Animal Consumption

A shower thought

I was having an imaginary argument this morning – you know, the kind you have in the shower where all your points are zingers and your opponent can only be floored by your insightful oratory, whereas anything they come out with is antiquated and flawed. On this occasion, my imaginary antagonist was my father-in-law, who is great for such things because he is a classic dogmatic conservative who apparently changes his mind only when instructed to do so by the Daily Mail. He is also loud and steamrolls all other voices in his vicinity, such that my wife is the only person who successfully argues against him.

Anyway, on this occasion, I was actually walking to the train station, which is another great time for introspection, when I started thinking about the recent news that South Korea’s president was considering banning the consumption of dog meat. Now, I could just imaging the FIL lauding this in his typical brash manner: finally some sense, how could this culture engage in such a disgusting practice for so long?

Animal lover

Now, for context, my FIL absolutely loves dogs, so this is a) a very reasonable position for me to give his fictional self, and b) not something I would ever argue with him in real life. But, as this is a fictional confrontation, there’s no problem. So my rebuttal would go along the lines that, yes I agree that eating dogs is distasteful, and not something that I would ever even consider doing, but how is it any different from our consumption of pigs, cows and sheep?

There is no argument you can make against the consumption of dog meat that doesn’t also preclude the eating of any animal without resorting to playing to our cultural history of keeping dogs as pets. And at that point, one can just point to the historical culture of eating dog meat in places such as Korea.

Pigs in particular are as sociable as dogs, and at least as clever. I’ve seen videos of cows bounding around like puppies and showing affection to their owners, and I know people who keep chickens (and other birds) as pets. The same could be true of rodents, not that we eat them, but we do exterminate them fairly indiscriminately, and I can testify that rats are both clever and sociable. Horses and dogs are often used as working animals (not that I enjoy eating horse meat, but there is a historical precedent of them ending up in food as a cheap substitute to beef).

Advocating veganism

This argument inexorably leads to advocating veganism, which my wife and I attempted a couple of years ago, but found it too challenging; if you ever check the ingredients of packaged food, 99% of the time it contains animal products (particularly dairy), even in food that you would never think it necessary. Instead, we went for drastically reducing our consumption of animal products and when we do, making ethical choices.

We have swapped out cow’s milk for oat milk (which is a bit more expensive but I actually prefer it), only buy free-range eggs (which we did anyway), and try to buy ethically produced meat on the occasions we do buy it (probably once a week). Unfortunately, I am a total cheese hound, which has been the hardest thing to cut.

Extending the argument at the other extreme, how can you argue against consuming any animal? I remember watching a program about people (poachers, I guess?) hunting and eating wild animals in the jungles of Borneo, which went by the deceptively innocuous term bush meat. As this is Borneo, every animal is likely to be in danger of going extinct, which makes it easy to vilify and argue for a total ban. But, as a middle class person who’s grown up in wealthy nations and never been hungry or homeless, how can I judge people for hunting for food?

As I said earlier, many of the ethical changes I’ve made to my diet also increased the cost, so how can I judge others who don’t have the means to do so? Well, when they show that sometimes “bush meat” includes orang-utans or chimpanzees, suddenly my sympathies evaporate. And finally, we come back to the arguments in the use of animals in research – balancing need against ethical usage and suffering.

Reducing suffering

A basic criterion is the ability of the animal to feel suffering, which increases with the innate intelligence of the animal, which is why we are so instantly disgusted by the suffering of primates. And also why a huge amount of animal research is performed on mice, who sit in a good balance between less capable of suffering but close enough to humans to enable important and relevant research.

At the end of the day, reducing the suffering of animals around the world comes down to two things: education (about the harm being done; eg. see the NC3R’s) and empowerment (particularly financial, to enable change). This is particularly true when it comes to eating animals, where we can obviate the need for animal consumption, but only with a huge and concerted effort.

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