No More Meat in China's Future?

redmeat2
Initium Media
,
China

No More Meat in China's Future?

Editorial note: This is the first of Initium's three, comprehensive installments on the changing nature of meat production and consumption in China (with an eye to One Health). It is translated from Chinese.

In his last full-length work, Fourteen, Japanese manga artist Kazuo Kaito describes a future world, in the 22nd century, in which mankind only survives under the protection of artificial barriers; Earth's environment is so severely damaged it cannot exist without them. Here, the natural world is absent, and most species have been exterminated. But on this harsh landscape, meat production has not ceased. In the still paper-thin city of Tokyo, there is a towering pyramid in which a chicken manufacturing company continues to produce delicious chicken meat. Yet there is not a single chicken inside; only pool after pool of nutrient solution, containing genes extracted from poultry. One day, though, a chicken head appears in the chicken company's nutrient solution, and humans end up raising an animal determined to take revenge on behalf of its kind.

This is, of course, a cartoonist's imagination of the future, not science, not reality. But our relationship with meat is intricate: according to anthropologists and scientists, humans have been eating meat since the Paleolithic (2.5 million-10,000 BCE). Because of meat, humans as a species were able to migrate out of the African continent and spread around the world; because of meat, we became social animals, built languages, communities, and then civilizations. With brains that evolved rapidly as a result of meat eating, we reached the top of the food chain, outsmarting stronger predators on the African savannahs.

rooster
Credit: Initium Media.

For most of human history, meat has indeed been a luxury. In the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, Sister Feng uses about ten chickens to cook a fresh vegetable dish in order to show off her modernity, her status. In the post-WWII era, however, the industrialization of meat production has not only made it more affordable for most people in the developing world to eat meat, but they can also consume a lot of it. Eating a McDonald’s Big Mac alone provides 563 units of calories, one third of an adult’s daily calorie requirement and costs ¥22 (US$6). It is the easiest time in our history to get a hold of meat, without having to risk our lives to hunt, without having to abide by state rationing, without even having to butcher anything ourselves. One need just take a trip to a supermarket and buy wholesome, cheap, good quality meat with great ease.

But our story with meat doesn't stop there. Today, when billions can finally afford to be carnivores, we wonder if meat is the cause of climate change. Is meat consumption causing us all kinds of diseases? Is the modern meat industry the source of the next global plague? Beyond the obvious questions, the unasked questions seem even more difficult to answer: Is it true that we are physically incapable of giving up meat because we are born to eat it? And why can we always turn a blind eye to the cruelty of mass meat production to animals?

Once again, scientists have tried their best to answer these questions, but as with all other human questions, the scientific answers are far from adequate. What is animal, what is food, what is human - like the chicken head in the nutrient solution - is up to our imagination.

porkchop
Credit: Initium Media.


Eat Drink Man Woman: Why are we so obsessed with meat?

Why are we so addicted to eating meat that - even though we are aware of the faults of the meat industry and the global ecological crisis of climate warming - we still cannot give up our meaty obsession? Genetics and evolutionary biology determine only part of what we put in our mouths; the other big, even more significant, part is cultural, political, and sexual.

Since childhood, the cultural cues we have received all lead to the belief that “meat is men's food.” When Americans throw a family barbecue party, the men always serve the roles of grilling and dividing the meat among family members, and there is even a double entendre: “man the grill.” According to a 2018 study, less than 20% of American women are the “grill chef” in the family. Richard Shweder, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, pointed out in his paper Why Men Grill that when humans evolved from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one, there was a gendered division of labor, with men being responsible for hunting for meats and women for growing vegetables. Meat also symbolizes the exclusion of women from public life. In the indigenous villages of Hong Kong's New Territories, the clan elders (or “Taigongs”) will distribute roast pork after the respective spring and autumn festivals, but only to elderly men who had exceeded 60 and to male infants born in the previous year. The pork represents the blessing of the clan's ancestors and the distribution of power within the village; Additionally, the men who have left the villages are also given the roast pork, whereas the women in the villages only get the “white meat” – the unroasted pieces. The rituals of a hunting society still thrive in modern days after two million years.

mosaic
Credit: Initium Media.

