Comments on a Proposed Unitarian Universalist Position Paper on "Ethical Eating"
The Unitarian-Universalist Association is preparing to issue an official position paper—known as a Statement of
Conscience (SOC)—on ethical eating. The draft currently being circulated for comments shows disappointingly
little concern for the suffering of animals and absolutely no concern for their killing. It explicitly refuses to
endorse a vegetarian or vegan diet. The comments below were submitted to the Commission on Social Witness
(CSW), which oversees the drafting and approval process, in an effort to bring to their attention some of the
moral failings and factual misstatements with which the draft SOC is replete. Sadly, I have been told by David
May, chair of the CSW, that my comments will not even be considered because the bylaws of the Unitarian-
Universalist Association permit only congregations—not individual UUs such as myself—to comment. The draft
SOC is a sad and shameful episode in the history of liberal religion and the Unitarian Universalist Association. I
can only hope and pray that compassion and common decency will ultimately prevail over appetite, custom, and
a desire for consensus so strong that it obstructs moral progress. The draft SOC can be found at: www.uua.
January 13, 2011
To: The Commission on Social Witness
From: Norm Phelps
Subject: Comments on the Draft SOC “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”
The Draft SOC is profoundly flawed both morally and scientifically.
I. Contemporary ethologists are opening new vistas into the interior lives of animals: their sentience, their high level of
intelligence, their ability to construct and use sophisticated languages, their ability to create complex social organizations
(which we dismiss with terms like “herd,” “flock,” “pack” and “school”), and the range and depth of their emotional lives.
This knowledge has to be the departure point for any meaningful and morally adequate discussion of ethical eating. And
yet, the findings of cognitive ethology—and the interior lives of the animals whom we imprison and slaughter—are ignored
by the Draft SOC. This omission is especially disappointing since the Study Guide speaks eloquently of animals as sentient
and sensitive beings.
II. The Draft SOC makes no mention whatsoever of the most urgent and profound ethical issue relating to food
production: the killing of 58 billion sensitive, intelligent beings every year for food that human beings do not need to live
long, healthy lives.
III. The Draft SOC provides a misleading view of the nutritional and animal welfare issues surrounding meat eating and
IV. The Draft SOC ignores the fact that environmental degradation and squandering of resources are the inevitable result
of all animal agriculture, not just factory farms.
V. The Draft SOC ignores the ineluctable and catastrophic impact that the adoption in the developing world of a Western-
style meat-based diet will have on the environment and on the availability of water, energy, land, and other resources.
VI. The Draft SOC’s failure to acknowledge that laying hens, dairy cows, and breeding sows suffer and die because of
their gender is sexist, and its emphasis on individual UUs being willing to pay more for local, organic food is classist.
I. The Interior Lives of Animals
No reputable scientist any longer doubts that animals are fully sentient beings. The more complex animals—certainly all of
the vertebrates—have the same sense organs that we do and some species have more. (Migratory birds, for example, can
perceive the Earth’s magnetic field, which they use to navigate long distances.) They have centralized nervous systems that
are capable of transmitting sensations to a brain that is well-developed in the areas known to process both physical and
emotional feelings. Reinforcing this, animals behave as though they experience physical pleasure and pain and emotional
joy and suffering. Strike a dog and he will either yelp and cringe or brace and snarl. Rub his tummy and he will wag his tail
and bliss out. When we leave home in the morning, our dogs and cats act depressed; and when we arrive back in the
evening, they act glad to see us.
And why not? Physical and emotional pleasure and pain too urgent to ignore, along with a high enough level of
intelligence to solve complex problems and create sophisticated social structures, play vital roles in preserving individuals
and propagating species. Furthermore, the theory of evolution does not allow for large discontinuities. Evolution is a
continuous path, not a series of widely separated stepping-stones. If we are sentient and intelligent, it is only because
those from whom we descended were also sentient and intelligent. Sentience and intelligence have their origins deep in our
In summary, the animals that we exploit for food have the physical apparatus to support a high level of sentience and
a sophisticated mental life. Their behavior offers clear evidence that they are, in fact, fully sentient and highly intelligent
beings; and evolutionary theory requires that they be both sentient and intelligent. This was recognized by Charles Darwin,
who documented in The Expression of the Emotions in Men and Animals (1872) that the mental and emotional lives of
nonhuman animals differed from those of human beings only in degree, not in kind.
