Animal rights issues have recently been in the news. A couple of weeks ago CBC Marketplace aired an expose on factory farming right here in Canada that featured undercover footage of a turkey being killed with a shovel. Last week, McMaster was to benefit when a professor from Rutgers was set to give a talk on animal ethics. And this past Saturday’s Spectator featured an article from The Washington Post in which scientists queried whether crustaceans feel pain. Why people with PhDs are unsure about this is completely beyond me.
After all, regardless of the specifics of an invertebrate’s nervous system, we should acknowledge that as a natural organism of the earth they have a right to life. This is not to say that this right disqualifies them from being consumed. The food chain is as much a part of nature as the beautiful aspects. All the wondrous things we see are contingent upon the fact that species continue to survive by consuming each other on a daily basis. It’s not pretty, but food is one of the most basic things about living on earth.
There is a fundamental difference, however, between what occurs in the animal kingdom and the way that humans harvest. Prior to the industrial age, man’s relationship with animals was one of necessity, scarcity and animal husbandry. Generally speaking, many people had a direct link to the animals they cared for, along with some rhyme and reason to how they got to the local butcher. Likewise, animals also economize how they acquire food.
But the problems today are that we have unpleasantly commodified meat to such an extent that we take it for granted. For example, we fish the seas with mile-long nets that trap most everything along the way. This is troubling not only because of the way animals are treated, but also because we live in a very wasteful society. We don’t feel enough responsibility to take seriously our role and opportunities to be stewards of the earth. It is one thing to at least put resources to good use, but a portion of the animals which suffer for food production never even get eaten, and instead expire and are thrown out (like much food in wealthy countries).
It’s also curious how arbitrary our ideas are. Traditional farm animals are deemed okay and legal for food consumption, while cats and dogs are not. Society is sickened when pets are neglected while many do not consider the suffering in our farm factories. This disconnect is highlighted when we consider our uproar at learning that other cultures eat dogs or snakes, while in turn they cannot understand why we in North America eat cows, which are sacred in India.
Ultimately, we don’t really want to think about these things, because if we cared then we would truly realize the horror of these practices. I personally don’t know what the answers are. There was a point when I was a vegetarian for a time, but I have again begun thinking about the issues deeply.
Some of these don’t only extend to meat, however, but agriculture as well. Exploitation of workers is rife, as are debates about pesticides versus organic. But this idea of endlessly abundant food, always available for an ever-growing number of supermarkets around the world, supplied by dwindling resources, does not seem realistically sustainable. Certainly not as long as we see our relationship with food as something that one way or another will inevitably somehow just be there when we go to market.
The first step to a new reality is one which has already been happening, and indeed has never really left certain parts of the globe – that of rising prices as supplies drop. Though, this is usually an occurrence that North Americans are not used to, the recent severe drought in California this winter, which has not been well-publicized, is a case in point. Faced with extreme water shortages, in part due to a highly deficient snow-cap this winter, farmers have been forced to leave large swaths of land fallow. With the coming summer heat, it is anyone’s guess how this may further impact a region that supplies much of North America with alot of its crops.
Though these challenges are immense, there is something that we should be doing. We should, for one, not place only a monetary value on life. This would also provide numerous benefits. But suffice it to say, the days of all-you-can-eat buffets should be drawing to a close. It’s not good for our waistlines nor for businesses that prepare a lot of food that never gets eaten. And it’s not good for our conception of food as something that spills out of some kind of mythical cornucopia which disguises the true nature of how it actually comes to our dinner tables, and who has to pay the price for it to get there so cheaply.