Editorial: Table manners
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1994:
In 1987 the Iowa state legislature created the Iowa State University Bioethics
Institute, with a mandate to study the ethical issues involved in farming––and to prepare
ISU College of Agriculture graduates to meet the evolving ethical requirements of the gen-
eral public. Central to the ISUBI program is an annual week-long seminar for ISU scientific
researchers, at which all meals are vegetarian.
ISUBI has not forgotten where its funding comes from. Iowa is in fact more eco-
nomically dependent upon animal agriculture than any other state. Of the 36 million acres
of land surface in Iowa, 61% are used to grow fodder crops, while 11.4% of the private
workforce in Iowa is employed, directly or indirectly, by the cattle and hog industries.
Promoting vegetarianism is not an ISUBI objective. Yet ISUBI considers introducing farm-
ers and scientists to vegetarianism essential, because for a variety of ethical and health-
related reasons, it is an increasingly popular lifestyle that they must understand and reckon
with. Farmers and scientists who do not appreciate the reality of vegetarianism will not be
well-equipped to make important ethical and economic judgements. ISUBI therefore prac-
tices temporary immersion in vegetarianism much as foreign language seminars practice
immersion in the cultures of other nations.
Similar if less intellectual recognition of vegetarianism appears on the county fair
circuit. The big attractions are still animal-judging, rodeo, and horse racing––but scattered
along the typical midway are now stands selling vegetarian pizza, meatless burgers, and
batter-fried vegetables, an American version of tempura. The vendors are pitching veggie
food to livestock people because there’s money in it. As John Robbins documented in his
1988 opus Diet For A New America, many farmers and their families care deeply about
both animal suffering and good health. They may not be ready or financially able to divorce
themselves from meat, but neither do they crave it at every meal.
Unfortunately, many leading humane organizations inexplicably trail the farm
crowd in appreciating meatless menus––perhaps from misplaced timidity about challenging
meat-eating donors. Meat was abolished from Massachusetts SPCA events many years ago,
without a squeak of objection from anyone but one professional lobbyist for the meat indus-
try, yet dead chickens are still the main course at public events catered for the Humane
Society of the U.S. and the American Humane Association. They do at least provide vege-
tarian options. The annual Vermont Humane Federation Expo didn’t even do that much this
year. Instead, after a reluctant vendor unfamiliar with vegetarian food lost money selling
marginally palatable meatless burgers last year, the VHFE allowed so-called “free range”
meat producers to use this year’s expo as a promotional opportunity, with no vegetarian
alternatives available beyond pasta salad. Still more retrograde are the benefit pig roasts
held annually by the Illinois-based Hooved Animal Humane Society, among many others.
One would hope that any humane society aware of image would realize that sup-
porting the slaughter of animals for meat allows the charge of rank hypocrisy. After all, if
it isn’t cruel to hang eight billion chickens a year upside down and slash their throats, why
should anyone care about a boy who beheads a canary? If it’s okay to shoot cattle in the
head, why not shoot cats and dogs, too? “Free range” might mean something when applied
to poultry, but how exactly does a so-called “free range” lamb or steer enjoy any more qual-
ity of life or suffer any less painful a death than one who is conventionally pastured?
Applied to hooved animals other than calves raised for veal, “free range” is empty rhetoric.
Offering a vegetarian option is simply a matter of respecting the beliefs and feel-
ings of a substantial portion of the animal protection community––more than 85%, accord-
ing to three recent membership polls and marketing studies we’re aware of, each of which
included more than 1,000 respondents. Excluding meat from humane events altogether is no
more than asking participants to adhere to the rules of the house, on a par with asking
church-goers to refrain from spitting and swearing during sermons or asking bar-goers to
wear shirts and shoes. What people choose to put in their mouths in their own homes may
be their business, but at a humane event, it’s our business––and if we don’t make the effort
to separate ourselves from the meat habit, we really can’t expect the public to see us as the
principled people we presume to be.
What about fish?
If someone jabbed a hook through the roof of a cat or dog’s mouth, dragged her on
the end of a rope, and then either bludgeoned or drowned her, most of us would immediate-
ly seek cruelty charges. If someone threw nets over cats or dogs and drowned them by the
million, presumably to eat, but threw away half the victims as inedible, the hue and cry
might reach Alpha Centauri. Yet the equivalents are standard fishing practice.
Fish are cold-blooded, and mostly not as intelligent as mammals (despite some
noteworthy exceptions), but their central nervous systems are every bit as keenly developed.
Thus their capacity to suffer is every bit as acute.
That should be reason enough to not eat fish. Those concerned with health should
also be aware that although the flesh of fish don’t contain as much saturated fat as the flesh
of mammals, wild-caught fish generally do accumulate more toxic chemicals in their bod-
ies than either cattle, hogs, or poultry. All fish commonly eaten by humans are predators,
who absorb the same build-up of toxins through the food chain as hawks and eagles. Most
states accordingly now recommend limits on the consumption of fish from their heavily pol-
luted inland waters. And the risk isn’t just to people. Three years ago the Nature
Conservancy warned that a third of the fish species in North America, two-thirds of the
crayfish, and three-fourths of the mussels are now “rare or imperiled” due to pollution. The
situation today is no better.
