What do the swine flu pandemic, a chicken factory, cloned meaty snacks in the food chain and a bacon panini have in common? The answer; they are all symbolic of the synaptic schism between human and animal.
This morning, performing the daily commute to work, I reflected on the offer put to me by the crackling voice on the train’s PA. A litany of “delicious snacks” was described as being available from the on-board shop; bacon paninis, burgers, a duck-and-hoisin wrap and more, all for less than a fiver.
Tempting as such a breakfast was, my imagination, drawing on the vast repository of past experience, filled in the gaps left by the announcement with brutal reality.
I visualised the true nature of the panini: a limp and pale blanket for the shrivelled strip of meat sleeping within it. I wonder if such products, sold in our supermarkets and garages or on trains, all come from the same factory, with only their particular arrangements of plastic and cardboard packaging to distinguish them.
I know this because I have worked in such a factory. “The chico”, as it was affectionately known, was a monolithical temple of death, into which live chickens would come and from which fillets would leave, elegantly postured on a polystyrene tray. My role was to drape a strategic slither of skin decoratively over the cuts in the name of aesthetics.
The cognitive disassociation between neatly packaged meat and the animal (or animals) from which they come has grave implications for us all.
A taste for flesh
Dating back to the Enlightenment, the Cartesian separation between man and nature is the root of the mega-exploitation of the planet that so defines our age. This schizophrenia is most perfectly represented by our relationship with animals — dogs are revered and described in the lingo of anthropomorphism, while many other animals are kept in the cruellest and most degrading of circumstances.
A recent study from the University of Edinburgh has found that about three-quarters of the human pathogens to have emerged in the period 1980-2005 are directly traceable to livestock farming and the often bizarre methods employed to bend nature most efficiently to our needs. The swine flu outbreak of 2009, “the pandemic that never was“, was just the latest of these.
And as one crisis ends, another begins. The furore over cloned animal products infiltrating the British food chain has been growing steadily, even making the front page of the Daily Mail. The response? A hapless farmer becomes the focus of Mail rage as people lament the possibility that the slither of meat in their child’s lunchbox might be from sci-fi livestock.
The more fundamental questions raised by these issues, hlowever, are rarely addressed.
In the UK alone, we eat about a million tonnes of beef per year. To maintain this diet, an ever greater share of land and resources is turned over to meat production and all-out war is waged on the environment. The sections of the natural world that are of no use in the production of meat, such as undesirable cuts, are discarded and disregarded.
As a result we are, according to a recent report from the UN, facing the biggest extinction event since an asteroid harkened the demise of the dinosaurs.
And the reason for all this? To sustain the voracious appetite and addiction of a junk-food island. An island of more than 1,200 McDonald’s restaurants, 700 Burger Kings and countless less well-known fast-food outlets where roughly a quarter of the population is obese. The response of our governments, under pressure from powerful lobbies, is piecemeal, consistently failing to bring the junk-food companies to heel in any meaningful way.
Pandemics are here to stay
The faux outrage over cloned meat is hypocritical and short-sighted. Likewise, the panic buying of medicines, though of great benefit to Big Pharma, will do nothing whatsoever to head off the possibility of future pandemics.
There is a dynamic relationship at work between food and public health, with one profiting from the other and human beings the passive consumers and contractors of both.
If we are to tackle the evils of obesity, pandemics, climate change and cruelty to animals, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with nature.
As Bruno Latour argues, we need a politics of nature. A politics which sees no distinction between society and nature but understands the dynamic relationship between the two. A politics which realises that swine flu and the unintended consumption of cloned meat are not accidents, but precedents.
Liam Thompson is a freelance journalist and writer.