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Will the protection of animals be left to corporations?

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There is a pair of interesting stories connected to animal ethics in the media at the moment. One is an exposé of bad practices that persist in many British abattoirs — a mix of cruelty and sloppiness that is against the rules but happens regardless. The other is an exposé on the bad effects of EU fishery laws. In order to stop overfishing, boats are not allowed to return to harbour with more than a certain amount of fish, and must have none at all of certain species.  The problem is that this leads to perverse behaviour among the fishing boats: the amount of fish caught is always a bit random and they want to get as many as possible, so they often catch too many and dump the excess overboard (which are typically dead by that point). We hear that this results in ‘as much as two-thirds of the fish caught being thrown back in the water’ (and I’d love to know what the overall average is).

What is particularly interesting about these stories is that in both cases one would expect that governments would be the appropriate bodies to be paying attention to the problems and quickly legislating to improve the incentives of the abattoirs and fishers so that they no longer do these horrible things. After all, animal welfare and the environmental impacts of over fishing are not stunning new issues and there are ministers directly responsible for these things. However, in both cases it took mass media and extensive video footage of the incidents to get anyone to notice, and even then, the first groups to respond have been groups of supermarkets with large buying power (& who value having a reputation for ethical conduct).

My thoughts are twofold. Firstly, a great thanks to the people who cared strongly enough to produce this footage and create action, to the supermarkets for moving quickly to strengthen their ethical purchasing codes, and to the shoppers who care enough about this to make it worth the supermarkets’ while. Secondly, where is the government oversight on these key issues of mass suffering during slaughter and overfishing? These are obviously important areas and ones where it is difficult to get good behaviour just through markets (for instance, note that many supermarkets will not sign up to these deals…). I very much approve of the shift within corporations to sign up to ethical charters, but I really hope it is not matched by (or more than matched by) a decline in government action.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Great post. I need to be a bit careful here because I work for government myself, but this perhaps also means that I have something valuable to say.

    One comment I have is that governments are human institutions like any other organisation, that is to say they are still made up of people with essentially stone age brains trying to live meaningful lives in an environment that is substantially different from the one in which our stone-age ancestors evolved. I tend to find that this wonderful insight of evolutionary psychology explains a lot of behaviours that otherwise seem perplexing.

    Another is that while there's a spectrum of corporations positioning themselves in different ways and struggling to find their "ecological niche" in the market-place, governments are by nature relatively conservative organisations. To the extent that concern for animal welfare is a growing, rather than a well-established and mainstream concern, it would be understandable, even if regrettable, if governments were a bit behind the curve.

    Another comment I want to make regarding fisheries (and this is as close as I'm going to get to commenting directly on EU policy) is that there is a well-recognised and urgent need to prevent fairly catastrophic collapses in fish stocks. I'm not saying that because of this we shouldn't care about animal welfare, but once again it would be understandable if this urgent and difficult challenge was getting most of the attention. Then of course there is the equally well-recognised and researched phenomenon of policy capture by special interests, to which no human organisation can be entirely immune…

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Toby, both of which which I share.

    At first I wanted to add a third thought, which was that the situation is after all normal : fish and pigs don't vote, so why should governments care?

    But then I had a fourth : why should fish and pigs be treated differently? By which I mean that if the financial sector seems set to remain deregulated (sorry, "self-regulating") after the misery that it caused, and continues to cause, then at least there is consistency with the way abattoirs and fishing are controlled. Ethical charters suffice.

    As Peter says : "Then of course there is the equally well-recognised and researched phenomenon of policy capture by special interests, to which no human organisation can be entirely immune…"

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