Meat is not only a source of protein, as scientists say, but also a source of beliefs about power in human society, or at least a reinforcement of the social environment in which we live. In her book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, American theologian and writer Carol J. Adams argues that we are obsessed with meat not because we need it but because patriarchal culture controls women while exploiting other beings in the world. Animals and women are both “slices of meat” for slaughter in a patriarchal society. Men consume most of the meat in society, women have reduced or given up meat for various social reasons, and “marginalized humans,” such as people of color, have long been considered worthy of only eating “roughage” such as vegetables and grains. The relationship between meat and masculinity is so ingrained that men who choose to be vegetarians are seen as “sissies” who can not go to war. Thus, a meat-based diet has also rationalized the brutality of war, reinforcing the cycle of masculinity, meat, and violence. Interestingly, despite the belief in the virility of meat, research has shown that modern processed meat could induce a lowering sperm count, with the average male sperm count dropping over the last forty years.

Most times in human society, meat has always symbolized classes. In ancient times, your status in the hierarchical system decided what types of meat you could eat. The peasants - the vast majority of people - ate a diet of vegetables, and meat was a luxury that they would probably never enjoy in their lifetime. According to Marta Zaraska, author of Meathooked, in ancient societies, the prone-to-rot and always large-quantity meat (a whole zebra, for example) would be the best to share within a community. Since it was to be distributed, the political dilemma arose: who was to get the largest share? Who would get no share at all? Who had the power to decide these questions? The vegetables grown from the ground are not as inextricably linked to honor and power compared to the hunted meat, so there are no rituals such as the “Taigongs distribute vegetables.” The meat was not only closely related to political and social institutions but also paved for the emergence of a social class system in human society.

Vegetarianism is often seen as a way of life for the middle class, high-income, and educated earners. But when meat became available in abundance, and “meat-eating” was the choice of all and not necessarily reserved for the upper elites, the voluntary choice of vegetarianism took on a new class meaning. Moreover, in many developing countries, meat consumption is still increasing. For example, Russia’s meat consumption almost doubled in 2014 compared to 2000. Nowadays, meat consumption in China has stabilized but given the sheer size of the population, the “meatification” of China has always been an issue of concern to many environmentalists, not to mention that it is still on the rise today.

The relationship between meat consumption and GDP in different countries and regions. In one group of countries, increased per capita GDP leads to greater meat consumption; in another group of usually already-developed countries, the relationship between growth and consumption isn't as strong / Credit: Initium Media/data from the OECD.

Of course, evolutionary biology also backs our fascination with meat. Without it, humans and our brains would not have evolved into what they are today. The African savannah elephant is the largest land mammal, weighing an average of 3,000 to 6,000 kilograms which is 40 to 80 times heavier than an average human. Still, its brain weighs only 4.6 kilograms, only about three times more than ours. The blue whale, the largest marine mammal, weighs an average of 140,000 kilograms (140 tons); but its brain weighs less than 7 kilograms, which is not even one-hundredth of its body weight. Size and intelligence do not necessarily correlate. The Amazon parrot has a brain of just over 10 grams, but with the tightly connected neurons in its brain, it has a higher cognitive capacity than many mammals. Nevertheless, the human brain is still the most complex of all known structures in the universe - this 1.3-kilogram, gooey and soft tissue composed of fat and protein can contain nearly 100 billion neurons and glial cells that are connected in ways that brain neuroscientists and computer scientists have yet to understand completely. Such a brain allowed man to discover gravity and relativity - and with such a complex brain, humanity even created the Be-9 Symphony, Homer's Odyssey, and Mona Lisa's smile.

