“Guardianship: the position of protecting or defending something.”
Eating meat is increasingly condemned as an unethical choice that murders sentient beings. But we need to understand that more animals die in plant food production than in abattoirs.
Those deaths in industrially-farmed fields and grain silos are terribly cruel and painful: minced alive by farm machinery or poisoned by the millions around silos. The insect apocalypse from pesticide use in industrial agriculture is creating a wave of extinctions of the birds and smaller species that eat insects.
Is the taking of one life any different to the taking of another life? Is a human life more important than a dog’s life? A dolphin’s? An orangutan’s? A cow’s? A hamster’s? A mouse’s? How about a cockroach? A social city-building insect then, like a bee or an ant? What about plankton? Amoebas?
Where do you draw the line between which life we should give a damn about and which life is unimportant?
Shall we dance together upon the head of a pin?
Let’s not get into an argument about “sentience” either. I would consider a colony of bees or ants to be as sentient and important as a bird or a beaver. All have amazing abilities of construction, for example, and cooperation.
The point is life feeds on life. No life exists without consuming other life. None. We are all part of a self-sustaining circle. All of our species play a role in the whole. And the tiniest of species may play the most crucial roles — like bees, dung beetles and soil microbiota.
The important issue is respecting all life, particularly if it is about to die to feed you.
What does respect mean in this context? To me it means respecting that being’s right to have a fulfilling life with the minimum of suffering and an absence of cruelty and abuse, whether it is a short life or a long one, whether it is animal or human: aiding it to fulfil its needs, helping it to live without abuse or cruelty, and to die quickly with minimal pain or fear.
For the animals in the wild that as the self-proclaimed rulers of the world we are the guardians of, that is a more remote guardianship. It means ensuring their access to a living environment that fulfils their needs, with food and clean water on it, and protecting and sustaining that environment that the animal then lives or dies on.
It also means ensuring that particular species do not outgrow their food supplies and trigger collateral extinctions of other species because human intervention has removed their natural predators or limitations.
For those animals over whom we take a direct guardianship, such as pets, livestock and vulnerable breeds in protected sanctuaries, it is a more intimate and direct guardianship. It means sparing the animal from hunger and thirst, supplying shelter and a mate, and helping it when it is sick or injured instead of letting it die a long lingering death “free” in the wild.
But as the most advanced species, with the oft-demonstrated ability to destroy our world and all the beings that make it up, all life is in our active care.
We all have the ability to suffer, and it is the responsibility of all of us to minimise the suffering of those who die to feed us. Whether it is chooks spending their whole lives in a tiny cage, or mice minced alive by gargantuan farm equipment in cereal crops, if we are aware of the suffering it is our responsibility to end it.
In the wild, animals live, suffer, and die cruel deaths, often killed at birth when they and their mothers are at their most vulnerable. That is the price of freedom. We can protect the jungle, but we cannot protect individual animals within it from feeding on or being food for the other inhabitants. That is the circle of life, and death will result no matter which one we choose to protect — either the predator will die of hunger or the prey will die to feed them. Do we protect the wolf or the fawn?
Respect for animals
As hunters for food within that jungle, we can regulate how we hunt them to make sure they die quickly and without suffering. Every indigenous people I have read about have attitudes of respect towards the animals they hunt, because they know how interdependent their lives are.
I note it tends to be those who live completely alienated and sheltered from the natural world who go out and trophy hunt for the fun of it and are indifferent to the suffering of other beings, as opposed to hunting to feed themselves or others.
If, however, we are going to look after other life in order to feed off it or to work with it — to domesticate it — as compassionate beings it is up to us to minimise that life’s suffering and maximise its access to the things it would do in the wild, like being able to socialise and play and mate and rear young with others like itself. In return we work gently with them without abuse or cruelty, and kill them quickly without suffering, which is a damned sight better than an excruciating and lingering death being eaten alive out “free” in the wild.
Whether we eat plant or animal life, we have a responsibility to do so in a way that allows the maximum biodiversity possible, the cleanest and most sustainable recycling of resources, the minimum amount of suffering and the long-term guardianship of the environment that sustains that biodiversity.
As farmers that is our job. As consumers it is up to you to make the choices that allow us to be able to afford to do it, no matter what type of food you choose to eat, by:
- Supporting the re-establishment of marketing boards that set a fair farm gate price as the minimum price for eggs, dairy, wool, crops;
- Assisting the retrofitting of all animal handling and slaughter equipment and regularly training and auditing all those who work with animals to Temple Grandin’s standards;
- Supporting farmers to transition to regenerative agroecological holistic methods, and banning the industrial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides that are exterminating our beneficial insects and soil microbes;
- Rejecting the cheap and toxic food products produced by cruel concentrated animal feeding operation, factory-farming methods;
- Supporting public funding for dung beetles and catchment protection, and stopping the poisoning of our water in rivers and artesian basins;
- Stopping urban sprawl to protect prime food growing land and protect coastal bushland for wildlife; and
- Taking action to reverse climate change.
All of these decisions prevent animal suffering and enable ethical and sustainable food production, whether that food be of plant or animal origin.
[Elena Garcia is a regenerative grazier who is using beef cattle to manage 520 hectares of marginal forest in the Western Downs, Queensland.]