How the British Ecological Society are giving animals a place at – not on – the table

This December, for the third year running, the British Ecological Society will not serve farmed red meat at their annual meeting. It’s a policy that makes obvious sense given that the BES have an explicit interest in the state of the planet. As Compassion in World Farming states, “Factory farming is a dirty business, contaminating the natural world and damaging diverse ecosystems”, livestock producing 37% and 65% of our global methane and nitrous oxide emissions respectively [1]. The land required to feed a vegetarian for a year is half an acre, whereas a meat eater requires three [2].  CiWF went further by serving only plant-based food at their recent Extinction meeting, acknowledging the tens of billions of animals who endure short, miserable lives in factory farms [3]. Taking meat off the menu benefits the planet and the animals: surely a win-win situation?

Perhaps not. Entomologist Simon Leather is not at all happy about “the non-democratic nature of this decision”. Leather conspicuously boycotted the 2015 meeting, outraged that the BES were denying him his individual right to choose what he eats. We know this because he blogged about it.

Why is Leather’s outrage so outrageous? His argument that flying candidates to the meeting is more environmentally damaging does not stand up to the data (livestock farming accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions: more than the global transport sector [4]). There’s also a huge difference between having to fly to get to BES and ‘having’ to eat meat there, only one being a genuine necessity. Leather’s statement that, as omnivores, we’re meant to eat meat is weak; just because we can, it doesn’t follow that we should. Moreover, it’s difficult to sympathise with Leather’s indignation at going without meat for a few meals when around 1 billion people don’t have enough to eat, largely due to large-scale livestock farming [5]. Farm animals are dependent on cereal and soya for fast growth and high yields: the meat industry feeds them nutrient-rich foods that hungry people could otherwise eat [6].

Leather’s complaint that meat eaters are being patronised brings to mind Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which notes that discussions about racism are often led by those who are largely unaffected by it. Leather protests the limiting of his food choices because he’s used to being able to eat whatever he likes at conferences. When vegetarians can’t find plant-based food at a conference, nobody blogs about it because it’s not newsworthy: this happens all the time.  Meat eaters are in the majority: the dominant, privileged culture. Just as celebrating International Women’s Day is not sexist and campaigning for more black models on catwalks is not racist, it is not discrimination to serve only vegetarian food [7] at an event. In a world where men are paid 18.4% more than women in the same jobs [8] and the cover of British Vogue has featured one individual black model in 15 years, privileged groups don’t need to fight for advantages and rights they already have [9].

By contrast, vegetarians are fighting for the most underrepresented group of all: nonhuman animals. What is not addressed in Leather’s polemic is the choice of the party holding by far the biggest stake in the BES’ policy: the animals on (or off) Leather’s plate. Don’t they deserve a seat at the table in this debate? 361 days of the year are for meat eaters, so let’s not begrudge four days to vegetarians and the animal lives they advocate.

The BES’ primary motivation is ecological but their decision has positive welfare consequences, specifically for the animals that might have become conference dinners. When Leather insists on his right to eat animal flesh when and where he wants it, he is denying that animal the right to an autonomous life outside of its ‘duty’ to satisfy his taste buds. Since pigs and cows have no blogs in which to lobby their own interests, the BES’s governance in this situation is arguably virtuous, being mindful of the predicament of sentient animals.

Nobody is stopping Leather from stepping outside the conference to buy his own lunch. Ultimately, he has as much choice as he ever did because, outside the meeting, meat eaters are as well provided for as ever.  Leather might have been denied his free lunch, but he’d do well to remember that for the millions of animals enduring lives of suffering for his gastronomic pleasure, there is no such thing.

Show your support for the BES’ food policy (and encourage them to take ALL meat off the menu) by Tweeting them at @BritishEcolSoc

 

[1] UNFAO 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options.

[2] Robbins, J., 2012. Diet for a New America 25th Anniversary Edition: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Your Happiness, and the Future of Life on Earth. HJ Kramer. p.352

[3] FAWC 2011. Opinion on Mutilations and Environmental Enrichment in Piglets and Growing Pigs.

[4] UNFAO 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options.

[5] Leather’s comments that the BES should not be serving dairy either are more valid, but ultimately the BES has to start somewhere: some gains for the environment and for meat animals are better than none at all.

[6] CIWF. 2017. People and Poverty [Online]. Available: https://www.ciwf.org.uk/factory-farming/people-and-poverty/ [Accessed 11 October 2017 2017].

[7] Of course, the BES are also still serving fish and chicken, so Leather still has the option to eat animal flesh should he wish.

[8]  According to The Office of National Statistics 2016.

[9] Parallels between the Animal Rights movement and other social movements like Feminism, Black Power and Gay Rights have been drawn since the 1970s.