Indeed, science today is not advanced enough to allow us to comprehend how the human brain works, but there is one fact that both paleoanthropologists and other scientists agree on: without meat, our brains could not have evolved into what they are today. A couple of million years ago, after our ape-like ancestors began eating meat, their brains expanded by 70% over hundreds of thousands of years (our species, Homo sapiens, evolved as a species only about 100-150,000 years ago). Although the brain occupies only two percent of our body weight, it consumes a quarter of our energy while resting. As a result, our gut has shrunk to save all the energy for the needy brain. A diet directed towards meat-consuming has enabled this evolution as only a massive amount of vegetables and fruits can satisfy such an energy-hungry brain, not to mention that the fiber in vegetables requires a solid gut to digest. Where can we find such easily digestible foods with lots of calories, fat, and protein? There was only one answer: meat (some paleoanthropologists specify “cooked meat,” but meat all the same).

Lastly, our hesitance in giving up meat probably also has to do with the appetite for love, memory, and tradition.

In Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, the opening scene shows the widower Mr. Zhu, played by Paul Lung, preparing a family feast. He puts seeded chilis, shredded radishes, and a piece of pork belly into a stewpot with Sichuan peppercorns, some cloves of star anise, spring onions, and soy sauce. The meat is boiled in oil and put into ice water to keep it tender. After that, he cuts the belly into thick slices and places them in a large bowl with sliced ginger, spring onion, and five spice powder then places them in a steamer over high heat. Finally, he transfers the steamed meat to the middle of the pot garnished with fresh vegetables, and drizzles everything with boiling gravy. In the next scene, Mr. Zhu and his three daughters gather around the old family dinner table, where there are steamed grouper, jellyfish salad, and a chrysanthemum pot ( hot pot with fresh meat broth or fish soup). At the dinner table, Mr. Zhu, who has lost his wife for more than ten years, wants to tell his three daughters about his grief, but the second daughter speaks first: she has bought a house and is moving out. In the film, the father and the three daughters of the Zhu family all have troubles and desires weighing on their minds. The six family feasts and the delectable food on the table tightly bond the daughters and the father, symbolizing the traditional family ties. Confucius said, "Eating, drinking, and coupling are man's greatest desires.” The greatest desires of human existence are indeed food and sex, but our pursuit of these desires is always socialized and regulated. In the film, the subtleties of suspicion, jealousy, dependence, and love between father and daughters and sisters are all well situated in one dish after another.

Wouldn't it be better to replace Mr. Zhu's dishes with artificial or vegetable meat? In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safrar Foer argues that the culture of eating is a social act, what we eat, whom we eat it with, all the aromas, the tastes, the sounds of our parents or grandparents slicing meat in the kitchen - it is all embedded in our cultural DNA. For as long as we have communities, campfires, and the tradition of “getting warm around the fire”, we have relied on storytelling to maintain interpersonal bonds and convey all messages of both love and hate. These stories become our collective memories, and these memories are the source of our identity. This is perhaps the most challenging hurdle for artificial meat to overcome.

chickenlegs
Credit: Initium Media.

Is meat really that cheap?

In a materially deprived China in the 1960s, “meat” was a precious commodity that could only be pondered. Even in Beijing, people had to purchase pork with a ration supply coupon and were not allowed to purchase more than nine taels (50 grams) - the size of a palm - per month. In the 1960s, the average Chinese person still ate less than five kilograms of meat every year, and the staple food of the Chinese was still based on vegetables. In the 1980s, with the economic reform of China, meat consumption increased dramatically to 20 kg per person per year. By 2021, each Chinese resident was eating an average of 63 kilograms of meat per year, and the country’s total meat consumption accounts for nearly 30% of the entire world. Communism might have not yet been fully achieved, but “having meat every day” is definitely the reality for some Chinese people.

The United States, already a heavy-meat-eating nation, has seen its annual meat consumption per capita rise from 76kg in 1960 to 101kg in 2021. From 1960 to 2022, the population of these two countries has risen by more than 890 million people. Not only has the population increased, but also the per capita consumption of meat - in 2000, China's per capita consumption was about 37 kg a year, but by 2021 it has increased to nearly 45 kg per person. As for the US, which is already a heavy meat-eating nation, per capita consumption in 2000 was about 63 kg per year, growing to 70 kilograms in 2021.

