that diminishes the (smaller) market for eithically and humanely-raised animals. If I do eat meat, albeit in moderation, then some portion of animals raised for food will be able to enjoy a fuller, better life than they would had they been raised on a factory farm.

  13. I agree with Steve that killing an animal you subsequently eat is a great first step. Even better is raising and then killing the animal. You and your family are then at least confronted with what occurs prior to the meat ending up n your table and can take that into account when preparing meals in the future.

  14. Natalie, I wrestle with this too. I find I want to live a life closer to caring for these creatures. I find myself drawn to vegetarianism just for the reasons surrounding the cruel conditions found factory farms (there are exceptions to these practices, which get forgotten sometimes). And Mormons are not perceived as being especially good to animals, consider this Letter from Marc Beckoff (Who wrote with Jane Goodall “The Ten Trusts” about animal ethics). This letter appeared a few years ago in the High Country News after an article on green Mormons:

    I’ve not made the move to vegetarianism partly because I think we loose our relationship with death, an important ecological reality, when it becomes an evil in and of itself. And people thereby become detached from one of nature’s most basic processes. Wendell Berry has some nice thoughts on this.
    I wish I could come up with easy answers too. I think about this a lot and you open real questions that I think we should be addressing more often. I don’t have any solutions either, but I’m glad you are bring it up.

  15. “I do think, however, that having a greater sense of reality for our meat would increase our reverence and have a moderating effect on our consumption”

    I have no problem with more reverence and respect for God’s creation — to a certain degree. I also think it always more important to keep food affordable for society.

    But having a sense of reality of our meat, I think in the vast majority of cases we have nothing of the sort. When you watch Disney movies from day 1 that personify animals with human traits and personalities, spend virtually no time around animals except to go to the petting zoo or to tour a meat factory and feel bad. (and I’m not blaming it on Disney people have always personified animals)

    Well then you have no sense of reality of where we get our meat, that’s kind of what I was getting at. You’re so far removed and wrapped up in personifying animals with human traits that you can’t help but feel sorry for them and come to the conclusions of moral calculus.

    Now I don’t think we should intentionally torture animals. I think that says more about the human involved that is concerning than my concern for the feelings of the cow.

    But where do you draw the line? It is far far far more important for a poor family to be able to buy meat at a reasonable price than for the chickens to live a “good life” before they get slaughtered.

    I think it’s swell when someone with money to spare wants to make a decision that their chickens will “be happy” (as personified through human traits) before having their necks broken.

    But I know many poor people who struggle to make ends meat (heehee). I would never put the comfort of an animal above their human interest and when people insist that animal factories change their practices, that is really what they are doing. Determining that some poor kid and family is going to be a little worse off so the chicken can be a little better off.

    This makes me more than uncomfortable. Now what is difficult about this, and with all nanny regulations is that the consequences are almost impossible to see. You can see chickens in what we’d consider for a human to be appalling, immoral conditions. You can recommend a way for the chickens lives to be “better”.

    But you will never see the ultimate cost that the poor in society bare as a result of this decision.

    On a totally different tangent, these kind of “unseen consequences” are some of the most interesting and in my opinion are very similar to what we see in the Gospel. We probably all have the feeling that God sees these connections so much easier than we do and this is part of the reason why we have commandments and the spirit to help us. We don’t always know what and why we have to do things. Sometimes we have a good picture (smoking = bad for lungs), but there are so many other ramifications and tangential effects that we can’t even begin to calculate.

    And I think these “unseen consequences” are also why moral and religious assertions are consistently losing their ground in policy.

    Too much said…

  16. I was raised in dairy and hunting country. We treated the animals as well as we could in our own circumstances – then we killed them and ate them. We raised whatever animals would be the most profitable / economically beneficial – or tasted the best.

    I don’t think I’ve ever considered the morality of the process relative to one animal or another – and, this well-written post notwithstanding, I doubt I ever will.

  17. Sam (#15), I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with the idea that better treatment of animals has to result in less affordibility for people. Also, along these same lines, Natalie’s idea that so much grain has to be grown to feed a cow.
    In returning animals to a more natural state during their lifetime, less cost can actually be incurred by the farmer. However, it does limit the quantity available, and thus we have the need for “sparingly”. Sure you can fit tens of thousands of chickens in acre if they are caged. You have to feed them something, though, and what is usually provided is not particularly good for the chicken, or the person who will later eat the chicken. However, take that same acre, and instead of tens of thousands of chickens, keep it to maybe only 500 or so. Let them free range. You will need to supplement their feed, but not nearly as much, and they get to actually live their life doing chicken things….walking around, scratching for bugs. It’s not a matter of them having a great quality of life in human terms…it’s about them having a decent quality of life in chicken/cow/pig/whatever terms. Beef cow, as well as dairy cows, can be raised entirely on grass and hay. The ability to thrive on their natural diet has been to a certain extent been bred out of some breeds, but it can be selected for again. Again, you can’t raise as many in the same area of land…but that’s where the “sparingly” comes in.
    We had our first butchering opportunity last fall. I was at the livestock auction looking for a dairy cow, and ended up being given a lame cow to take home and butcher. My freezer is full, and each time I prepare a meal from that cow, I again feel grateful for her, her existence, and for the reminder that for others to thrive, we must all die to our self in some way.

