I have in front of me this month’s edition of “Djurens Rätt”, the magazine of the Swedish animal rights organisation, Djurens Rätt (which translates to, basically, “Animals Rights”). The people at Djurens Rätt are, understandably enough, trying to define and defend the rights of animals and promote vegetarianism (among other things, by getting some of their cuter members to pose on the back cover wearing their snazzy new figure-hugging t-shirts).
Now this whole topic of eat-meat or not-eat-meat makes me a little confused and flustered. I was a vegetarian for many years, and my reasons for doing this can be summarised as follows:
- I have a strong distaste for industrial farming
- The fewer things that have to die, the better for all of us
- Meat production, as it stands today, is incredibly wasteful of resources
- Meat eating is unnecessary for many of the people in the world, and comes usually from a lack of imagination or a way to prove status
Now, unlike most vegetarians, I did not feel “sorry” for the animals, or think that they are “cute” – animals are not humans, and human rights cannot be applied to them. And no, meat isn’t murder either – murder is defined as the killing of a human, no matter what Morrissey says. Sure, meat may be killing, but murder it ain’t.
And then almost all the arguments I encountered in favour of eating meat were rubbish. The argument “but it’s natural” can be heard very often as a defence, and usually from people who do so many unnatural things in their lives – take medicine, use contraception, live in houses, work on computers – that they may as well be robots. Other arguments are barely better, and the last couple of years I have been struggling with a desire to eat meat (it’s very tasty, you know) and a worry that I might be burning up my karma with every succulent bite.
And then I found the truly excellent book “The Omnivores dilemma”, which takes a very wide look at food and the food industry. In one chapter the author looks at vegetarianism and realises that, morally, vegetarians may in fact be right. So he becomes vegetarian while he works through the ethics and philosophy to see what he can work out.
He concludes the following – in terms of animals killed, vegetarianism may not always be better that omnivorism. Take the example of a hectare of Soya beans. When the beans are harvested, a large number of animals are killed through being hacked up or having their burrows destroyed. Compare this with the killing of a single animal – a cow – for a large quantity of protein-rich beef. If quantity of death is our main moral yardstick, then surely the well looked after cow should die before the multiple denizens of the Soya field.
As well as this, Soya beans require masses of water and fertiliser and deplete the soil unless the crop is carefully rotated with something else. The cow, on the other hand, is pretty self-going and actually makes the land richer with its manure, its hoof prints and its cropping of the grass. And yes, Soya beans don’t fart but then again the left-over vegetable parts of the bean harvest will usually decay and release methane.
Also there is a lot of land in the world where crops cannot be grown, but where grazing animals can live, giving us an important way to convert otherwise wasted sunlight into food. And don’t forget that domestic animals are part of a complex recycling process which is absolutely necessary if chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) are to be avoided and traditional farming kept alive.
We have, simply, become too far removed from the reality of food and food production. Animals are a part of our biosphere and represent a necessary, simple and extremely valuable way to convert things we can’t eat (grass and vegetable waste) into things that we can (meat, milk, eggs). The main problem with meat ethics is that the act of death has been moved so far away from the consumer that they are barely aware of it.
Death is a part of meat eating, and we would all be better off if that connection was made clear and obvious. Your kilo of beef will therefore cost you not just money but also the knowledge that you are responsible for a certain percentage of an animal’s life and death.
To conclude: Animals raised in a completely natural way (there’s that word again), allowed to wallow in all of their animal instincts and killed in the best possible way may be eaten with a clear conscience. An even better option is to raise the animals yourself to guarantee that their lives have been good. And if you cannot bring yourself to kill an animal, or even think about its dying to give you dinner, then you should piss off and eat something else.
And finally, getting back to the magazine. They discuss, on page 8, a new “guilt free” way of eating meat in the future – by growing cloned cells and tissue in large science-fiction vats. Now does this seem just a little bit ridiculous to anybody else? In effect this will force the production of food into an even greater dependence upon industrial techniques, and increase the amount of energy needed, as well as remove the role of animals in renewing the soil we need to grow our food, just to assuage some human guilt.
I suggest that people who think that vat-grown meat is a good idea can get themselves a little farm, people it with chickens and pigs and then decide if they will pile up the animal carcasses, uneaten, in the yard, or give the creatures a noble and slightly quicker death and then put their flesh to some good use instead of just feeding it to the rats and maggots.