Bill looked from her to the hen.
BUT WE FEED THEM, he said helplessly.
"That's right. And then they feed us. This one's been off lay for months. That's how it goes in the chicken world."
("Reaper Man", p130)
I've been vegetarian for the last 15 years (since I was 18), and I've explained the background for that decision here. I do still miss the taste of meat, and I sometimes find myself drooling at what other people are eating; Quorn is a pretty good substitute, but it's not quite the same. Last year the BBC had an article about lapsed vegetarians (Some sausages are more equal than others), which includes the quote "not eating meat had become a habit, not a passion". That does resonate with me, and there are times when it's hard to remember why I became a vegetarian, but in those situations I just trust my past instincts, i.e. I assume that I had a good reason for it.
Recently some friends were discussing the "adopt a pig" scheme at Yorkshire Meats. (You can also get to their site via www.eatbabe.co.uk and www.adopt-a-pig.co.uk.) This is a bit like those restaurants where you can choose a fish from a tank and then they serve it to you for dinner. The basic idea is that you put down a £50 deposit on a pig when it's about 7 weeks old, then 6 months later you buy all the meat when that pig is killed (about £300 worth, 40-50kg). In the meantime, you can visit "your porcine friend" at the farm, and they'll send you photos to keep you up to date. At one level, this seems a bit odd: do you really want to be on first name terms with the animal that you're going to eat? On the other hand, I'm certainly in favour of people knowing where their food comes from.
Looking at their website, I'm actually very impressed. The pigs seem to be well treated, and I particularly liked the photo of a farmer hand-feeding an apple to a pig. I also agree with their philosophy, e.g. not being "organic" so that they can give medicine to the pigs when necessary. I'd like to visit that farm, to see how things work in a bit more detail; presumably the farmers don't feel guilty about killig the animals, even though they care for them.
Thinking about the chicken quote above, I think that a reciprocal system works well, which is partly why I'm not vegan: it seems fair enough to take care of chickens/bees and get eggs/honey in return. DownTheLane is an interesting website, written by a guy who keeps free range chickens in his back garden; he bought lots of his hens from battery farms, so that they have a better "retirement" than KFC. That type of self-sufficiency isn't really practical for me at the moment (living in a 1st floor flat), but it's something I'd consider if I move elsewhere. For now, it makes sense to be selective about what food I buy, e.g. going to a local apiary for honey.
It's a bit more complicated for pigs, since there's no direct (economic) benefit in keeping them while they're alive, so they can only "earn their keep" by being sold for meat. Is this fair? My utopian vision is for farm animals to be kept in the equivalent of safari parks, where the income from visitors would pay for their upkeep, but realistically that would involve far fewer animals than are alive today. I don't have a problem with population control (for humans or animals), although I don't know enough about the environmental issues (e.g. carbon emissions) to comment on them.
Actually, one argument in favour of being vegan (rather than vegetarian) is that only the female animals produce eggs/milk, and you don't need many males for breeding purposes, so most males will be killed at birth. In other words, that theory says that I'm still indirectly responsible for several deaths. With the pigs, this farm lets you specify your preferred sex on the return form, so every piglet born should live for at least 7 months.
Assuming that the pigs have a happy life on the farm, their lifespan is still shorter than it could be. According to the Vegetarian Society, the natural lifespan of a pig is 10-15 years. However, if we assume that a farm wants to maintain a fixed population (to avoid overcrowding) then they won't rear a new pig until they've got rid of an existing one. I'm sure that an individual pig would like to live as long as possible, but as a neutral third party is there any significant difference between one pig that lives for ten years and ten pigs that each live for one year? I'm sure that the farm is motivated by profit, since they can sell ten times as much meat if they kill each pig as soon as it's fully grown; however, this could theoretically be balanced out if people were willing to pay ten times as much money for "longlife organic" meat (or whatever new term was invented to describe it). So, ignoring the financial issues for a moment, what would maximise porcine happiness? Arguably it does make sense to kill animals in their prime, to avoid the problems of old age; that's similar to the idea of putting pets "to sleep" when they're suffering, or euthanasia for humans (which I support).
