Temple Grandin’s Reason for Eating Animals?: “I get lightheaded . . . if I go on a vegan diet.”

Temple Grandin is widely considered to be a leading authority on animal welfare. She’s routinely cited by organizations such as The Humane Society of the United States and Whole Foods as an expert on the humane treatment of animals. Grandin, of course, designs slaughterhouses, but I guess the term “welfare” is pretty plastic. Not unlike “humane.”

I’ve read Grandin’s books. While I find her affection for animals to be genuine, and her insight into their perspectives nuanced, her work strikes me as remarkably unthoughtful about the human-animal relationship. Her books plod, important contexts dissolve, her thinking feels mechanistic. I’m well aware that Grandin is autistic, and I admire her accomplishments in light of such adversity. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that her analysis of animal welfare can be cold, shallow, and unpleasant. Kind of like an ice bath.

Grandin wrote an essay for the Times now famous/infamous/notorious “Justify Eating Meat” contest. It wasn’t chosen as a finalist–and I think you’ll see why. Her essay is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how troublesome the idea of “welfare” can be. Interestingly, when Grandin found out her essay was not chosen, she published it in a beef industry trade magazine. She obviously knows who her friends are.

Temple Grandin’s essay:

Eating Meat is Ethical

Humans and animals evolved together. Our brains are tuned into animals. Research with epilepsy patients who had monitors implanted in their brains, showed that the amygdala responds more to animal pictures, compared to pictures of landmarks or people. The amygdala is an important emotion center in the brain. Pictures of both cute and aversive animals got a big response. Recordings from the hippocampus, which is involved with memory, had no differences.

Human beings have an intrinsic bond with animals, but our treatment of animals has ranged from respectful to horrendous. Scientific research indicates that animals have emotions and they feel pain and fear. It is our duty to provide the animals that we raise for food with a decent life. I often get asked, “How can you care about animals and be involved in designing systems in slaughter houses that are used to kill them?” I answered this question in 1990, after I had just completed installation of a new piece of equipment I had designed for handling cattle at slaughter plants. I was standing on a catwalk, as hundreds of cattle passed below to enter my system. In a moment of insight, I thought, none of the cattle going into my system would have existed unless people had bred and raised them.

Our relationship with the cattle should be symbiotic. Symbiosis is a biological concept of a mutually beneficial relationship between two different species. There are many examples of symbiosis or mutualism in nature. One example is ants tending aphids to obtain their sugary secretion and in return, they are protected from predators. Unfortunately the relationship is not always symbiotic and in some cases, the ants exploit the aphids. There are similar problems in poorly managed, large intensive agriculture systems. There are some production practices that must be changed. In the cattle industry, I know many people who are true stewards of both their animals and their land. Their relationship with both the animals and the land is truly symbiotic. It is mutually beneficial to both the animals and the environment. Killing animals for food is ethnical if the animals have what the Farm Animal Welfare Council in England calls a life worth living.

I have been attended grazing conferences and I have learned that when grazing is done right it can improve the rangeland and sequester carbon. Ruminant animals that eat grass are not the environmental wreckers that some people say they are. Rotational grazing can stimulate more plant growth and growing plants help remove carbon from the atmosphere.  Ruminant animals, such as cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, are the only way to grow food on rangelands that are not suitable for crops.  Ronald C. Follett with the USDA-ARS-NPA in Fort Collins, Colorado, states that grazing lands have the potential to sequester carbon.  According to researchers at National University in Panama, converting South American pastureland to soybean production will reduce carbon storage. Organic agriculture would be impossible and extremely difficult without animal manure for fertilizer.  Another issue that must be looked at in perspective is methane emissions.  It is likely that 80% of all total methane emissions come from coal burning power plants, rice paddies, and landfills.

I have a final reason why I think eating meat is ethnical.  My metabolism requires animal protein, and I get lightheaded and unable to concentrate if I go on a vegan diet.  There may be metabolic differences in the need for animal protein.  There are practices that must be changed to be true stewards of both the animals and the environment.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

26 Responses to Temple Grandin’s Reason for Eating Animals?: “I get lightheaded . . . if I go on a vegan diet.”

  1. magpie says:

    I should say that the ‘lady’ is full of BS if this were not insulting to bulls!!!

  2. Mountain says:

    What’s your alternative?

    If you can start a non-profit that raises farm animals in a humane way & never slaughters them, that’s the best of all worlds. I don’t see how that would sustain itself, but maybe you could attract a strong enough donor base to make it viable. If so, godspeed.

    Until such an alternative exists, the choices are: factory farming of animals, humane farming of animals, or never allow them to exist in the first place. I haven’t seen it explicitly stated, but I infer that you (and most people on the website) would choose that farm animals simply not exist. If I’m mistaken about your preference, I apologize. If that is your preference, though, I don’t share it. If we could dialogue effectively with farm animals, I don’t believe they would share your preference, either.

