Debate: Don’t Eat Anything with a Face

By D.R. Hildebrand

Photo: Joshua Katcher

Earlier this month, The Discerning Brute covered promotions for the debate event “Don’t Eat Anything with a Face.” It got a lot of press traction. Hosted by the U.S. affiliate of Intelligence Squared, the debate featured two two-member teams arguing each side of the motion. For the motion were Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and George Washington University and his debate partner Gene Baur, founder and co-president of Farm Sanctuary. Against the motion were Chris Masterjohn, author of the blog The Daily Lipid (sponsored by the Weston A. Price Foundation), and his debate partner Joel Salatin, public speaker and director of Polyface Farms.

The debate was composed of three rounds, including a question-and-answer with the audience, and to my delight it maintained an intelligent, robust, and precise examination of the motion, Don’t Eat Anything with a Face. The facts and concerns the debaters addressed, on both sides, were detailed and numerous, and, at the same time, far from complete. Nevertheless, at the end of the ninety minutes the audience was asked to select a winner. The results are illuminating. editor, Joshua Katcher was in the audience and had this to say:

“The debate was sold-out, jam packed, and the popularity of this debate was such that it crashed the Intelligence Squared website! The energy both in the crowd and on the stage was intense, thought-provoking, and above all, it was nice to her that the place where 99% of meat and dairy products (CAFO’s, more popularly known as factory farms) was not even on the table for debate, being considered indefensible by both sides. At the after party, even moderator John Donvan, author and correspondent for ABC News, admitted he’d be changing his eating habits.”

For anyone passionate about food, the definition of food, the future of food, the state of farming, or our relationship to non-human animals, this is a serious investigation of all of these topics. The only related topic not considered here is that of factory farming. Both sides of the motion agree from the outset that factory farming, and all its outcomes and implications, is egregious. The panelists debate only the motion: Don’t Eat Anything with a Face. It is worth watching:

One of the main points raised by the two who argued against the position was that many animals are killed in growing vegetation. But according to research, more animals are still killed in farming them directly:

Written by D. R. Hildebrand

David, who models under his middle name, Raphael, is represented by New York Models. His first book, Walking Marina, is an exposé of the male modeling industry, and is a commentary on beauty. David’s websiteFollow David on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Jeremy Bell

    Chris Masterjohn actually sounds like someone with symptoms of lack of calories. He even said he was “afraid to eat his food.” Probably if he simply just got enough calories (ate enough rice/carbs) then his body probably wouldn’t have fell apart.

  • D. R. Hildebrand

    Just to clarify, Tawster, the motion debated was not, Don’t Kill Anything with a Face. It was, Don’t Eat Anything with a Face. Everything we do will always have some inevitable, undesirable outcome. This imperfection is part of what it means to be human. There is a difference, however, between intention and restriction. Most vegans are vegan because they are attempting to restrict unnecessary suffering. Perhaps if the animals we killed were sold with their face we would be reminded of the pain we inflict upon them.

    • tawster

      My apologies. Don’t *Eat*. Though, I thought the killing was the issue, really. Semantics. I suppose that would allow for “eating” of animals killed in veggy production. Hmm. I digress.

      Animals used to be sold with their faces. And in most parts of the world… still are. I would actually like to see more of that in the 1st world nations, because most folks think food is grown “shrinkwrapped”, sadly. Abstracted food is disrespected food. Food sold with faces does not diminish people from pursuing a diet that includes food with faces. I have a theory (hypothesis) that our shrinkwrapped culture is actually what led to the rise in veganism. The further from nature we become, the less “natural” we become.

      As for pain. Pain and suffering can be controlled, and usually is… though it can always be improved. And everyone is in firm agreement with that on that panel, I am certain.

      As for veggy production, I am unsure of how suffering is managed. Well, it really isn’t. I suspect we are another generation from discovering sentience in plants. We already know they suffer. And there are preliminary studies that imply some level of consciousness… and certainly communication We are a long ways off from understanding that world to any reasonable level.

      Maybe we will discover ways to produce plants for food… plants that lead happy, if short lives, and then minimize any of their suffering upon harvest, just like we have for animal production… but I think we are years off from that. We just don’t understand them well enough.

