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Eating Animals

During my flight to India I read a book called ‘Eating Animals’ by the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s an analysis of eating meat, the customs and traditions around meat, and the methods of modern meat production – mainly focusing on the USA.

Though it sounds like a vegetarian manifesto, and the author is indeed vegetarian, he makes an effort to interview ranchers and people from the meat production industry. He even extends admiration to many of them, those who have tried to remember that the meat they are selling comes from animals who deserve some sort of life before death – rather than being considered nothing more than production units.

It made me sit and think a lot about my own vegetarianism.

I haven’t eaten meat for over twenty years now – including fish. And though I started off on that journey through distaste for meat, I matured into having stronger views on the welfare of animals that are bred for food. In particular, the fast food industry has bothered me for a long time because the concept that a McNugget was once a sentient animal is still quite remote.

Like Safran Foer, I’m not a dogmatic vegetarian. I accept that most people eat meat and probably won’t stop just because of people like me. I used to buy meat for my dog, it was the only meat I would ever have in the house. But I would need to be overly strict to enforce vegetarianism on my dog – and I made sure that it was ethically sourced meat direct from a farm producer. My wife eats meat and we have an easy arrangement where we don’t eat meat at home, but she is free to order it whenever we are eating out – it works pretty well for us both, as she doesn’t insist on meat with every meal anyway.

But reading this book made me wonder if it is enough to just refrain from eating meat.

People want cheap food and the food production industry has responded by continuously reducing the cost of food, especially meat. This process has gone so far that animals are no longer treated as living beings anymore. There is no farmer driving cattle to market or tending the flock, caring for their health before taking them to market. Food production has become an intensive industry where animals are born, raised, and killed in a factory environment – usually restrained, with artificial light, and with death coming before adolescence is complete.

Meat production has become entirely removed from any natural idea of farming. As Safran Foer points out, anyone who knows how his or her food is produced would want to change behaviour. They might not want to be a vegetarian because they either like meat too much, or they consider it culturally too much of a change to their life, or they might not be able to afford to choose more ethically sourced meat.

But anyone who sees images of how their meat is produced would almost certainly want to change something about the industry.

There are some small changes we can all make that would humanise the industry – introducing measures that at least allow the animals bred for food to enjoy some kind of life before they end up as burgers or chops. How about the major retailers insisting on an end to battery-farmed eggs? Or huge consumers of low cost meat – such as KFC or McDonald’s – taking over much of the production and slaughter process to ensure industry standards are raised?

Pressure groups like PETA are never going to get the world to go vegan, and this aim is only viable in wealthy developed countries anyway, but if the general population gets more educated about how their food is produced then some small changes could make a big difference. Not only to the lives of the animals, but also improving the food quality and reducing risk to those who eat meat.

Has anyone yet to consider the long-term effect of animals being pre-emptively medicated against disease? In the old days of farms, a sick animal would be treated. Now, all animals are fed antibiotic drugs on a daily basis so they get the drugs before becoming ill. If they do get ill then they are usually discarded. Over a period of decades, these drugs are becoming less and less effective at fighting disease because they are now in the human food chain.

Issues such as this go far beyond the cries of the animal rights activists. There is a crisis in food production waiting to happen. As more people have demanded the right to access good food, prices have dropped and production has increased, but at what point will the general meat-eating public start listening to the vegetarian movement, because their concerns start becoming aligned?

Even if their eating habits are never aligned, I’m guessing their concerns about food provenance will be fairly soon. Safran Foer’s book is a good start because it doesn’t advocate that you need to be vegetarian or concerned about animal rights to want something to change. If the public knew what was happening then surely they would all want it to change… maybe?

Meat is Murder - Lisbon

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On yer bike scroungers! Council tenants to get the boot…

The new Work secretary, Iain Duncan-Smith, has caused outrage by suggesting that the unemployed should move in search of work, directing his focus mainly at council tenants who occupy local authority property, claim benefits, and generally don’t do a lot – it’s reminiscent of former Tory minister Norman (now Lord) Tebbit and his famous ‘my old man got on his bike’ speech.

Tebbit is often misquoted, he actually said: “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ’til he found it.” He was responding to a statement that unemployment naturally leads to riots.

Iain Duncan-Smith is the protégé of Lord Tebbit and that’s easy to see with these new plans about migration. When Tebbit left the Commons for the Lords, Duncan-Smith replacing him as MP, he is alleged to have said: “If you think I’m right-wing, you should meet this guy.”

But there is an issue of structural unemployment in the UK. Jobs are out there, but often the long-term unemployed are not living in locations where suitable jobs are available. What are the thousands of skilled workers  at the former Corus steel plant in Teesside going to do now – work in McDonald’s or deliver newspapers? Hardly fulfilling, rewarding, or exploiting the skills available.

There is already a system that allows people to swap their council home with tenants in another location, though why people in an area full of work might want to move someplace where there is none is beyond me. The unsettling thing about what the government is now proposing is that they want the power to force people to move in search of work.

That’s not like the romantic dream of the American migrant worker. It’s compulsion. And though I am all for the government trying to help people into work, I don’t think that charging up behind vulnerable people with a big stick is a very strategic appeoach.

Everyone wants to get rid of dole scroungers and the long-term sick claiming incapacity benefit and spending it in the pub – that’s a given – but this problem needs more thought than clunking Conservative proposals to force council tenants out of their home. What about their family and support networks? How will a single parent arrange child care in a new city, because they will need it if they are heading out to work fulltime?

I think the more intelligent response to this issue of work distribution would be to approach it with short, medium, and long-term proposals. In the short term, make it attractive for companies to create jobs away from the Southeast – offer tax incentives and grants to make it really worthwhile. Then for the longer term, the only thing that can make the people more mobile and more likely to find work in future is their education and skills. Give them training and let them find new work, don’t kick them out of home because it makes for a good headline on cutting costs.

Wasn’t there that story in the Bible about teaching a man to fish…?

Labour struggling