But even with the explosion of the world’s population since World War II, the recommended amount of meat in the dietary pyramid has increased for various scientific and non-scientific reasons, making it relatively easy for all of us to eat the recommended amount. A McDonald's Big Mac has 45 grams of beef, almost as much as a Beijinger would have received in a month on a food ration coupon in the 1960s, and a Big Mac costs less than US$3 in Hong Kong or Taiwan and less than US$6 in the US. Unprocessed meat is even cheaper: In the notoriously pricey city of London, a box of 10 chicken wings in the expensive supermarket Waitrose often costs as little as £1. Despite the logistical obstacles resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant rise in prices due to inflation brought on by the war in Ukraine, meat nowadays is still a household food rather than a luxury compared to most of human history. Many say the modern meat industry has made meat affordable for all, which seems accurate at first glance.

But is meat really that cheap? The modern meat industry allows us to buy a juicy sirloin steak for a few bucks, but the actual price we pay is much more than the small unnoticeable bill on our credit card. The modern meat industry is extremely cost inefficient: the cheap meat we consume has always been the result of the meat producers passing hidden costs or externalities on to workers, meat consumers, developing countries, and other marginalized groups.

For example, suppose you want about 120 grams of protein (the recommended daily allowance is 50 to 175 grams). In that case, you can choose to eat 1 pound of beef or 1.25 pounds of soybeans, but the former uses 20 times more land resources and emits 20 times more greenhouse gasses in the production process. Beef and dairy cattle are also the primary sources of anthropogenic methane emissions: when ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep, burp or exhale, they will produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that lingers for a shorter period than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but warms more strongly. Moreover, animals need to eat to grow meat: to put a pound of flesh on their bodies, chickens need 2.3 pounds of feed, pigs need 5.9 pounds of feed, and cattle need 13 pounds. You read that right - the meat industry consumes far more food than it can produce. In 2006, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization wrote in an official report: "In simple numeric terms, livestock actually detract more from total food supply than they provide.” The same report stated that livestock provides 58 million tons of protein, but - as a result - they eat 77 million tons.

Moreover, there has been a massive loss of soil and agricultural land in many developing regions to grow livestock feed such as maize and soya beans - the demand for livestock feed in China has soared since the 1990s, directly contributing to the massive loss of forests in Latin America and forcing many small farmers there to give up their livelihoods. China's soil and water resources are also on the brink of depletion due to the high water consumption of the meat industry, with 90% of the country's grasslands being degraded or lost. Not to mention the pollution of mountains and rivers by meat factories - the largest estuary in the United States, Chesapeake Bay, was once a fishing center in the eastern US, but many fish have been extinct because of the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in pig manure discharged into the river from neighboring pig farms. In 2013, nearly 10,000 dead pigs from pig farms in Zhejiang were dumped into the river. The bodies floated downstream to Huangpu River in Shanghai and were eventually salvaged. The cost of cleaning the waters, which of course taxpayers bear, is not factored into the US$10 or US$8 spent on a sirloin steak.

The health impact of the meat industry is not accounted for in the price tag, either. The production of chicken may emit fewer greenhouse gasses than sheep and cattle, but that doesn't mean that eating chicken is any less of a problem. Meat factories use vast amounts of antibiotics on animals to prevent widespread infections in extremely crowded chicken farms and to force animals to grow meat where they "should" (e.g., on their legs). In the US, 80% of antibiotics are used on industrial livestock, not humans. When humans eat these chronically antibiotic-fed chickens, we become resistant to these medicines - the CDC warns that every 15 minutes, an American dies from a disease that antibiotics cannot effectively combat. In 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also announced strict regulations on antibiotic abuse in meat factories, and the United Nations reports that if we don't change the problem of antibiotic misuse in the meat industry now, 10 million people will die every year by 2050 from diseases that could have been treated with antibiotics. In addition, the risk of getting cardiovascular diseases and cancer caused by excessive meat consumption, and the cost to society of providing health insurance, are also masked by the price of meat.

bigmac
Credit: Initium Media.