      As for the animals destroyed in veggy production… they are treated as vermin and not dispatched with any thought to level of suffering. I am sure there are ways we could improve.

      • Hoss

        From a scientific perspective, there really is no evidence that plants have any capacity for conscious experience, much less an ability to suffer. See this summary in the journal “Trends in Plant Science” (Vol. 12, No. 4, 2007), signed by no fewer than 32 researchers in the field:

        But even if — despite the evidence — we want to believe that plants are capable of suffering, it still doesn’t follow that eating animal products is the way to minimize harm. Diets based on animals are far more destructive of plants than are plant-based diets. After all, an entire family of vegans can live quite well on all the crops needed to feed the animals slaughtered by just one meat eater.

      • D. R. Hildebrand

        A few things:

        1) Shrink wrap did not inspire veganism. We were vegan through much of civilization, pre-Stone Age, unless you know of a time when we could fly, swim, or run fast enough to catch anything, had the vision to stalk prey at night, or had the fangs or claws to rip flesh apart.

        2) Had the motion been, “Don’t KILL Anything with a Face,” as you reframed it, what debate would there be? By your understanding, we all kill, every day, by harvesting anything. Such a debate would be moot because anyone arguing for the opposition would have since stopped eating and be dead.

        3) Of all these “debunked” studies, why not select a few and site who proved them false and who funded the findings?

        • tawster

          “1) Shrink wrap did not inspire veganism. We were vegan through much of civilization, pre-Stone Age, unless you know of a time when we could fly, swim, or run fast enough to catch anything, had the vision to stalk prey at night, or had the fangs or claws to rip flesh apart.”

          Okay. Now you are being utterly disingenuous. This is resoundly false. Historically, biologically, etc. We are extremely capable predators. The most successful, no less. And have been for millenia. There isn’t even debate on this any more.

          My work here is done apparently. Wasted breath. I should have known better.

      • sweetie pie

        You say…Maybe we will discover ways to produce plants for food…plants that lead HAPPY, if short lives, and then minimize any of their suffering upon harvest,….That’s hilarious!!!…tell me something?…now be honest!…when you typed this up..were you…smoking one of your happy plants?…It sounds like…you want to eat your dog and be friends with your salad…you also mentioned shrink-wrap…perhaps you should have a rap with a shrink!…because if anyone has gone off on spasmodic tangents to avoid the real issue, which is to reduce suffering by not eating animals…is you…with your..,insensitive (fancy schmancy dumb-ass nancy) replies. This debate is based on a path to reduce suffering by not eating animals for both animals and humans,…and not by you tripping out with rainbows,unicorns and rescuing bacteria from a fate worse than death…Further more…What in thee hell is wrong with you?…it seems to me the only interest you have in this debate is to justify why you kill and eat animals…You mention you should know better…well at least you nailed that one! that’s right…you mentioned you’ve spent too much time here already…you nailed that one too. There is a difference between actual scientific facts like the links which Hoss gave you and you throwing your hands up in the air, just because of your lack of knowledge!..That is actually a big problem in society today, We need to stop throwing our hands up in the air and we need to act on the scientific facts…..and I don’t know about anyone else…but i’ll be damned if I’m going to worry about bacteria and fungi suffering as you so insensitively diverted the conversation with…when the suffering of brutally slaughtered animals takes place on a daily basis all over the world! Our top priority should be to rescue them, by being compassionate and simply changing our diets….because there’s nothing natural or humane about keeping these beautiful creatures in filthy and confined spaces…for their entire lives…and then butchering them on top of it.

  • The Urban Sommelier

    I don’t understand what ‘harvest’ has to do with beef/chicken, etc.?

    • Frosty the Snowman

      It has to do with the process of harvesting the food for consumption.

    • BerksBound

      It’s really what you might call “slaughter-washing” by the meat industry to sanitize the killing of animals for our consumption. We actually harvest crops and slaughter animals. But they realized the word slaughter is not appealing.

