the best books on Eating Meat (Carnivorism)
Fivebooks.com interviews Louise Gray:
You’ve just published a book called The Ethical Carnivore. What does it mean to be an ‘unethical carnivore?’
Well, to me, being an unethical carnivore means just stuffing your face with meat without caring where it comes from. Being an ethical carnivore means trying only to eat meat that you understand comes from a good source. I tried to define it in my book by saying that ethics is the effort to live a good life. My question was how can we ensure the meat we eat does not harm the environment and comes from animals that have lived a good life?
I know to some people that can sound a little wishy-washy, but I was aiming the book at the majority of people in this country. I accept that people eat meat; I myself was a carnivore. Those who are vegetarian have already made their choice, so I wanted to talk to the carnivores about how they could be more ethical. And I wanted to make it realistic, so you have to leave room for trying your best and not always being perfect—the occasional drunken kebab. I believe that is the way to make a difference, by giving people an opportunity to try their best.
In the book, you spend some time discussing the capacity of different animals, with molluscs at one end of the spectrum, to feel pain. Is this the main moral or ethical issue that we need to consider?
No, I think it’s a lot more complex. For a start, how do we judge the pain of other animals? You mentioned molluscs—there is still ongoing research into whether these particular animals can even feel pain. I think you have to always consider that, but also look at the wider impacts, such as upon the environment.
In the book, for example, I write about scallop dredging on the west coast of Scotland. This is not just affecting the molluscs but the wider marine ecosystem as all the coral and other life on the seabed is ploughed up just for the scallops. So, I would argue in this case the question of the environmental impact is worth considering as well as the ability of the animal to feel pain.
The other question to ask is how does the processing of that animal affect the humans around them. For example, you might choose free-range organic chickens because the animals are better cared for, but if they’re being processed in a factory where people are being treated appallingly, then isn’t there a moral question about the labour that was used to get that meat to your table? Between the animal being born, or hatching, and getting to your plate, there are so many questions to consider in terms of ethics.
It can halt you in your tracks and make you think ‘I won’t bother’. But I think asking questions and trying to understand is a good start. There are a lot of grey areas, I don’t see how you can have black and white answers when it comes to something so complex.
Would a simpler answer be instead of us tearing our hair out over the ethics of meat-eating, to not eat any meat at all?
Yep, that’s the easiest answer. I have enormous respect for people who choose to be vegan. They are undeniably having a lighter impact on the planet because it generally takes less energy, and therefore fewer greenhouse gas emissions, to produce plant-based foods than meat. There are also fewer concerns about welfare, the wider environment and labour. I would say that one of the big discoveries from the book is people often expect vegans to be very extreme and to lecture everyone else, but actually I’ve had some really nice responses to the book from people who choose to eat no animal products. They want to encourage more people to think about what they eat and welcome any effort in that direction. They understand that a clear message in the book is that if you are desperately worried about the environment, then one of the simplest things you can do is eat less meat.
You mentioned one non-environmental impact as being to do with labour and the first book that you’ve chosen, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)—a novel that portrays the working conditions of those in the meat-packing industry at the turn of the twentieth century—deals with this labour question. It touches on immigration, and class, and many issues beyond that of eating meat. Why have you chosen to start here?
One interesting thing with this book is that while there are lots of animals in it—and they’re being tortured horribly, literally being skinned alive in the background of many, many scenes in the novel—it’s what’s happening to the humans that is so terrible, and that’s what you’re left with, especially reading it now. When it first came out, people were really shocked by what went into their meat, and I think people would read it now and think things are a bit better, and they probably are… but when you think about it we had the horsemeat scandal a few years ago, a lot of what happens in meat factories is still unknown to us.
I think sometimes when we discuss meat-eating, we talk about the suffering of the animals, we even talk about the environment, but we often forget to talk about the people and I think that’s really important: the people who do it on your behalf are worth considering.
When you were writing The Ethical Carnivore, you went into slaughterhouses and onto fishing boats and spent a lot of time with people who are at the coalface of producing meat, often on industrial scales. How do you think that affects the people who do it, and do you think they have to become blind to some of these issues to be able to work in that industry?
I think they have to process those issues, but they shouldn’t be blind to them. All of the places I went to were in the UK which meant they were really highly regulated. Also, I would say they were probably quite good abattoirs because they were allowing a journalist in—I wasn’t undercover, I was being quite open about what I was doing. So those people weren’t blind to the issues because they had to be very good at what they did in order to keep their job.
In one abattoir, the slaughter-men who were doing the killing had trained for seven years on all the floors, and so I don’t think they’re blind to it. They have to be trained in all of the welfare stuff and they have to care for the animals because they’re being filmed. They have CCTV in most abattoirs in the UK and there’s a big campaign to get CCTV in all abattoirs—I don’t know why the government will not legislate on this as it protects the abattoirs as well. If they are doing a good job it should not be a threat to them.
“They had to control their emotions, otherwise they couldn’t do the job”
When I interviewed slaughtermen and -women they were aware of what they were doing, that they were killing a beautiful animal. They admitted that they had to control their emotions, otherwise they couldn’t do the job, but also said they were keenly aware of ensuring the animal had a quick death. They were proud of doing a job well. I think it also becomes part of your lifestyle, often there are whole families working in these industries. It is normalised in the sense it is part of your life and that’s just how things are.
One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Temple Grandin, an animal behaviourist. She’s audited a lot of abattoirs, and she said that the majority really care about their jobs and do it well but yes, like anything, there are a few bad apples. She admits it and is trying to redesign the industry, so that those kind of people are weeded out.
Publication of The Jungle caused public outrage, and as a result new legislation was brought in in the United States, the Meat Inspection Act. Do you think that the public want to know about what happens in their slaughterhouses?
I guess a few people don’t because I’ve had quite violent reactions to my book by people who often eat meat and really don’t want to know. It’s almost like they feel it’s a personal affront, that they’re being attacked when I start telling them where meat comes from. I try to be delicate because I can sort of understand that it is quite upsetting for people. But the majority of people absolutely do want to know because they want to know it is being done right.
I think [most] people do want to know, but you have to contextualise it. The first time I went to an abattoir to write about it, I was traumatised. It is a death factory, there is no way of getting around that. But you have to put it in context if you really want to understand, so I think people should know about the whole picture—another reason I wrote the book. You need quite a lot of education because you have to think about how the animals are bred and how they’re treated as well as how they are killed. I think that should probably be part of school education. We should know where our food comes from, otherwise we’re susceptible to the kinds of things that happened in The Jungle, or the horsemeat scandal, because people are getting away with stuff where no one’s wanting to loo
Your second book, Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines (1964), revealed the indignities and the suffering of animals in industrialised agriculture. What impact did the book have?
It was like Upton Sinclair’s but in the UK. It led to the UK government changing the law—the 1968 Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act and also the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes. Ultimately it led to the ‘five freedoms’, which vets had been working on, being brought into law. These summarised animal welfare as freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury or disease, from fear and distress and, most controversially, the freedom to express most normal behaviours.
What I liked about Ruth Harrison was that . . .