Save the planet by not eating meat?

None of these costs will show up on the bill for a while, and they may not sound so threatening for now. However, the relationship between climate change and meat production is mutually reinforcing: As the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius, and the oceans rise by almost half a meter, rainfall patterns will change, and tropical crop production and marine catches will be drastically reduced. Meat production is also at risk, and a steady supply may no longer be guaranteed. In fact, in the last two years, we have already started to feel what it is like to be “unable to afford meat.”' The COVID-19 outbreak has revealed many drawbacks to large-scale meat production. Restaurants have been closed due to city shutdowns, farms cannot sell their livestock, and the United States lost a large market to export pork due to the US-China trade war (China consumes the most pork in the world). Expensive feed and high transportation costs push farmers away from animal farming. As a result, meat production decreases, and meat prices become higher and higher.

Researchers and environmental groups have long proposed a “meat tax” to encourage less meat consumption and compensate for the enormous harm the meat industry has caused to the environment, people, and animals. In early 2022, for example, scientists at Oxford University proposed raising the price of beef by 35-56%, chicken by 25%, and lamb and pork by 19% - and these figures do not even consider the damage meat does to biodiversity and human health. When there is a recession and meat prices are relatively high, people seem to eat less meat. The 2008 financial crisis, for example, forced Americans to consume more protein from foods such as eggs and nuts, and often, they chose cheaper chickens over the more expensive beef or pork. As a result, in 2014, the US reduced its carbon emissions from meat production by 10 percent compared to 2005.

Does that mean advocating for the cessation of meat is working? It doesn't seem so simple. Some academics have done studies that simulated removing all meat from the American diet and found that plant-based agriculture could produce more food, but failed to meet the nutritional needs of Americans, so humans would have to eat more. Removing meat from US agriculture would reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, but the food supply would not be able to support the US population. Reducing meat from US agriculture would cut greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, but the food supply would not be able to support the nutritional needs of the US population. Given its high-calorie content, meat is still a large part of food security in the US and globally. It has also been suggested that the environmental benefits of reduced meat consumption may be offset by increased consumption of other relatively high-impact foods.

This study, written by scholars at Carnegie Mellon University, also makes a critical point: Eating less meat while maintaining nutritional intake would require eating more dairy and vegetables. But these foods have a significant carbon footprint on a per-calorie basis - and may not be a complete substitute for meat. And meat is not the only food that has a significant ecological impact. The coffee, chocolate, and sweets people in developed countries are drastically contributing to the reduction of rainforest areas, which also has a major impact on biodiversity and climate change. You may not be doing much to reduce emissions if you don't eat meat but get nutrients from other high-emitting foods.

cleaver
Credit: Initium Media.

Cruel condition

I have been studying for my Ph.D. in the US state of Wisconsin for the past few years. In Wisconsin, while its population is overwhelmingly white, there is a large Hmong population. During the Vietnam War, the US army recruited Hmong people in the mountains of Southeast Asia to join the guerrilla forces against the Viet Cong. After the war, the US issued refugee visas to the Hmong people who were retaliated against by the communists. Most of them went to California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, traditional shamanic rituals brought by the Hmongs often widened the cultural gap between the Hmongs and white Americans. Sometimes, when a Hmong person falls ill, their solution is to ask a shaman to kill a cow and offer its spirit to the evil spirits and wandering ghosts in exchange for the family member's health and safety. As the Hmongs believe that the ancestral spirits live at home, the ritual of killing is always carried out at home, and sometimes the head of the cow is placed at the doorstep. This “barbaric” practice often causes discontent among their white American neighbors, with many complaints and even police reports accusing the Hmong people of animal cruelty.

