Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The debate enlarges...

An interesting op-ed in the WaPo triggered a flurry of responses across the blogosphere.  It featured one of the more prominent discussions about industrial farming I have seen.

Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father's duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved -- in fact, invented -- by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.
Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?
Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.
Industrial meat production

The arguments against the cruelty of factory farming have certainly been around a long time; it was Jeremy Bentham, in the 18th century, who observed that, when it comes to the treatment of animals, the key question is not whether animals can reason but whether they can suffer. People who eat factory-farmed bacon or chicken rarely offer a moral justification for what they're doing. Instead, they try not to think about it too much, shying away from stomach-turning stories about what goes on in our industrial abattoirs.
Of the more than 90 million cattle in our country, at least 10 million at any time are packed into feedlots, saved from the inevitable diseases of overcrowding only by regular doses of antibiotics, surrounded by piles of their own feces, their nostrils filled with the smell of their own urine. Picture it -- and then imagine your grandchildren seeing that picture. In the European Union, many of the most inhumane conditions we allow are already illegal or -- like the sow stalls into which pregnant pigs are often crammed in the United States -- will be illegal soon. [More - and check out the poll results]

Conservative Ross Douthat adds his two cents.
But of course it’s just as likely that something I consider morally licit will be eventually be deemed immoral and inhumane — and in that spirit, I’ll speculate that a century or so hence, breakthroughs in laboratory-created meat substitutes will have put an end to the killing of animals in general (in factory farms and family farms alike), and worked a revolution in moral sentiments that makes my present belief in the moral acceptability of meat-eating seem hopelessly barbaric.
Note, though, that I’m envisioning a technological leap as the catalyst for this shift. It’s true that deterministic arguments can go too far, and that human agency matters enormously to moral change … but it’s still the case that technological and economic trends play an enormous role in determining which moral arguments gain ground, which achieve dominance, and which slip toward eccentricity. The cotton gin launched a thousand pro-slavery polemics. The birth control pill convinced millions of people that the old moral consensus on sex and marriage was outdated and even absurd. The idea of legal abortion became more popular as the procedure itself became safer — but then opposition to abortion stiffened as medical science gave us a clearer picture of life growing in the womb. The moral arguments for vegetarianism and veganism have gained ground in the contemporary West because subsisting on those diets is easier for modern Westerners than for many earlier peoples. [More]
But my favorite response is from economist Tyler Cowen.
Ross Douthat considers the hoary question of which current practices we will someday condemn, linking also to Appiah, who raised it, and Will Wilkinson.  Prisons, factory farming, immigration barriers, and abortion are among the nominations.  I would suggest an alternate query, namely which practices currently considered to be outrageous will make a moral comeback in the court of public opinion.  Torture and loss of privacy -- in some of its forms at least -- already seem to be on the rise, at least in terms of their acceptability in the United States.
What kind of moral status will "probabilistically causing natural disasters" have in the future?  What status does it have now? 
With rising health care costs and tight budgets in many countries, can we not expect euthanasia to rise in moral popularity?  Will the principles for cutting off care force us to transparently embrace some ugly moral principle, or will the ugliness be our lack of transparency and arbitrariness on these matters?
Preemptive warfare feels unpopular, because Iraq and Afghanistan have gone poorly, and because there have no more major successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.  I predict the idea will make a comeback.  Robot and drone warfare may become even more commonplace, as will targeting at a distance and selective cyberwarfare.  Those practices don't have to be wrong, but they could lead us to be morally cavalier about fighting a destructive war, even more than we are today.  By the way, the French seem pretty happy about the recent U.S. intensification of drone warfare in Pakistan, which is directed at stopping an planned attack in Europe.  
Tolerance of gay individuals and alternative lifestyles is at a historic high.  I would not endorse a crude "regression toward the mean" hypothesis, but we should at least try it on for size.  That tolerance is as likely to fall back as to progress.
Won't targeted genetic tests make abortion more popular and less sanctioned?  Rural India is already full of ultrasound clinics.  Won't the possibility of discrimination on the basis of genes (not many will refuse to do it, or make use of the information, if only implicitly) make discrimination more acceptable altogether? [More]
Buried in these thoughtful speculations is somethin I think is very important.  Industrial agriculture in all its forms - such as my farm - will be publicly judged by animal agriculture practices. In other words, despite what other sectors of agriculture do to engender public supoport, we will be irrevocably linked to battery cages and gestation crates.

Grain producers are now reaping the result of hiding behind images of baby animals and failing to differentiate our work from both the past and other ag specializations, such as dairy, hogs, etc. As animal ag undergoes what appears to me intense scrutiny and reinvention to meet the consumer attitudes prevalent above, we will share in their disapprobation simply because big will be bad in and of itself.

This is not a new thought, but I think I see a hardening of public disapproval of even cheap protein and a dawn of significant consumer pushback and government regulation.  Those responses will spill over to field agriculture.

The important aspect of these posts is less what the opinions are, and more how easily opinions about "industrial agriculture" now spring to thought leaders' prose, compared to just a few months ago  This issue is not going away.

Or our way.

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