Darwin’s insight, based on a lifetime of acute observation and the undeniable implications of evolutionary theory, was
ignored by generations of scientists unwilling to abandon old prejudices. But in the past three decades an array of
scientists including cognitive ethologists, primatologists, ornithologists, and ichthyologists among others have begun
building on the foundation laid by the father of evolution. And they have demonstrated conclusively through rigorous
observation and experimentation that animals have rich and complex emotional and intellectual lives. In the interests of
brevity in a document that is running much longer than I had intended (I beg your indulgence and thank you for your
patience), I will cite just a few examples:
The Presence of Conscious Emotions
In his book The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—
and Why They Matter, cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Colorado-
Boulder, reports that “[B]ehavioral and neurobiological studies have consistently shown that animals share the primary
emotions, those instinctual reactions to the world we call fear, anger, surprise, sadness, disgust, and joy.” (10) But Bekoff
goes on to demonstrate that animals also experience so-called “secondary emotions,” such as jealousy, envy, and
empathy, that require sophisticated, conscious thought, and he cites rigorously controlled studies demonstrating empathy
in bears, rhesus monkeys, and mice. Citing studies that reveal animals responding to anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs,
and anti-psychotic drugs in the same ways that humans respond to these psychoactive agents, Dr. Bekoff concludes that
animals have “similar neural underpinnings to their emotions [i.e. similar to ours].” (10) When we consider that their
behavior indicates the presence of not merely the neural underpinnings, but of the emotions themselves, and we take into
account the evolutionary value of these emotions, it seems certain that the emotional lives of the animals we slaughter for
food are very much like our own. In fact, Jane Goodall tells us as much in the Foreword to Professor Bekoff’s book: “It’s
bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive
ethology, and social neuroscience supports the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional
lives.” (xviii) And calling on evolutionary biology, she tells us that, “Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them
and so do other animals. We must never forget this.” (xxi)
Confirming this conclusion, psychoanalyst and historian of psychiatry Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of the best-
selling When Elephants Weep, has filled a second book, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, with well-attested stories of
the animals we eat—pigs, chickens, cows, sheep, ducks—displaying profound and complex emotions. As a result of his
study of the interior lives of farmed animals, Dr. Masson has come the conclusion that “. . .it is wrong to raise animals for
food.” (3) And he reports that when he is talking about animals over a meal in which others are consuming animal flesh
(Masson himself is a vegetarian.), “Not what you are eating, but whom you are eating is the question on my lips.” (4) Dr.
Masson’s claims on behalf of the animals we slaughter and eat represent the leading edge of ethics at the beginning of the
twenty-first century. Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at The
University of Chicago, has called disability, nationality, and species membership the “three frontiers of social justice” in the
early twenty-first century. (See Nussbaum, especially pp. 2-3) The Draft SOC lags far, far behind. In future years,
Unitarian-Universalists will look at this Draft Statement of Conscience, they will weigh it in the balance of science and
ethics, knowledge and conscience, and they will find it wanting.
Language, social organization, and what these skills say about the minds of animals
Irene M. Pepperberg, associate research professor at Brandeis University, famously taught an African grey parrot named
Alex to speak English. This was possible because parrots, unlike other nonhuman animals, have a mouth, tongue and
throat that are configured in a way that enables the production of human vocalizations. Dr. Pepperberg’s work with Alex,
and its results, are described with scientific rigor and detail in The Alex Studies and more informally in her memoir Alex
and Me. For our purposes, the salient point is not what Dr. Pepperberg has shown about Alex’s ability to talk, but what
she has shown about his ability to think. Before his education was cut short by untimely death, Alex had learned an English
vocabulary of more than 100 words, large enough to deal with the situations he encountered in daily life and in the
laboratory. He could accurately label objects, shapes and colors, and he could manipulate abstract concepts like “shape,”
“color” and “taste.” He understood at least the basic principles of syntax. He could talk in complete sentences and get the
word order right. He could ask and answer questions meaningfully, and he could appropriately express emotions like
remorse when he had done something wrong. His last words to Dr. Pepperberg when she said goodnight on the evening
that he died (suddenly and unexpectedly), were, “I love you.”
A woman whom I worked with for several years at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was the
guardian of a green South American parrot. When the parrot “misbehaved,” the woman’s husband was in the habit of
telling him, “You’re a green jerk.” One evening, when the couple were getting ready to go out, the husband caught the
parrot to put him in his cage while they were gone. The bird looked the man in the eye and said, “You’re a jerk.” Not
only did the bird use the epithet appropriately, but he omitted the word “green.” The parrot knew that he was green and
the man was not.
If parrots have these kinds of mental abilities, is there any reason to believe that chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese
do not, simply because the conformation of their throats and mouths prevents them from producing human vocalizations?
Karen Davis, Ph.D., the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns, a sanctuary and advocacy group for domestic
fowl, is recognized internationally as a leading authority on chickens and turkeys. Her facts and figures have never been
falsified by even her most vehement opponents in the poultry industry, and her books, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned
Eggs and More Than a Meal are definitive works on chickens and turkeys respectively and on the poultry industry.
