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debate


14 September 2009
It's time to stop exploiting animals for food

I’ve been interested in issues of animal liberation since the 1970s, but there have been some important new developments in the past few years, particularly the increasing awareness of issues to do with factory farming.


Peter Singer
professor of bioethics, Princeton University

There’s been a high level of awareness about factory farming in Britain for a long time, but much less in the United States. That has changed in recent years, particularly thanks to a wave of new writing on food, like Michael Pollan’s work and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. It was in this context that I decided to write Eating to address not just the animal issues that I talked about in Animal Liberation, but also wider food issues, and environmental issues in particular.

There is a growing acceptance that factory farming of animals is indefensible. It is too confining for the animals, it doesn’t allow them a decent life and it’s something we shouldn’t put up with. It’s been great to see not only philosophers and animal rights activists, but also leading chefs, like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, taking that sort of stance about factory farming. There is now a growing movement against factory farming in the United States, though the US is some way behind Britain in this area.

The other big development is the increasing realisation that meat is a major contributor to climate change. People are starting to rethink their diets and that applies not only to factory farming, but also to free-range grazing of ruminant animals. For Western nations, that means beef, dairy and lamb. If we really want to reduce the impact we’re having on our climate, and we realise just how urgent action is, we have to cut the numbers of these animals fairly drastically.

Ultimately, we should be aiming to eat vegetarian diets. That might seem utopian to some people. Many people are suggesting that we should have a meat-free Monday to begin with and gradually phase out meat. It may be that that’s the best we can manage over the next few years, given how the public are about such things. But in the long term, I believe that if we aim to get to a sustainable place in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to be very hard to have large herds of cattle and sheep as we do at present. That problem, combined with opposition to factory farming, really does mean we have to move towards vegetarian and even vegan diets in the medium term.

On a positive note, there has been a significant trend away from the worst forms of factory farming: battery farming of hens, the individual stall for pigs for breeding, veal crates and so on. That’s been particularly marked in Europe. A similar reaction is now becoming apparent in the United States, specifically following a referendum in California in November 2008 where the large majority voted against these forms of factory farming. There is also an increasing awareness about the climate impacts of meat and more people in the environmental movement are becoming vegetarian or vegan. We’re starting to head in the right direction, if rather too slowly.

Some have argued that factory farming and industrial-scale meat production must continue to allow meat to be affordable by the less well-off. It may be true that some people can’t afford free-range chicken, but that doesn’t mean you must eat chicken. Nobody has to eat chicken - or at least, nobody in Britain or America. There are plenty of very inexpensive plant-based foods available, like lentils and beans, that are good sources of cheap protein that would work out significantly cheaper per gram of protein then buying even factory-farmed chicken.

For us to cause avoidable suffering to animals is wrong. Even religious people who take the view that humans are made in God’s image and appointed by God to be stewards of creation would generally agree that stewardship doesn’t mean taking 20,000 chickens and putting them in a single shed with a very small amount of space per bird and treating them like they’re merely things to convert grain to flesh. That’s not stewardship, that’s simple exploitation of sentient beings.

On any ethical principle it is not acceptable to use other sentient beings in a way that disregards their interest in having a decent kind of life. That’s exactly what factory farming does and it is time to put an end to it.

This article is based on an interview by Rob Lyons.

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of numerous books including Animal Liberation (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and, with Jim Mason, Eating (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Picture of Peter Singer courtesy of Derek Goodwin.

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