      It’s so insidious that there is even a factory-farmer front group dedicated to fighting animal welfare regulation and they call themselves “Protect the Harvest,” when in reality, their group has nothing to do with ‘the harvest’.

  • tawster

    “But according to research, more animals are still killed in farming them directly.”

    I’m going to leave out factory farming veggies, because when you look at that food (which is most of our food at the moment)… that quote above is blatantly false. The soil is sterile for a reason: Because everything… EVERYTHING has been killed.

    As for more benign farming of vegetables… well, just think about this: I killed an awful lot of aphids when growing my peas. Think about all the insects, rodents, molluscs, and more. Thus, the anti-animal-as-food people are simply in denial about this stuff. They *intentionally kill* in order to eat. They do. They plug their ears, close their eyes, and stamp their feet, but that doesn’t erase the fact that they are … killers. With intention. Worse, they are killers who continue to proclaim their innocence. Even worse than that… killers who continue to proclaim their innocence and then demonize folks that acknowledge their role in the process.

    Regardless, the debate was well done. The debaters on one side outclassed the debaters on the other. Namely because… they live to debate this particular topic — full time… whereas the other two only do that part time. But, both sides debated well. So… kudos to the organizers.

    Alas, the folks debating for the proposition or for the topic (the Vegans)… trotted out fact after fact that has been debunked time and again… or is so mired in controversy that their argument is total crap. Alas the other debaters had to be kind. It is hard to argue against people not squeamish about twisting facts, making stuff up, or simply lying.

    Great debate though.

    • Hoss

      Several studies have purported to show that niche production models for animal agriculture (such as grass-fed beef) cause less death for vertebrates than a vegan diet. The most notable case was a paper by Steven Davis in 2003, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.

      Ironically, Davis’s figures actually demonstrated the opposite. In fact, a vegan diet causes less harm than even an idyllic pasture-raised beef model. (See: It’s also worth noting that Davis’s pasture model is far less harmful (and less scalable) than the industrial system that produces the vast majority of animal products consumed in the United States.

      I’m not sure which “anti-animal-as-food people” you’re railing against, but many of us readily acknowledge that there is no such thing as an entirely harm-free diet; all food production causes some amount of harm to animals. The issue we’re concerned with is how to best *minimize* that harm while living healthy, happy lives.

      • tawster

        Interesting implication: So… just vertebrates matter? Sorry, that’s a distraction.

        Veggy farming… especially industrial veggie farming, but also organic is vastly destructive. To the land and to the animals on it. Pastural livestock farming… simply isn’t. Done right it is *constructive*, as close to how things would be without humans as possible and works with the rhythms of the landscape practiced upon.

        Nothing is perfect. But if you want to talk about minimizing harm to plants, animals, water, and land… modern sustainable animal agriculture is, by orders of magnitude, a superior method of food production from an environmental perspective. Veggy production doesn’t even come close.

        • Hoss

          No, not only vertebrates matter; sentience matters. This was covered in the debate. (Did you watch it?)

          In the case of vertebrates, sentience is pretty certain; in the case of invertebrates, far less so.

          But even if you’re concerned with harm to invertebrates, the case for a vegan diet is still pretty strong. Far fewer invertebrates are harmed by a vegan diet than by modern animal agriculture, which requires more land used for crop production, and thus more insects killed by tilling, pesticides, and so on.

          • tawster

            “No, not only vertebrates matter; sentience matters. This was covered in the debate. (Did you watch it?)”

            No, I listened to it. Just checking. Just like tool usage, language, memory, decision-making, consciousness, etc. We are going to find sentience in “simpler” and “simpler” animals and plants… and fungus and bacteria, I suspect. Doesn’t matter. Suffering-free animal production is practiced all over the place. So… if that is what matters. Done! Solved.

            “Far fewer invertebrates are harmed by a vegan diet than by modern animal agriculture”

            Not even close to correct.

            “which requires more land used for crop production, and thus more insects killed by tilling, pesticides, and so on.”

            Incorrect. Cattle, sheep, goats: Effectively zero crop production needed. Pigs: Some (but not much) crop production for supplemental feed. Chickens: Ditto. Vegans: Significant land required to be removed from natural ecological processes for crop production.

