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By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Peter Singer, whose revolutionary work Animal Liberation (1975) challenged  people to have more empathy for farm animals, has added a layers to his message in recent years.

Peter Singer and Gestation Crates

Gestation crates turn sows into “breeding machines” who aren’t even provided space to walk around. (Photo: GRN)

Speaking at UT-Dallas last week, Singer exhorted the audience to consider how the livestock industry is not only inhumane to animals, but also to the world’s poorest people. The current system inefficiently funnels vast quantities of corn and soybeans to animals, devouring soil, water and energy that could produce plant-based foods for people, he said.

It takes six pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, Singer explained to the audience of about 300 students and visitors at the UT-Dallas Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology.

“We are wasting food by doing this, if we want to feed a growing population we will not channel these foods that we can already eat and put them through animals and get only a small amount of the protein, or the calories, of the food value that we’re putting in,” he said.

If people the world over ate less meat, he proposed, there would be more land and grains for the hungry; and crop prices would fall and stabilize, providing the food security to those who’re desperate for food aid.

Don’t buy into the argument that factory farming is needed because it can efficiently “feed the world,” he said. “That’s just bunkem.”

Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics Princeton University, had much more to say about the ethics of our food choices. He began his talk by returning to the themes of Animal Liberation, which broke ground by asking people to consider the suffering of farm animals and whether it is fair to center our diets on their sacrifice.

THE QUESTIONABLE ETHICS OF FACTORY FARMING (And just eating animals)

Singer, who became a vegetarian as a graduate student at Oxford in the 1970s, says society’s failure to consider the inhumane treatment of animals has led to their worsening treatment in confined factory farm settings. These facilities also have created some of the worst human jobs ever, providing an additional reason to reconsider the humanity of the meat-based Western diet.

Showing pictures of broiler hens and turkeys packed by the thousands into dark sheds and sows living in the vise of gestation crates, he posed the ethical questions that arise around factory farming:

  • Is our desire to eat meat that “tastes good” sufficient justification for treating animals cruelly?
  • Could we nourish ourselves in other ways?
  • Can we do a better job of caring for farm animals to mitigate or relieve their suffering?

To Singer, who’s devoted his career to these questions, the ethical answers are clear. We should eat a more plant-based diet; free the sows from the gestation pens where they cannot even turn around and release the laying hens from their miserable confinement in battery cages.

And that’s the very least we could do.

We must consider an even bigger picture, says Singer, who holds a hard line on what’s right. (He’s an ethicist after all.) People hide behind their ignorance of factory farming, blithely eating and supporting the system with their dollars. But it’s “ethically suspect” for people to consume products about which they know very little, he said, and while ignorance about factory farm cruelty may be the norm in America, it’s an inadequate moral excuse.

Still, Singer concedes a few shades of gray. Eating less meat is better, he says, than eating a lot of meat because it will relieve suffering and have positive environmental impacts.

The ethical omnivore movement, in which consumers seek to buy only humanely handled animal foods, doesn’t go nearly far enough, but has some merit, he said. For example, consuming eggs from laying hens raised in a truly cage-free environment on a small farm where they can exercise, follow their natural instincts and be safe and healthy, can be considered a sound ethical choice. It doesn’t support suffering and shifts consumer dollars away from factory-farmed eggs.

Singer noted, though, that even the best-treated animals will likely be killed before their time, when their laying days are over.

Singer also endorsed hunting, in certain situations, as a more ethical choice. Deer hunters who cull herds where a portion of the animals would likely die of starvation in any given winter, are acting to secure their own meat in a way that doesn’t impose the protracted suffering of factory farming. This may well be the most ethical meat around, he said, if it’s obtained by a solid marksman and the animal products are well used by the hunter.

MASS ANIMAL PRODUCTION HARMS THE ENVIRONMENT

The environmental impact of the current meat-oriented food system is considerable and is harming the environment, making the system unethical in a second way by imperiling earth and her inhabitants, in Singer’s view.

Confined cattle operations (CAFOs) are particularly polluting because they generate methane gases that contribute to climate change, he said, citing one study that put livestock operations just behind power plants for their total greenhouse gas production.

According to that analysis, people who switch from the standard, meat-heavy American diet can save about 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide pollution annually, beating out their counterparts who switch from a standard car to a hybrid, achieving a savings of 1 ton of CO2 per year.

Singer also singled out hog factories for their disproportionate and copious production of manure, creating giant sloughs of waste that escape their confines during weather events, polluting rivers and groundwater.

The environmental consequences and poor treatment of animals has worsened as factory farming has imposed assembly-line methods that disregard nature’s ways, he said. Singer strongly condemned gestation crates, which turn sows into “breeding machines” and deprive them of any normal life, even seeing and feeling sunshine. These operations have faced censure across the U.S., where nine states have banned gestation crates. New Jersey is poised to be the 10th state, but the law passed this month was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, presumably because he will face an early presidential test in the top hog-raising state of Iowa.

Singer’s topic was grim, but he sees hopeful signs.

In 2008, California voters passed a bill that banned battery cages for hens and required more space for sows. Blue California voted for this measure by a greater margin than they gave President Obama, Singer said, illustrating that the public, once informed, doesn’t want animals treated badly.

The author of several books on food and ethics also gave a nod to the Fair Trade movement, which is providing people an ethical way to shop that helps fight human impoverishment.

Singer’s been a key impetus in the movement The Life You Can Save, which is based on his book by the same name. In the book, Singer argues that we in the more affluent world have the means to solve world poverty, but we have failed to act ethically and effectively to ameliorate human suffering. His ideas spurred the movement, which asks people to make targeted, effective donations to help people who are starving or dying of malaria and other diseases of poverty.

In closing his Dallas talk, part of the year-long lecture series “Food for Thought: What Should We Eat?” Singer, a native of Australia, revealed that even he was not always a vegetarian and told about his epiphany while studying at Oxford University. (See the video.)

Back then, it was assumed that everyone ate meat, though a nascent vegetarian movement had begun.

Today, new options are on the horizon, including the potential of creating meat in a lab. Singer said he said he welcomes the development of faux meat, which took a leap forward this year with the unveiling of the “$300,000 faux burger”. This lab-produced “meat” requires no animal suffering and produces no methane gases.

“I’d be fine with that,” he said.

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