I think the main problem is that we're still killing animals for fundamentally selfish reasons (i.e. we enjoy eating their corpses). Yorkshire Meats don't say much about this part of the process on their website, and I'd be interested to know how the animals are transported to the abattoir. According to PETA, "more than 1 million pigs die in transport each year, and an additional 420,000 are crippled by the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse." Generally speaking, I think that PETA are extremists (although they have good taste in naked women), but if they're right about this then it's a bit worrying.
Even in the best case scenario, it's probably fair to say that being killed won't be a fun experience for the animal concerned. However, death is an inevitable part of life, and I think most methods are quite unpleasant. Basically, whenever you bring a new life into the world you have to accept responsibility for its eventual death. This is equally true if you buy a pet from a breeder, although I've been able to side-step that issue with my most recent cats/hamsters (by adopting them from other people). For that matter, the same thing also applies to childbirth, but I'm reluctant to condemn all parents as murderers. In all these cases, you hope that the happy life will outweigh the eventual death.
The BBC article that I mentioned above includes this quote:
Chris Lamb, of the Meat and Livestock Commission, doubts that organic meat will ever dominate the market. "You couldn't turn over the whole of British production or consumption to being organic - it's unfeasible in terms of the amount of land available and the price."
The BBC also have a second article about a former vegetarian who turned to pig farming: As happy as pigs in muck. One of the comments to that article said:
It's OK for those people who get in excess of £20,000 to get ethical - but for us MILLIONS who get, say £12,000 a year, we depend on supermarkets to supply us with meat that we can afford to buy. Otherwise, it's back to medieval times, when only the rich could eat meat and the peasants ate only vegetables (and the occasional poached rabbit). Long live the supermarkets, I say!
These are both reasonable points: if all meat was produced in farms like this, there wouldn't be enough to match the current demand. However, I don't really see that being a problem. As you may have gathered, I'm wavering a bit in my principles, but I'm not planning to go back to my old diet; instead, I'm considering whether it's ok to eat meat a few times a year, as a special treat. If everyone did that, the higher cost wouldn't be such a problem because you'd probably spend less on food overall. It might also make sense to re-introduce ration cards to stop rich people hogging the supply (no pun intended).
Having said all that, I do have an ulterior motive here: "Mmm, piggy fried goodness!" If I'd been vegetarian all my life, would I want to make the noble sacrifice of eating unknown meat just to give an animal a chance at life? It seems unlikely. More generally, I like to think of myself as a kind person, and killing animals for my pleasure conflicts with that. So, maybe it's better to err on the side of caution by staying veggie? I have to wonder whether my changing views are a result of maturity, or whether I've just been corrupted, and I suspect that my younger self would be horrified at the person I've become.
Taking a fictional analogy, when I see the Wraith in Stargate Atlantis (or vampires in general), who rely on eating humans to survive, I view this as an intrinsically bad thing. Similarly, it's quite popular to have a tortured hero who becomes a vampire but fights against his impulses, and I like to think that I'd do the same thing. How do I reconcile that with the idea of eating meat by choice? I suppose this partly depends on whether human lives are inherently more valuable than animal lives. I know people who eat meat but are opposed to capital punishment, so presumably they'd say yes; personally, I think there are several humans who are less deserving of life than farm animals. Is it significant that the animals rely on us for life? For instance, if humans were raised on a vampire island, with all their material needs catered for, but then culled at the age of 30 (a la Logan's Run) would that be ok? I'd say no; even though they wouldn't exist in the first place without their "stewards", they'd still be able to survive elsewhere on their own.
Coming back to animals, I'm guessing that most of them could get by without us, e.g. if we evacuated the Isle of Wight. However, that would be the species as a whole; individual animals would still die, and I don't know how well they'd regulate their own populations. Would they keep breeding until some animals died of starvation? They'd also be vulnerable to illness and other predators, although I'm not sure whether a hen should be grateful to a fox for saving her from a wolf.
All in all, I'll carry on the way I am for now, but I may change my views later on.