Yesterday I attended The Vegetarian Society’s TED talks-style KIN 2015 conference in Manchester, along with colleagues from Compassion in World Farming’s Cheshire supporters’ group. As a vegetarian of several decades’ standing, I was looking forward to meeting like-minded people but I didn’t expect to learn much. I was certainly wrong on the second count.
With four main talks slots, each with at least three different speakers to choose from, there was plenty to hear. I opted for the animal welfare side of things rather than the ‘vegetarianism for health’ content, but even so there was lots I missed out on that I would have wanted to go to.
Tony Juniper’s (@TonyJuniper) keynote address, ‘What on Earth are we Eating?’, was polished and confident, with a focus on the problem of land use for livestock or feeding livestock and the international ‘land grab’ that’s being pursued by nervous governments (for example, South Korea buying up vast swathes of Madagascar for future food production). In summary, Juniper advised us – humankind! – to move towards a more plant-based diet in order to best help both ourselves and our planet.
Jonathan Balcombe (@pumilla66), Director of Animal Sentience at The Humane Society, gave an informative talk on ‘The Inner Lives of Farmed Animals’. He stressed the term ‘farmed’ as a more respectful way of describing these animals, as it behoves us to think of them in terms of how we are treating them, rather than them being ‘farm animals’ by nature (which they are not – hens being descended from jungle fowl, pigs from wild boar, and so on). Bemoaning that our society still embraces a Cartesian idea of animals as ‘soulless brutes’, Balcombe compared acceptance of intensive farming to acceptance of slavery, colonialism and the subjugation of women, all of which come from the “might is right” school of thought. Balcombe’s next book is going to be called ‘What Fish Know’, and he spent some time talking about what is in fact the world’s most exploited group of animals – around a trillion fish are killed for food each year, and he urged us to try to think of them as individual sentient beings with a full range of senses. Summing up, Balcombe said that sentience should be “the most important moral principle in the world”.
In retrospect, I simply wasn’t prepared for Jeff Mannes’s talk ‘Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows’. I certainly didn’t expect to have any ideas challenged during his session. But I came away with my head spinning. An impassioned speaker, Mannes name-checked his first dog Mickey and a lobster in a restaurant as key figures who changed his own thinking around animals and food, as well as an exhausted dairy cow called Gisela. His talk addressed the “consciousness gap” that many people have in terms of the food on their plate and the animals that suffered for it to get there. Ideologies have to be named first before they are properly called into question, he said, which is why he uses the term ‘carnism’ to denote the belief system, predominant in our own society, which says it’s OK, or perhaps even necessary, to eat meat. ‘Neo-carnism’, whereby organic or ‘ethically-reared’ meat is lauded as acceptable, also came in for a discreet bashing. A two-minute film, very difficult to watch, had many of the audience openly crying, but it made a very strong point. FAO figures state that 1.2 billion animals are slaughtered for food worldwide each week. To see one of them slaughtered on film was hard enough. For more, follow @BeyondCarnism on Twitter.
Dr Dan Lyons’ (@doctordanlyons) talk ‘Putting Animals into Politics’ urged us to act politically in the animal rights and welfare arena. His advice, in summary: get to know your MP; work collectively; push your own political party towards good policy on these issues; and use your membership of organisations to tell them your concerns. A director of the think tank The Centre for Animals and Social Justice, who have been calling for an ‘Animal Protection Commission’ to be set up as an institutional ballast within the UK, Lyons made a compelling case for taking animal rights and welfare to the heart of the political establishment, rather than keep it in the arena of grass roots activism, to really effect change. TTIP also got a mention, agri-business having been major lobbyists for it.
Finally, Philip Lymbery (@philiplymbery), Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming and author of the excellent ‘Farmageddon’, shared insights from his round-the-world trip visiting farms and abattoirs as research for the book. He criticized the illusion of “infinite growth in a finite world”, and said that people pay for cheap meat three times over: at the counter, in taxes (going to subsidies), and in the huge cost to our environment and human health. One striking image (also featured in Farmageddon) is that of millions of bees being trucked – yes, trucked – into California’s Central Valley to pollinate the orchards, pesticide use having seen the disappearance of bees there naturally. Lymbery said the biggest food waste of all lies in feeding humanly-edible crops to intensively-farmed animals; in addition, in our world of rapidly-depleted fish populations, one-third of all fish taken for food is given to factory-farmed animals in the form of fishmeal.
For me, the take-home idea of the day was around carnism as a belief system. Rather than living under our own ‘-isms’ of vegetarianism or veganism, it might be helpful to see the mainstream idea as an ‘ism’, and therefore more ideologically challengeable. The event presented some difficult moments, some challenging moments, but lots of food for thought. Thinking people who want a more humane world, look out for KIN 2016!