Sunday, 5 August 2012

On foie gras

When I arrived in the South-West of France from NZ 8 years ago, I refused to eat foie gras and acted as indigninantly as possible whenever anyone ate it in my presence. Relatives and friends that come to see me often act similarly. I am adventurous though (I went out of my way to eat as many different things as I could when in China, for example), and I didn't get past the first Christmas before actually trying it. And that was that. It tastes GOOD. Many, many French people have exactly the same reaction "yeah, it's not a particularly nice way to do things... but it's not really cruel, and they are better treated than chickens and it's traditional, and... it's just so damned TASTY!".
What really, really annoys me though about the "affaire foie gras" is that it shows how completely biased and voluntarily blind to the facts people are. Yep, it's a little bit nasty but it's nothing even close to bear baiting, dog/cock fighting, or the other really heinous crimes against animals like battery farming or milk farming in the Saudi Arabian desert. I personnally know people who raise ducks for foie gras and to even compare the lot of foie gras ducks (or geese) with a battery chicken is fundamentally dishonest.
So the reality is that people pick their battles. I live in the certainty that those who promote foie gras bans are active to more or less of a degree in the fight against factory farming - the problem is that "real American", or "pure British" or "fine German" farmers do that, so they can just forget about actually doing anything about it. Let's just pick on the Frenchies. They have a funny accent and everyone remembers "Allô allô"... so we don't actually have to take them seriously. Singling out foie gras makes you feel good but you are actually not making any useful change at all.
The real problem is our current consumption-based economy that favours some pseudo-scientific view of "the market" and "growth". There is a fundamental disconnect between the realities of production and our appreciation of it. Whether it be food production ("what, that steak comes from an animal? That's horrible!") in particular or any other kind, the realities (the "tradition" in many senses) have been abstracted away to leave nothing but seemingly rational and scientific equations and graphs. We now have entire industries dedicated to studying and predicting the future "value" of interest or exchange rates. How are we supposed to be able to think clearly about animal welfare when we go from sanitised home to sanitised office and back again and the only actual life we get exposed to are the germs on the tube?!? You can attempt to cure cancer with morphene but you won't succeed - you have to remove the cancer. Anyway...
It is definitely worth looking in detail at one aspect people often talk about regarding the raising and eating of animals: intelligence. Humans have farmed flora and fauna for millenia. Today we farm lettuces in hydroponics labs right up to monkeys for experiments. Most of the foie gras haters would probably not eat hydroponics-grown lettuces but they are not on a crusade against them either. So lettuces are "Ok", as are aubergines, mushrooms,... but what about fish? Factory fish farming, even if it's done in picturesque fjords, is nasty and dirty. But because there are basically no "natural" fish left, we'll let it slide. We then, at least in anglo-saxon kitchens, move on to the birds as we "climb the evolutionary ladder in our larder". Ducks might be a little more intelligent than chickens but we are already faced with incoherence. Anyone with any knowledge of how things are done knows that battery chickens have had any semblance of "life" completely removed. They are simple carbs + vitamins/minerals to protein conversion engines. They are pumped full of hormones (yes, in California "the term "natural" can legally apply to cattle raised on corn, hormones and antibiotics, and kept in confinement for a full year", thanks and anti-biotics and everything about their existence (length of day even!) is optimised for quick and profitable protein creation. But it doesn't just stop there - we move on to cattle. In the US, and yes even in California, the beef production factories churn out billions of pounds of low quality, carbon-spewing, genetically modified bovine protein each year. Cows are not spectacularly intelligent but most would agree that they can suffer, and do when raised in the conditions they are. Google it.
But then we move on the the real doozie - pork. In English we have two words for many common animals - one for the physical animal and one for its meat. Pork on the one hand and swine/pig on the other. There is a historical reason for this but I like to think it helps some people forget about the fact they are actually eating an animal. And a pig is not only an animal, it is a highly intelligent and empathetic one. Pigs are more intelligent even than dogs, and share many things with humans, like many diseases and even the taste of our flesh! And yet the factory farming of pigs is a world-wide phenomenon that is not really under any threat. The monstrous inhumanity we show towards such a magestic animal makes the foie gras raising French (and Spanish too!) look almost like the SPCA when we factor in intelligence and the level of sentience associated with their living conditions. And the foie gras haters know this to be true - it's just easier to pick on the French, those Commie-frog-leg-lovin' Europeans!
I will never forget the delightful irony of a couple of "vegetarian" girls I flatted with at varsity. "It's cruel and we don't need to eat animals". They often got quite passionate about defending the rights of animals and the conditions we accepted, even in "clean, green NZ". Except for every now and then when we had a fry-up on Sunday morning, and all conviction melted away in front of the almighty Bacon. "It just tastes sooooo GOOD!".

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