In an essay entitled “The Social Life of Chickens,” Dr. Davis documents the intelligence, self-awareness, intentionality,
social skills, affection, empathy, and grief displayed by the chickens with whom she lives at UPC’s sanctuary-
headquarters in Machipongo, Virginia. Each of these chickens is an individual, with her or his own unique personality
complemented by well-developed interpersonal skills. If the word has any meaning at all, these chickens are people. The
failure of the Draft SOC to acknowledge this reality and address its implications for ethical eating is a massive moral
deficiency. Especially when we consider that these intelligent, sensitive, affectionate birds constitute more than ninety-five
percent of the animals slaughtered for food.
A breakthrough in the study of animal language has been made by Con Slobodchikoff, professor of biology at
Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who has conducted extensive research on the social organization and language of
Gunnison’s prairie dogs in their natural setting. Fellow wildlife biologists rank Dr. Slobodchikoff among the world’s
leading prairie dog experts, and he has twice delivered the keynote address to the Colorado Prairie Dog Summit (2001,
2003), the major gathering of prairie dog researchers and wildlife managers.
Dr. Slobodchikoff is unequivocal about the fact—and the complexity—of prairie dog language.In an essay entitled
"The Language of Prairie Dogs," included in the anthology Kinship with the Animals, he tells us that, “We now know
that the alarm calls of prairie dogs are part of a sophisticated animal language rather than merely an expression of fear. . . .
Two major components [of a genuine language] are semantics [the meaning of words] and syntax [word order and/or
inflection]. . . . Prairie dog vocalizations contain both of these basic design elements of a language.” (66) By careful
observation, Dr. Slobodchikoff established that prairie dogs can announce the approach of a predator, indicate whether
the predator is in the air or on the ground and the speed with which he is approaching; they can identify the predators’
species and even identify individual predators whom they have encountered before. They can, for example, identify
individual human beings and individual wolves by “name.” Dr. Slobodchikoff continues, “We found that for the domestic
dogs [i.e. people’s companion animals who happened to wander by], the prairie dogs conveyed information about the
general size and shape of each dog and also conveyed information about the coat color of each dog. That prairie dogs
could incorporate information about colors, as well as about size and shape, into their alarm calls was indeed a surprise.”
Just as interesting, Dr. Slobodchikoff has established that the chattering that prairie dogs frequently carry on when
they are doing nothing in particular has “a definite syntax. They are not given in random order but have a pattern just like
words in a human sentence. We have found nine ‘words’ that we can identify and describe. These words are used in a
nonrandom way, just like words in a human sentence.” (72) In other words, prairie dogs carry on social conversations
much as we do.
Perhaps most important of all, Dr. Slobodchikoff discovered that, “[P]rairie dogs from different colonies differ in how
they pronounce ‘human’ and ‘dog.’ . . . This suggested that the calls might be learned by juvenile animals from their
parents, just like human dialects, rather than being determined by some genetically controlled instinct for calling in a
precise way.” (69) Prairie dog language was created by prairie dogs and is culturally transmitted from one generation to
the next in precisely the same way that human language was created by human beings and is culturally transmitted from
one generation to the next.
If animals as far apart on the evolutionary tree as humans and prairie dogs can create, use, and pass on to their
children sophisticated languages and parrots can learn to use human language appropriately, it seems entirely likely that
language ability is the common property of all social animals—which is precisely what we should expect, since language
would seem to be indispensable for living cooperatively in a community. With very few exceptions, the animals we eat are
social animals. Pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, goats, sheep, and fish all live in organized communities. It
seems all but certain that they, like parrots and prairie dogs, have their own languages suited to their anatomy and natural
environment that we have been too smug and arrogant to discover. It cannot be ethical to kill and eat beings with the kind
of interior life needed to create and use language.
Do Fish Feel Pain?
