Sunday, 11 February 2018

'The Omnivore's Dilemma'

Prompted by a Facebook debate between animal rights activists and meat eaters.

We humans would not have evolved in the way we have as a species without utilising animals for food, clothing and shelter.  Arguably the natural world would be better off if we hadn't evolved in the way we have but it is pointless to try to change things for the better by idealising an unknowable prehistoric past or by rewriting social history.

Our very early hominid ancestors may have started out as purely plant eaters - but the thing about plant eaters is that they need to have either a steady source of a range of high quality plant foods or to have evolved to survive on a particular plant, or they have to spend every waking hour searching for and consuming large quantities of lower quality plant foods such as grasses and leaves.

To be vegetarian and remain healthy, humans need a variety of  plant based foods with the necessary range of macro and micro nutrients, available all year long.  Before the modern era of global trade, refrigeration, mass production, motorised land, air and sea transport - to survive on plant based foods alone, people would have had to either live in regions where such plant based foods grew all year or, in those parts of the planet where they don’t grow all year, develop the means by which a range of plant foods could be preserved.

It doesn't take a geographical genius to work out that quite a bit of the planet has seasons and many plants in cooler regions go into hibernation or die off.  That means plant eating animals, in order to survive in those cooler regions, need to find alternative food sources to sustain them during lean times or develop strategies such as storing foods, or slowing their metabolic rates down through hibernation.

Humans are not pure herbivores. If we were pure herbivores we’d have remained the prey of obligate carnivores or predatory omnivores and it’s doubtful - unless you believe in us being the special creation of god - that, without the nutrient boost of animal protein, we would have had the time and energy reserves to develop into big-brained, tool-making, linguistically sophisticated, migrating homo sapiens.  We could not have moved out of the planet’s warm zones without the by-products of animal prey, such as skins, feathers and bones.

We humans do not hibernate and we are born naked. We are slow to reproduce - we have a long, energy intensive gestation and give birth to a totally helpless infant that needs feeding and protection from predation, cold, sun etc for several years. 

Humans could not have survived in the planet’s cooler regions,  let alone the arctic region - without using animals for their meat, skins, feathers and bones.  The humans who crossed the Pacific and other oceans in tiny boats could not have carried enough preserved plant foods to sustain them; they had to have developed the skills to catch fish.

But nor are we carnivores and without the adaptation of developing much larger livers such as Inuits have done, we cannot live healthy lives on animal protein alone. 

We are highly social and hugely adaptable omnivores with a big brain and a highly developed sense of self, which enables us both to choose to exploit and kill other species and to empathise with, and care for them.

That sense of self and other is what allows some of us to experience the moral dilemma of killing other species in order to survive - a dilemma that has caused people agonies of conscience throughout the whole of recorded history.  The pampered peoples of the modern developed world are not the first to grapple with the morality of killing other animals and eating them. Many cultures have myths about a golden age that existed before humans became meat-eating, predatory and war-like. The vegan belief that humans are naturally herbivorous may be seen as another chapter in that mythology.

The thing that is different about our modern era - and what makes it so monstrous and so morally, economically and ecologically unsustainable - is the depth of our indifference to the amount of suffering we inflict on animals,  the scale of our exploitation with its the appalling wastage, and the irreparable damage we are inflicting on the planet.

 We no longer honour the animals we kill by acknowledging their life force and by using every part of them to sustain our lives - we turn them into things, commercial units which we can pretend do not suffer terror and pain.  We raise and we kill millions of living, breathing, sensing animals and we waste much of the bodies we have killed.  We turn precious eco-systems into agri-deserts to raise grains to force grow animals that we slaughter before maturity. We selectively breed animals to produce more of the bits we want and we treat the rest like so much garbage. We have developed a global dairy industry that has become a literal horror show - treating calves like a waste by-product and taking vast quantities of milk - not for traditional foods like butter or cheese - but for dried milk solids that are shipped around the world to be used to produce infant formula, dietary supplements and protein boosters and fillers in processed foods.

90% of NZ’s milk production is exported as milk solids.

People eat far too much meat and dairy and a lot of the latter comes via the addition of milk solids to the vast range of nutrition-depleted, processed foods pumped out by a food industry that owes more to the chemist than the farmer or horticulturalist.

The harm being caused to humans and companion animals by the use of high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener and by peanut and soy meal as protein boosters has its genesis in the production of maize to feed the USA’s vast beef and pig herds. The legumes planted to fix nitrogen in the soils in order to grow nitrogen-depleting maize also found a - harmful - commercial use.

We add insult to the awful injuries we inflict on animals by turning them into things to be bought and sold, by how much we waste and by the myriad other creatures that die or are not born as a result of the ways we choose to  ‘farm’ production animals.

The truth is the natural world is pretty much about things eating other things. By an accident of nature we’re at the top of the food chain. By design we are destroying the food chain that sustains not just us, but all the creatures of the earth. 

We have choice. We do not have to do things the way we do now or have done in the past.  We do not have to destroy billions of living things in order to survive.

Most people in truth do not choose to do things this way - some actively reject it and many others are deeply conflicted about it and would prefer to live in a kinder and more sustainable, simpler and more egalitarian world. 

The way we arrange food production today is gross. It’s harmful. It is inhumane.  And it is socially corrosive in that people who can turn a blind eye to animal suffering will be more likely to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their own kind when it suits.

However, it is also true that people who focus too much on the suffering of animals may become blind to the suffering of their own kind - when it suits. 

I get irritated by the sanctimony of some militant vegans and animal rights activists, and their tactic of emotional blackmail. They act as though this is all just about attitudinal change and if they publish enough horrible videos and pictures on social media they will be able to shame people into not eating meat or using animal products.

I understand where they are coming from but when I hear vegans and ARAs talking about tackling the economic and political forces behind all this and calling for structural changes, and when they start using logic and facts to bring about attitudinal change instead of trying to force it by making people feel sickened or guilty, then I’ll join them.

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