            • Hoss

              Personal suspicions are fine for baseless speculation, but in the end, they aren’t worth very much. If you have something more than suspicion to support your claims, however, I’d be very interested to see your evidence.

              As to evidence from experts in agriculture and land management, the message is pretty clear: vegan and vegetarian diets are, by and large, much more efficient, environmentally friendly, and less harmful to animals than the standard meat-centered diets in much of the developed world. For example, see:


              Of course, it’s always possible to create favorable comparisons in marginal cases. For example, we might compare a diet with only a small amount of the most low-impact meat against a vegan diet based on only the highest-impact vegetables, and find that the diet with some meat is less harmful. That isn’t saying much, however.

              It’s also worth noting that even some of the most optimistic scenarios — such as a mostly vegetarian diet with a small amount of pasture-raised beef — end up causing more harm than a typical vegan diet, as was shown with the Davis study:


              • tawster

                Baseless speculation? Heh. Okay. I am not going to do hours of searching to appropriately defend a position. This is comment forum after all But there is plenty of evidence surrounding suffering, communication, and “intelligence” associated to plantlife. It’s is certainly more speculative than other lines of inquiry, but it does give one pause.

                You post two links that are irrelevant to the discussion. I could link irrelevant links as well. But… So, worse than baseless speculation is cite-crazy people that post distracting links. ;) We already know that factory farming and industrial veggy ag are abominations. So… That is not in debate.

                Remove factory farming, monocultures, industrial and industrial organic from the equation. And… animal agriculture is a net ecological gain. A gain. In contrast, veggy agriculture is not. Unless you eat twigs and grass, and nuts and fruits from trees and maybe naturally renewing perennials.

                • Hoss

                  I’m sorry that you consider arguments based on science to be “distracting” and “irrelevant”. If that’s the case, then I don’t see much point in continuing the discussion. If, however, you have something beyond mere opinion to support your claims, I’d be glad to hear it.

                  • tawster

                    The science may or may not be valid in those links you provided. But they were not relevant to the discussion. Science based on parameters that were not part of the debate is not relevant to the debate. This kind of citation is common in these kinds of debates. Folks that post article after article that smell like they have some relevance, but once you get past the 3rd sentence… you realize the test parameters or even just the thesis… had no relevance on the discussion. It reminds me of the folks that bring up quantum mechanics at the slightest provacation. Heh.

                    So… if you have something beyond mere opinion to support your claims, I’d be glad to hear it. :)

                    • Hoss

                      Well, let’s see:

                      You disputed my assertion that “modern animal agriculture requires more land for crop production than a vegan diet.” This claim is supported by the data in the UN report and the Pimintel study.

                      You argued that “[w]e already know they [plants] suffer. And there are preliminary studies that imply some level of consciousness.” You gave no reasons at all to support this claim, other than your suspicions. I cited a statement signed by over thirty researchers in a peer-reviewed journal of plant science. They dismiss the idea that plants have anything like neurons, synapses, or brains.

                      You disputed my claim that “vegan and vegetarian diets are, by and large, much more efficient, environmentally friendly, and less harmful to animals than the standard meat-centered diets in much of the developed world.” Again, the citations directly support this claim.

                      You disputed my claim that even farming of pasture-raised cattle — one of the least harmful farming practices — causes more harm than a vegan diet. Again, I cited the analysis of Gaverick Matheny in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics that examines this question in detail, and finds that, even using the figures selected by *advocates* of pasture-raised beef, the animal agriculture still causes more harm.

                      Look, I understand your reluctance to research your opinions. It’s much easier to form one’s positions based on intuition and speculation. If you do look deeper, however, I think you’ll find that many of these questions have already been explored in great detail by careful, intelligent people. You could profit greatly from their work.

                    • tawster

                      I’m not here to write a dissertation on the topic. This is a comment forum. I could go out and spend the hours needed to respond in such a way. But I am not.

                      I offered comment. Then you posted a number of links that add noise and don’t address this topic at hand. None of the land-use, environmental links were even close to relevant. To include your Gaverick Matheny article. Animal and plant suffering is only touched upon. So… I throw my hands up in the air.