British ethologist Victoria Braithwaite is Professor of Fisheries and Biology at Penn State University. For the past decade
in the UK and the US, she and other scientists (most notably Dr. Lynne Sneddon of the University of Chester in the UK)
have been conducting rigorously controlled experiments to determine whether fish are sentient. In her book Do Fish Feel
Pain? Dr. Braithwaite concludes that “[I]f we already accept that mammals and birds are sentient creatures that have the
capacity to experience positive and negative emotions—pleasure or suffering, we should conclude that there is now
sufficient evidence to put fish alongside birds and mammals.” (113) Scientists now have, she assures us, “enough evidence
to answer the question . . . Do fish feel pain? Yes, they do.” (183)
The implications of this for ethical eating seem clear. And yet the Draft SOC focuses on the factory farming of land
animals and makes only passing mention of fish and other aquatic animals. Fish who are caught in the wild experience a
horrible death by slow suffocation—drowning in the air—after being hauled up out of the water in giant nets and dumped
into the hold of a fishing boat to die slowly in a mountain of their writhing, gasping, dying fellows. (Yes, fish gasp—by
rapidly opening and closing their gills in a desperate, futile effort to extract life-giving oxygen from air.) Fish who are
factory farmed—and factory farms are becoming more prevalent as wild populations of fish are collapsing due to
overfishing—also meet an egregiously cruel and terrifying death by suffocation after a life in overcrowded, murky, fouled
Philosopher James Rachels of the University of Alabama at Birmingham has contemplated the moral implications of
evolution and concluded that, “’[T]he gradual illumination of men’s mind’s’ must lead to a new ethic, in which species
membership is relatively unimportant.” (Rachels, 222. The phrase in single quotes was originally Darwin's) This is the
primary ethical challenge facing us in the twenty-first century, just as human slavery and the oppression of women were
the primary ethical challenges of the nineteenth, and segregation, the oppression of women, colonialism, and the
oppression of LGBT people were the primary challenges of the twentieth. If allowed to become an official statement in
anything like its present form, the Draft SOC will show the world that as a denomination, UUs are no longer in the
forefront of the struggle for social justice. Now, we just follow the crowd.
II. A Holocaust Every Two Months
There is no hint in the SOC that the unprovoked slaughter of animals—more than 99% of which occurs in the production
of food—is the most enormous act of violence in all of human history. In 2009, 9.6 billion land animals were killed on
American farms and in American slaughterhouses. Worldwide in that same year, humans killed 58 billion land animals for
food. (Animal slaughter statistics were compiled by the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) from data provided by
the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Available at www.
farmusa.org/statistics9.htm. Viewed on 12/17/10.) Neither of these numbers, although they bear most heavily on the
subject of ethical eating, appears in the Draft SOC.
The number of aquatic animals killed every year is unknown because records of fish harvests are kept in metric tons,
not numbers of animals killed. But it is certainly higher than the number of land animals. And yet, the slaughter of aquatic
animals and the impact of overfishing on both fish populations and the marine ecosystem, which are surely vital issues
related to ethical eating, are mentioned only in reference to “fish and crustaceans responsibly farmed or sustainably
caught” (line 83), phrases that given the state of commercial fishing and fish farming today are meaningless platitudes.
Yiddish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose mother and brother died in the Nazi Holocaust, famously said, “In relation
to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka,” ("The Letter Writer")—eternal because our killing
of animals is deliberately carried out in a way that assures it will never end. We breed new generations of victims to
replace those we have killed. The function of our farms and slaughterhouses is mass killing in perpetuity.
The Draft SOC is morally deficient because it gives no hint that it might be wrong to kill billions of sensitive, intelligent
beings with rich interior lives who love life and dread death simply to provide food for which we have no nutritional need.
In fact, the Draft SOC condones this slaughter when it says, “Some of us believe that it is ethical only to eat plants while
others of us believe that it is equally ethical to eat both plants and animals.” (lines 38-40) This statement may be accurate
as reportage, but a “statement of conscience” is supposed to provide moral guidance, not simply report the current
behavior of UUs in a way that ratifies the entire range of practices observed, regardless of their morality. The follow-on
statement, “We do not call here for a single dietary approach,” (line 41) constitutes a moral abdication; it says that the
UUA is turning its back on billions of sensitive beings who desperately need our help and abandoning them to their terrible
The SOC treats the slaughter of food animals as a question about which differing opinions are equally valid, and
speaks as though the only significant ethical issue related to farmed animals is their treatment while they are alive. It
conveys the impression that taking from animals the most precious thing that any sentient being has, her life, is of little if
any ethical significance. This is a moral failing of the first order.
Can you imagine a Statement of Conscience from the antebellum era that said, “Some of us believe that it is ethical
only to use free labor while others of us believe that it is equally ethical to use both free and slave labor.”? And followed
that on with “We do not call here for a single approach to labor.”? I once heard Captain Paul Watson of the Sea
Shepherd Conservation Society say, “If you want to know where you would have stood on slavery before the Civil War,
don’t look at where you stand on slavery today. Look at where you stand on animal rights.” Just as the campaign to free
Africans from servitude on Southern plantations was at the forefront of social justice movements in the mid-nineteenth
century, the campaign to free animals from slavery and slaughter for the sake of human appetite and custom is—as Dr.