    • brian lindberg says:

      yup….we’ve just got way too many farm animals…besides, life is a lot easier when they are gone (as my father used to say, animals own you)….
      now, i think your dogs will do alright on a vegan diet…your cats, well, let ’em eat gophers and, uh, baby quail….as you can see, this is getting complicated….bottom line, forget the black and white, go for the best of the gray, what is best for the planet’s health and man’s health (physical/psychic)…let’s stop eating the animals, it’s archaic, a vestige of the hunting days, which are way back there baby…..evolve!!!….it’s fun!!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Mountain, the alternative is to stop breeding, commidifying and slaughtering animals for our purposes. A vegan diet is healthier for our health, the environment, and doesn’t rely on enslaving and killing other sentient beings. An eloquent response to your question about whether it’s better that animals bred for slaughter not exist in the first place is one written by Professor Gary Francione, of Rutgers University;

    Question 1: Domestic animals, such as cows and pigs, and laboratory rats would not exist were it not for our bringing them into existence in the first place for our purposes. So is it not the case that we are free to treat them as our resources?

    Answer: No. The fact that we are in some sense responsible for the existence of a being does not give us the right to treat that being as our resource. Were that so, then we could treat our children as resources. After all, they would not exist were it not for our actions–from decisions to conceive to decisions not to abort. And although we are granted a certain amount of discretion as to how we treat our children, there are limits: we cannot treat them as we do animals. We cannot enslave them, sell them into prostitution, or sell their organs. We cannot kill them. Indeed, it is a cultural norm that bringing a child into existence creates moral obligations on the part of the parents to care for the child and not exploit her.

    It should be noted that one of the purported justifications for human slavery in the United States was that many of those who were enslaved would not have existed in the first place had it not been for the institution of slavery. The original slaves who were brought to the United States were forced to procreate and their children were considered property. Although such an argument appears ludicrous to us now, it demonstrates that we cannot assume the legitimacy of the institution of property–of humans or animals–and then ask whether it is acceptable to treat property as property. The answer will be predetermined. Rather, we must first ask whether the institution of animal (or human) property can be morally justified.

    • Mountain says:

      @brianlindberg– thank you for always being kind & respectful, even as we disagree. I don’t get that from many other posters, so you are noticed & appreciated.
      @Jennifer– you, and apparently Professor Francione, would choose that farm animals not exist. And that’s an entirely defensible preference, but it’s hardly the only one. If we could ask each animal before s/he was born (&I understand we can’t) whether the life they were being bred for was worth living, I believe many would say it was. I think most would say no to factory farming, while most (but not all) would say yes to humane farming. You don’t have to agree with my assessment of what animals would choose if they could, but that seems to be the most ethical perspective from which to approach the question– not our own ethical qualms, but the choice the animal would make.

      • It is not at all clear that non-existent beings can have interests or preferences, so we can’t “ask” them whether they want to come to exist in order to be killed and eaten. Once they already exist and can have interests and preferences, then we have obligations to them as sentient beings (including, arguably, not killing and eating them). The relevant contrast for a living animal is not factory farming vs. humane farming, but farming vs. not being killed prematurely and being eaten. As for animals that don’t exist, we have no obligation to bring them into existence.
        I might bring a child into existence and ask him or her whether being treated inhumanely and then killed for his/her organs vs. being treated humanely and then killed for his/her was “worth living.” S/he might respond that only the latter was worth living, but that doesn’t justify either option.

  4. brian lindberg says:

    corrections: I do not know of any range lands which will not support tree crops (let’s call it 90%), and, hey, organic farming is, in fact, easier without animal inputs of any kind (and works as well….cover crops, mulches, plant compost ( thank god for all them busy little microbes!!)).

    Now as for the dietary aspects of eatin’ them little bunnies, etc., I suggest reading Joel Fuhrman…in 45 years of reading such literature, he is the best (and the current state of research is gratifying).

    • Mountain says:

      I’m all in favor of tree cropping, but I would want to graze the space between the trees, too– capture more solar energy & create more biodiversity. Even if you don’t eat/sell the animals, they get an enjoyable life while you get weeds & pests as a food source rather than a problem. They also do a fine job of spreading fertilizer, cutting down on fossil fuel use.

      I’m an avid composter, but I don’t see any reason to leave the chickens out of the fun. They get entertainment & nutrition digging through the piles, and I get compost that breaks down more quickly & spreads itself. It may not be easier than farming without animals, but it’s a lot more rewarding.

      Now, if only it were legal to grow hemp… the girls would love the seeds &leaves, and it would practically grow itself.

      • CQ says:

        Question, Mountain: Couldn’t you adopt some chickens instead of breeding them? Rescued chickens deserve some of that fun you describe! There are many such individuals available, given the number of people who plunge into the trendy backyard chicken movement and then opt out, causing shelters to fill up with abandoned hens. Hey, they’d love it at your place, as long as they remained your companions and never became dinner. 🙂

      • Mountain says:

        We don’t breed chickens, but so far all of our birds are from breeders. Now that we have space (we started in our backyard, knowing that we were looking for a farm), we will start adopting chickens. We can only go as fast as we can build resources. Our basic approach is to gather food waste + carbon resources, and let the girls turn it into compost. They are free to roam wherever they want on the farm, but the compost piles are the most biologically active spaces on the farm, so they spend most of their time there.

