Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Criminalisation of Uncommodified Food

People often mistake me for a vegetarian. (Maybe it's the beard?) I'm not, but thinking about where our food - and in particular our meat - comes from is something which brings home to me how sick the world is right now. In particular, the juxtaposition of factory farming, in all its obscenity, with the criminalisation of older and more respectful ways of rearing and killing animals.

This short piece from Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler, is the kind of thing I have in mind:

Yesterday morning we had a knock at the door from our local environmental health officer. He had come round to tell us that according to a law that was brought in two years ago, what we had done with our pigs—that is to say, have them killed at home— was illegal. You are not allowed to kill and eat your own pigs. The law says that you have to take them to the slaughterhouse. This is, they say, so they can be checked by the slaughterhouse for disease. We argued that it is surely more humane to have them killed at home, because the pig does not suffer the stress of being bundled into a van and then lined up on the racks in an unfamiliar place and killed. He actually agreed that meat that has been killed at home, stress-free, tastes better than meat that has gone through the abattoir. So that is why our meat tasted so good: because it was killed at home. But that is illegal now.

One of the friends I gained through the Illich colloquium in Cuernavaca is Dean Bavington. I've already mentioned his powerful presentation on the history of the Newfoundland cod fishery. At the core of Dean's argument is the distinction between treating fish as food and treating it as a commodity.

Certain processes, certain laws, even certain well-intentioned environmental measures, only become thinkable* once you have stopped thinking about things that you can actually experience (taste, smell, touch...) and started treating the world as made up of interchangeable units and mathematical patterns.

* For 'become thinkable', I almost wrote 'make sense' - but the issue here is precisely the absence of 'sense'.


Dan Aktivix said...

A consequence of ingesting all this economics is that I'm gaining more sympathy for arguments like this:


... that the current foodiness taking hold in the UK is only something that can ever be affordable to a minority; perhaps a large minority, but it can't be an answer to feeding everyone. Which means I'm also (for example) sitting on the fence as regards the evilness of Tesco, especially after reading Andrew Simms' book which was mostly anecdotal stuff like the community role of Marge, his local shop owner that certainly isn't born out by my experience of local shops!

(An excellent book, however, on food politics: stuffed and starved by Raj Patel; here's the (drupal-based) blog:

http://stuffedandstarved.org/drupal/frontpage )

The slaughter rule is an EU thing. Another one is that pigs are no longer legally allowed to eat waste food. So, rather than waste being recycled / turned into manure and / or meat, it goes to landfill. Really, more laws should have a trial period built in: how else are we supposed to look out for unintended consequences and correct for them?

A few other foodie links you might find interesting. This is a write-up from a conference on food sovereignty I was involved in in Sheffield (called Hungry for Justice); I'd particularly draw your attention to Michael Hart's piece, and the stuff on Cuba. I think Cuba's food system post-oil-loss has got to be one of the best arguments as to why we don't need to go the route of Tescoland.


(There's a word doc download link at the bottom of the page.)

This from Demos on just how hard it is for e.g. single mothers to feed themselves:


Other academic stuff I've read is banal to the point of offensive. There's one paper that argues the arrival of Tesco in a Leeds area improved nutrition. It hits you over the head with the stats - but is plainly bollocks because they don't ever mention one single other way that nutrition might have been improved. Oh, but of course, that's not the role of the dispassionate academic... (One can't help but wonder where their funding came from... perhaps like Manchester's expensive new Sustainability Consumption Institute:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/sep/13/supermarkets )

Anyway! I'm curious - there's the economic approach and the moral approach. The economic approach doesn't want to act without empirical evidence that it's the right thing to do. E.g. if we implement national community supported agriculture and ban tesco, will everyone be fed as well? (Let alone, will they have time?) The moral approach might say the empirics will work themselves out. I have absolutely no answer to this, except to note that - as with Cuba - often a virtue comes from a necessity. Perhaps it'll soon be a necessity. Either way, I think either approach divorced from the other is doomed.

Or, as someone was arguing on Tom's blog -


- maybe food prices will continue to go up and this will send a signal to people to seek other ways of getting their daily bread.

p.s. My cousin raises his own pigs, and gives them a pint of guinness before they go off to die. I think he knows the slaughterer too. Being vege, I'm also somewhat queezy that a reason for killing at home should be that 'it'll taste better!' But that's just me.

Dougald Hine said...

Dan, I think you're my favourite commenter! Thanks for the links - particularly glad to discover Raj Patel's blog.

I need to write a proper post at some point about why I don't share your belief in the marriage of ethics and economics - and even then we may have to agree to disagree... But please do keep on commenting!

Steve Hayes said...

There's a little village in Zululand called Babanango. It had a butchery where local farmers could take their animals to be slaughtered, when necessary.

Then came the EU. We aren't members of the EU, but if you weant to sell beef to the EU everything must conform to their regulations. So not the cattle must be transported 250km to Cato Ridge and the butchered meat transported 250 km back, at great cust.

Thus we solve the energy crisis.

Dan Aktivix said...

hey up,

I think its important we keep on trying to find out where our disagreements lie. It's really important. Can we state our positions? You might start by saying what it is you object to in my comment here / what you infer my position to be?

If I could state mine, it might be something like the following:

I would like to be able to see ethical outcomes, but I accept that when we try to implement them, often there will be unintended consequences. We have to try and learn what those consequences might be and account for them or work around them.

Politically, that's enormously problematic: it means that e.g. economists can hide their political beliefs behind a figleaf of scientific neutrality.

I infer that there are deeper problems with my approach to do with the way it defines and shapes reality, and I think these points are vital too.

That'll do for now, just thought I'd say we should pursue this! I'm hoping the future will hold some good-natured banging of tables!

Nick said...

Thinking about where our food comes from is at the heart of what caused me to turn vegetarian four months ago. The main reason I decided to do it was for compassion, after studying neurobiology, feeling confident that animals can feel pain and suffer, but soon began to realize all the excellent environmental reasons for going vegetarian, many of which are bound up in the the mass corporation-like manufacture of animal products through frightening processes and questionable practices, and you realize that they're actually inseparable--ultimately it's about a higher degree of mindfulness which can be applied to whatever one may be eating.

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