Saturday, April 21, 2012

Be Here Now - The Evolutionary Ethics of Slaughter

The ethics of eating meat are so unfathomably complex, so fraught with unknowable parameters - that the majority among us have retreated into a comfortable haze of collective ignorance on the matter. This need not be the case.

Fully admitting the complexity of the beast at hand, let us inspect just the fillet d’ ethique; the litmus test beyond which all other moral concerns of dietary selection are irrelevant; the issue of slaughter.

The essential and inescapable wrongness of taking an animal’s life for it’s flesh, especially in the profane name of base culinary desire, is a keystone argument against our dietary staple of interest. Animal protein proponents are quick to address the myriad web of ecological, nutritional, and even social concerns relentlessly dogging ‘the industry’. The rapid rise in the heroification of ‘happy meat’ farmers by alternative agriculture advocates, is evidence many consumers are literally hungry for ethical eats. Yet how can we possibly get passed this sin qua non moral stumbling block that meat really is murder?

Now, there are two approaches here. One can argue that it simply is wrong to take the life of another animal no matter what - that life has an inherent value regardless of what matters to “it”. Perhaps I am more farmer than philosopher, but this reeks of a little too much wavy-gravy grooviness for my liking. I am more inclined to agree with vegan animal liberationist, Peter Singer, that a utilitarian approach is in order. That, for an ethical quandary to arise, what happens to an organism must matter to that organism. It is here that Singer’s and my ethics align, and it is also here where they diverge. That we do agree on this significant point, however, would indicate that we are perhaps looking at different science to rightly determine what truly ‘matters’ to our domesticated dinners.

For it to matter to an animal that it will be slaughtered is to make the case, as a great many authors do, that the livestock “wants to live”. Singer himself, is an artful scholar of the evolutionary sciences, and it seems straightforward that in a very darwinian sense, survival for reproduction is the goaliest of goals. I submit, however, that to claim an animal “wants to live” is to make a claim of cognitive science that the data simply does not support.

Perhaps surprisingly, we can turn to a linguist for some novel insights. In Adam’s Tongue, Derek Bickerton makes a compelling argument connecting the origins of language to the hominin shift towards meat consumption. Not via the traditional reasoning that meat gave us bigger brains - but rather - that this dietary shift thrust our ancestors into a unique ecological niche - presenting novel challenges that only language could solve. We had a need - a need to recruit our clan mates across time and space to help butcher and transport the scavenged meat of paleolithic megafauna. We had to free ourselves from the here and nowness that, until this rise of language, had imprisoned all animals of even the highest cognitive ability.

What matters to animals is fear and pain; death is truly a concept beyond their temporal scope of interest. Only from this common understanding can we begin to discuss how animals are raised, and even how they are killed. We must first accept and understand that the slaughter itself, is not as innately wrong as it may emotively appear; and then work together to ensure that all creatures achieve the most fantastic of lives, and the most peaceful of deaths.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Repackaging Cultured Beef: Contextual Quality & Collective Action

Dr. Mark Post at the University of Maasstricht, inspecting
a proto-type culture of beef.
By the end of this year - Dr. Mark Post, and his team of researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands claim they will offer a celebrity-chef taste testing of the world's first lab-grown beef - also known as cultured beef. Now, at a price tag of some $200,000 - the technology is not quite economical to assuage our global hunger for hamburger. Rest assured - the price will go the down, the quality will go up - and in spite of the obvious 'yuk factor' - a huge majority of the world will accept cultured meat as a tasty and nutritious status quo (for more on how and why that is possible - see this article I wrote back in 2010).

If you happen to be a beef farmer today - whether conventional, organic, or grass-fed - you might be thinking '"Not me - I'll stick with real meat, I'm simply not interested" - well, I've got news for you - get interested, because this game-changing technology will literally affect the actual quantifiable quality of YOUR product.

This might seem counter-intuitive. We might be tempted to think that meat quality is absolute and that we are capable of engineering desired qualities into the processes of the supply chain. Indeed - some elements of quality are this way - farmers can control what feeds, supplements and health care treatments are offered to their cattle. Processors can control the humanity of their slaughter methods, and the post-slaughter processing practices.  Indeed, even consumers can and do select the quality of their meats based on any number of 'absolute' criteria - organic or conventional, more processed or less. This absoluteness, however, when it comes to ecological and social dimensions of quality - is largely a mirage.

A rigorously holistic understanding of meat quality in today's globally connected economy reveals a vastly different picture. Far from being absolute, holistic meat quality is highly relative and contextual.

Consider this - if you are an advocate of grass-fed beef being slaughtered on-grass and on a small-scale, as indeed I am - perhaps you would like to see a law passed within the US banning feed lots and industrial slaughter houses? Sounds like a good idea -  right? Wrong! The results would be globally negligible if not disastrous. Overnight, producers around the world would jump on this sudden and overtly significant market opportunity, and like it or not, America's industrialised beef production really is vastly superior to industrialised beef anywhere else in the world. The Brazilian rainforest would be pillaged at unprecedented rates, and less feed-efficient cows in Australia, Europe and Asia would overcrowd feed lots to pick up the slack.

"Well - people just need to eat less meat" - the organic farmer is quick to reply....perhaps true - but what are we to do? Globally regulate and dictate the diets of every man, woman, and child? Personally, I would never ever want to have the government involved in regulating anyone's diet. To be sure, cultural changes will be important, but in an increasingly interconnected and free world - we have to realise that the ecological and social "qualities" embedded in meat (and non-meat) foods co-exist simultaneously in both a local and global context.

Cultured meat is about to change this context in ways we can only begin to imagine. In a world of abundant cultured meat - the moral high ground that high-production agriculture currently stands on will vanish. Laws to stop behaviour limiting farm practices such as gestation crates and overly maligned feed lot will suddenly seems much more justifiable and achievable.

What about alternative agriculture? Small-scale, organic, and grass-fed producers - won't they go out of business also? Well, many undoubtedly will, but those that do not will truly be a testament to the emerging ethical imperative of our evolving partnership with non-human animals. Grass won't stop growing on otherwise un-farmable land, and our ruminant friends - under our guiding hand - truly are the best in the world at managing this critical global resource. As well, we can, when we chose, offer animals the most peaceful of possible death options: on-grass (not just "on-farm") slaughter.

Here-in lies the challenge to all farmers everywhere, and one they must begin preparing for now. In an age of abundant cultured meat of almost limitless holistic quality enhancements - attention to the qualities of 'real meat' will reach levels of introspection we can only anticipate.

There will always be a critical role for traditional animal agriculture - this is, I believe, ethically inescapable, but how farmers evolve sustainability in this brave new context will be the challenge of the century - and it starts NOW!


For more info on Cultured Meat - check out the Ted Talk in the Emergent Technology playlist on the Mythic Meats YouTube Channel