Image for Mind what you eat. Bon appetit ... !

*Pic: Pic from HERE

London is full of chickens on electric spits,
Cooking in windows where the public pass.
This, say the chickens, is their Auschwitz,
And all poultry eaters are psychopaths.

_ Peter Porter

First published June 13

When I read David Walsh’s blog ( HERE ) in defence of the DarkMofo/Nitsch performance and his subsequent apology for his careless comment about visitors to Auschwitz, I was immediately reminded of Peter Porter’s disturbing poem Annotations of Auschwitz.

Unlike Walsh’s attempt at irony, there is nothing “sloppy” about Porter’s poetry. The poem is primarily about the horror of Auschwitz - not about the ethics of eating chicken - and the final image is precisely calculated to lodge as a trigger for remembering that abomination: lest we forget. However, it can also lodge as a reminder of the hell we have created for animals which we mindlessly exploit for food.

I was further reminded of JM Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. The central character, Elizabeth, draws on the Auschwitz comparison directly: “Let me say it openly: we are surrounded by an [industrialized food production] enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of.”

In his recent Papal Encyclical Pope Francis warns us: “Our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people.”

Elizabeth Costello says it has already happened: the stockyards showed the way; it was from them that the Nazis learned how to “process bodies.” Peter Porter could have used the image of the cattle truck to equal effect.

In the novel, JM Coetzee makes sure his central character is justly criticised for her crude, insensitive and offensive comparison by another character in the novel. It is a reminder of how careful we need to be in the way we speak of such matters. However, it can be argued that the identification of certain disturbing features in common can - if done respectfully - illuminate both horrors, without in any way suggesting they are morally equivalent, which clearly they are not.

Elizabeth Costello goes on to point out some of the common features of moral failure.

“The horror is that the killers [at Auschwitz] refused to think themselves into the place of their victims, as did everyone else…
In other words, they closed their hearts. The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another…
[Let us] return one last time to the places of death all around us, the places of slaughter [of our factory food animals] to which, in a huge communal effort, we close our hearts. Each day a fresh haulocaust, yet as far as I can see, our moral being is untouched. We do not feel tainted.”

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe has argued in a different context – see my article It’s up to all of us ( HERE ) – that this form of disavowal actually comes at a great cost. We see footage of horrendous animal suffering on the news. We know intuitively that something is seriously wrong but feel so overwhelmed that we cannot face the full reality of it or our deepest feelings of shame about it. In disavowing that reality, we create a dislocation in our inner world. We cut ourselves off from that part of us that instinctively does care.

We lose our integrity.

Rather than help us deal with this problem, the dominant culture exacerbates it by actively encouraging our denial, avoidance and disavowal. As Weintrobe reminds us: “Care starts with a determination to face the real picture.”

The real picture is that our industrialized food production system is truly horrific in its scale of cruelty and suffering. It is a system in which we are all complicit. But the present dominant culture – which she calls “the culture of uncare” – actively undermines our capacity to care about it and to act upon our sense of outrage.

This is because our culture no longer serves us: it serves the “business as usual” mentality of those who benefit most from the current system.

Take one, particularly egregious, example. Last year’s ABC 7.30 Report on the live animal export trade provides a classic case study of the various dynamics in play. It shows animals suffering in appalling conditions. There was a huge public outcry. The industry and the government once again went into damage control in order to stop the trade being shut down.

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What is the justification for this appalling trade, which an overwhelming majority of the public believes should end?  There is no moral justification, only an appeal to self-interest. It is in the financial interests of a relatively small number of farmers, transport contractors, shipping companies, workers etc for the industry to continue, at the lowest possible cost for the maximum profit.

To really take care of these animals would be completely uneconomic, so they make every effort to keep regulation to a minimum. Hence the political lobbying and publicity campaigns to reassure the public.

The suffering of animals is not the only moral value in play here. There is also the extensive damage to the natural environment that cattle cause and the very significant contribution they make to our carbon emissions, directly through their methane production and indirectly through their transport. However, it is the unnecessary cruelty to (and suffering of) these animals that is the major concern.

So here we face the moral issue squarely.

