I have a terrible confession to make: I really like meat. I know, I’m a monster. Not literally, like the Loch Ness Monster or Albi the racist dragon, but for liking and consuming my fair share of beef, chicken, pork and lamb et al. I do sometimes feel rather under the cosh. At best we’re viewed by ‘the other side’ as ignorant and irresponsible citizens unaware of the terrible treatment we’re subjecting our fellow animal earth dwellers to, and at worst we’re condemned as callous and evil murderers with a disgusting lust for sweet chilli chicken.
I’m slightly over exaggerating of course, but I can’t be the only one who has noticed the increasing number of social media content from animal rights organisations such as Mercy For Animals, the UK Cattle Protection League, Colin the Chicken for President (ok I made the latter two up) showing often graphic content depicting animal cruelty and death. The point of such content appears pretty similar all round, to encourage the consumer to abandon meat and embrace a vegetarian lifestyle, or even better, a vegan one. Moreover, such campaigns seem to imply that in continuing to eat meat we’re responsible for the suffering of farmed animals, and that if we all just embraced a meat free lifestyle everything would be ok. It’s all enough to make this writer feel rather guilty.
Now I’m not here to deny that animal cruelty is indeed cruel and that more should be done to encourage more compassionate practices throughout the world, absolutely, 100 per cent. Yet I’m really not sure shifting the burden of responsibility on to the consumer is the way to go; this being the case both from a pragmatic perspective – I’m not sure this is the most effective strategy to achieve better animal welfare practices, or from a fairness perspective – whilst consumers make certain choices in terms of what they buy it is unfair to blame consumer for animal cruelty. Both points centre on a number of key variables which as far as I can tell are almost entirely ignored by social media campaigns; industry, government and regulation.
In shifting the focus almost exclusively on consumer ‘choice’ such campaigns and organisations ignore the levers and powers of industry and government to affect change. After all, isn’t this where the real problem lies, in industry practices and techniques used to exploit animals for profit? It is these powers that ‘hold all the cards’ in terms of controlling conditions for millions of animals, and as a result it would surely be a better use of time to lobby these stakeholders rather than target individual consumers by shovelling guilt onto them.
Indeed, I’d go as far as to say such campaigns actually let industry, government and regulatory bodies off the hook. This is done by implying (albeit implicitly) that individuals are to blame for animal cruelty for making the choice to buy meat, and not those with legal duties of care who could implement wide scale reforms that’d improve conditions for livestock and still ensure a healthy profit for industry. Put another way, if I were a large scale meat processor or farmer I’d actually get behind campaigns like those by Mercy for Animals. I might say for instance; ‘yeah look guys, we’re just producing what consumers want here, if consumers told us that they wanted more ethically produced meat then we’d do it, but they don’t, so they’re the ones actually responsible for the cruelty.’
Having said all of that, let’s assume industry and regulators actually do take the mettle and agree to transnational change which results in happier more, less ethically challenged animals. Would that be enough for some animal rights campaigners? Not a chance. There’s a strong underlying moral assumption at play here, namely that animals and humans are of equal value. To eat them is implied as being akin to murder and morally reprehensible. Meat consumption should therefore be eradicated and veganism should be embraced by the World’s populace. True, other motivations such as the supposed health and financial benefits of veganism are also touted as motivators (worth an article and more in itself) but the truth it seems to me underpinning the philosophy of many of the more radical animal rights groups is that animals are on a par (in every sense of the word) with homo sapiens. This in turn explains why they employ the tactics that they do.
This I think needs addressing. What if, like me, you think animals do have intrinsic worth as living organisms and should therefore not be cruelly treated but that humans are uniquely and inherently more valuable? If you believe in animal testing for cancer treatments, or merely eating meat because it’s just so darned tasty then this principal won’t be new to you. In other words, if you do believe in a ‘hierarchy of value’ then you should have no qualms and feel no guilt about utilising animals, whether for survival or enjoyment.
In closing, I like meat. I always have done and probably always will. Yet I also accept the arguments regarding how animal welfare standards could and should improve. But what is the best way to go about this? Lobby government, regulators and industry. Don’t load all the responsibility onto the consumer. Doing so is both futile (whilst some may be converted to vegetarianism and veganism, many more will go about their lives eating meat like it’s on sale for £19.99) and ignores where the real power lies in the battle for improved animal welfare. Thus, those who wish to pursue a meat or animal product free diet should of course be entirely free to do so. But I beg of you, please no more sensationalist videos or photos? Write a letter to your MP, go and have a nice chat with your local cattle farmer, fly to Brussels! All three would surely be a better use of your time.
Right, I’m off to McDonald’s for five Big Macs.