This is a lengthy post and I won't be offended if you don't read it. Do take the time to read this much shorter and better written article about the ethics of meat eating and this one about the environmental impact of meat eating vs. vegetarianism.
I am and always have been a softhearted animal lover. So many people who know me are surprised when they find out that I have plans to raise livestock and, in the end, butcher that livestock for meat. They are even more shocked to find out that I've already killed and eaten ducks that we raised. I know it makes people squeamish and I respect that. Not everyone has to be comfortable with the idea of killing animals that you've known and loved. But the fact of the matter is, if you eat meat you are playing a role in the deaths of animals. Just because you never scratched that pig behind the ear or patted the cow on its rump doesn't change that.
Killing animals is not an evil thing, though. Its just a part of life. Things live and they die. Its only humans that ascribe ideas of good and bad to life and death and put more value on a long life than a short one. For animals it is not important to live forever. They do not dream and make plans for the future. They live in the moment and what is important to them is that the life they live is good, not how long it lasts. For an animal a good life is one that provides safety from physical harm, fear and stress, one where there is plenty of nutritious food to eat and room to exercise to stay fit and appropriate mental stimulus to prevent boredom. And a good life should end with a good death- one that is as pain and stress free as possible. A good life like this is difficult to find in the natural world where food is often scarce and danger is a constant presence, particularly for the animals we raise as livestock and which in the wild would be prey animals. It can also be difficult to come by in large, commercial factory farms where efficiency and profitability are valued more than the quality of life of the animals.
Ending the lives of animals is not bad. Causing them to have bad lives and/or bad deaths is. If we eat meat then by definition we are killing animals but that does not mean that we have to cause them to have bad lives. But it can be difficult to only eat animals who had good lives. One way is to buy meat from small farms, particularly if they are located nearby and you can visit the farm (often they happily give tours!) and see for yourself that the animals are treated well. This is probably the best solution for most people. For us, though, we want to be even more involved. At least for some of the meat we eat ( we'll continue to buy our beef from local farmers). And so we plan to raise our own sheep and pigs and turkeys and chickens and, after they have had a good life on our farm where they have been well fed, kept safe from danger and allowed the freedom to explore their worlds within the safety of their natural territories, then we will kill them in as pain and stress free a way as we can. And when that meat is served at our table we will know that eating it has not contributed to pain or misery for any creature.
That doesn't mean that it won't be hard to say goodbye to our friends. Or that we won't occasionally bond with an animal too closely to let them go. But it will be hard not because its wrong to kill them but because we will miss them. As humans we are filled with complex emotions; we have long memories and we can think about how much we could enjoy the company of the animal in the future. But those are selfish reasons.
Perhaps it would just be easier to avoid meat altogether. Then we aren't responsible for animals being treated poorly nor do we have to suffer the pain of losing their company in our lives. For some people vegetarianism is the right answer. But for me, vegetarianism (at least for ethical reasons--lets set aside religious or health reasons for a different discussion) isn't a solution, rather its a way to avoid the problem. Not eating meat avoids causing animals to have bad lives, but in the same way it does not cause animals to have good lives. If all people became vegetarians many breeds of animals simply would no longer exist. Dual purpose animals like wool sheep, dairy cows and chickens would continue to be kept (assuming we don't all turn vegan) but what use would we have for pigs or the breeds of cows and sheep best suited for meat. Who would raise turkeys if they no longer had a place on our thanksgiving tables or between our slices of sandwich bread? These animals no longer exist in the wild except for rare exceptions and for the most part could not survive without humans to care for them. And humans cannot be expected to care for them if they have no role. In my opinion life, followed by death, is better than no life at all.
For a long time eating meat has been seen as wasteful, gluttonous and environmentally and ethically irresponsible. That is because for most people eating meat means supporting factory farms. But that has less to do with the meat and more to do with a system of business practices. Those business practices can be changed and the best way to force that change to happen is by voting with our wallets. A vegetarian has no power in the eyes of a factory farm. That vegetarian is written off the list of possible customers and dismissed from thought. The only people to have any real power over the meat industry are its customers--meat eaters. If enough of us refuse to eat animals that have had bad lives or been killed in cruel ways and if we take our money and by meat from small, local farmers or raise the animals ourselves we are doing two positive things. We are sending a direct message to the meat industry that the only way to stay in business is to change their practices and at the same time we are putting our money into the pockets of small farmers, allowing them to not only stay in business but to grow and be able to offer good lives to more animals.
Including meat in your diet is important if you strive to eat locally. The benefits of eating locally are numerous. Food is fresher and therefore tastier and healthier. It is transported, stored and processed less and so requires less fossil fuel and other resources to fuel vehicles, operate processing plants and cool refrigerated storage facilities. Often purchasing directly from small farmers is only possible when done locally as their distribution is generally much more limited. But if you eat local it can be difficult to maintain a balanced diet without including meat. Most vegetarians supplement their diets by consuming soy products. These tend to be heavily processed and transported from far away. Its much harder to find a local tofu producer (at least in this country) than a local cow farmer. Most of the worlds lentils and beans, another excellent source of protein for vegetarians, comes from India, Canada, Brazil and China. While the US is the top produce of soy beans they are rarely eaten in their natural form but must undergo processing, packing and transportation before being consumed.