  18. One word: turducken.

  19. esodhiambo says:

    A few things I have done:
    1–eat meat sparingly
    2–eat free range and grass fed
    3–sit when I eat to show respect for the food–if I eat standing/on the run, I likely will not even remember the meal
    4–buy Halaal–I like the idea of each animal having been prayed over as it was slaughtered, not jut run through a killing machine.

  20. #19 – If it’s been prayed over as it was killed, do I need to bless it before I eat it?

  21. Scott B says:

    Ray, the answer to your question depends on whether or not you believe in vicarious ordinances for the living.

  22. This is an issue I take very seriously. I see the injunction to eat meat sparingly as being as important as the rest of the Word of Wisdom. We each have to define “sparingly” for ourselves, as sam said. For me, that means I make a meat-containing dinner about three times a week. I don’t like recipes that should have meat but are made with tofu in place of it, so I’ve got a collection of dishes that come from traditional vegetarian cuisine (lots of beans, Indian food, and cheese-rich Italian dishes).

    I am quite troubled by factory farming. Most of the animals we have recently eaten had a wretched existence before they were put out of their misery and sent to the grocery store. So I buy free-range eggs and organic meat and milk (when I can), but I’m afraid this is no guarantee of cruelty-free practices. And organic fish farms can be just as ecologically destructive as conventional ones. The only way to make sure no animal suffers unduly because of my eating habits is to go veg, but I’m not going to do that for 2 reasons: 1 – I really like meat and dairy, and 2 – God and evolution made us omnivores, and I see nothing wrong with that. So I try to strike a balance.

    The Sideblog here had an excellent video by Mark Bittman on this topic a while ago – Google it.

  23. P.S. I don’t really see the point of butchering your own livestock just for the experience of it. Is it supposed to gross you out so you won’t eat meat anymore? Or help you see it’s really not so bad so you won’t feel guilty about it?

    I had to help slaughter turkeys on a Youth Conference pioneer trek once. I was grossed out, and I still don’t see the point of it.

  24. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    For responsible fish eating, see They have a printable pocket guide to what types of fish are being responsibly fished, what are some good alternatives and which ones to avoid. They do a sushi version too.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    Emily (#22), our sideblog is actually searchable as well — click on where it says “Sideblog,” which will take you to the BCC page on Delicious. All past links are archived there and are searchable.

  26. Emily (23),
    My take on why it could be a good thing to do your own butchering is to remove the literal physical, and, even more, the mental and emotional distance that is between us and the reality of the loss of life required for us to eat that meat. When you are actually there at the moment of death, you are so very acutely aware of the loss of life. Whereas there is rarely such a mental acknowledgement when picking up a 5lb chub of burger at Walmart. When we are so distanced from the part of meat-eating that makes meat-eating possible for us (meaning, the actual butchering), it is much more difficult to maintain the perspective of appreciation for the sacrifice of one living being for the enhancement of your own life.

  27. My wife taught for Alan Dershowitz a long while back and still remembers this discussion between Dershowitz and Harvey Cox over this question of whether you have to have the courage to kill an animal that you are willing to eat. I am only able to paraphrase, but Dershowitz said something like:
    “What a stupid rule. I don’t want to kill a cow, but I’m happy to eat it. I’d kill a human [e.g., in war or direct self defense], but I’m not going to eat one.”

    Oh, and one more word (x3): “Fowl de Cochon”

  28. “whenever I choose to eat meat, I eat it all (i.e. waste none of it) and recognize that something died for my health.”

    Mealtimes must be fun at your house.

  29. Natalie B. says:

    Actually, my brother tried the experiment of only eating what you kill. He didn’t find it particuarly sustainable in NYC, but I try to at least think about myself as being involved in the killing of an animal whenever I buy food.

    I do like to fly fish. On the one hand, I think that participating in this sport has increased my respect for nature, and most people who I know who are serious about fly fishing are VERY committed to enivronmentalism. Otherwise, their fish will die. On the other hand, I do catch-and-release, so I am not actually killing or eating the fish – I’m just frightening it for my own sport. Would it be more ethical for me to eat it? I’m not sure. But I do think that our love of nature or of particular animals can lead us to do unethical things – like keep exotic pets, damage the enivronment through tourism, or buy fur coats, etc. I’m guilty of two of those three sins, though I came to regret them when I finally realized what I did.

    Obviously, most of the meat we eat is domesticated. Ironically, we eat the animals who are most dependent upon humans and who we have remade to fit our needs. We’d be horrified to eat racoon, lion, or rat, for example, but we don’t give much thought to eating the kinds of food, like chicken, that are familiar to us. Does the familiarity that domesticity engenders allows us to think about the slaughter that goes on between animals in the wild world as somehow foriegn to us?

  30. Natalie B. says:

    One question: even if we all agree that we should at least think about killing the animal, how do we decide what species gets to die? I’m interested in how you decide what you are going to kill (is it just what is convenient, what the State allows a license for, what you think causes the least harm (defined how?) etc.)

