Just reading a fascinating paper by Dr Katy Wilkinson (Newcastle University) and colleagues on the politics of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001. It shows how the National Farmers Union (NFU) largely dictated the Government response – led by the infamous Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – to the FMD outbreak. Among other demands, the NFU called for countryside footpaths be closed, despite there being evidence from previous FMD events showing the walking public had no role in spreading the disease. I get the sense this deflected attention and blame from the farming industry. As a result, other sectors of the rural economy were unnecessarily decimated: between 2001–2005 it caused estimated £355 million loss to farming, compared with a staggering £2.1 billion loss to tourism.
The NFU vigorously opposed vaccination in favour of the mass slaughter of animals, the vast majority of which were not infected. This stance seems to have been motivated partly by financial considerations – it would be quicker to resume exports to Europe if culling was used. But there also seems to be a kneejerk reaction to simply kill animals whenever a problem arises.
I’m reading this on the day the Government has signalled a return to the bad old days of MAFF with an extremely farmer-centric rural policy which, as history tells us (remember BSE as well?), could have catastrophic consequences for other parts of the rural economy, animal welfare and public health. The FMD fiasco has chilling echoes of the current NFU/Govt determination to slaughter badgers in the face of contrary scientific evidence.
However, there is one passage in the paper which very succinctly expresses the massive political problems faced by animal protection groups, which I think we must take heed of. Indeed, it reflects the thinking behind the formation of our new think tank and policy research organisation, the IASJ.
“The tactics employed by the NFU over the previous two decades in responding to the pressure from environmental groups critical of intensive agricultural practices demonstrate such anticipation and reaction. As Smith suggests, the NFU has capitalized on the poor resource base of many environmental groups which subsequently renders them unable to concentrate their efforts on a single issue for a long period of time; as a result, farmers need only resist pressure for a finite period of time before the pressure group and media spotlights turn elsewhere (1990a, p. 193).”
Wilkinson K. et al, (2010) ‘Beyond Policy Networks: Policy Framing and the Politics of Expertise in the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Crisis’. Public Administration Vol 88 pp331-345.
Smith, M.J. (1990a). The Politics of Agricultural Support in Britain: The Development of the Agricultural Policy Community. Aldershot: Dartmouth.
I’ve finally managed to wring a journal article out of my PhD thesis on the evolution of UK animal research policy. It is published in the latest edition of the journal ‘Society & Animals’, whose focus is self-explanatory.
The article is actually based on a paper I gave at the inspirational Minding Animals Conference which took place in Newcastle, Australia in July 2009, and for which I was honoured to be presented with the Best Conference Paper prize by Professor Peter Singer. You can download a copy of the article from here.
In a nutshell, the article provides shocking insights into the true level of suffering inflicted on animal in laboratories, as well as the connivance of researchers and the Home Office in evading the law and covering up wrongdoing.
These are some of the verbatim observations recorded by researchers as primates endured a lingering and agonising death as a result of xenotransplantation experiments:
• “Uncoordinated limb spasms” and “stroke”
• “in a collapsed state” and “found dead”
• “Gastro-intestinal toxicity, resulting in severe diarrhoea”
• “very distressed”
• “body and limb tremors”
• “grinding teeth, eyes rolling . . .”
We urgently need to learn the lessons of this scandal so we can prevent such futile cruelty under the updated law resulting from the new EU Directive on animal experiments.
This is my first post on my blog, which will predominantly focus on how we humans treat other animals, especially the ethics of such treatment and how politics affects our impact on them. I’ll also be talking about social justice issues within the human sphere. Indeed, undemocratic and biased policy-making often contributes to the abuse of nonhumans.
In my view, how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable is the ultimate test of our humanity. Human beings are responsible for killing an estimated 58 billion animals a year for food, the vast majority for reasons of gluttony rather than subsistence. An estimated 200 million animals are imprisoned in laboratories and subject to experiments which are likely to cause significant pain and distress. In other words, nonhumans are, generally, the most vulnerable to our violence.
We are, if we really put our minds to it, reasonable creatures capable of moral reflection and action (although our social environment does play a major role in shaping attitudes). By resisting the opportunity to exploit our power over others, we realise our potential for moral progress. And if we can act morally towards other species, then our character and culture is likely to be well-disposed to peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans.
The blog title ‘Justice, not just us’ highlights the core of the controversy over animals’ moral status. I’ve studied animal ethics for twenty years and every attempt to provide a rational and consistent justification for abusing animals fails. They inevitably collapse into arbitrary, prejudicial discrimination against nonhumans. This is because there is no single morally relevant characteristic held by all humans and no nonhuman sentient creatures – known as the argument from marginal cases.
A fascinating paper by an American scientist called Dr Richard Vance, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1992, Vol 268: 1715-1719), attempts to analyse animal rights ethics while defending animal experimentation. Vance acknowledges that ‘the charge that [animal rights theorists] are motivated primarily by emotion is unconvincing to anyone who takes the time to read their work and is familiar with modern ethics’.
In fact, animal rights theory emerges from the “mainstream” analytical ethics approach. This has been the dominant tradition in ethics research in the English–speaking world. It eschews emotion in favour of objective analysis, rooted in reason that seeks to apply ethical concepts such as justice in a fair and consistent manner. To justify different treatment in two separate cases, morally relevant differences must be shown. We should not arbitrarily favour or persecute others.
So how does Vance get from this position to defending painful animal research? Funnily enough he simply rejects ethics altogether. Instead, he states his preference for, and I quote, ‘religious and ethnic traditions that draw on an array of sources such as canonical texts, authoritative readings, overlapping (even contradictory platitudes), community norms’. I wonder whether he would have accepted the ‘community norms’ of Germany in the late 1930s?
But surely how we treat others is at least as important, and demands at least as much care and rigour, as analysis into understanding biological phenomena or any other scientific endeavour? It seems extraordinary and a startling example of denial that an intelligent scientist such as Dr Vance prefers to cling to irrational dogma rather than engage in logical analysis and strive for consistency and fairness. Indeed, the same charge could be laid at the door of all promoters of animal research. At root, I believe that the refusal to recognise and grant basic moral rights to animals simply involves a collapse into the ‘might is right’ outlook – it is fundamentally anti-ethical.
Which brings us back to the blog title. It calls for fair and consistent justice and rejects egoism and tyranny in all its forms, including human supremacism.