Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2011


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The Bioethicist: Sam Garner '07

The Bioethicist: Sam Garner '07
Sam Garner '07. Photo by Bob MacDonnell

by Leslie Rovetti

While some see the four food groups on their dinner plates, Sam Garner '07 sees a menu of ethical choices.

“Food is generally not considered a moral choice,” he observed during his talk at Fall Weekend's “Big Event.” But for him, it is.

Growing up, food and food choices were ever present. Garner spent his childhood in Wisconsin, the dairy state, with several family members who have chronic health problems. As a member of Connecticut College's varsity swim team, he continued to examine his diet to achieve peak athletic performance.

And what he concluded was that, for personal health as well as the health of the planet, human beings should consume a vegan, plant-based diet.

Human hunger for, and overconsumption of, animal flesh can be blamed for many of the planet's environmental scourges, said Garner, who majored in music while also taking many courses in philosophy. He is now a bioethicist for the Henry M. Jackson Foundation at the National Institutes of Health.

Using grain for animal feed is significantly less efficient than feeding it directly to humans, he explained. In the U.S., livestock consume more than seven times as much grain as the entire human population, and raising animal protein requires eight times more fossil fuel than growing plant protein. In the oceans, human desire for fresh seafood has led
to the overexploitation of 76 percent of fish stocks.

Unhygienic animal husbandry practices also have been responsible for several major disease outbreaks throughout history, Garner said. Notable examples are past outbreaks of influenza, including the 1918 Spanish flu and the swine flu
in 2009.

For carnivorous humans, one-quarter of what they eat keeps them alive, and the remaining three-quarters keeps their doctors alive, he quipped.

But, he argued, humans don't need to eat meat to stay healthy. Grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables comprise the healthiest, and most ethical, diet.

Garner admitted that may seem radical, but it is becoming increasingly popular among celebrities and athletes. Among the well-known converts to veganism he mentioned were former President Bill Clinton and a boxer famous for biting off part of his opponent's ear.

“Mike Tyson is now a vegan, which is hilarious,” he said.

Garner also noted that Derek Turner, associate professor of philosophy, is a vegetarian. Garner then discussed the ethics of killing and eating animals, arguing, “We do, in fact, have some level of moral obligation to animals.”

After his talk, Garner explained that he became a vegetarian more than three years ago, and has been a vegan for about two years. “I definitely did not grow up this way,” he adds, recalling meat-centered family meals and a college diet consisting largely of pepperoni pizza and breakfast cereal.

But vegetarianism was on his mind. For Garner's introductory philosophy course, with Simon Feldman, he made the case in his first paper that people shouldn't eat animals. And although he tried to change his diet at that time, he wasn't successful, he says.

After graduation, he became a vegetarian at the urging of his then-girlfriend, who wanted to stop eating meat for environmental reasons. The vegan diet followed soon after.

Thanks to his new lifestyle, Garner says he has lost weight, sleeps better and has more energy. “The only problem I have now is too much energy,” he says.

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