Friday, 23 August 2013

Farm animals: just food or fellow creatures?

AN eager audience has arrived for tonight's conversation at St John's Just Festival conversation on animal ethics, farming and more.

The speakers are Peter Stevenson (Compassion in World Farming) and Dr Fritha Langford (University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Rural College), along with chair Michael Appleby (The World Society for the Protection of Animals).

The picture (not the panel!) indicates that there is a slight technical problem with transmitting photos right now, but as it happens we are starting with some pictures of the creatures being discussed and the conditions in which they are reared.

Overcrowded, barren and filthy conditions are sadly all too frequent, said Peter Stevenson, having shown some evidence for this. Treating animals simply as food means that we may adopt harm reduction and ensure some basic standards of safety, but developing a real sense of respect for the world and its creatures is a larger and more significant matter.

He quoted both St Basil of Caesarea: "May we recognise that they exist not for us alone, but for us and thee..." and from Lyle Watson, in The Whole Hog.

Fritha Langford, from an academic point of view, wants to ask about the researched needs of animals and what they, in themselves, 'bring to the table' in terms of the debate about treatment and ethics. What matters to a cow? How can one know?

So how can we feed the world sustainably, while also treating farm animals humanely?  It's 9 billion people by 2050 we are talking about. The real issue is sustainability, says Peter. "factory farming is very inefficient" - the calories we get back are minimal, compared to the grain inputs.

Could there be a different food source for pigs and sheep, say, sake Fritha? Grass and connective materials, replied Peter, converting something we can't eat into something we can. "The very systems that are so flawed are the ones that are inhumane."

In the developed world we should be eating fewer animal products more sustainably and humanely produced. In the developing world, the issues are different, and the two should not be confused.

We need to look at the life cycle, system measurements and particular needs, suggested Fritha, also factoring in the carbon footprint.

An organic chicken takes more carbon to produce, but if you eat less it balances it out, commented Michael Appleby.

Food waste, changes in consumption patterns and changes in distribution are key to feeding the world, Peter and Michael.  2.75 billion people could be fed by halving waste and grain feed, Peter said. The idea that we need 70% more production per se misses these issues of policy and responsibility.

The issue of fish farming and welfare was one that needed much greater attention, the panel agreed. There was also a need for more data and knowledge.

Breeding units in Scotland feature millions of fish in a unit the size of a small hall. The ethical question, said Peter, was about the distinction between natural and farmed behaviour. "The science cannot yet tell us, 'does the fish mind'," but that does not remove responsibility and judgement.

'Cheap food' is the real culprit, Peter suggests. It is only cheap because real costs are not factored in - health, environment, and so on. We in the west are eating poor food, and it is the taxpayer, the health service and future generations who are paying.

Professor Tim Lang has said that the current factory-based system is a crazy use of resources, crazy economics and crazy for health.

Supermarkets say "we are simply giving customers what we want", as if they and their advertising had no part in shaping a culture of expectation among consumers.

"We are not being helped as a society to be grown up and mature about food and animals", Peter Stevenson declared.

What of the horsemeat scandal?  Has it changed anything? "I don't think it has made us as a society say that we want to rethink how we derive meat and dairy products," Peter responded. "The way we treat animals in factory farming is awful. The pictures I showed you earlier are illegal, but there is a major problem with enforcement..."

How do we know where our food comes from and by what means? This is another major issue, along with who controls and disseminates such information.

Retailers and supermarkets are also often "hiding the truth from consumers". The internet can be a help, but it is not a substitute for good, pro-active communication and dialogue.

Education must play a major role in changing attitudes, sustainability and healthy food production.  Dr Fritha Langford said that there was growing interest in animal welfare in schools in Scotland, some of it government backed. That includes companion animals. Taking children to farms is important, too, though there can be obstacles.

"If you can run a farm on which you are perfectly happy to have school trips and visitors, then you are probably doing something right," said Michael. "If you are ashamed, there's a problem."

Talking of choices consumers may make: schemes like the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme, though not perfect, are better in what they recommend than the factory system, it was suggested. Free range and organic approaches have a number of advantages overall.

The question of 'fellow creatures' suggests that we are not just using animals, but we are in some sense entering a contract with them, working with them.

"We need to move way from overuse of human edible grain as a major source of food, eating less meat and making it better... It is also a matter of ethics, of spirituality, of rebalancing... and recognising ourselves as creatures," concluded Peter, questioning the dominant 'consumer society' paradigm.

This has been an evolving blog... do add your own comments or corrections. 

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