Still more compelling should be the increasingly obvious ecological impact of
fishing itself. As the Worldwatch Institute reported on July 23, North Atlantic cod are
almost commercially extinct, western Atlantic tuna have declined by 90%, the total global
fish catch is down 30% in five years, and every major fishing area worldwide is in trouble.
The victims include many of the most charismatic marine mammals:
- After coastal dragnetters virtually wiped out many West Coast salmon runs,
hatchery officials on the Columbia River and the domestic fishing industry discovered that
California sea lions, themselves barely recovered from near extinction, are eating surviving
salmon as they return to their spawning streams. Thus the Marine Mammal Protection Act
was amended in April to permit fishery authorities to kill sea lions.
• The Canadian government and the province of Nova Scotia admitted on July 12
that they are discussing plans to kill tens of thousands of grey seals, to placate the fishing
industry, which wrongly blames seals for the cod crash, and sees selling seal penises to the
Asian aphrodisiac market as a means of bolstering income. Studies have established that in
truth cod are a minor part of the seals’ diet; they eat mainly species that people don’t.
• An estimated 107,000 fur seal pups starved to death in June and July along the
Skeleton Coast of Namibia because their mothers couldn’t find fish. The starvations provid-
ed the Namibian government with an excuse for allowing the commercial slaughter of
another 43,000 seal pups plus 12,000 bulls in a hunt going on until November 15.
• The Gulf of Alaska harbor seal and Steller sea lion populations have dropped by
90% since 1954, coinciding with the growth of the Alaskan bottom-fishing industry.
Harbor seals are also declining in Puget Sound; dead seals often show signs of malnutrition.
• Blue whales are apparently not recovering from near extinction because of a
shortage of Antarctic krill, possibly caused by ultraviolet radiation pouring through the hole
in the earth’s ozone layer that many scientists attribute to the effects of air pollution. Be that
as it may, the Japanese and other Asian nations now harvest krill for use as feed at fish
farms. The Japanese blame competition from minke whales for the plight of the blue
whales, and have proposed to kill up to 4,000 Antarctic minke whales a year as a solution.
• Aggressive abalone fishing has severely restricted California sea otter
habitat––and now a disease called withering syndrome has killed virtually all the black
abalone in the Channel Islands, threatening the remaining red abalone with extirpation.
• Whale-watching vessels are having to go farther to find whales off Cape Cod,
because overfishing has driven humpbacks and other fish-eating cetaceans farther out to sea.
(This doesn’t stop the guides from recommending local fish restaurants.)
Some of the oldest species still among us are also at acute risk. Nineteen of the 27
varieties of sturgeon are either endangered or threatened. Virtually all 350-odd known vari-
eties of shark are being killed, many just for their edible fins, much faster than they can
reproduce––and are being starved out of their habitat as well. Despite regulations intended
to protect giant sea turtles, shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico continue to kill up to 10% of
the dwindling Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population per year, along with dozens of only some-
what less endangered turtles of other species. Sturgeons, sharks, and sea turtles all thrived
before the dinosaurs. Individuals may live as long as humans––or longer. Yet the last of
some of them may be gone by the turn of the century, just six years away.
Sea birds, too, are hurt: more than 50,000 great auks starved off England and
Scotland last winter because their hunting areas had been fished and polluted out.
The threat of fishing to world peace could be as acute as the threat to species.
Unknown attackers killed three Thais on June 22 as they poached fish in Burma. On July 4,
Vietnam seized three Chinese fishing vessels; a day later, Chinese fishers fired on a Viet
patrol boat, wounding two of the crew. July 25, after ousting Chinese boats from
Taiwanese waters 9,000 times in 18 months, the Taiwanese navy detained 10 alleged
offenders, fired warning shots at others and increased armed surveillance. Spanish fishers
rammed and torched a French trawler on July 18 for allegedly using illegal driftnets; block-
aded two French ports July 25-28; attacked a British trawler on August 4, bringing a
British patrol boat to the area to probe a report that the attack was directed by a Spanish
navy vessel; and shot at four French trawlers on August 18, wounding one crewman. On
August 16, after repeatedly evicting high-speed Japanese fishing vessels from disputed
areas off the Kurille islands, the Russian navy fired on two of them, seizing one after
wounding a sailor. August 17, the U.S. Coast Guard briefly detained a Mexican patrol boat
that chased a Texas shrimp poacher back into U.S. waters, firing warning shots.
Fish-farming brings other hazards, causing severe pollution off Scotland and
deforestation in Southeast Asia, where ancient mangrove swamps are logged out and turned
into fish-pens, only to become silted biological deserts within just a few years.
Saving whales, seals, and other species (including our own) means not only tak-
ing political action, but also doing what one can personally to make a difference. Giving up
fish may be the most profound action on behalf of the planet within any individual’s capabil-
ities. If you haven’t already done it, do it now.