Our broken relationship with the animals we use for food is one tragic example of the fault-lines in our food system which have been exposed by the current crisis. The probability that the virus first spread to humans at a wildlife market, and the links between intensive farming and zoonotic diseases, puts the animals we use for food at the centre of a storm which none of us will weather well.
At OneKind we want to remedy that; to put the wellbeing of human and non-human animals at the heart of our food system. We are part of the Scottish Food Coalition, a group of organisations working to transform Scotland into a Good Food Nation.
Aspiring to be a Good Food Nation means first defining what that means to us. If our food is produced in ways that are not good for animals, if it fails to respect the three values of kindness, dignity and compassion that lie at the heart of Scotland’s National Performance Framework, then it cannot be said to be good.
Goodness, whether meaning virtuousness or the common good concept of that which is beneficial to all, is incompatible with causing, or colluding with, suffering. Thus, we must extend our kindness, dignity and compassion to our treatment of the non-human members of our society.
A Good Food Nation is one which allows humans, animals and the environment to flourish. Currently, none of the three are flourishing. We need to urgently reassess how we treat the animals we use for food, to rediscover and cultivate our kindness towards them, not only as a moral imperative, but also to protect human and environmental health.
The links between intensive farming and disease
There are links between the now infamous wildlife markets and coronavirus. Perhaps less known is the global link between both of these and intensive farming, which has pushed small farmers out of farming domestic species and into catching or breeding wild animals, and has consumed ever more land, colonising the spaces inhabited by wild animals, and allowing easy disease transfer between these worlds.
Covid-19 is the latest but by no means the only disease linked to intensive animal farming. Intensive farming creates conditions which allow diseases to thrive: overcrowding and compromised immune systems due to stress. The industry response is to routinely use antibiotics as a preventative measure, contributing greatly to the growing antimicrobial resistance which threatens the foundations of our healthcare repository, with potentially catastrophic results.
As explorer and naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” It is time to lose the anthropocentric notion that we can set ourselves above and apart from all other beings, and predict or control the outcomes of our actions.
Every animal whose life is touched by these scenarios was put in that position by humans. Thus it is just as unfair and illogical to blame coronavirus on bats as it is to blame pigs for chewing off each others’ tails, as a consequence of their constricted existence.
The costs of the system
In the UK, we still show our children picture books of ‘Old MacDonald’ style farms, with one or two of each species all mingling in sunny meadows; a smiling portrait of an interspecies hippy commune. But, just as the trains no longer go “choo-choo”, this is not an accurate portrayal of how farmed animals live.
We have been trained to view plentiful, cheap animal products as necessary, and our food system has been shaped to meet this demand. We are disconnected from our food and the animals who exist to become it. Individual souls live and die out of sight and mind, reduced to anonymous production units, and knowledge of occurrences within is often repressed.
This violates the final tenet of our National Performance Framework: that we act in an open and transparent way. It is also incompatible with the Right to Food requirement that our food system be fair and sustainable.
We are now achingly aware that our lifestyle is unsustainable, and must weigh our choices carefully. Once again, our global food system, and intensive animal farming particularly, weigh heavily: feeding grain to animals is extremely inefficient and contributes to food insecurity; we depend heavily on imported protein for animal feeds, which often have societal and environmental costs in the country of origin; and animal farming is a major contributor to emissions and other pollution, and contributes to biodiversity loss.
The animals and environment suffer, but so do we. There are many health risks associated with eating animals raised on unnatural diets, with routine antibiotics, limited exercise, and genetic disorders from generations of selective breeding.
Those are the physical risks, what of the risks to the psyche?
Slaughterhouse workers have jobs which are mentally and emotionally damaging. Workers disassociate from the killing as the only way of continuing their work, and mental health problems are prevalent. These include “Perpetrator-Induced Traumatic Syndrome”, a type of PTSD. Some die by suicide.
People do not always work there by choice; not everybody has the luxury of choosing their career. 69% of workers are immigrants and language and cultural barriers make getting help for mental health problems more difficult.
Farmers also have high rates of mental health problems and suicide. Isolation, financial pressures and market uncertainty are some of the main causes; some feel that they are a “hostage to fortune”, trapped within our industrial farming machine.
Unfortunately, for some farmers, vehement campaigns to end meat consumption can feel personaland contribute to declining mental health. We must be mindful to support a just transition to better practices, without vilifying individuals; this is part of the OneKind approach.
Looking inward and forward
Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose feelings during the crisis led her to consider the experience of other animal species, says:
“The constriction that we feel, they feel every day, as their habitats shrink as ours have shrunk. [So have] the expansiveness of their relationships, the wellbeing of their families. This is a reality that they live with all of the time […] Perhaps people could expand from our own sense of vulnerability to grow ecological compassion for the vulnerability that we have created for others. And out of that compassion for those more than human persons, might that be a transformation that we see on the other side of this?”
I echo her question - might it? Might we take action to demand the reform of a system that, in prioritising productivity and mechanising lives, is incompatible with a kind, dignified, compassionate food culture? Might we rediscover and cultivate that side of ourselves, that values kindness above efficiency, and life above profit?
Might we be inspired to remember that every farmed animal is an individual, just as much as our dogs and cats, with a personality and feelings and desires? They deserve a good life. We cannot be a Good Food Nation as long as our food comes at a cost to their wellbeing.