When small children find out that the hamburger on their plate is a cut-up, dead animal, they often find that an absurd or even creepy idea. Sometimes they want to become a vegetarian afterwards. Their parents understand that argument, certainly – after seeing another video clip on social media, with another frolicking calf in a slaughterhouse.
Yet in most cases they will want their child to change their mind. They learn that eating meat is « normal ». They tell their child that animal products are healthy, even necessary, and they also conceal that there are also plant varieties that are just as nutritious or even healthier. Parents teach the next generation what their own generation has learned: that it is ok to look away from serious suffering, and that it is even wise to limit our natural compassion to « their own species. »
Anthropologist Roanne van Voorst (1983) wrote the book We once ate animals (2019, Podium), for which she delved into the history of animal eating and the future of a plant-based society. Among other things, she spoke to dairy farmers, sociologists and animal rights advocates.
Why videos of animal suffering do us so little
Whereas our grandparents limited their meat production to a little from time to time (more was unaffordable), since the Second World War and industrialization we have not only been eating more and more often, but also increasing amounts of meat. An individual Dutch person eats 35 to 40 kilos of meat per year. That is 45 percent more than the Nutrition Center recommends.
We ourselves would never shred, gasify or shoot healthy animals
Most people are horrified by the idea that animals are being abused because we like their meat, milk and eggs. We would never turn the tail of a cow ourselves if we knew that it hurts so much, we would not castrate a male piglet without anesthesia, or breed chickens that are so large that they can barely walk. We would not shred, gasify or shoot healthy animals. And yet, almost all of us participate every day by buying meat and dairy in the store. We do this without finding that we are acting immoral because we have learned from childhood to turn away from animal suffering.
It doesn’t even take that much effort. We humans, after all, get used to things that frightened us in the first place, or that initially generated a sense of compassion in us. We manage this through a combination of habituation (to films of animal suffering, for example) and looking away (from the same films). We also succeed because we literally see « production animals » less, which is made possible by modern technology. Nowadays, for example, cows are milked by machine, and slaughter is often done with the help of treadmills. That is more efficient, but it also regularly causes errors, whereby the animals glide seriously wounded but without anesthesia.
Livestock in the bio-industry is in a permanent state of stress; animals are far too close to each other, always suffer pain (because they are bred to produce as much milk, eggs or meat as quickly as possible) and are slaughtered as soon as they are ‘finished’. With dairy cows, that moment comes after about five years (the bulls are usually slaughtered immediately because they are « residual products » from our dairy industry). Cattle live around 20-25 years in nature. « Free-range » laying hens are slaughtered after about nine weeks (except the roosters, which are almost all shredded immediately after birth). On average, a chicken will be at least ten years old in nature.
We also change the animals themselves: scientists try to breed pigs that show less high stress levels in their blood thanks to the composition of their DNA. They had risen enormously in recent decades because of the large-scale and hasty way in which we started keeping and transporting animals, making their meat tougher. Other researchers are trying to create pigs that grow faster with less food, and others try to breed cows with just as big a udder as the most productive dairy cow, but which grows just as fast as a beef cow. This did not yet lead to the desired lucrative cow; up to a few hundred spontaneous abortions, miscarriages and malformed born calves. 1
Out of sight out of mind
Most animal eaters are not aware of such developments. They are easily misled by packaging in the supermarket that promises « animal-friendly » meat or milk from a « happy » cow. Consumers believe in this: partly because it is convenient, but also because they simply never go to the companies where animal products are produced.
They do know the small-scale farms where animals are kept for entertainment or for educational or commercial purposes, such as the children’s farms and goat farms that are often found in and around cities, but they are nothing like the large-scale chicken, pig or cow production farms. . They are built strategically: in sparsely populated areas, far out of sight and hearing of animal eaters.
Due to the constant confirmation that animal suffering would be normal, we get used to cruelty to animals
If a doubting animal eater wants to visit such a mega-stable or slaughterhouse, this cannot be done simply: mega-stalls and slaughterhouses remain hermetically sealed to outsiders, and climbing over the fences (for example, to collect film material, which animal activists sometimes try) is prohibited by law.
The impact of meat on the climate
In 2018, researchers from Oxford University conducted the largest analysis among food producers ever. 2 They concluded that avoiding animal products yields more environmental benefits than anything else you can do for the planet. In 2018, meat and dairy products delivered 18 percent of our calories and 37 percent of the proteins we ate, while industries used 83 percent of all our farmland, and were responsible for 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Because of that physical removal between humans and production animals, and the constant confirmation that animal suffering would be normal, we are becoming more and more accustomed to cruelty to animals and we are becoming increasingly insensitive to the suffering of other beings. This not only influences our feelings about the suffering of animals, but also our capacity to sympathize with the suffering of boat refugees, war victims and flooded communities.
As the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) wrote: « We don’t have two hearts, one for people and one for animals. We have one heart, or not. ”In our violent heart we find the suffering of others pretty bad, but we forget that suffering without too much trouble – we zap away, banish nasty images from our thoughts and smear again a sandwich. With butter. And cheese, or salami.
Exercise in humanity
You cannot produce meat without violence, nor can egg and dairy production harm or kill animals. Yet most animal eaters would say about themselves that they adhere to values such as compassion, compassion and justice. And they will do that, like other people some animals).
But when it comes to what we consider to be « edible animals » in our society, those values no longer apply. We learn this way of thinking at a young age, for example through advertising campaigns about « milk, the white engine » and misleading labels about « free-range » chickens. We also learn it from our teachers at school, the doctors at the hospital, and – especially – from each other.
It is wrong that we allow children to get used to our institutionalized cruel handling of animals. We should teach them – and ourselves – to be genuinely concerned about the well-being of others. Harming animals cannot be « normal ». Certainly not now that eating meat is no longer necessary for our health – there are plenty of affordable and full-fledged alternatives available.
« Once, not long ago, we ate animals »
Are we heading for a future of veganism?
Precisely by actively promoting that and adjusting our food pattern, we practice ourselves in human values such as compassion, kindness and care. In this way veganism also offers a counterbalance to blunting and cynicism. This is important. Not only for those animals and the earth on which we live together with them, but also for ourselves and our society.
If we keep repeating the idea that eating animals would have been « normal » and « necessary, » we create a distance between ourselves and the immoral practices we contribute to. We ignore the fact that the distinction between « pet » and « production animal » is completely arbitrary, and that the industry that we have built around it within a generation is morally unacceptable, no matter how tasty we like animal meat.
Insta cats are cute, you eat pizzas
How do we explain the double standards in our dealings with animals?
Chicken, the most exported piece of meat
The Netherlands is the largest animal trader in the world.
- This is what the American journalist Matthew Scully describes in his book Dominion (p. 236). ↩︎
- The researchers, J. Poore and T. Nemecek, published their article « Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers » in the scientific journal Science. ↩︎