Putting our principles where our mouth is

10 January 2014

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Laudably, UCT condemns unfair discrimination. The university has a proud history of having spoken out against apartheid, and commits itself, in its mission statement, to redressing past injustices and promoting "a more equitable and non-racial society". However, there is one serious injustice that UCT routinely ignores; and in so doing, both tacitly accepts and actively promotes the infliction of enormous suffering and death on almost unimaginable numbers of victims.

Every year in South Africa, well in excess of a billion animals are killed for food after having led lives of misery and torment. The numbers are staggering: 2.6 million pigs, 2.9 million cattle and calves, over 6 million sheep, lambs and goats, and 1 billion broiler chickens (that's over 2.7 million chickens per day). In addition, approximately 480 million fish are killed; most for direct human consumption, but about a third for animal feed and other purposes. And these figures are from only the major categories in the formal sector.

Not only are the numbers of animals killed by the meat, poultry, dairy and fishing industries immense; so is the suffering. Most sows are still kept in gestation crates so small they cannot turn around. Egg-laying hens - 24 million of them in South Africa at any given time - are de-beaked, and some de-clawed, without anaesthetic before being crammed into cages so tightly that they are unable to spread their wings. They live their short, wretched lives in an area the size of an A4 piece of paper. A further 24 million chicks - the males, regarded as wasteful 'by-products' - are killed, usually by being ground up alive. Cows, impregnated in order to lactate, suffer great psychological distress at the loss of their calves, which are removed before they are weaned. Every year more than 200 000 male calves, useless to the dairy industry, are killed at birth or sold into impoverished settlements, where, deprived of their mothers' colostrum, most die in infancy. Fish can suffer bariatric trauma when hauled from the depths. They then die from asphyxia, if they are not decapitated or disembowelled first.

This enormity of suffering and death is not directed towards eliminating worse ills, and thus cannot be justified on this basis. On the contrary, all of these animals are slaughtered merely to satisfy trivial gustatory desires. Animal products are necessary neither for our survival, nor - according to our best science - for our health.

Most people say that they are opposed to making animals suffer and die unnecessarily. If inflicting pain and death on animals for the mere pleasure of humans is not unnecessary, it is not clear what would count as 'unnecessary'.

Animal suffering goes unnoticed by most people. Consumers have entered into an unholy alliance with farmers and retailers - the consumers don't ask, and the farmers and retailers don't tell. A conspiracy of denial surrounds our eating practices, to guard our consciences against what we know is morally unacceptable. If our neighbours treated their dog in the way in which farm animals are treated, we would be outraged.

Some may argue that it is morally acceptable to eat free-range animal flesh and products. This argument is problematic, for several reasons. First, there is no legal definition of 'free-range' in South Africa that binds farmers to welfare-appropriate standards. Thus, although free-range chickens, for example, are not caged, they are often densely packed in barns and may still be de-beaked; calves are removed from free-range cows used in milk production. Second, all free-range animals in the formal sector are sent to slaughter. Although there are supposed to be veterinarians at every abattoir, at least on a part-time basis, to oversee animal welfare, covert investigations have shown that atrocities occur regularly. This is not in the least surprising. The large volume of animals slaughtered renders it practically impossible to guarantee humane treatment.

Some may argue that by paying attention to animal suffering, we detract from the suffering of humans, and that animal welfare must wait its turn until issues such as racism and poverty have been resolved. But this is clearly a false dilemma. No one would suggest that we put on the back burner the fight against sexism or interpersonal violence until we have redressed the racist legacy of apartheid. There is no reason that these issues cannot - or should not - be addressed simultaneously. Moreover, unlike other social ills, fighting animal exploitation is relatively straightforward - all one has to do is change one's shopping habits!

To date, UCT - like most of humanity - has failed to recognise the enormous harms that animals endure. By providing meat and other animal products at official functions, the university endorses and promotes these practices. It is hard to imagine that this barbarism will not, in time, be a source of institutional shame, and that future generations will not wonder how their predecessors - including our generation - could have exhibited such insensitivity. Why wait to 'redress' what will then be a past injustice? Why not, rather, stop the injustice now? To this end, we call on UCT to put its principles of justice where its mouth is, and to pledge to take animal suffering off the menu at university functions. Nor should the perpetuation of animal misery and death be outsourced to other campus vendors.

This proposal will strike many as outrageous. They should pause to remember other proposals that were once - and in some places still are - greeted with similar outrage. These include the proposals that a person's sex or 'race' should not be a bar to being admitted to university, or the suggestion that homosexuals should enjoy equality before the law. In such cases, the burden of proof was placed on those who opposed discrimination, even though it was actually borne by those who defended it. Similarly, now, the burden of proof lies not with those who think that inflicting suffering and death on animals is wrong, but on those who think it is permissible to inflict these unspeakable harms on animals for human pleasure.

The authors would like to thank Compassion in World Farming SA and the NSPCA (the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) for providing valuable information regarding farm animals in South Africa.

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Photos of UCT's residential dining halls by Michael Hammond

Prof David Benatar and Dr Elisa Galgut
Department of Philosophy

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