Animal Rights Philosopher Peter Singer on Sustainable Agriculture and Trump

I first heard about Peter Singer early on in college. It was Introduction to Ethics, a chock-full morning survey with an instructor who loved working his sophomore audience into a riot of opinion. The tactic was perfect for those of us who were dead-behind-the-eyes. Every day we were fed some new hot-button controversy – and tasked with defending our own half-baked ideas about it. For instance, tell a son of Texas raised on steak and potatoes that animals should be treated with equal moral consideration, and he’s bound to stand and deliver.

My reactions to the absent Singer there in the classroom were indicative of the celebrated philosopher’s effect on culture-at-large. Since Peter Singer wrote the book on animal rights (quite literally, with Animal Liberation in 1975), he’s been widely recognized for his ability to provoke ethical traditions with powerful insight and logic. And, as an effective altruist (in short, someone who uses evidence- and resource-based practices to do the most good), Singer is actively working with foundations and charities to help change the world for the better.

Innovation & Tech Today: As you’ve discussed, animal rights can be deeply problematic in a culture with non-sustainable means of food production. What do you think can be done in the face of opposition though? Do you anticipate problems with America’s new conservative leaders?

Peter SingerPeter Singer: Not everything is amenable to government interference. Obviously, we can still do things like promoting vegan eating. I don’t think even a Trump government is going to compel people to purchase meat – force them to eat it or anything like that. In fact, a lot of conservatives are free market ideologists, so if the market-driven forces push towards more alternatives to meat, less meat consumption, they’re just going to have to wear that – even if they don’t like it, even if they’re partly in the pockets of the agri-business industry. They’re still not going to be able to do very much about that.

Now, they’ll certainly try some things. For instance… California presently has a law that prevents the import of factory farmed products, where animals are confined in ways that are not allowed within the state. So some of the Republicans would like to change that and essentially force Californians to accept the sale of products that could not be produced within the state of California.

Then, of course, there’s the whole question of coal and what Trump has said about putting coal miners back to work. Again, it’s questionable whether he can do that because if you can’t produce coal at a price that can compete with natural gas, what can Trump do about that? It’s hard to see even a Republican congress subsidizing the coal industry in order for it to compete with natural gas. So I don’t know what’s going to happen there. But clearly there are things that a Trump administration could do, which would reduce the incentives for clean industry, and that has to be fought.

So, there are going to be some important battles, but my view is that we should wait and see how they shape up and fight them when we know exactly what we’ll be fighting.

I&T Today: I wanted to ask you about CAFOs. We continue to see a monopolization of food resources within a handful of food production companies. This system doesn’t really lend itself well to the ethical treatment of animals, as you’ve written. Is there a way, though, to revise food’s mass production to accommodate our moral requirements? In other words, is there a way to do it big and do it right?

Peter Singer: I mean, I’m sure there is. I don’t think there’s a problem with feeding ourselves. There is a problem with feeding ourselves as much meat and other animal products as we produce now, because I think some of it is very difficult to be sustainable whether it’s intensive or not. Cattle, for example, are going to produce methane whatever way you rear them. Whether they’re eating grass, or they’re eating grain in feed lots, it doesn’t matter.  So we are going to have to cut down on our consumption of beef and dairy products. I think you could certainly continue to produce plenty of food through agriculture, through sustainably growing crops. It could be on a smaller scale, getting more people back on the land. That might seem a little utopian to some, but, anyway, I think it’s been shown that you can have sustainable crop production on quite a large scale. But we will have to move toward more plant based foods. And whether that’s going to take some kind of technological change, as some people are suggesting –

I&T Today: Synthetic meat?

PS: Yes, developing alternatives to meat that have the same taste, texture, chewability, mouthfeel. You know, there’s quite a lot of money going into that now. And that may be what it takes, because people are fairly conservative in their tastes, and they may want something that tastes like the meat they’re eating now. So, if that’s the case, we’ll have to try and produce that for them, but through more sustainable means of production.


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