The modern meat industry allows us to buy a pack of twelve chicken legs without thinking about how many chickens are in a group of twelve legs, what the chickens initially looked like, what breed and color they were - and where and how they died. In meat factories, once the chickens have reached the marketable weight, they are taken from their cramped coops to the slaughterhouse, where they are submerged in water, electrocuted, and then their throats are slit. In an average American slaughterhouse, workers can kill thousands of chickens in an hour using this method. The organs and guts are then hollowed out; the legs are pulled off; the carcasses are washed, tested (to ensure they are free of germs such as salmonella), and frozen. Finally, in the meat packing plant, the carcasses are separated into wings, thighs, legs, and breasts - the packers load the body parts into packages according to the specifications of the retailers and send them to the clean, modern, convenient supermarkets, where we can push our shopping carts at our leisure. We do not kill fewer animals. The Hmongs in the US, on the other hand, practice the tradition of “more vegetables less meat” - it's just that modern society allows us to stay out of the process of breeding and slaughtering animals when we can devour their flesh without thinking that we are eating them at all.

piggies
Credit: Initium Media.

Before the Second World War, farms in the Midwest were small and family-run where farmers fattened their animals for sale after the harvest when feed was cheap. The meat was thus available seasonally. But with the emergence of supermarkets, this model could no longer satisfy meat wholesalers who were looking for a high  “conversion rate,” so they demanded the same animals from every farm, with the same fat percentage, the same antibiotics, the same weight, and the same place to grow meat. Beginning in the 1960s, family farms in the Midwest disappeared, and many became factory-managed, building barns to house thousands of animals and raising them to “supermarket standards.” Accordingly, many farmers expanded their farm capacity while being in debt. Either they follow the rule, or they lose their businesses.

In The CAFO Reader, activist and journalist David Imhoff writes about a young man working on a large pig farm who found a sick pig and spent his spare time curing the pig, since he has grown up on the farm and is familiar with pig diseases. Instead of showing gratitude, the employer wanted to fire him immediately because the sick pigs were either killed or kept until they could be sold. On traditional small farms, the well-being of the animals was linked to their productivity - healthy hens produced more eggs, and healthy pigs grew fatter. Imhof points out the problem with the modern meat industry: “productivity” is disconnected from animal well-being. Chicken farms are lit up all day to simulate daylight just to make hens lay more eggs. To cut costs and increase productivity, the feed is occasionally mixed with newspapers, meat products, and the feces of other animals. Also, the large meat producers have accelerated their vertical integration for profit, leaving small family farms to have no room to survive.

It is not just animals that we are turning a blind eye to. The meat processing industry has long been ranked as one of the most dangerous and health-hazardous occupations. Workers are exposed to many chemicals used on animals, such as peracetic acid, which is highly irritating and can damage the eyes, nose, and throat. The US Department of Labor has also stated that meatpacking workers are prone to gastrointestinal infections, skin infections, pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections, and they are also at a higher risk of developing lung cancer. During the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure a steady supply of meat, the meat processing industry in the US not only did not shut down but was allowed to speed up production lines, even after several outbreaks in different processing facilities. Non-whites and immigrants overwhelmingly occupied these dangerous, dirty, low-paying, and long-hour jobs.

Those are undoubtedly not just the problems of the meat industry. The electronics we use are likely to be produced in sweatshops, and the ice cream, chips, and sweets we eat daily may contain palm oil, whose excessive extraction is causing vast swathes of Southeast Asian rainforests to disappear. Sociologists and geographers can cite numerous similar examples and speak eloquently of the evils of global capitalism. They are not wrong, but the modern meat industry is the only one that perpetuates a systematic approach to slaughtering hundreds of millions of living creatures in insufferable conditions. The meat industry defines not only what an animal is but, more importantly, what a human being is. After all, the automatic and inexhaustible machine that carries out mass slaughter, was created by the very animals that claim to be "the only ones who refuse to eat out of conscience”, by you and me.

Conclusion: a pig's head

In 2017, I agreed to have a wedding to fulfill my father’s wish. We had hoped for a civil ceremony at the Town Hall and a simple dinner for the two families. But my father told me through my mother that "I wanted to make it a nice and glamorous wedding for my first child." I gave in, took the party to a hotel, and chose a Chinese banquet. In Chinese society, love between people is expressed in compliance with norms, and what I decide to put in my mouth - in turn - defines my relationship with my parents and whether I am a loyal child or a selfish rebel.

