Saturday, March 9, 2013

I could eat a horse!

Well, I could! Actually, I have. Not a whole horse, but bits of one. Recently, in the U.K., there was outrage when it was discovered that a popular brand of lasagna contained horsemeat. Was it the fact that it was horsemeat, or the fact that consumers were not informed, that caused the problem? I suspect that people in the U.K. would not eat horsemeat under any circumstances. Why is that? Why do different cultures find the eating of certain types of food unacceptable? In the supermarkets in Switzerland and, I’m sure, in other parts of Europe, horsemeat is readily available. It is cheaper than, and, in my opinion, tastier than, beef. Yes, I have eaten horsemeat. I’m sure that readers in the U.K., the U.S.A. and Australia are pulling faces and emitting sounds of disgust as they read this. But why?

I suppose the answer is that for some people eating horsemeat is unacceptable because horses are regarded as companions of human beings in our society. We are inclined (rather sentimentally) to endow some animals with “personality”: cats, dogs and horses are among them. I am not saying that these animals do not have a personality, in the sense of individual behavioural syndromes and characteristics. They are, almost certainly, unique individuals. But those who object to eating “the family pet” are insulting the animals that they are willing to eat by implying that they don’t also have personalities. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens: we “depersonalise" them so that we can feel comfortable eating them.

Drawing a line somewhere through the animal kingdom, so that above that line we can assert the presence of “personality” and below its absence, is always going to be arbitrary. A similar arbitrariness is evident in the ethics of science, according to which the approval of an ethics committee is required for experiments on vertebrates, but not invertebrates. (If you happen to be a Cephalopod you are a lucky exception to this rule.) The grounds on the basis of which this division is made are not clear to me. 

Of course, if personality and companionship were the only issues determining our food choices, we would be consuming huge quantities of insects. Once again, in our Anglo-Saxon culture, we are too squeamish for this. I have eaten sautéed grasshoppers and mealworms too.

So far on this planet, human ingenuity has managed to keep in front of our exponential population growth by providing sufficient food. (The problem of famine is caused by an inequitable distribution, rather than a shortfall, of food resources). As the population continues to grow, and as the climate changes around us, we may or may not be able to stay ahead in this race. If we cannot, perhaps it will then be time to shelve our comfortable squeamishness.


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