Nussbaum has noted—at the forefront of social justice movements in the twenty-first century. But sadly, the proposed
Statement of Conscience seems to regard consensus and human inclusiveness as more important than taking a stand
against the mass slaughter of billions of innocent sentient beings. Again, can you imagine Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo
Emerson, or Henry David Thoreau being so desperate to achieve consensus that they would refuse to take a stand against
The right to life is the most fundamental of all rights, both because life is the most precious possession of every living
being and because all other rights depend upon it. No system can claim to be humane that is established for the purpose
of killing its inmates. The proper name for such an establishment is a death camp, and by definition there are no humane
death camps. Thus, the statement that “All of us agree that food animals should be treated humanely.” (line 40) is
misleading and morally flawed. Obviously, animals should not be made to suffer, whether they are going to be killed or
not. But raising an animal for the purpose of killing her—or raising her knowing she will be killed as soon as her
productive years are over, as is the case with laying hens, milk cows, and breeding sows—can only by an Orwellian twist
of language be called “humane.” There is no such thing as “humane” animal agriculture because the end of every animal in
the system is premature death at the hands of human beings—and this is just as true of the local, organic family farms that
are touted in the Draft SOC as it is of giant animal factories. The economics of commercial animal agriculture do not
permit the maintenance of animals who are no longer profitable. Encouraging people to pay more for organic and local
products without indicating that this is merely an interim step on the way to the elimination of all animal agriculture does not
address the fundamental inhumanity common to all animal agriculture—the planned, systematic killing of every animal on
The Draft SOC gives the impression that the only ethical issues attached to animal agriculture arise from modern
factory farming (lines 12-14, 61-66), when, in fact, the fundamental ethical issue in animal agriculture is the evil in which all
forms of animal husbandry take part—the killing of the animals.
III. The Draft SOC Perpetuates Old Myths About the Animal Welfare and Human Health Impacts of a Meat-
Based vs. a Vegetarian Diet.
“Ethical eating requires us to respect the organisms we eat and to choose foods produced in humane ways . . .”
If you were starving and had no way to survive except by killing and eating an animal, and if you did so only with great
reluctance and sadness, it would be possible to respect the animal whose dead flesh you ate. But no one in the United
States—with the possible exception of a few indigenous people in Alaska and the Pacific territories—is in that situation.
The rest of us eat meat, eggs, and dairy because we enjoy their taste and texture. And this means that the animals are
killed for our pleasure.
And to speak of respect for animals whose precious lives have been taken from them for no better reason than that
people enjoy eating their flesh is another exercise in Orwellian Newspeak. There is no greater disrespect than to kill for
pleasure. When we say that we respect the animals whose flesh we eat, we are deluding ourselves so that we can feel
virtuous without having to change our behavior. We are repeating a narcotic myth that we use to quiet our consciences.
And as Albert Schweitzer reminded us, a quiet conscience is the invention of the Devil.
As Dr. Schweitzer also reminded us, the will to live is the most profound urge of every living being. Killing animals
violates their deepest, most essential nature. It is cruel in its very nature whether the animal suffers pain or not. Saying that
animals killed to satisfy our appetites can be raised “humanely” is another lie that we tell ourselves so that we can quiet our
consciences without changing cruel behavior that we enjoy.
“Yet, we, like all animals, must take the lives of plants or animals to live.” (line 19)
This statement gives the impression that there is no ethical distinction to be made between killing plants and killing animals
for our food when there is, in fact, a gaping moral chasm between them. Plants are alive only in the sense that they grow
and reproduce; they have no awareness and, therefore, they have no interests. They experience neither fear nor pain; in
fact, they experience nothing. Therefore, there are no ethical issues related to eating plants that have to do with the plants
themselves. The ethical issues related to plant agriculture all have to do with the environment, human health, the allocation
of resources, the treatment of workers, and the expenditure of energy. Animals, on the other hand, are intelligent, sensitive
beings who love life and fear death, and killing them for food that we do not need to live long, healthy lives is an ethical
issue of the first magnitude. Even Albert Schweitzer, who extended his ethic of reverence for life to plants, acknowledged
this distinction and became a vegetarian out of compassion for the lives of animals.
There is no way around it. Whether we like it or not, the only truly ethical diet is a vegan diet. And while steps such
as reducing meat consumption and consuming only meat, eggs and milk from free range animals can be important steps in
the right direction, and should be encouraged, they are not an adequate response to the ethical challenge presented by
animal agriculture. “Increas[ing] our consumption of organisms lower on food chains,” (line 95) in the obfuscatory
language of the Draft SOC can be a worthwhile and commendable interim step for people who are not yet ready to
adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. But the Draft SOC’s depiction of it as an adequate response to the ethical issues raised
by animal agriculture is morally insufficient.