    P.S. Those who like to kill what they eat might enjoy dining in China. When I was there, at most restaurants you had to pick out the live animal that then became your fresh meal.

  31. Natalie B. says:

    Final thought: Given our current diets, maybe we should change the term “scapegoat” to “scapechicken.”

  32. Nice, Natalie.

    I agree intellectually with the thoughts expressed by Carrie (26) and others, that involve respect (however you define it) for the animal. I recall this idea striking me hard as I read in one of Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker books, in which an Indian sort of asked an animal he was hunting for permission to kill it. The animal communicated its acceptance of this arrangement. (It doesn’t help that OSC writes in such a way that I start believing in ideas from his fictional tales. Greensong? Awesome.)

    I also have intellectual concerns about the industrialization (and accompanying cornification) of the food industry.

    In practice, I’m not quite as concerned, but my wife and I are somewhat discriminating when it comes to food. For example, we try to avoid high fructose corn syrup, and we don’t eat much red meat, though this is mostly because my wife doesn’t like it.

    However, I went to Tucano’s in SLC in December. I hadn’t eaten at a churrascaria since 35 (read “trinta e cinco”) in Porto Alegre, Brazil just before returning from my mission. That day in December I definitely ate too much meat.

  33. Perry Shumway says:

    Natalie, if you haven’t read T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study yet, give it a try.

  34. I have a few scattered thoughts that aren’t really related to each other.
    First I think being closer to the production, whether by killing it yourself, or at the very least being aware of the animal’s death. I don’t want my kids to think that ‘chicken’ is one of those funny words that means two different things- the bird and the food.

    Another thing to consider if we’re talking about animal cruelty is the quality of day to day life, regardless of the final outcome. A meat cow spends it’s (admittedly short) life on a feedlot, which isn’t *great* but it’s not too bad. Then it has one really really really bad day. A dairy cow is likely to have a much less pleasant life even though it is allowed to live much longer. Eating meat could be more humane than drinking milk.

    Lastly, I don’t feel at all bad about bugs dying. Small stock (formerly land shrimp) just might be the ideal ‘meat’ for cute-itarians.

  35. 19,

    Halaal, in my understanding, does not necessitate a prayer only the prescribed method. I think you are confusing it with Kashrut, which in many cases requires the supervision of a Rabbi to be certified and labeled as kosher (like the REAL seal from the milk board).


    I once had a member in the mission field tell me they cooked with consecrated oil, so they didn’t have to worry about blessing the food.

  36. My mother used to tell the story of “Fluffy”, the family’s pet lamb on the farm where she grew up. One day, Fluffy wasn’t there to greet her and her siblings when they came home from school. Turns out Fluffy became the main course for dinner that night, and my Grandfather was pretty unhappy that all of his kids, who were raised on a farm and should have known better, would all band together to refuse to eat dinner that night.

    As a former hunter of deer, ducks, and pheasants, I’ve had the experience of knowing what was involved with the meat that I ate, and spending my summers on my Grandfather’s farm, I knew what was involved with dairy and egg production, growing of vegetables, and the labor involved. I have chosen not to hunt anymore, but I still fish occasionally, either catch and release, or to eat (on rare occasions). I like to think because of my experience, I respect the lives of animals that are sacrificed for me to eat. My bigger concern is the seemingly unfair availability of huge quantities of food for us in our very affluent nation, versus what conditions have been like for some of my kids who have served missions in third world countries.

    Final note, my favorite food to kill and eat: Crab. I’ll do it again this summer (not the Deadliest Catch variety, but local Puget Sound fish from the dock or small boat type).

  37. “My bigger concern is the seemingly unfair availability of huge quantities of food for us in our very affluent nation, versus what conditions have been like for some of my kids who have served missions in third world countries.”

    Amen, Kevin.

  38. Researcher says:

    That little story about Fluffy reminds me of a few weeks back when I was telling my kids at dinner about some of the delicious ethnic foods I used to eat in Germany as a sister missionary. I was (callously, as it turned out) describing the process of making the delicious Persian national dish of ghormeh sabzi and when I went from the preparation of the parsley to the inclusion of the lamb, my six year old gasped in horror, “You ate lamb???”

  39. Kevin,
    Amen to this:
    “My bigger concern is the seemingly unfair availability of huge quantities of food for us in our very affluent nation, versus what conditions have been like for some of my kids who have served missions in third world countries.”
    There are a couple of factors in that situation that come to mind, one of which theoretically could be helped by our consuming less meat. That would be, we could take the money we save, and donate it to somewhere like heifer international. The other idea is that, by learning what it takes to raise our own animals for meat and/or milk production, we could then actually go to those areas and teach those skills. I suspect one of the biggest differences between our affluent, food-rich country, and those third world countries, is that of infrastructure. Irrigation, available and affordble fuel, and an economy that can more easily support a longer-range project like raising an animal for meat and/or milk. When it takes a good year to raise a beef cow, and two years to get milk from a cow, a year and a half to get milk from a goat, I wonder if many don’t have the economic stability to put the capital into the animal, and the investment into it for that long in order to eventually reach the pay-off.