What matters more to us: our moral values or financial interests?  Do we believe people are entitled to profit from such cruelty? Is it acceptable to build our lifestyle and economy on such suffering?

In his pioneering work Animal Liberation, Peter Singer argues that the scale of tyranny of humans over non humans is comparable to the slave trade. Elizabeth Costello says: “People complain that we treat animals like objects, but in fact we treat them like slave populations ... We don’t hate them, because they are not worth hating any more. We regard them with contempt.”

Our predecessors had to deal with these issues in order to defeat that slave trade. Eventually, they triumphed because they knew that it was an evil trade and they cared enough to insist that government abolish it.

In his Encyclical, Pope Francis makes a passionate appeal to us to do the right thing and “care for the animals”, following the example of his famous namesake St Francis of Assizi: “Every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity ... All creation has an intrinsic value that is independent of its usefulness ... Other creatures are not merely resources to be exploited.” 

Even if you are sceptical about precisely what dignity animals might share, there can be no doubts about their capacity to suffer. Chickens, pigs, cows, sheep all have consciousness, all feel pain and they all have natural lives to enjoy. This arguably is the case for all vertebrates, including fish.

The total number of animals involved is enormous: it has been estimated that some 60 billion farmed animals and somewhere between 1 -3 trillion fish are killed annually to satisfy our appetites. So the scale of suffering is immense and is exceeded only by the scale of our wilful moral blindness or mindless indifference.

The extent and scale of the suffering, according to ethicist Peter Singer, must surely be a matter of deep moral concern to any right-minded, thinking person.

As former High Court Justice Hon. Michael Kirby says:

“In our shared sentience, human beings are intimately connected with other animals. Endowed with reason and speech, we are uniquely empowered to make ethical decisions and to unite for social change on behalf of others that have no voice. Exploited animals cannot protest about their treatment or demand a better life. They are entirely at our mercy. So every decision of animal welfare, whether in Parliament or the supermarket, presents us with a profound test of moral character”.

The above example of the live animal export trade provides the clearest opportunity for political action to end one form of unnecessary harm to animals with minimal impact on our lives.

Political activism to reduce the suffering of animals that we eat ourselves has the more modest - but still important - goal of dramatically improving animal welfare standards, through more stringent regulation of the industry.

Both forms of political activism require much stronger community support and increased pressure on our politicians. So it’s up to us. The live animal export trade has been stopped in New Zealand, so it could be here. Animal welfare measures have been developed elsewhere – Denmark to improve the caging of pigs - so we could do the same here.

Progress on this – like progress on any moral issue – depends on three things. We need to care about the issue, which requires us to reflect on what we should care about. We need to work out what is the right thing to do about these issues. Finally – and this tends to be the biggest hurdle - we need to act (not just sit) on our moral convictions. This means we must be prepared to make a commitment to extend ourselves in order to do the right thing, which usually involves some personal effort, sacrifice and cost.

At the political level, this might involve little more than contacting our elected representatives to let them know our views, supporting organisations like Animals Australia in their advocacy for change by donating and/or signing petitions, pressuring our local food suppliers to provide more ethically produced products, etc.

Ending the live animal export trade and improving the conditions of animals we eat are moral issues that we should all be able to unite on, whether we are committed meat eaters or vegetarians.

At the personal level, there is enormous scope for meaningful moral action through our considerable power as consumers. We can make our vote count at the check-out.

Peter Singer argues in The Ethics of What We Eat that we should choose food that causes the least suffering to animals, the least environmental damage, the least impact on climate change, the least adverse effect on global poverty and is the most just to workers:

Some food systems cause much more harm than others. The prevailing large scale industrialized factory farming of chickens, turkeys, pigs and dairy cattle is at one extreme. Most supermarkets, groceries, fast-food outlets and restaurants source their food from these. There is an overwhelming moral case for avoiding all such foods purely on the basis of the appalling animal cruelty involved in the production process, let alone the other forms of harm.