(I say "obfuscatory language" because lumping plants and animals together as “organisms” blurs the moral distinction
between them. See also lines 8, 18, 24, and elsewhere. The respect needed by a sentient being is, in fact, quite different
from the respect due an insentient being. While I am on the subject of language that appears intended more to conceal
than to reveal, it is intriguing to note that the Draft SOC never uses the words “vegetarian” or “vegan.” This is like writing
a position paper on human flight without using the word “airplane.” It can hardly be accidental. And if it is, it points to a
deep seated, perhaps unconscious, bias against a vegetarian diet on the part of the authors. Either way, it strengthens the
impression that the Draft SOC tries at every turn to deflect attention away from the moral implications of killing animals for
human food. Equally interesting, and enlightening, is the Draft SOC’s avoidance of the widely-used term “factory farm.”
Instead, it employs the obscure “concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO),” which is used only by the industry -
and by “experts” who wish to avoid offending the industry - and deflects attention away from some of the more unsavory
aspects of modern animal agriculture.}
“But, there are some nutritional benefits for an individual eating meat. Eating a pound of meat provides more
calories and nutrients than does a pound of grain.” (lines 36-38)
The first sentence is untrue, and the second is both untrue and silly. A normal, balanced vegan diet that includes grains,
vegetables, pulses, and fruits provides calories, protein, and all other nutrients in more than adequate amounts. According
to the professional association of America’s Registered Dietitians:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total
vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention
and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages
of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. . . . This
article reviews the current data related to key nutrients for vegetarians including protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron,
zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B-12. A vegetarian diet can meet current recommendations for all of
these nutrients. In some cases, supplements or fortified foods can provide useful amounts of important nutrients.
An evidence-based review showed that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy and result in
positive maternal and infant health outcomes. The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian
diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower
low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2
diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall
cancer rates. (American Dietetic Association. Ischemic heart disease results from a reduced flow of blood to the heart
muscle, most often due to coronary artery disease. It is a common cause of heart attacks. Low-density lipoprotein
cholesterol (commonly known as LDL) is the so-called “bad cholesterol” that clogs arteries.)
As to the second sentence that I quoted from the Draft SOC, it is true that a pound of meat provides more protein
than a pound of grain, but it is not true that a pound of meat provides more nutrients generally than a pound of plant-
derived food. (Vegans and vegetarians do not eat exclusively grain any more than carnivorous humans eat exclusively
meat, which is why I said the statement is silly.) Animal flesh provides more of some nutrients, and plants provide more of
More importantly, the pound-for-pound comparison is irrelevant and in the context in which it is presented,
misleading. Once you have an adequate intake of protein and nutrients, ingesting additional levels has never been shown to
provide added health benefits. And, as the ADA position statement makes clear, a vegetarian or vegan diet provides
levels of protein and nutrients that are fully adequate to maintain human health in all stages of the life cycle.
The ADA position statement also makes clear that vegetarian and vegan diets are not only nutritionally adequate, but
provide measurable health benefits compared to a diet that includes animal products. The Draft SOC strives to give the
impression that a diet that includes meat has greater health benefits than a vegetarian diet, when in fact, the opposite is
true. That the Draft SOC would claim nonexistent benefits for meat eating while passing over in total silence the
scientifically established benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet makes it impossible to have confidence in its objectivity and
Further damaging the credibility of the Draft SOC is its failure to mention that meat contains high levels of saturated
fats and cholesterol and very low amounts of fiber, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C and other nutrients. A diet consisting
entirely of plant-derived foods is beneficial for human health. A diet consisting entirely of meat would be downright
IV. The Draft SOC minimizes the environmental degradation and squandering of resources, especially food
and water resources, caused by animal agriculture, in part by giving the impression that these issues are
associated only with factory farming when, in fact, they are unavoidable in all animal agriculture.
As the Draft SOC correctly notes in its usual oblique fashion (lines 35-36), animals are very inefficient nutrient processing
machines. It takes thirteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, six pounds of grain to produce one pound of
pork, and three pounds of grain to produce one pound of chicken. (Singer and Mason, 232) This not only constitutes a
massive waste of food resources that could be used to feed human populations, it unnecessarily stresses the environment,
especially in terms of the water that is required to raise crops used to feed animals destined for the slaughterhouse.
In 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released a report on the environmental
impacts of animal agriculture entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. In it, the FAO
The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious
environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a
major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water
shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.
Livestock’s contribution to environmental problems is on a massive scale . . . The impact is so significant that
it needs to be addressed with urgency.
The livestock sector is a major player [in global warming], responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas
emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport.
The livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions . . . 37 percent of anthropogenic
methane (with 23 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2 . . . [and] 65 percent of anthropogenic
nitrous oxide (with 296 times the GWP of CO2) . . . Livestock are also responsible for almost two-thirds (64%) of
anthropogenic ammonia emissions, which contribute significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems.
