Food, Inc.

Building on Professor Cassuto’s post below, I draw your attention to a new movie hitting documentary fim festivals:  Food, Inc.

The movie claims to “[lift] the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that’s been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA.”

Those of us interested in factory farming and what it means for animals in a system with little statutory and regulatory oversight (pertaining to animal welfare) will hopefully learn a lot from this film.

-Suzanne McMillan

Chipping Away at Big Food

This article declaring that red meat leads to a greater risk of death provides a glimpse of the problems the nation faces regarding its approach to food.  As an initial matter, the risk of death for each and every one of us is 100%.  The author obviously meant that meat consumption can lead to an earlier death than one might otherwise expect.  But is that news?  Not for most people.

No, the real question involves how to extricate the nation from the stranglehold of industrial agriculture, which has thrived under a regulatory system that subsidizes its ongoing environmental destruction and brutalization of billions of animals.  Towards that end, there is an interesting piece in the WaPo profiling Dave Murphy, founder of Food Democracy Now!, a grass roots organization working to restore sanity to agriculture.  Perhaps the best thing about Food Democracy Now! is its Iowa base.  When folks in the nation’s midsection speak about the havoc Big Food has wrought on the nation, it is harder to smear them with the taint of elitism.

In addition to fighting CAFOs, FDN also has lobbied hard for a slate of progressive candidates for appointment to the USDA.  One of them, Kathleen Merrigan, was just named to the Department’s #2 spot.  Merrigan, a former professor at Tufts and staffer for Senator Leahy, helped draft the law that recognized organics.  As one blogger put it: While [Michael] Pollan helped put these issues onto the national agenda, people like Merrigan have long been doing the wonky policy work.”  Merrigan’s appointment counts as a significant win (related story here).  Perhaps, Obama’s appointing Tom Vilsack really didn’t constitute a capitulation to Big Food.  Maybe, just maybe, there’s reason to hope.

David Cassuto

Can Animals be Immoral?

Guest Blogger: John A. Humbach

A few years ago a young patron at a municipal zoo climbed into the polar bear exhibit and was promptly attacked and killed. The newspapers reported talk of destroying the attacker, but many favored sparing him. As one observer put it: “He was just being a bear.”

But was he?

Most of the discussions of moral concerns in relation to animals have centered on the conduct of human animals rather than of the non-human kind. While this conspicuous disproportionality may appropriately reflect the species-centric point of view of the discussants, it does narrow the frame of reference substantially.

It also impoverishes the discussion because, if morality and immorality are properties of non-human as well as human behavior, then humans may well have much to learn by observing our less disingenuous fellow beings. Such observation would be particularly fruitful if, as many appear to assume, morality is not merely a human construct but rather part of the fabric of the universe. For if morality is, indeed, an intrinsic attribute of the stuff and sequences of the life, it would be surprising to find it confined to a single species among the millions that walk (and have walked) the earth. To view moral capacity as an exclusively human attribute would be, at least, suspiciously speciesist.

Beyond this, is it far-fetched to think that animals make moral judgments about us, at least in some cases? What person with pets at home has not felt the occasional rebuke of a non-human companion who is fed too late or is clumsily stumbled over? The animals who live in our homes tend to be profoundly forgiving, which is much to their credit (and maybe part of what we can learn). But it is hard to miss the fleeting flash of disappointment or anger in their eyes when, due to malice or mere misstep, they find themselves treated with disregard or disrespect. Perhaps their well-known and, frankly, appealing patterns of moralistic behavior, deeply considerate of others but without abandonment of self, far surpasses the structures and stylized moral artifices of human behavioral conventions.

But there is also a somewhat darker side to the question. It is widely accepted that human beings morally “deserve” various forms of ill-treatment when their conduct strays outside the accepted boundaries. A number of elaborate and robust retributive theories of punishment are built upon this foundation, and the infliction of punishment in that pursuit is a primary government activity. Ideas of retribution are sometimes closely attentive to the moral culpability of those alleged to deserve suffering, but not always. There are also important strains of retributive thought that regard there mere doing of harm as being, in itself, deserving of painful inflictions-such as when a “sick” individual is driven by violent internal compulsions to horrific actions that may be functionally beyond his control. (Or when a person who is unjustly imprisoned kills a guard in order to escape?)  At any rate, the point is this: Even if animals do not have “free will,” it far from clear that the presence or absence of this dubious faculty is a necessary pre-requisite to ascribing moral responsibility, or just deserts.

So what can we say of a killer bear, that he is “bad” or “good,” or merely that he is? Can we, in short, ascribe to animals the capacity to be immoral? I am not, at this point, prepared to reach a conclusion. It is not, however, the kind of question that can be lightly cast aside. It runs indeed to the very core of relations among the species.

What Use Animal Law?

David Wolfson guest-taught my Animal Law class this evening and, as usual, his provocative, insightful views sent my thoughts spinning off in all directions.  For example, David observed that since 98% of animals in the United States are “farmed” animals and thus wholly lacking in legal protections, animal law, as commonly understood, is functionally irrelevant. “Who cares about  set of laws that a set of laws that apply to only 2% of the population?” he asked.  “Wouldn’t we say that a country where the rule of law applied to only 2% of the population was lawless?”

That comparison is brutally powerful and hard to refute.  When the vast majority of the population resides outside of the law’s protection, one has to wonder what purpose the law serves, if any.  This, of course, leads those of us who teach and practice animal law to wonder just what it is we’re doing.  Or at least it does me.

David Cassuto

Conference: The Animal Within the Sphere of Human Needs

Canada’s first International Conference on Animal Law will take place on May 21-22, 2009.   The International Research Group in Animal Law (French acronym GRIDA),  based out of the Department of Juridical Sciences at the University of Quebec at Montréal (UQAM) will host and it looks like a fantastic event.  It is titled “The Animal Within the Sphere of Human Needs” and features an array of speakers with interesting and diverse perspectives (and I would say that even if I were not one of the speakers…).

David Cassuto

Even Your Pet’s Food Choices Matter

From Guest Blogger, Marnie Cox:

The problem of overfishing throughout the world’s oceans is not a new one, but this Sunday’s New York Times added another dimension to the issue – the huge amount of wild fish that are used for the pet food industry (10% of the global supply).  There is no easy answer – fish products are heavily used in the farming of land animals such as chickens or pigs, and there is a separate debate about whether it is beneficial (or even permissible) to feed pets a vegan diet.

The author is certainly correct that feasible alternatives need to be discovered soon, so there is no longer an economic inducement to use large fish.  However, in the meantime, I do not think the solution is to only have naturally vegetarian pets and leave millions of cats and dogs to languish and die in shelters, but rather to select organic and natural pet foods that have a less detrimental effect.

From the Kitschy Journalism Makes Me Want to Gag Desk…

This, from today’s NYT:

Yes, Bacon Just Might Save Us

Sunday, 5 p.m. It is a little-known fact that if bacon were provided free to every man, woman and child on the planet — not for a limited time, but in perpetuity —wars would stop, the global economic crisis would cease and the tragedy of environmental despoliation would suddenly come to an end. This is for the simple reason that bacon cures human suffering. Among the few people to have recognized this power of bacon are the organizers of the Brooklyn Bacon Takedown, a cook-off at Radegast Hall and Biergarten Beer Garden in Williamsburg. Save the world — eat bacon.

David Cassuto