Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Counting on Europe's Promise to Animals - by Professor Peter Singer

Can Europe continue to lead the way for animals?

Europe leads the world in its recognition, now incorporated into the basic law of the European Union, that animals are not simply items of property, but sentient beings. At the coming European elections, voters have an opportunity to take further steps towards making that vision a reality.

Millions of EU citizens consider the poor treatment of farm animals to be a major issue. As a result of their work, some of the worst atrocities of animal confinement in factory farms are being phased out. Last November, the voters of California followed Europe’s lead, banning the battery cage and other forms of animal confinement that do not allow animals to stretch their limbs freely, or turn around.

The progress Europe has already made, in factory farming, in developing alternatives to animal experimentation, and recently, in banning the important of seal skin from the cruel Canadian seal hunt, has prevented an immense amount of unnecessary suffering. But factory farming itself is as vast an industry as ever, still devastating the environment, making a huge contribution to global warming, wasting food, and giving billions of animals miserable lives.

The key question is not ‘Do animals have rights?’, but ‘Can they suffer?’ As science progresses, we now know that animals are feeling beings in much the same way as humans. We know that like us, animals can experience profound joy and suffering. So why are some animals ‘dinner,’ and others companions?

No one who has shared their home with a dog or cat would seriously consider killing them for food, fur or to test chemicals. We know that these animals are individuals, each with his or her own personality. But so are the millions of pigs, cows and even chickens on intensive farms. So too are the mice and rats that are used for so much unnecessary product testing. The link between humans and companion animals demonstrates that respect for other living beings, once we get to know them, is strong. Unfortunately most people do not know individual animals on farms and in laboratories. We should extend that respect to all sentient beings, and give their interests the same consideration we would give to similar interests of human beings.

Animals and natural resources are being exploited to the point of irreversible damage. Forests in South America are disappearing because Europe demands huge amounts of animal feed. We are setting an example to people in China and India that threatens to overwhelm our planet. If everyone in the world ate as much meat as we do, we would need at least three planets to feed everyone.

That our current levels of meat eating are unsustainable has been recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN (FAO), and other institutions. Corrective measures are available, but unfortunately most politicians give priority to the short-term needs of their corporate sponsors above the issues that really matter: clean air, clear water, a thriving earth, and a respectful relationship between people and animals.

In five European countries, political parties for animals are contesting the June EU elections. In the Netherlands the Party for the Animals already has two MPs, one Senator and 17 provincial representatives. Germany has the oldest Animal Protection Party. In Italy the Animal Party has joined forces with the Greens and the Eurosceptics. The ‘Anti-bullfighting Party Against Mistreatment of Animals’ has received substantial support in previous Spanish elections; and now in the UK, Animals Count is standing in the Eastern region, building on a good election result in the 2008 London Assembly elections.

I would not advocate voting for a single-issue party in a first-past-the-post election. But given the proportional representation voting system, these parties have a chance of getting an MEP elected, and giving them your vote will not reduce the prospects of the “next best” party getting elected. The animals can’t vote, and therefore we need political parties to speak on their behalf, to take animal issues to the top of the political agenda, and to influence other more-established parties to bring Europe’s promising vision for animals closer to reality. I am encouraged by the thought that the European Parliament might soon welcome the first political representatives for animals; often the most vulnerable and forgotten beings in society.

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