The livestock sector is a key player in increasing water use, accounting for over 8 percent of global human water
use . . . [I]t is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution . . .
To this we must add the depletion of the world’s oil reserves. The enormous monocrop fields of grain and soybeans
needed to feed livestock require equally enormous quantities of petroleum-based fertilizers. In Vegan, the New Ethics of
Eating, author Erik Marcus cites the work of environmental scientists David Pimentel and Henry Kendall, “’From start to
finish,’ says Pimentel, ’we have based our food production system on petroleum and other energy sources that will
continue to dwindle. Right now, modern agriculture’s high yields come largely from cheap oil. When oil starts getting
expensive . . . we won’t have the resources to heavily fertilize our soils.’” (161)
From an environmental and resources perspective, as well as from the perspective of compassion and respect for
animals, an ethical diet is a vegan diet—or at the very least, a vegetarian diet. But the Draft SOC never mentions that a
vegan or vegetarian diet is best for the environment or critical to the conservation of scarce resources, and it passes by the
environmental impact of animal agriculture with barely a nod.
V. The Draft SOC is silent on one of the most urgent food crises facing us in the twenty-first century.
Much of the developing world—especially China and India with their populations of a billion humans each and counting—
is industrializing at a rapid rate. And with industrialization—and the proliferation of modern communications media, such
as the internet and satellite television—come both the means and the desire to enjoy a higher standard of living, specifically
the lifestyle enjoyed by people in North America and Western Europe.
The earth cannot long sustain a Western meat-based diet for ever-increasing numbers of people. If this trend
continues, we will in the not-too-distant future—probably by the middle of this century—stress our land, water, and oil
resources (meat production requires very high inputs of energy in the form of electricity and oil) beyond their capacity.
The social, economic, and political repercussions of this will be cataclysmic.
It is certainly not morally acceptable that we should maintain our current lifestyle by forcing the rest of the world to
live in poverty. And yet, that is the long-range implication of the Draft SOC’s support for a meat-based diet and failure to
recommend movement in the direction of a vegan diet. The planet cannot support a population of seven billion human
beings living like Westerners. The only ethical choice is for us to lead the way in adopting a lifestyle that protects the
environment and conserves resources. And a vegan diet with its substantially lower demands for oil and water would be
an essential part of such a lifestyle change.
This is the looming crisis that will shape history in the twenty-first century. And for the draft SOC to ignore it is
inexplicable and indefensible.
VII. The Draft SOC’s failure to raise the issue that laying hens, dairy cows, and breeding sows suffer and
die because of their gender is sexist. Its emphasis on paying more for “ethical” food is classist.
Battery hens endure the most horrific conditions of any factory farm animals. After short, stunted lives crammed into tiny
cages stacked like packing crates in a room where they never see sunlight or breathe clean air, they are pulled “off the
line” and killed as soon as their production begins to fall off. Even laying hens on “free range” and “organic” farms are
slaughtered when they are no longer productive. The economics of the egg industry demands it.
Milk cows and breeding sows are kept constantly pregnant until they are too exhausted to be productive, and then they,
too, are pulled off the line and slaughtered. (As with laying hens, this is the practice at small, niche-market “organic” farms
as well as in the giant animal factories.) These animals all suffer and die because they are female. Milk and egg production
and the breeding of animals to be slaughtered for their flesh are among the most horrific forms of gender-based
The Draft SOC advises UUs to tell food sellers, “that we will pay more for food that treats animals humanely, treats
workers fairly, and protects the environment.” (lines 101-102) It ignores the fact that there is a dietary alternative that
either accomplishes or promotes the accomplishment of each of these goals while actually reducing the cost of food: viz. a
vegan diet. In effect, the SOC is saying that we, as middle-class, financially secure UUs are going to continue eating the
foods that we enjoy while salving our consciences by paying more even though this option is not available to the
unemployed, the underemployed, and those who work full-time, or perhaps work several jobs and are still unable to
properly support themselves and their families. To this tragically large and growing population, it says, “Let them eat
burgers and fries”—the modern equivalent of “Let them eat cake”—when there is an inclusive option available that is
compassionate, healthy, environmentally and socially responsible, and could save a significant amount of money for
financially stressed families.