        Honestly, this first group will never become dinner, since we need to observe how long they live before old age & disease takes it toll– hopefully, 10+ years. In addition to quality of life, I think they should have the full length of their natural lives.

      • CQ says:

        Ah! I predict, dear Mountain, that you will fall so head-over-heels in love with your first group of chickens that not only will they never become dinner, as you say, but neither will any future groups of hens.

        Puuuleeeease don’t tell me that you would adopt them and then later — much later — chop them (my just-made-up phrase for you-know-what). 🙂 I don’t think you’d have the heart to do that. And besides, would that not violate a rescue organization’s contract?

      • brian lindberg says:

        i am continuously considering putting a couple of donkeys out there (donkeys don’t get eaten by mountain lions), just to save some tractor operation….but i have done a lot of native restoration work in hedgerows, along the creek, and it needs to get a little taller before i turn any grazers loose out there….
        ….now, the composting chicken is one i had not thought of, and i like that idea (i have always envied those guys with all the chickenshit….so much nitrogen….) but i am a little nervous about the hawks….maybe i could find a smart chicken with good eyes?

  5. Fireweed says:

    FYI: This blog link referencing autistic animal rights activist Jim Sinclair was forwarded to me after posting your article on FB just now, James. -Fireweed


  6. Bix says:

    In the last paragraph Grandin says the reason why she thinks eating meat is ethical is because, “my metabolism requires animal protein.” Does that mean if a person’s metabolism doesn’t require animal protein, eating meat is unethical?

  7. Gabe says:

    “…or never allow them to exist in the first place.”

    So, I’m genuinely curious, would the same people who use this argument find Chinese smugglers who exploit North Korean woman for sex in exchange for escaping North Korea to be justified in their actions?

  8. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I’m happy to note that Temple Grandin’s theory has also been challenged on scientific grounds: “Are Animals Autistic Savants” byGiorgio Vallortigara, Allan Snyder, Gisela Kaplan, Patrick Bateson, Nicola S. Clayton, Lesley J. Rogers


  9. Provoked says:

    If it is true that Grandin was unable to function after trying a vegan diet I’d be very curious to know what motivated her to even try to live on plants alone. I’d be interested to know what age she was… And how long (or sincere) an effort she gave it.

    I also question the accuracy because she’s been a part of animal agriculture from the time she was a child. Her insight into the effectiveness of the squeeze chute on her feelings of autism-induced-anxiety was on her uncle’s ranch. Since she was indoctrinated so young into the cow industry… I just don’t see how she ever got the desire to eschew “beef” and all flesh for that matter. (?) Some things just don’t mesh for me…

    It’s telling too that instead of helping humans by perfecting these chutes to aid other autistic people… She used it in her systems she lovingly refers to as “the stairway to heaven”.

    So much for the accusation: “Why don’t you help people instead/” that vegans are often presented with… Seems Ms. Grandin is just as guilty – only in the opposite direction – Yes?

  10. Pingback: Temple Grandin: The Ethics of Eating Meat | The Girl and The Goats

  11. deveryminou says:

    NO human being would be alive today had their mother not given birth to them. We don’t use this argument to justify child abuse, child prostitution, or selling a child for their organs on the black market.

    When supposed “AR” groups laud Grandin’s “accomplishments”, they betray how little regard they actually have for animals.

  12. Tammy says:

    I’m very glad that you grabbed onto the lightheaded comment. That stirred me.

  13. gena says:

    Grandin’s essay, like nearly all of the essays, was poorly organized and often inconsistent. Thank you, James, for pointing out not only moral objections to these entries, but also good, old fashioned literary criticism.

    Let’s suppose Grandin’s “need” for meat was real — and it’s an enormous stretch — it’s still not exactly an ethical argument for eating meat.

  14. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Also, in addition to scientists debunking her theory, Grandin’s slaughter line works for agribusiness, not the victims. As Harold Brown, a former cow farmer explained, fear sets in within a few short minutes on the kill floor. I’ve seen videos of farm animals trying to get away from the stunner. So even if they walk calmly to their deaths, they still experience fear. Grandin is not fooling anyone except people who want to be fooled.

    As to her excuse for eating meat, well, if she works for animal enterprise, she’d need one — but it’s nonsense. Some of us have an intolerance to certain foods, but the human body can metabolize nutrition from plant foods as well as from meat — if not better, considering we’re anatomically herbivores: http://www.whale.to/a/comp.html

    • diana says:

      You are correct. In fact in my comment I said she was full of BS, but then retracted because I didn’t want to insult all the bulls out there!

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