Most audience members for Tuesday night’s Intelligence Squared debate, Animals Should Be Off the Menu, murmured to each other that they were clearly in the majority company of vegetarians, vegans and animal activists.
But a pre-debate poll taken as the audience filed in from Swanston Street proved that, while passionate animal rights supporters were indeed in the majority, the audience was more divided than you might think. Well, sort of.
A majority of 65% supported the proposition that Animals Should Be Off the Menu, while 22.5% were against and 12.5% were undecided.
Internationally renowned ethicist Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, began, arguing on the grounds of health, the best use of the food we produce, environmental considerations and animal ethics.
‘We can live a healthy life with animals off the menu,’ he said, citing the long and healthy lives of lifelong vegetarians – and of second or third generation vegetarians – to prove his point.
It was an argument that opposing speaker and chef Adrian Richardson (author of the cookbook Meat) would later support. A vegetarian as a child, with vegetarian parents and grandparents, he said that he has vegetarian relatives who lived ‘well into their nineties’ – as did his omnivore relatives on the other side of the family.
‘Even small portions of red meat are likely to increase your chance of dying, including from cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,’ Singer said, citing a recent much-discussed study from Harvard University.
‘Animal production is a major factor in climate change,’ said Singer. ‘Livestock production is a bigger contributor to climate change than all transport.’ He said that 20 years worth of methane production is 72 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
And he delivered sad news for advocates of free-range beef: cattle fed on grass produce 50% more methane than grain-fed cattle. ‘There is no way to have ecologically sustainable cattle,’ he concluded.
Fiona Chambers, the first speaker against the proposition, has been farming organically on her Daylesford property since 1990 and was the first person in Victoria to have certified organic pork.
‘Animals are a vital link in global ecology,’ she said, arguing that breeding rare animals for consumption is a way of preventing them from becoming extinct.
Yet, she argued that ‘animal welfare and sentience are not at the centre of this debate; ecological welfare is’.
The best way to achieve sustainability, she said, is through methods like rotating the use of paddocks.
‘Animals are important just as the earth and the sun are important, but they are not the central issue.’
While Peter Singer was the primary crowd-puller for the evening, it was Philip Wollen, a former vice president of Citibank turned founder of the Kindness Trust, who attracted a partial standing ovation on the night, with his passionate, emotive arguments.
‘Animals must be off the menu because tonight they are screaming in terror in slaughterhouses,’ he began, going on to detail what he witnessed when he visited slaughterhouses in his former life; an experience that changed him forever.
‘In our capacity to suffer, a dog is a pig is a bear … is a boy,’ he thundered.
Though he cited a litany of damning statistics (by 2048, all our fisheries will be dead; 10,000 species are wiped out every year because of one – us), he did find some hope in the way the internet enables people to come together to address causes.
‘Ten years ago, Twitter was a bird sound and www was a stuck keyboard.’
He concluded darkly: ‘Animals are not just other species, they are other nations, and we murder them at our peril. If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we wouldn’t be having this debate tonight.’
Animal scientists Bruce McGregor was appropriately nervous about following Wollen’s act. ‘I’m on a hiding to nothing already,’ he joked as he began. ‘But being a St Kilda supporter, I’m used to it.’
He argued that taking animals off the menu would threaten the food security of ‘at least two billion people’ – and that these kinds of debates often tend to overlook the natural losses (or deaths) that occur in every system.
The Age’s Life&Style editor (and former Epicure editor) Veronica Ridge spoke like a true foodie; arguing that taking animals off the menu doesn’t mean saying goodbye to inventive, delicious meals.
‘There has been a revolution in vegetarian and vegan cooking in the last decade,’ she said, before going on to describe some of those meals in salacious detail. Refrains of ‘you’re making me hungry’ briefly filled the active Twitter feed (#iq2oz).
Like Singer, Ridge concluded that ‘there is no such thing as humane slaughter’.
Meat-loving chef Adrian Richardson opened his argument with a resounding bang. ‘If it has a pulse, I’ll cook it,’ he declared.
Rebutting Singer, he declared that, yes, too much meat kills you. ‘Or too much chips, donuts or processed crap.’
‘A few meat-free days and lots of leafy greens will do wonders for the planet and your health.’
In a burst of Mars/Venus humour, he declared that he needed to say, for his wife and ‘for the ladies’, that chocolate is part of a balanced diet.
‘If you want to stop factory farming, don’t eat supermarket meat,’ he said. ‘Go to your local butcher: remember him? I’m sure there are some ladies here who do. As long as death is quick and painless, eating animals is okay. Fiona’s pigs are delicious.’
He said the proposition that Animals Should be Off the Menu is ‘ridiculous’.
‘Don’t you think we can all enjoy a tender, juicy, grass-fed steak occasionally? Eat meat responsibly.’
As the votes were counted to decide who won the debate, the audience got their chance to speak, for one minute each, for or against the proposition.
One of the last speakers was a 12-year-old schoolboy.
He said, ‘I am for taking meat off the menu. I don’t think it is appropriate to throw meat on a grill and smother it with barbecue sauce. How would you feel if that was you? Or your children? Or your siblings? Or your mother?’
One tweep quipped in reponse, ‘We borrow the earth from our children. Sorry negative team, but you just got schooled by a kid.’
No one was especially surprised when the debate was resoundingly won by the ‘for’ side, who argued that Animals Should Be Off the Menu.
The post-debate statistics read 73.6% for the proposition, 19.3% against, and 6.9% undecided. So – a significant number of audience members were evidently swayed by the speakers.
But the movement wasn’t all one-sided. One tweep told the Wheeler Centre they started off on the ‘for’ side and moved to the ‘against’. Why? ‘I didn’t like the FOR team’s emotional manipulation and black and white thinking. Sustainable and humane farming is the way forward.’
Surely, that’s a mark of success for an exchange of ideas: people left with new ideas and changed convictions, on both sides of the argument.
The video for this debate is now online; watch it here.
Anna Krien will be speaking about her Quarterly Essay on our treatment of animals, in Us and Them, at the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 4 April at 6.15pm. The event is free, but bookings are recommended.
Explore by area of interest