A more measured approach

Yesterday The New York Times published an editorial about the one million dollar prize that PETA is offering for the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.” The Times’ response was interesting:

“We prefer a more measured approach. Ensure the least possible cruelty to animals, by all means, and raise them in ways that are both ethical and environmentally sound. But also treasure the cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals. Historically speaking, they exist only because of the uses we have found for them, and preserving their existence means, in most cases, preserving the uses we have made for them. It will be a barren world if the herds and flocks disappear in favor of meat grown in a laboratory tank.”

By changing just a few words of the above paragraph, we can apply this interesting logic to other contexts:

“We prefer a more measured approach. Ensure the least possible cruelty to slaves, by all means, and raise them in ways that are both ethical and environmentally sound. But also treasure the cultural and historical bond between us and our slaves. Historically speaking, they exist only because of the uses we have found for them, and preserving their existence means, in most cases, preserving the uses we have made for them. It will be a barren world if the happy slaves singing in the fields disappear in favor of crops harvested by machines.”

9 thoughts on “A more measured approach”

  1. Actually, I agree with them. I’ve always wondered what would become of cows, sheep and pigs if no one ate meat. As much as I love animals, personally I have no problem with eating them, just as I have no problem with the local foxes killing and eating rabbits, despite the fact that I have a pet rabbit. I don’t like to think of myself as above a fox in any way. Not that I have any plans to eat my own pet, mind you!

    It’s rather nice to see the red poll cattle in the middle of Cambridge, even knowing that they’ll end up on the menu of the local pubs come next winter.

    On the other hand, I’m not a fan of intensive arable farming… that’s my own measured approach. 🙂

  2. Lisa, I guess you agree with me that the change from “animal-meat” to the in-vitro alternative (or no meat at all) would never happen over night. Similar to other markets, the meat industry would gradually reduce the amount of produced meat. And as animals are regularly replaced by younger alternatives (read: killed) anyway, the necessary step wouldn’t be: kill them all, but rather: don’t breed any new.

    Furthermore, I don’t quite understand why preserving the animals we have “created” over the years is such an important thing. Most farmed animals (no difference in organic farming) are bred to be as productive as even possible. Cows have huge udders, way too heavy and painfull; hens lay an egg a day (they all have problems with their bones because of the calcium loss), broiler chicken are growing so fast in the first weeks of their lives that they are hardly able to stand – and so on..

    Do we really need to preserve these breeds?

    Cows on a field might look nice, yes. But is that worth it if you know how their life is like? Dairy cows don’t give milk without having a baby calf. So they need to be impregnated every year in order to produce enough milk. The baby calv is “removed” from its mother right after birth (we need the milk, right?), and if it is male, it is unlucky enough to be killed right away. Ok, maybe it’s sold first, shipped to another country and fattened for half a year or year first. All that applies to factory farming as well as organic farming.

    I wonder what “raise them in ways that are both ethical and environmentally sound” means. How should “ethical and environmentally sound” meat production look like, with meat consumption on the rise? How can processes like the described ones ever be ethical sound? How can killing ever be?

    Plus: there is a huge difference between the rabbit/fox and farmed animals. Farmed animals are part of our system of rights, enforced by laws/executive authorities. Rabbit and fox are not. If I’m out in the wild, no law will save me from being killed by a wild animal. If I am weak (ie. diabled) within our society, there are laws that enforce my rights.

    So for what reason are animals within our society not part of this rights system?

  3. I’m not sure what country you’re in, but I live fairly close to the countryside here in the UK, so am pretty au fait with farming, both intensive and free range. Ethical farming quite a mainstream issue here. For example, I believe we are very close to a ban on the export of live animals in the UK. Certainly the numbers are decreasing dramatically and there is widespread public objection to it.

    My mention of the rabbit and fox was a little beside the point, to be honest. It was more about eating meat, which both I and the fox enjoy (like humans, foxes are omnivores) despite the fact that it’s not strictly necessary for either of us.

    Maybe a better and more specific analogy would be ants and aphids. It’s simply a part of our collective “cultures”. It’s what we do and there are many scientists that believe that the domestication of animals was the impetus for civilisation as we know it.

    Why is it important to preserve domesticated breeds of animals? Why is it important to preserve old buildings? Sure, we can live without them, but do we really want to? Hence my mention of the red poll cattle – they’re a rare breed, native to Norfolk and Suffolk – well, as native as domesticated cattle can be, of course. And here in my town, they have a rather nice life before they’re served up in the local restaurants: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Red_Poll_Cambridge.jpg

    These are not high yield breeds, these are very old breeds. High yield animals are, I agree, an abomination and the UK is moving away from them as an agricultural concept as they are becoming genetically inviable.

    I do consider these red poll cattle to be ethically farmed (that’s my personal ethical view, by the way, which, not surprisingly, is the one that I care about) and in my area, it’s not difficult to choose meat and poultry products that are raised in this way.

  4. @Lisa: I was brought up in a rural part of Austria; my grandparents and some uncles/aunts are farmers, and I was spending most of my summer holidays on a farm. So I do have some practical background 😉

    What I wanted to say is: it’s often not as shiny as it looks at first glance. Organic farming if course a huge improvement, but it has its restrictions. Animal farming is, in any case, based on the fact that animals are sort of “production machines”. You have to put something effort into it to make it work (food, housing, some care), and you need to calculate the right points in time where to act (feed, breed, kill) to get most out of it. On the bottom line, a farm is a small company that needs to run profitable – a goal that is diametral opposed to animal welfare. Often, farmers don’t even like the practices they have to apply, but they accept them because “that’s how it is”.

    In fact, animal welfare laws (at least in Austria) have some similarity with monument conservation laws: in both cases, the subjects are considerred to be “things”, with owners. The owners are basically allowed to do anything they want, with the restrictions described within the law (ie. don’t change the basic structure of the building, don’t starve the animal to death etc..). Needless to say, the object/subject doesn’t have any right to speak up, to be represented by a solicitor..

    I see that humans have different values and prioritize them in different ways. Personally, I don’t understand why “preserve known things” should ever be a more important value than “guarantee an ethical life” (which, for me, includes not to kill). I really don’t understand..

  5. I really don’t understand your use of “organic” in this context. In the UK, at least, organic has nothing to do with animal welfare – it simply means that animals are fed organic feed (i.e., no genetically-modified ingredients or pesticides are used on the foodstuffs) and not to use antibiotics or growth hormones.

    I also know the difference between shiny and not-so-shiny and I expect that animal welfare laws and perspectives between Austria and the UK. Having lived in Italy, I know for a fact that the perspectives are much different. So, just as humans have different values, so do countries.

    We all have our own values, as you rightly point out. We can choose to follow them and lead by example or we can beat people over the head with them. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind – I’m simply putting forward my perspective.

  6. jeez – I hate not being able to edit. Please excuse the blatant typos. Hopefully the meaning is still clear!

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