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On Ruffling Feathers

On Ruffling Feathers

When it comes to eating animals, is the question no longer whether it’s ‘natural’, but whether it is ‘justifiable’? asks Tara Sahgal, Editor-in-chief Sanctuary Cub magazine. Citing quotes, reports, anecdotes and arguments from the likes of Kafka, Dawkins and DiCaprio, she makes her case for vegetarianism in an era of climate change.

Animals, often genetically modified for rapid growth, are piled one on top of another in multi-storey buildings, living in their own filth, pumped with antibiotics, neither alive nor dead, awaiting slaughter. Photo: Public Domain.

“I want to find a way of speaking to fellow human beings that will be cool rather than heated, philosophical rather than polemical, that will bring enlightenment rather than seeking to divide us into the righteous and the sinners, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the goats.” – J.M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals

“Now I can look at you in peace,” Franz Kafka famously said to a fish in an aquarium, “I don't eat you any more.” This was once the uppermost reason for my vegetarianism. It was enough for me to know I didn’t have blood on my hands. Not so much anymore. It’s said that the omnivorous diet has been crucial to the survival of our species – humans have always eaten meat. It makes sense then to conclude that eating animals is ‘natural’. But scratch the surface of a filet mignon and all will be revealed; there is nothing natural about the meat humans eat today.

We have known for a while that there are no big red barns or happy cows. Most of the meat, eggs and dairy we consume comes from ‘factory farms’. Okay, so old MacDonald has sold out (or rather, been snuffed out) just like every other Little Guy in our dog-eat-dog economy. What’s so special about that? Well, for one thing, when corporate greed (maximum production at the lowest price for the most profits at any cost) is applied to the creatures we raise for food, the suffering of the animals is unimaginable.

Once upon a time, we stalked and hunted ‘free-range’ prey. It was a matter of survival. Later, several human cultures developed some pretty strict – and possibly more humane – rules surrounding how animals should be raised and killed, often thankful and apologetic for the ultimate sacrifice. Not anymore. Today, animal agriculture usually takes place in high-security facilities, for good reason. Here, animals, often genetically modified for rapid growth, are piled one on top of another in multistorey buildings, living in their own filth, pumped with antibiotics, neither alive nor dead, awaiting slaughter.

Chickens, debeaked and declawed (so they don't maul each other) are packed into buildings with controlled lighting designed to fool them into increased egg production. In others, cows are crammed together and kept perpetually pregnant for maximum milk yield. In hog farms, tails are removed to prevent them from being chewed off in desperation. These are standard descriptions – the cruelty is institutionalised. The work conditions and psychic scarring that factory workers endure, match the psychopathic violence they inflict in the name of our appetites. So today, when it comes to eating animals, the question is no longer whether it’s  ‘natural’, but whether it is ‘justifiable’.

‘Free-range’ animal products are so incapable of meeting current demand, not always ‘cruelty-free’, and so environmentally unsustainable, that though they represent a desire for a ‘better way’, the fact is, they’re not it. If the ethical argument doesn't matter (new research that shows many food animals are more like us than we would like to believe and in suffering are our equals), one hopes the impact on our environment will.

Satirical depiction of the factory farming practices of the meat industry comparing it to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Photo: Jo Frederiks/Public Domain.

Livestock's Long Shadow, a 2006 report released by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), states: "The livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally it is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading cause of water pollution.”

If animal agriculture has such a grim effect on the environment, why don't we hear more about it? Environmental groups have been yelling themselves hoarse about fossil fuels for decades. Even Sunday supplements would agree that climate deniers are a ridiculous bunch. So why are we regularly asked to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, but not to ‘eat less meat, fish, eggs and dairy’? These are questions the 2014 crowd-funded documentary Cowspiracy, produced and directed by US filmmakers Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, addresses.

What started as one man’s quest ended up being executive-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and seemed poised to cause an effect on the meat industry similar to the that the film Blackfish had on Seaworld. Cowspiracy dug up some startling facts. Here are a few:

2,500 gallons of water are needed to produce 1 pound of beef.

Livestock covers 45 per cent of the earth’s total land.

As many as 40 per cent (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year is discarded.

Scientists estimate about 6,50,000 whales, dolphins and seals are killed every year by fishing vessels.

A farm with 2,500 dairy cows produces the same amount of waste as a city of 4,11,000 people.

Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91 per cent of the Amazon rainforests’ destruction.

We grow enough food to feed 10 billion people.

Worldwide, at least 50 per cent of grain is fed to livestock.

82 per cent of starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals.

A vegan diet produces 50 per cent less carbon dioxide than a meat-based one.

Each day, a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq. ft. of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.

Pegged as  ‘the film environmental organisations don’t want you to see’ it features cringe-worthy interviews with green group and meat industry representatives alike. Alongside its runaway success, it has attracted many critics and detractors. Heated debates ensued about methodological flaws in the study (Goodland, R Anhang, J., WorldWatch, 2009) from which a statistic about green house gas (GHG) was taken. The USC (Union of Concerned Scientists) says that the scientific consensus is that livestock contribute 15 per cent of GHG emissions, not 51 per cent as the film states. However, there were no loud criticisms of any other statistics in the film, and no one could dispute that 15 per cent of all GHGs is not only huge, it’s about the same as is attributed to the global transport sector. A fact oddly under-represented in mainstream media or on the websites of our most trusted environmental groups. Certainly makes one wonder.