                      Anyway… I have spent enough time here. We haven’t changed to world one iota. :) Interesting discussion though. Good luck.

                    • Hoss

                      The Matheny reference addresses the question of which farming practice causes the least harm to animals, since that was one of the points you disputed. The question of plant “suffering,” another of your claims, is addressed by the position paper by leading researchers in plant science.

                      It’s unfortunate that you consider such references to be nothing more than “noise.” Oh, well.

                    • carniekiller

                      I believe you came to a vegan blog for your own warped amusements my good sir. Anti-vegan trolls stink worse than a rotting animal carcass. I do hope you are done ranting before I bring in faceroll brigade to quiet your nonsense.

    • Joe

      @tawster:disqus Veganism is not a puritanical religion where the goal is being “death-free” which may put a damper on your method of criticizing it. Pointing out the contradictions and compromises of any social justice movement does not mean that the ideal is not worth working towards.

      Can you imagine if the ideals of peace or equality were given up on simply because we could never reach a perfect level of peace or equality in our civilization?

      Your colorful description of the toddler-like fit being thrown by vegans in denial over aphid death is disingenuous. We realize that every breath we take kills many microorganisms. Every house built, fruit eaten, step taken, etc… means certain death for many organisms. the nihilistic logic of being anti-death is simply stupid. We are surrounded by death, and death is an inevitable and unavoidable part of a thriving biosphere. But we must not confuse this death with the breeding and slaughter or torture and confinement of animals that is systematic and structural in every major industry in our current culture from agriculture to entertainment. In these matters, we have a choice, and we have real ideals to work towards. Expecting us to be perfect (expecting anyone to be perfect) is lunacy, but a fitting straw man for your analysis.

      Most vegans are very opposed to the mass cropping systems as well, so if you’re going to compare ideals, at least compare fairly, because there is another small farm revolution taking place: veganic farming (

      Lastly, do not feign concern for vegetable “suffering”. The reason mobile animals feel pain is because we are able to move away from a source of damage. If plants felt pain, can you imagine the torture every plant would through in the winter months? It would serve no function for them to feel it because it does not have any useful advantage to their survival. Do not confuse chemical reactions and defenses for sentience.

      • tawster

        “Veganism is not a puritanical religion where the goal is being “death-free” which may put a damper on your method of criticizing it.”

        Then, what is the point? Animal ag can be net-positive ecological, as suffering free as anything other form of agriculture. And satisfies our natural human dietary needs. Nutritionally natural and sound. Suffering free. Ecological. That is description of animal agriculture done right.

        Distracting side topic: Veggy suffering… nice example with winter, since that is when animals suffer the worst and massive dieoffs occur. So, I can imagine it. And I have suffered plenty myself throughout winters in my past. I don’t know if plants “suffer” through the winter or whether they proverbially shrug it off. Suffering in this way seems to be part of the natural process for most living things.

        Ideals: To me vegans are certainly reaching for an ideal of people and unicorns playing together subsisting only on rainbows. Because their entire world view is a dodge of reality. And the real crazies imagine a world devoid of carnivores… but… we all have our crazies.

        But yes, we should strive for ideals (1) Significantly fewer humans, (2) Minimized suffering, (3) Ecological sustainability, (4) as close to wild landscapes as possible.

        #1 is the hardest to sell with none of the major environmental personalities really addressing it. #3 and #4 are best achieved via animal agriculture. #4 *can’t* be achieved with veggy production except maybe with arborial foods and some perennials. #2 is trivially achieved when animal ag is done right… as is done by many, but certainly not by enough. And industrial farming needs to end, yesterday.

        Anyway. I suspect our idealistic goals are similar, once abstracted… it’s just how we get there that we disagree upon. Geez. Maybe we should all work together and work on the real problem: Ideal #1 — massive reduction in population. :)

        Done. I am arguing into the wind, I think… and the direction it is blowing is predetermined. Heh.

      • Christian Pilosi

        well done. although, lawster will never understand it. But bravo! #govegan