The following interview with Peter Singer, from the South China Morning Post, presents a great opportunity for animal friendly letters to the editor. The South China Morning Post takes letters at firstname.lastname@example.org
South China Morning Post
July 17, 2006 Monday
FEATURES; Behind the News; Pg. 12
L Strong animal instinct
Peter Singer may be an ardent vegetarian, but he doesn't think all carnivores are monsters. He talks to Charmaine Chan about his latest book on the food we eat
Few philosophers have had to engage in such filthy work as Peter Singer, regarded as the father of animal liberation.
To understand how factory-farmed turkeys are reared in the US, he and a friend signed up several years ago for artificial-insemination work with agribusiness giant ConAgra in Missouri. "It was the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work we've done," Mr Singer said. The company needed their help because turkeys bred intensively cannot mate naturally.
"For 10 hours we grabbed and wrestled birds, jerking them upside down, facing their pushed-open a**holes, dodging their spurting s***, while breathing air filled with dust and feathers."
Little wonder Mr Singer includes a "May Be Disturbing to Some Readers" warning alongside the passage heading "Enter the Chicken Shed" in The Ethics of What We Eat. Despite such frank descriptions of factory farming, the book - co-written by lawyer and journalist Jim Mason - has been described as "Michael Moore without the antics".
The book, which seeks to inform consumers rather than to clobber them into submission, peers at the food choices of three American families: meat-and-potato types, conscientious omnivores and vegans. It then attempts to trace the items in their shopping bags to their sources of production.
Ironically, the pair's efforts are bolstered by their mostly unsuccessful bids to persuade companies to reveal their food-production practices. "If corporations won't allow the public to see how they produce food, we should not buy their food," the Australian-born academic said from Melbourne, where he lives half the year. "We should insist on transparency and, in its absence, we should look elsewhere."
Mr Singer's views have special relevance in Hong Kong - a city on the doorstep of a region seen as a breeding ground for disease and the possible epicentre of a bird-flu outbreak. Although he considers intensively bred poultry one of the worst food choices from an ethical standpoint, he commends Hong Kong for moving towards a central slaughterhouse, a measure aimed at reducing the risk of bird flu.
"It's better not to have live birds sold at markets because the conditions in which they're transported and caged while awaiting to be sold are bad," he said. "You need government regulations that make sure the slaughter and handling are done as humanely as possible."
Like many animal-rights activists, Mr Singer and Mr Mason (who together published 1980's Animal Factories) believe the global poultry industry is the root cause of the avian flu problem.
"Not only animal-rights campaigners but a number of scientists are saying that the factory-farm environment, where you have 20,000 to 30,000 chickens in one shed, is the ideal breeding ground for viruses," said Mr Singer, adding that he doesn't agree with moves by some governments to force free-range farmers to shift their chickens indoors, so they don't have any contact with wild birds.
"The best defence is for the birds to develop natural immunities, which they don't develop when they're concentrated inside." While acknowledging he is not an expert on the subject, Mr Singer said it was a mistake to believe intensive farms were "virus secure". "They're clearly not," he said. "You'll find sparrows or mice in them, so I think, in the long run, we'll be safer if we get rid of huge, intensive farms and return to more traditional styles of farming."
In addition, Mr Singer said he believed a user-pays system should be introduced for consumers who insisted on keeping chicken on the menu. "Given that we're having to spend substantial amounts of money stockpiling drugs to deal with avian influenza, it's only fair that those who eat these chickens, and are responsible for this virus, should be paying that cost," he said, adding that vegetarians such as himself should not be forced to contribute.
"I would like to see a tax introduced on the actual product that's posing the risk, rather than [expenditure] coming out of general revenue."
Driven though he may be, Mr Singer said he's not obsessive in his quest to eat ethically. "You don't have to be fanatical," he and Mr Mason write in their book. "A little self-indulgence doesn't make you a moral monster."
Which is why Mr Singer said on the eve of a hiking trip to Japan, "I'm not going to be too worried if there are bonito [fish] flakes in the soup. For me it's not a religious thing."
But where do you draw the line?
It is not all right to buy the meat of animals that "never go outdoors or were very closely confined", he insisted, adding there's a "huge difference" between such consumers and those meat eaters who say, "I have a responsibility to ensure that the animal whose flesh I'm eating had a decent life, so I'm going to eat meat only when I can get it from ethical free-range producers".
Mr Singer's use of "who" for animals, in speech and writing, aims to tweak the conscience.
"When we use the word 'that' for animals we are treating them as though they were simply objects like tables or chairs," he said. "But they can feel things. I'm not saying they are absolutely like humans in every respect but they're more like humans in having a capacity for a consciousness or awareness than they are like tables or chairs." Compared to Mr Singer's seminal 1975 work, Animal Liberation, which fuelled vegetarianism and inspired global efforts to stem cruel and unnecessary animal experimentation, he said of his new book: "It is a softer approach that recognises many people are going to continue to eat meat ... and I want to offer them more ethical choices without necessarily being the perfect choices."
Such seemingly reasonable sentiments may surprise Mr Singer's detractors, who have labelled him "a prophet of death" and "the most dangerous man on the planet". Those tags were meted out in connection with his defence of euthanasia and infanticide for severely disabled humans. His views - publicised just before his move to Princeton University in 1999 to take up a post of professor of bioethics - sparked student protests and death threats, although they also prompted supporters to call him "the most influential moral philosopher of his time".
Mr Singer - who divides his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne - is aware of his reach: Animal Liberation has been translated into 18 languages, including Chinese; and his other books - including 2004's The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush - attract attention in a way philosophical tomes rarely do in an age of shortening attentions spans.
In The Ethics of What We Eat (titled The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter in the US) he writes not only about factory-farmed livestock, but also whether it is OK to eat beef, fish and genetically modified products. He also discusses the pros and cons of the fair-trade movement, organic food and buying locally.
With regard to fowl, Mr Singer said, the conditions in which they lived, were transported and died "should be enough to disqualify [them] from every ethical shopping list". The cramped conditions they endure provoke physiological problems: high ammonia levels from droppings cause chronic respiratory disease, foot sores, breast blisters and, in severe cases, blindness.
He continues, citing studies by veterinary science professor John Webster of the University of Bristol, that broilers "are the only livestock that are in chronic pain for the last 20 per cent of their lives": they don't move around because it hurts their joints and sometimes their vertebrae snap, which causes paralysis and death because they cannot reach food or water.
One way in which the suffering of birds may be limited is through so-called controlled-atmosphere killing, a method already implemented in parts of Europe and the US. Before being removed from their cages, "the birds are 'stunned' by inert gases rather than bio-electric currents, which don't seem to work very well", said Mr Singer, who includes in his book the revelations of a former "killing room" worker in Arkansas.
According to the ex-Tyson Foods worker, a fallible stunning system meant one in three chickens handled on any given night was still alive when dunked in the scalding tank. Often they came out with broken bones or worse because they "struggled so much" while being boiled alive.
(END OF POST ARTICLE)
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Date: Tue Jul 18 17:37:07 2006