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It is the silly season of the year again. The president of the United States seemed to have nothing better to do this week than to ‘pardon’ one (well, two) turkeys, based on a popular vote that took place down south. Worldwide wall-to-wall media coverage ensured that actual animals capable of suffering and living a good life were both assigned idiotic names such as ‘popcorn,’ I kid you not, and then ‘pardoned.’ There’s something truly macabre about this kind of nonsense, given that millions of turkeys were reared in miserable circumstances for that one purpose only, to be slaughtered in equally dreadful circumstances around Thanksgiving.
We, of course, had our turkey slaughtering season a few weeks back.
In any case, this event brought home to me again how badly we treat animals that – like us – are capable of suffering and living a better or worse life. Given that most of us would agree that it is better to live in a world where there is overall less suffering than living in a world where there is more suffering, it is a bit puzzling why we rear and slaughter so many animals when we could well survive without consuming them at all.
There are actually a number of good ethical reasons for why we should begin to change how we perceive and treat non-human animals. I mentioned one already. If you think that suffering is usually a bad thing, you should aim in your daily life to reduce the suffering that could afflict you as well as anyone around you who might suffer as a result of your actions.
It turns out, we are pretty good at ensuring that we suffer as little as is feasible throughout our lives, and we do hold it against folks who make us suffer. When it comes to us inflicting pain on others, most of us have at least a guilty conscience, feelings of remorse or regret. Those who do not we call psychopaths.
Strangely when it comes to non-human animals who can also suffer, we don’t care that much anymore. That does not seem to be a terribly consistent way of dealing with the issue at hand. It doesn’t take much more than this to realize that animals matter significantly more than we typically give them credit for. If we did, would we manufacture them on an industrial scale as if they were comparable to other things we produce? Would we manipulate them genetically into growing fat faster so that we can slaughter them sooner? Would we really buy those concentration camp eggs we get at the supermarket because they are the cheapest?
It doesn’t seem all right to essentially torture these animals throughout their lives and then slaughter them, just to satisfy our demand for meat. Like us they also have only this one life. And yes, they might look different, and they might not use computers, but still their one life is all that they have. Very much like us.
Often ignored is another reason that should encourage those of us who don’t care a great deal about animals but who do care about our fellow humans, to consider reducing their meat consumption. This other reason is that it takes a huge amount of energy to actually produce the meat. We use massive amounts of fertile land to produce the animal feed necessary to grow animals (in addition to all sorts of unhealthy growth hormones, antibiotics and the list goes on). To produce 1kg of meat we roughly require between 5 and 10 kg of grain. Some have argued that world hunger would not exist if we all lived a vegetarian lifestyle and if we used the fertile land globally to produce only vegetarian food products.
Think about it, by 2050 the global population is estimated to be 50% larger than what it was just 10 years ago. Global grain demand is likely to double. This estimate is based on the conservative assumption that average income globally will also rise and so more people will be able to afford meat products. The reality is that meat production on current per capita consumption in the Western world for such a large number of people is environmentally unsustainable. If we fail to act on this issue we will see social instability on a global scale increase. This planet’s ecosystem cannot survive on its current growth trajectory.
So, whether you care about suffering or the future of your offspring, we have very good reasons to look again at our eating habits. Do I think we all simply should become vegetarians? In an ideal world that is what would happen. In the real world I’m not a vegetarian myself. I have been for some 15 years and then it lapsed for all sorts of personal reasons. What I manage to do today is to consciously limit my consumption of animals significantly. If there is a halfway digestible vegetarian meal in the restaurant, that’s what I order. Do not get me started on the incompetence of the average restaurateur to offer a decent-tasting vegetarian meal. It can’t be that difficult! In case there’s no choice of vegetarian food at all I tend to go for the animal that’s lowest in terms of its development (say, chicken instead of pork, prawn instead of chicken). I always purchase eggs in the supermarket that are from free-range chicken. That doesn’t do away with the production of chicken for the purpose of egg production, but it’s a compromise in my books that’s better than buying battery hen eggs. Similarly, I force myself to purchase meat products from local farmers who do not mass-produce livestock.
All of this, of course, is expensive. Well, that’s another good reason to limit the consumption of animal products.
I should say that all these efforts count for nothing in the eyes of animal liberation activists. Equally, many if not most of my colleagues in ethics are vegetarians or even vegans (i.e. they also refuse to consume milk or eggs). They are more consistent in their conduct than I am. What I am suggesting though, is that many animals, our environment and future generations of humans inhabiting this planet would be better off if more of us consciously reduced their consumption of mass-produced animal-based food products significantly. The nature of capitalism is such that demand would decrease and ever fewer animals would be reared in such appalling circumstances.
Perhaps that is a more realistic aim than to insist that we all become vegetarians.
Udo Schuklenk teaches bioethics at Queen’s University, he tweets @schuklenk.