All creatures, great and small
October 2006
They approached each other slowly. Sensually. Their bodies met, intertwined, rolled, tangled together in a long and languorous exploration of each other. Lost in one another, lost in time. I was in awe. I felt like a voyeur, like I should be blushing. But how could I have known when I rented this movie that I would be party to an astonishing display of physical intimacy between two snails? Enthralled by the sophistication of these small slimy beings, I could see myself, sickened, as I enjoyed a plate of garlic snails a few weeks earlier. At that point I thought of creating my own snail liberation front. But the feeling soon passed.

But sometimes, it doesn’t go away. Increasingly, consumers are having ethical concerns regarding the animals on their plate. Was the animal treated with respect? Did it have a good life? Were the conditions of its slaughter acceptable? In fact, Whole Foods, a US supermarket chain, declared last July that it would no longer sell live lobsters because the store’s fish pools, in which these animals were kept, did not provide them with enough living comfort. Closer to home, Stéphanie Bérubé, a writer for La Presse, revealed that there was currently an unexpected and meteoric increase in the demand for kosher foods in Québec and this was outside the traditional network of Jewish consumers. Kosher rules stipulate a quick slaughter so as to avoid prolonging the animal’s suffering. Modern breeding techniques have also come under fire, so has early weaning or the preventive use of medications. There’s a general call for a more humane treatment of animals.

Everybody is in favour of virtue. But how many of us, as consumers, are ready to pay a surcharge to make up for the farmer’ higher standards and lower productivity? Once again, we are exhibiting contradictory behaviours. On the one hand, we criticize the way food is produced at a low cost, on the other hand, we still choose the least expensive products. For agricultural producers waiting for consumer signs, the message is far from clear. Furthermore, there’s a high level of anxiety for those who would like to switch their production procedures: too much dept, too much investment and not enough help.

As I thought about the question of animal welfare, I said to myself that there was certainly something more we could do. A breeding animal is not a machine. By domesticating it, we became responsible for its wellbeing. But this reflection raised other concerns. Animal confinement, for example, is it any worse than placing our elders in residential nursing homes where they only come out every so often? Is early weaning not the same as say, - do I dare say it – a mother choosing not to breastfeed her newborn child? As for the preventive use of medications, is it any worse than the massive vaccination of our children and the overuse of antibiotics to treat earaches? I know, we can’t judge the benefits of a specific practice simply by comparing it.

Anyways, let’s put things into perspective. As I visited Québec farms, cows, for the most part seem to have it easy: perfectly balanced nutrition, a well-ventilated building, a clean and adequately carpeted free stall, and all the fresh water they can drink. Sheeeeesh! Let me just say that these animals for which we are so concerned are treated better than thousands of men, women and children who live in poverty all over this world. They are the people we should be concerned about!

This said, we should obviously do better. We should always to better. In every thing we do! As for animal wellbeing, I am certain that farmers are the first to want what’s best for their herds. It’s a question of pride and of job satisfaction. But they must first find the means. Production methods can’t be changed overnight. And in the meantime, we all have to eat.

As for myself, I like snails. Especially in garlic butter. And should a snail end up in my dinner plate, I’ll have a prayer for it. And I’ll secretly hope that it had a good life before it gave it up for my sake. And in doing so I will enjoy it even more.

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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