In her pioneering The Sexual Politics of Meat, ecofeminist philosopher Carol Adams points out that, “In
incorporating the fate of animals [into feminist theory], we would encounter these issues: . . . the meaning of our
dependence on female animals for ‘feminized protein’ such as milk and eggs; [and] issues of racism and classism that arise
as we consider the role of the industrialized countries in determining what ‘first class’ protein is . . ." (191)
The Draft SOC fails utterly to engage the first issue. It does engage the second issue, but on the wrong side. It would
have affluent UUs play a role analogous to the role of Adams’ industrialized countries by establishing a norm that
gustatorially “first class protein” is meat, eggs, and milk, while ethically “first class protein” is local, free range or organic
meat, eggs, and milk. This is coercion by both precept and example when there is “first class” plant protein readily
available that puts less strain on already stressed budgets than either free range, organic, or factory-farmed meat, eggs,
The Draft SOC is profoundly flawed, both in conception and execution. It cannot, in my opinion, be salvaged by a few
quick fixes. I urge the Commission to discard it and start over from scratch.
I am aware of the difficulties entailed in publishing a Statement of Conscience that the majority of Unitarian-
Universalists may strongly disagree with. But somewhere between institutional futility and moral abdication a space exists
where real progress can be made.
The Commission could occupy this space and provide moral leadership crucial to meeting the challenges of the
twenty-first century by:
1. Holding the moral issues raised by animal agriculture—beginning with the mass killing of sensitive, intelligent beings—up
to the light. Education, as well as guidance, can be a vital function for a Statement of Conscience.
2. Portraying a vegan diet as the only fully satisfactory answer to the question of ethical eating.
3. Portraying a vegetarian diet as superior—ethically, environmentally, socially, and for human health—to a diet that
4. Encouraging people who are not yet prepared to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet to reduce their consumption of
animal products as much as they are able and buy as much as possible from free-range farms.
5. Encouraging UUs and congregations to promote a vegetarian or vegan diet as (among other reasons) an essential
component of our response to a burgeoning human population, the rising standard of living in the developing world, and
the growing stresses on our environment and natural resources.
6. Encouraging congregations to “walk the walk” by serving only vegan or vegetarian food and beverages at church
functions—or at the very least by having clearly labeled vegan and vegetarian options available.
7. Eliminating elements of gender and class bias from the Draft SOC.
8. Renaming the SOC “Ethical Eating: Protecting Humanity, Animals, and the Earth.” Or something equally
These comments have grown far longer than I had originally intended. But the issues are important. If you have read
this far, I thank you and I appreciate your patience.
I would be more than happy to answer questions or discuss these issues. I can be reached at email@example.com.
Norm Phelps is a long-time animal rights activist, the former spiritual outreach director of The Fund for Animals,
a founding member of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians, and a member of the Institute for Critical
Animal Studies, North America. A member of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Hagerstown, Maryland and a
Tibetan Buddhist, he is the author of The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, The Great
Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights, and The Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, all
published by Lantern Books. A frequent speaker at animal rights conferences, he has published articles in
magazines, journals, and anthologies. He lives in Funkstown, Maryland with his wife, Patti Rogers, and their
family of rescued cats.
Adams, Carol J., The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Twentieth Anniversary
Edition. Continuum, 2010.
American Dietetic Association, “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” On the website of the
American Dietetic Association at www.eatright.org/about/content.aspx?id=8357. Viewed on December 28, 2010.
Bekoff, Marc, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—
and Why They Matter, Foreword by Jane Goodall. New World Library, 2007.
Braithwaite, Victoria, Do Fish Feel Pain? Oxford University Press, 2010.
Davis, Karen, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, revised edition.
Book Publishing Company, 2009.
---------------, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in Ritual, Myth, History and Reality. Lantern Books, 2001.
---------------, “The Social Life of Chickens and the Mental States I Believe They Have and Need to Participate in the
Social Relationships I Have Observed.” On the website of United Poultry Concerns at www.upc-online.
org/thinking/social_life_of_chickens.html. Viewed on December 24, 2010.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues
and Options. On the FAO website at www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e00.HTM. Viewed on December 28, 2010.
Marcus, Erik, Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating. McBooks Press, 1998.
Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals. Ballantine
---------------------------------, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. Delacorte Press, 1995.
Nussbaum, Martha C., Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. The Harvard University
Pepperberg, Irene Maxine, The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots. Harvard
University Press, 1999.
-------------------------------, Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal
Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
Rachels, James, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. Oxford University Press, 1990.
Singer, Peter, and Jim Mason, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. Rodale Publishers, 2006.
(Republished in paperback in 2007 by St. Martin’s Press as The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices
Matter. As best I can tell (I do not have a copy of the paperback reprint), the pagination is the same in both editions.)
Slobodchikoff, Con, “The Language of Prairie Dogs,” in Kinship with the Animals, edited by Michael Tobias and Kate
Solisti-Mattelon. Beyond Words Publishing, 1998.
Stepaniak, Joanne, The Vegan Sourcebook, McGraw-Hill, 2000.
---------------------, Being Vegan: Living with Conscience, Conviction, and Compassion. Lowell House, 2000.
Tuttle, Will, The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony. Lantern Books, 2005.