Supermarkets are quick to tell us that consumers must drive the change for better lives for farmed animals. But are they simply shifting the shopping trolley?
The overwhelming majority of animal-derived produce available in supermarkets today is sourced from intensive farming production systems that cram animals into impossible spaces, preventing them from exercising even their most basic of natural behaviours. Industrialised farming is designed to maximise profitable yield regardless of the cost in suffering to the animals involved.
Lobby local supermarkets to phase-out such cruel farming practices on their supply farms, and you will be met with the response from most of them that their priority is to relieve the poverty that besets some 30 per cent of South Africans by offering food at an affordable price. And you will not be able to miss their implication that somehow your priorities do not include the poor, and worse, that your priorities place animal interests above human interests.
The fact is, however, that our food system is broken. What other conclusion can one draw when whole families of South African citizens scavenge in refuse bins for table scraps and kitchen waste that would once have gone for pig swill? What other conclusion can one draw when 19-million chickens are slaughtered for food every week in South Africa – that’s 38-million each of chicken legs, wings and feet a week, and not even a drumstick lands in the hands of the scavenging families who delve into refuse bins to scrape up their breakfast.
These are the very people – the poor consumers – who are used by the supermarkets in South Africa to excuse the products of mass violence and unconscionable cruelties that they stack on their shelves.
Intensive factory farming has not kept its promise to relieve poverty. For 60 years we have crammed more and more animals into cages, crates and other confinements of dim light, deprivation and faeces accompanied by the deafening whirr of colossal fans attempting to dissipate the stench of atmospheric ammonia. It had been suggested that clipping off the wings of newborn chicks would create space such that more of them could be stuffed into the factory cages. While some may think this a facetious comment – albeit it in bad taste – the shocking reality is that we are already habituated to the de-beaking and de-toeing of chicks, the tail-docking, tooth-pulling and castration of pigs (without anaesthetic) and the dehorning of calves (without anaesthetic). Vivisection is very much alive on these factory farms where animals are altered to fit them for an existence in total disregard of their natures.
Supermarkets knowingly support their suppliers in performing all of these atrocities – and it’s done in our name as “consumers”. A small concession has been made for those who “can afford” food from higher welfare farming practices but the vast majority of consumers have cruel food forced on them simply because that’s what’s on offer and because they are either ignorant of the facts, or can’t believe that the facts are really as bad as they’ve heard. The doors of the factory farm, after all, are not open to scrutiny.
In the days before supermarket culture took its stranglehold on our purses and wallets, foods such as chicken skins and chicken feet were given away to the poor. Today, a chicken foot costs R1.70, a handful of chicken skin costs R5.50 and a small block of beef fat to give flavour to rice and pap costs R2.45. That comes to just about R10 and is not enough to keep one person going for more than a day. In fact, the high cost of eating the dregs of factory farming is now very much factored into profits.
Thandi Puoane, professor at the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape who is well known for her research on non-communicable (life-style) diseases amongst the poor, has called for labelling of all animal-derived foods. She says that just as smokers have been made aware, through labelling, of the dangers of smoking, so too should all consumers be made aware of the antibiotics and hormones in their food.
“Poor people cannot afford to buy healthy meat and end up buying fatty, poor quality meat, putting themselves at risk of disease,” she said. She lays at least some of the blame for massive increases in heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers among the poor – robbing them of health and potential life-span – at the doors of the factory farm.
Any system that is based on a “wrong” will have consequences for which we will ultimately pay. The price we are paying for the wrongs we inflict on intensively farmed animals is showing itself to be potentially devastating in terms of human health, environmental health (the FAO credits animal agriculture with 18 percent of all GHG emissions) and the breakdown of morality in society.
Supermarket culture is based on quantity over quality. It is dependent on incremental price variations based on quantity. Supermarkets have been the driving force behind a world culture that regards farmed animals as units of production and has nurtured the creation of a mindless humanity that feeds on violence and suffering and makes a mockery of any right to human dignity. That’s where human interests and animal interests morph into one entity. I am reminded of the words of community worker, the late Gwen Dumo, “It is an insult to assume that because we are poor we have no heart.”
The supermarkets cannot look to consumers to right the wrong. For starters, consumers are not allowed on the production factory farms. Second, consumers are obliged to “buy blind” because suppliers refuse to label their products in terms of the methods of production. Supermarket culture created the Frankenstein farm model and activists should look to supermarket culture to dismantle it. Supermarket culture should drive the force for change towards lives worth living for farmed animals.
Ironically, as the new book Chickens’ Lib by Clare Druce points out, global warming coupled with enlightened views on health will likely benefit “food animals” faster than half a century of campaigning on their behalf. Eminent thinkers and scientists are opening their minds to exciting new ways of eating. We need to bring this discussion into the open – not just among consumers – but among those who sit on the management and boards of the supermarkets as well. DM
Louise van der Merwe, a journalist by profession, is the SA Representative on the international NGO Compassion in World Farming, and the editor of Animal Voice. She is also a Managing Trustee on The Humane Education Trust. She is one of the panel of speakers at EthicsXchange taking place on 5 November in Cape Town.
A journalist by profession, Louise van der Merwe has worked towards a better dispensation for farmed animals in South Africa for the last 24 years. She is the representative in South Africa for the international NGO Compassion in World Farming; is the Editor of Animal Voice, a quarterly national magazine dedicated to creating awareness of the suffering of farmed animals and lobbying at every level for better welfare; and is the Managing Trustee of The Humane Education Trust which works in schools towards creating a sense of respect for all life.