My mother made sure I kept the whole roast suckling pig on the menu. It was a wedding for my parents, so it was no big deal to keep the suckling pig or not. So the first course of the dinner was the whole suckling pig - but the hotel took away the head at my request. When I was a kid, I always thought it was disgusting to have a whole pig on the table, sometimes with big red bulbs in its eyes, extremely tacky. So I removed the head and left the pig with its crispy, juicy skin, tender fat, and white meat underneath. The pig without the head was served with a sweet sauce, the skin was crispy and the meat was soft, making it particularly tasty.

With the pig's head gone, it felt like food on the table, not a living creature. The "it's tacky, it's rustic" excuse may be a cover for the real reason: people like me, born and raised in a big city, who have never had a shortage of meat but at the same time have never seen a meat factory or a live pig, can't stand the thought of a piglet on the table that is less than a week old and destined to exist to fill our bellies.

Human beings have indeed pondered upon the life of animals. In the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Descartes refers to animals as “unconscious automat”' - they walk and move, like chained machines, but do not have a soul as humans do. Kant argues against this, stating that animals are alive, not machines. Still, he stresses the importance of reason - humans are human because we are self-conscious and capable of reasoning and can act without desire, whereas animals cannot. Mary Midgley, the famous moral philosopher, says that Western philosophy emphasizes reason and that it is not just thought that defines humans, but coherent, connected thought. Animals do not think and communicate in this way, so they are naturally regarded as aliens.

pighead1
Credit: Initium Media.

Throughout human history, the status of livestock has been ambiguous. After the Industrial Revolution, with the rapid development of science and technology, animals were increasingly seen as resources, tools, and machines. As modern instrumental reason liberated scientific thinking from human imagination and desire, it also made human beings increasingly callous towards animal life; medical experiments that could not be performed on humans could be performed on animals without anesthetic because - as Midgley notes - scientists at the time considered animals to be soulless machines. Even if they screamed and moaned, it did not mean that they could actually feel pain. "Scientific objectivity” greatly enhanced human productivity, but the new aims of productivity and profit were also achieved at the expense of other species.

Humanism, of course, emerged at almost the same time and inspired movements such as anti-slavery. Still, it was not until the nineteenth century that the idea of animal welfare began to have more supporters. In recent decades, many animal protection groups have been formed, and moral philosophers such as Peter Singer have argued for the moral status of animals, suggesting that animals can feel pain and pleasure and that animals and humans are morally equal. Singer argues that the modern meat industry's approach to animal farming is unjust - because it causes unnecessary suffering to animals: "In order to have meat on the table at a price that people can afford, our society tolerates methods of meat production that confine sentient animals in cramped, unsuitable conditions for the entire of their lives. Animals are treated like machines that convert fodder into flesh, and any innovation that results in a higher “conversion ratio” is liable to be adopted...none of these practices cater for anything more than our pleasures of taste, our practice of rearing and killing other animals in order to eat them is a clear instance of the sacrifice of the most important interests of other beings in order to satisfy trivial interests of our own.”

The University of Edinburgh, Scotland, conducted a study in which pigs were given a “pig park” to simulate a wild environment, and their behaviors were observed. They walked a mile to collect food, built nests for themselves on the side of a hill (and because pigs are clean animals, these nests had “toilets”), and members of the herd helped each other look after the piglets. But in the meat factory, pigs spend their lives trapped in cages only slightly bigger than their bodies, with no room to turn around and no way to express their natures as pigs.

The violence and cruelty we treat animals articulate much more than speciesism but also our attitude towards those not of our species. Perhaps, as Adams says, we can afford to eat meat but the cost may be more than the environment, our health, and our ability to take moral responsibility for animals and other human beings. The freedom granted to us by modern society is reflected in how easily we can escape the calling of our conscience: just take away the pig's head.


This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in Chinese by Initium Media on August 18, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A slab of meat / Credit: Initium Media.

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