A couple of days after participating in the Sentience Conference, I attended a whole different animal: a conference for all kinds of people involved in the meat industry. It took place in my town of Ghent, Belgium, and was attended by about a hundred people from different sectors (meat processing, distribution, inspection, marketing, etc). What had attracted me to this (yearly) conference was its title this year: “Is meat still of this time?” (after last year’s conference on cultured meat, which I was unable to attend).
One talk was about the question of whether meat production has any future in Belgium. The speaker, former president of the powerful national farmer’s union, talked about the possible threats and challenges coming the meat sector’s way, from global warming and other environmental issues, to population growth, etc. Regarding the growing concerns for animal welfare and health, the speaker emphatically said that these would not go away and there was no use pretending they didn’t exist. He also added that he believed cultured meat would be a reality within ten years.
Two roads were suggested (they are part of the general thinking about sustainability): there is the path of productivity, where we develop technologies that can meet the challenges. The other path is that of sufficiency: we redefine, through public education and government interference, what is sufficient. This means, for instance, making sure that people eat less meat. The speaker believed in a combination of the two approaches.
The conclusion to the question whether meat production in Belgium makes any sense was yes (inevitable of course, at this conference). The idea is that in this country, we care more about the environment, animal welfare, antibiotics, food safety, health, etc., than in many other countries. So, the argument goes, any transfer of meat production from here to most other countries would mean a loss for all these factors. I think this “if we don’t do it someone else will do it even worse” is of course an entirely spurious argument.
Another talk was about people’s conflicts and attitudes regarding the killing of animals. The speaker, a professor at the University of Brussels, showed how our society has evolved towards being more and more repulsed by killing animals. This is indicated by, e.g., how slaughtering animals has become more and more hidden, or how identifiable parts of animals (the head, tail, legs…) are usually being discarded and not put on the plate. The evolution can be described in four D’s: Deference – Dominion – Denial – Disgust.
The speaker suggested some trends or solutions for the growing disgust for killing animals. An obvious one is to increase animal welfare. Another one is what he called “story meat”: all kinds of ways to tell a story about meat, from happy meat to crowd butchering, artisanal production, home slaughter, and ritualism. A third solution is the production of meat without animal suffering. In vitro meat is an obvious example of that (but probably not the preferred one as it would put a big part of this sector out of business). Another way to raise animals without pain, which few people I think have considered yet, is trying to make animals not sentient, like some sort of zombies (see for instance this article). And then finally, of course, there is the option of just avoiding meat (and animal products) altogether. The speaker said how vegetarianism and veganism, which basically are about defending the animals’ right to life, could – “in its extreme form” – result in problems with managing pests and ecosystems (hmm).
I asked the speaker the question if maybe in the light of the growing unease with killing animals, cultured meat would seem like the ideal solution, and what he could imagine would stop that evolution. He talked about how meat eating is tied to identity and all sorts of things, and not just to the obvious aspects like taste, etc. The question seemed to be whether people would feel there was a match between this cultured meat and their identity (if I understood his response correctly). My thought was that, given the unease we are seeing regarding killing animals, the cognitive dissonance, the meat paradox… that at some level there is definitely a mismatch between people’s identity and being complicit in the killing and suffering of animals.
All in all, it was once more definitely worthwhile to take a look at how “opponents” are thinking about their current challenges.
Oh, and… I didn’t stay for the walking dinner, but during the introduction the speaker had announced that vegetarian alternatives would also be served.
PS For readers in Belgium: this was a conference organized by BAMST (Belgian Association for Meat Science and Technology). The first speaker I mentioned was Piet Vanthemsche, the second was prof. Frédéric Leroy, VUB.