Okay. I can hear the typing of angry vegans responding already. To some, there’s no such thing as an ethical omnivore.
Animal rights and the choice of some people to eat meat, even as a conscious act, are divisive topics. Hence the inherent humour in the joke, “How can you tell if someone’s a vegan? Oh, don’t worry, they’ll let you know”.
But, despite our sometimes-differing views, I’m more than happy to admit that vegans have done wonders for animal rights and the welfare of sentient beings. Peter Singer, one of the English-speaking world’s most prominent animal ethicists and author of Animal Liberation, published in 1975, is vegan. The woman who co-founded PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Ingrid Newkirk, is a vegan. Lyn White, head of Animals Australia (an organisation which traces its origins back to Peter Singer and others), the woman who exposed shocking animal cruelty in Australia’s live export trade, is a vegan.
And, hence, I see a problem. Not with what these high-profile vegans and their organisations do, but with what we, those who have chosen to eat meat, don’t do. And what we don’t do, often enough, is stand up for the rights of the animals we use for food, drink and clothing.
So I don’t have a beef with vegans talking about animal rights. But I do have issues with meat-eaters abrogating their responsibility on the issue. Surely, if we choose to eat meat, to have others breed, rear and kill animals on our behalf, we should have an opinion on how they’re treated? Isn’t it incumbent on the omnivores of the world to have more to say about animal welfare than those who choose not to eat animals? After all, it’s in our name that these beings are brought into this world, husbanded during life and then dispatched at our command.
The issue hit home for me in a big way when I first stepped from the city to the bush; from the suburbs to the farm. Every decision on Fat Pig Farm has to incorporate not only the wants and needs of us, but the wants and needs of our animals. Sometimes, I have to admit, we get it wrong. Sometimes, as custodians and guardians of our livestock, we fail. There has been suffering on my farms. We have, unwittingly, extended the pain in an animal’s life – mostly, it must be said, by trying to nurse them when they get sick. A cow died on my watch. So did a ewe. So did a turkey, and more than one chicken, even as we tried in vain to feed them through an eyedropper. (The most suffering I have been responsible for, though, is through not ending an animal’s life soon enough.)
So I’m no saint on the matter. The reality is, however, that I have made a very conscious decision to eat meat. I know that no matter what I eat, something is affected. I personally kill more living things (usually slugs and aphids) when I grow and eat cabbage, than in a year’s worth of beef consumption. I am unabashedly guilty of what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesism’, where I favour one or more species over others – a kind of animal discrimination. But I also think it is incumbent upon me, as someone who eats meat, to take an interest in how, where and why we raise animals. In other words, of all the people who should have more motivation and more reason to be involved in the discussion, meat-eaters are top of the list.
Surely, you may ask, if we want to stop animal suffering, then we should all, simply, go vegetarian? Well, the answer isn’t so simple, and there’s no space here to really go into detail. For a start, while it might sound like an easy answer, the world isn’t going vegan anytime soon. Even Peter Singer admits it’s better to get the animals that are raised to have a better life than to suddenly expect the world to give up its love affair with meat. (If you’ve time, you could also take a look at this article, and you’ll see that, according to some estimates, 25 times more sentient beings die to produce a kilo of protein from wheat than they do per kilo of beef protein.) Since I’ve thought about the issue, and I feel no guilt being a meat, fruit and vegetable farmer, what matters isn’t that you or I eat meat, but rather how those animals live and, just as importantly, die.
And yet, as a society, we don’t think about the animals we eat. As Anna Krien points out in a particularly excellent Quarterly Essay (Issue 45, 2012), we are becoming polarised in the way we associate with animals. On the one hand, we fetishise them – carry dogs in our purses, watch videos of cute kittens on YouTube, believe the talking pig in Babe actually does see the world as a human does – and, on the other hand, we have intensified animal production so that some never see the sun. Some never feel the wind on their faces or dirt under their feet. Everything about animals’ existence in a so-called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO for short, though most lay people use the term ‘factory farm’) is so far removed from their genetic forebears that it’s a strange testament to the ingenuity of humans that we can keep those animals alive, and relatively healthy, under such conditions.
Australian novelist Charlotte Wood also talked about the dichotomy of our relationship with animals in the Good Weekend in 2011. She’s uncomfortable with the way “our culture is drenched in anthropomorphic sludge”. She’s suggesting that (and here I’ll use Krien’s paraphrase), “the more we sentimentalise animals on the one hand, the more we brutalise them on the other”.
Wood says we have made a “grossly sentimental failure to embrace the ‘other-ness’ of animals … to imagine them as anything but approximations of ourselves”. So we either imagine our domestic pets (or animals in children’s stories) to be just like us, or discount any similarities, and accord them very few rights at all.
It’s up to us, as a society, to decide what is, and isn’t, acceptable in terms of how we treat our animals. At present, you can legally house your pigs in a way that you cannot house your dogs1. Pretending not to know what happens to animals raised for human uses is not an option, unless you choose not to buy from that system. Informed, reasoned, vocal opinion from you, the omnivore, is vital, or farmers may do things you don’t agree with behind the locked gates or barn doors.
If we want farmers to rear animals that have been able to express their instincts, then we as a society must decide that’s important – and pay more if that’s what’s necessary
That said, farmers only do things on our behalf. They aren’t the enemy, they are merely doing our deeds for us. If we want cheap at any cost, we can have cheap. Just don’t open the door on the shed where the chickens are housed unless you want a nasty shock. If we want farmers to rear animals that have been able to express their instincts, then we as a society must decide that’s important – and pay more if that’s what’s necessary to achieve that aim. As the saying goes: if you want something cheaper than the real cost of production, then something must suffer – the farmer, the animal or the environment.
Omnivores need to be part of the conversation. It’s no wonder we find it hard to be heard, however. Those with an interest in stopping the world from eating meat, or rejecting calls for open and accountable animal husbandry, have been louder for longer. It’s always the radicals that will be motivated more to speak out. There will always be extremists who will go to inordinate lengths for their cause – and perhaps we need them to highlight problems on both sides of the farm gate. But the difficulty lies in that extremists of any kind can easily alienate the mainstream. And the mainstream in Australia eats meat.
Animal welfare isn’t a fringe issue. It isn’t a vegan issue. It isn’t even an omnivore’s issue. It’s a discussion that the whole community should be involved in, because how we rear, house and dispatch other living creatures is a measure of how civilised a society we really want to be.
Illustration by Bea Crespo/The Illustration Room
We eat a lot of meat in Australia – more than most other nations on earth. But do we really know what meat we are eating, and where it’s come from? Find out more with Matthew Evans in For The Love of Meat, Thursdays 7.30pm on SBS and also on SBS On Demand.
- 1. Each state and territory in Australia has animal cruelty legislation but there are significant exemptions for farm animals. This means, among other things, that a pig or other livestock animal could be housed or caged in a manner that would not be acceptable for dogs. https://www.voiceless.org.au/the-issues/factory-farming