Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On live cattle exports, racism and the Facebook generation

In the past few days there has been a lot of noise in the Australian media about live cattle exports to Indonesia. GetUp! has started a campaign and Animals Australia has a number of videos up with the aim of getting the government to ban live exports to Indonesia.

First off, I am sympathetic to a lot of arguments put forward Animals Australia (and people like them). I think that we Australians eat far too much meat, we (in general) don't know where it comes from or how sustainably or humanely it lives or dies. Anything that makes people think about how their meat gets from being part of a living animal to being on their plate for dinner is, to my mind, a good thing.

What I object to in these videos and the associated campaign launched by GetUp! is the dog-whistling for outrage with no action and the tacit racism.

I've never been to an abattoir in Australia (I have been to a few in Indonesia and seen animals killed for meat in mosques and streets) but I'd bet the main difference between the facilities in the two countries is how well insulated Australian ones are from the media. I would be willing to bet that your average Australian would be just as outraged by what they saw in Australian slaughterhouses. The only difference is that it's evil, uncivilised brown people doing it over there. One quote from the video: "the goal of the workers is to subdue and restrain the animals, so that they can kill them". Isn't that the job of abattoir workers all over the world?

The videos also use phrases like "beautiful Australian cattle", "he was a big affable steer", "that the workers get some gratification out of", "he called out in a way that was heartwrenching", "I swear I could hear him call out 'why?'", "3000km from home and safety" and name the cattle as if they are trying to tap into the same kneejerk anti-Indonesian sentiment that made the Schapelle Corby case such a media firestorm.

We have this strange disconnect in Australia where you can love animals like dogs, cats and dolphins but implicitly support the institutionalised violence against animals by buying factory farmed meat at the supermarket. It's true that Indonesia doesn't have animal protection laws in the same way that we do in Australia, but at least they understand where meat comes from.

A huge percentage of Indonesians see animals slaughtered in mosques and streets each year around Eid al-Adha. To my mind, the integration of the slaughter of animals into general society is much healthier than the sanitised mass-production meat machine that we have in the west (though arguably not from a public health standpoint).

No matter what the laws are in Indonesia, the way they treat animals is cultural and you're not likely to see much change in the way they treat animals for a generation or two. They have demand for beef, if we don't fill it, someone else will and it will just be "beautiful Brazilian cattle suffering thousands of miles from home and safety" instead.

The Facebook generation love getting behind causes as long as all they have to do is click a "Like" button. This cause seems tailor-made for that. Just click a button, hate on some brown people with some different values and keep on living the way you always have.

So, what do I propose instead? Don't buy factory farmed meat. Take action against factory farmers in Australia. If you really want meat, buy from local sustainable producers (like my Mum and Dad).

Unfortunately, all of these things require people to do things that actually impact their lives... What's to bet you see a lot more people signing up to GetUp!'s petition than actually stop buying their factory farmed steaks from Coles and Woolies?