In the words of the filmmakers, “The purpose of the film was to raise awareness of the single most destructive industry facing the planet today: animal agriculture… it is the leading cause of deforestation, desertification, ocean dead-zones, species extinction, habitat destruction, water use, water pollution, top soil erosion, etc. The fact that the entire environmental movement is focused on fossil fuels and not animal agriculture is to the detriment of true sustainability.” Whether or not there is a conspiracy of silence around the meat industry, this much seems clear: the film started a conversation no wanted to have and revealed a tool for sustainable living more powerful than a thousand shorter showers: our personal food choices.

If the ethical and environmental impacts of animal agriculture aren't enough, The Pew Charitable Trusts have this to say: “The FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all testified before Congress that there is a definitive link between the routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and the challenge of antibiotic resistance in humans.” Are we looking at a future where infectious diseases kill us by the droves as they did at the turn of the 20th century all for the love of hamburgers?

Many studies have emerged about the correlation between animal protein and cancer, heart disease, diabetes and others. Possibly an equal number have been published contradicting them. We don't know what to believe. But when the industries recommending what’s healthy for us are the same or related to the industries that stand to gain from the sale, it makes coming to conclusions a bit easier. Yet, even for those of us convinced that a greener diet is the way forward, why is it still so hard to take the leap?

“To give up the taste of sushi or roasted chicken is a loss that extends beyond giving up a pleasurable eating experience. Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting…” says writer Jonathan Saffran Foer in Eating Animals. Taste and tradition - both worthwhile considerations. But how worthwhile? More than our humanity, the resources that sustain life on earth, our health and that of our children? “Perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting - even worth cultivating…” Saffran Foer concludes. We can understand why the meat industry doesn’t want us to ‘cultivate forgetfulness’ about our carnivorous cravings, but in spite of everything we know, why can’t we?

Maybe the truth is – we eat animals because we can get away with it. As a species, we have a long history of this kind of thinking. Richard Dawkins, author and evolutionary biologist, in conversation with moral philosopher Peter Singer (author of the 1975 classic Animal Liberation that forever changed the way we view animals) says, “… all of us who are eating meat… are in a very difficult moral position. What I am doing is going along with the fact that I live in a society where meat eating is accepted as the norm… It’s a little bit like the position… a couple of hundreds of years ago… where lots of people felt kind of morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it...”

Photo: SA Heinrich Boell Foundation, Friends of the Earth Europe.

Several intellectuals, philosophers and writers have pondered the connections between our ill-treatment of non-human animals and that of one another. “They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation,” says Nobel Prize winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, “All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.”

If we look at the history of human atrocities, enabling them is a silent populace. One that saw everything and said nothing. Until someone did. Just ask the descendants of slaves. Or homosexuals. Or women. In 1792 when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (an early work of feminist philosophy), it inspired the satirical A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes from Thomas Taylor, a Cambridge professor. To Taylor, the idea that women should have the same rights as men was as laughable to him as extending the same to animals.

It’s easy for us to scorn at the opinions of our ancestors, suggests Peter Singer in Practical Ethics, “It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own beliefs so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among them.” Most of us aren't complicit with terrible things because we are terrible people. We are complicit because we are conditioned to be so. “Livestock keeping is so embedded in our cultural and religious identity that to challenge it is to attack the foundations of society,” says environmental activist and writer, George Monbiot. “We like to see ourselves as free thinkers, but we all have our sacred cows.”

It’s time to open the gates and put these old cows to pasture. “Virtually every revolution for peace and justice has been made possible by a group of people who chose to bear witness and demanded that others bear witness as well,” says social psychologist Melanie Joy in Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows. To be vegan is to do no less than to take a personal stand against world hunger, poverty, environmental annihilation, ill health and moral decrepitude. As a civilisation interested in moral progress, we will eventually move towards a more healthy, plant-based diet. The world’s best chefs have already begun to step up to the table of the future. And I am certain that in time if you said – as Isaac Bashevis Singer did – “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens,” no one would think that you've lost your mind.

Author: Tara Sahgal


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March 31, 2018, 12:38 PM
 As much as i respect the idea of "less cruelty" and your personal choices, i do have to submit my reservations about them when you are preaching a particular lifestyle. I have had conversations on this topic with a few vegans i have met but i have never been satisfied on some crucial questions. And i sincerely hope you could enlighten me. This comment section seems to have a word limit though, so is there any way i could communicate with you, if you feel inclined to satisfy my curiosity ?
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February 8, 2017, 02:04 PM
 I am vegetarian because I do not associate meat with food, as you would not chomp a clod of earth, or a pair of socks... because you KNOW it's not food. Reading this caused me to think. I understand the Inuit must kill and eat seals