That was the topic of Intelligence2’s debate, in conjunction with the Wheeler Centre, last Tuesday night.
Going in, I voted that meat should be on the menu, as although I think vegetarianism and veganism is great and I fully support those movements, I personally love the taste of (some, mainly chicken, fish and beef) meat and don’t think I could give it up. I still believe this, although I have recently made the switch from dairy to almond milk in a bid to become more ecotarian, which you can read a bit more about in this link I posted last week.
But I based my final vote for the night, which is a staple of Intelligence2 debates, on which team presented better arguments. That team was the affirmative, claiming that animals should be off the menu.
That team consisted of the author of Animal Liberation, Peter Singer, jet-setting former banker turned staunch animal rights activist Philip Wollen, and Veronica Ridge, food writer, whose argument about the myriad of non-meat-based dishes was the weakest, and was challenged by those in the audience who claimed that while the meals she listed may have been meat-free, they still used a lot of animal by-products like dairy.
However, she did make some good points about hypocrisy and the ways we treat certain animals. For example, why do we butcher pigs and cows but lavish affection on our domestic cats and dogs? The special needs dog-in-training in attendance hammered this point home.
Opening for the affirmative team was Singer, who started off rather weakly but listed the three main topics his team would take on: our health, the impact meat production has on the planet (Wollen followed this up with the fact that it takes 50,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef. The irony that I’d had two beef-based meals the day before and the day of the debate was not lost on me.), and the ethical treatment of animals.
But if I thought Singer presented poorly right out of the gate, he had nothing on the dismal points of Fiona Chambers of the opposing team, who raises organic pigs on her Daylesford farm. It could probably be attributed to nerves, but most of what Chambers had to say seemed to get lost in translation. All I got was that human consumption of animal meat keeps their species alive and away from extinction, and that animals cannot be raised humanely for human consumption. Either she misread her notes, or her argument completely flies in the face of the work she does on her farm. Puzzling.
The second speaker for the opposing team wasn’t much better. Animal scientist Bruce McGregor talked about “natural loss” and the ecological impact not eating animals would have. There’s nothing “natural” about factory farming, and to answer McGregor’s question about what to do with all the surplus stock, that’s easy: stop using female cattle and poultry as baby-making machines and we wouldn’t have two billion animals killed per week, as Wollen told us.
Wollen went on to say that 10,000 species go into extinction every year because of humans, and we are facing the sixth mass extinction right now. (2012, anyone?) Wollen concluded his ominous but standing ovation-receiving speech with this:
“The axis of evil runs through our dining tables… [and] our weapons of mass destruction are our knives and forks.”
I don’t necessarily agree that this is always true, but I do think Wollen’s segment was responsible for the affirmative’s win on the night.
Almost retaining my vote for the opposing team, Good Chef, Bad Chef star Adrian Richardson said that meat consumption is all about choice: you can make the personal choice not to eat meat, or to eat meat that’s ethically produced. In his Melbourne restaurant, La Luna, he only serves organic meat, which is promising, but we all know that what it says on the packet isn’t always the case. For example, unless your “free range” eggs have a stamp of approval from a recognised animal welfare authority, “free range” could mean the hen gets 20cms to exist in as opposed to 20cms for it and four other hens in which to live. If people still buy cage eggs and factory farmed meat, there’ll always be a demand for it, making it harder for the regular supermarket shopper to discern and easier to justify the cheap cost of cage eggs versus the steeper cost of free range.
Annoyingly, though, Richardson appealed to the Aussie bogan (of which I don’t think there were many in attendance. Meat is the dietary staple of the bogan, didn’t you know?), opening by saying that not eating meat is un-Australian and that when we do, we’re closer to our savage ancestors. Or an AFL player (his words [paraphrased], not mine).
When the debate went to the floor, there was a (keeping with the animal theme) menagerie of viewpoints and arguments, but a few really resonated with me, whether I agree with them or not. A couple of people said those in the West have the luxury of eliminating meat from their diets and supplementing it with other forms of protein, while those in developing countries don’t. Following on, either someone from the affirmative team, someone from the audience, or both, said the 1.2 billion people who populate India don’t have a problem with a meat-free diet, so it shouldn’t be that hard for Australian population to adopt.
Richardson mentioned that he’s killed animals with his bare hands before. While hunting’s not for me, personally, I don’t have a problem with it in general, so long as the animal is killed swiftly and all of its viable by-products are consumed. Someone in the audience concluded that this is just another example of how we assert our dominance over animals because they can’t defend themselves or tell us how they feel. Interestingly, a boy no older than 13 in a private school uniform took to the mic and said choosing the kind of meat we feel comfortable consuming is all well and good, but animals don’t have a choice. (The women behind me promptly dismissed the boy’s opinion because of his private school duds. Now, I’m not a fan of private school myself, but there are a few good eggs amongst the entitled and bratty ones. I support the kid.) As far as we know, they’re sentient beings who have feelings, self-interest and self-preservation instincts. Who are we to assert our superiority over them because we don’t understand them and we like the way they taste?