The small scale, organic, free-range farming of animals, where animal welfare is a priority, is at the other extreme of commercial food production. While still problematic, it is ethically preferable for people who believe it is permissible to eat such products to source them from the best available farms for the animals. Of course, it takes more effort and costs more, so it really comes down to how people believe they should prioritize the allocation of their limited resources according to their moral values.

Because some people find it is just too onerous to be constantly researching and monitoring their ethical food choices, they find it easier to choose a vegan or vegetarian diet by default and make occasional decisions to depart from it when they are satisfied that it can be justified. For example, they may sometimes happily eat wild wallaby/kangaroo meat or a chook, pig, sheep or cow that they know has been killed instantly in the paddock after a good life.

For those who believe it is wrong to kill animals for food, choosing a totally vegan diet is clearly the best option. Provided they supplement their diet with vitamin B12, they can lead a perfectly healthy life. Peter Singer sees this as the most ethically defensible diet. However, he recognises that most people won’t choose it and so he encourages people to take whatever steps they can to improve the situation.

If becoming totally vegetarian or vegan is just too big a step for you, you could start by eliminating just some meat from your diet. For example, you might stop eating chicken and/or pork because you are particularly troubled by the extreme suffering of these animals. You might refuse to eat factory farmed eggs, or search for genuinely free-range alternatives, for the same reason.  Alternatively, you could choose to start with one or more vegetarian days per week and build up progressively – like those in the “Meat Free Mondays” movement.

There are multiple options available to consumers, depending on their priorities. I know some people who choose to pay more for their dairy products by buying from producers for whom animal welfare is a top priority, because they are concerned about the suffering of the cows and their calves. Others are more concerned about climate change and so concentrate on reducing their consumption of all cattle products. There are those concerned about global poverty who also avoid grain-fed animals because they believe the huge quantity of grain involved would be much better used to feed the poor. Coffee drinkers can choose Oxfam’s Fair Trade Coffee because they want to reduce exploitation of local workers.

Increasingly, people are choosing to avoid intensively farmed fish, like salmon. This can be because of the suffering (if they agree that fish experience pain), because the fish are fed factory-farmed animal products and unsustainable wild fish, or because of the extreme degradation to the marine environment. Others have decided to reduce significantly or stop eating wild fish. The main reason is the huge by-catch that is wasted and the threat of extinction to so many fish species brought about by commercial fishing.

There are many choices open to the conscientious ethical eater who wants not only to experience the pleasures of eating but also to feel good about what they eat. We do not need to build our happiness on the suffering of our fellow creatures. Whatever we do will have moral consequences. Anything we can do to improve the situation will make a difference.

So let’s all step up!

Before choosing bacon and eggs, let’s think about the farming practices and the suffering of the pigs and chooks and ask whether the fact that we like the taste of their meat and eggs is sufficient justification. Before choosing to eat steak, let’s also think of the wider implications for the environment and the planet. Let’s make a stand on moral principle and commit to making more ethical food choices in the future. 

We should never underestimate our power as consumers, or the power of our example to others at the dinner table. It was the example of a fellow student in a University cafeteria that changed Peter Singer’s views, which in turn has changed millions of others’.

It does not matter how you start, as long as you make a start and carry it through. You may have to give up a few pleasurable tastes for the sake of your conscience and to alleviate suffering. But you will surely feel better about yourself. And you will not starve. You may even be surprised at how good the alternatives taste.

It’s really up to each of us to confront this glaring and very important moral issue for the sake of our moral health, the welfare of our fellow creatures and the health of our planet. The only thing that can save us as moral beings and save other sentient beings from a life of misery is facing the truth about ourselves and their real predicament, and caring enough to act individually and collectively to make the situation better for all.

This is a difficult moral issue and one that is often painful to discuss, as anyone who has sat through an uncomfortable dinner conversation, where such issues are raised, will testify. So it is important to be tolerant and kind towards the people with whom we disagree. People should not be teased or ridiculed for making ethical food choices or condemned for failing to do so. We are all in this together.

Eating is one of the great pleasures in life. It is important that we can enjoy it to the full. That will depend increasingly on the choice of food we put on the plate. When we say “Bon appetit”, we should remember the meaning of the word “bon” and make sure that we can say it with integrity.

*Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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