My interview with philosopher Peter Singer

I 2009 intervjua jeg den australske moralfilosofen Peter Singer til denne D2-artikkelen om framtidas mat.

Han er i vinden som gjesteforeleser på ex.phil. på Universitetet i Oslo denne fredagen, og er mest kjent som forfatter av Animal Liberation (1975) – som regnes som fødselen for moderne dyrefrigjøring og et manifest for veganere. Derfor snakket vi mest om mat.

Les også mitt intervju med Michael Pollan for mer matfilosofi.

ØH: Do you think it’s possible, and maybe even smart, for a farmer to combine producing genetically modified (GM) food with the principles of organic farming?

PS: Yes, I do.  It would need to be separately labelled, of course, so that consumers knew what they were getting and could make an informed choice.

ØH: Talking about the future in food, what do you hope will happen?

PS: I would hope that we gradually move to a diet that doesn’t exploit animals, and if we’re talking about feeding a whole lot of people we’re talking about a vegan diet. I think that we will hope we’ll move to a diet that is environmentally friendly, and that is why I think we cannot continue to keep a lot of ruminating animals, cattle. And I think it’s for some reasons we have to farm in a manner that is sustainable in the long term, and that will often mean using organic or organic-like methods in farming and sustaining the soil.

ØH: Do we need less ruminant animals?

PS: Yes, unless we can find a way sole the problem to control their methane production, we cannot have a large number of cattle in the long run. They are just going to contribute too much to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

ØH: So, realistically speaking about the future?

PS: Realistically I think we’re moving slowly in a desirable direction as far as animal welfare is concerned, I think we also have an increase in issues about sustainable production and looking after the soil and on, we’re moving there. I don’t see enough movement in the issues about ruminance and greenhouse gases, it’s still a serious problem. Some parts of the world should differentiate; Europe and North America are making some progress, but I’m seriously worried about China. Their methods are quite bad, and they are expanding quite fast.

ØH: What about India?

PS: I’m not sure, there are obviously concerns. It’s still not as heavy a meat-eating country as China, because of hinduism, the diet is still based on rice and lentils to a larger concern. It’s not heading as quickly down the wrong path as China seems to be.

ØH: Do you believe that organic food is more healthy?

PS: Well, I’m not really an expert on that issue, I’m not a nutritionist or health expert. Personally I would expect it to be that in general, but I’m not going to say that in all cases it’s going to be more healthy. There can be problems with the health issues in organic products, I suppose, and other cases there are less problems with non-organic products. This is not the issue I focus on.

ØH: Are we too much focused on food as a personal health issue?

PS: I can’t say how it’s perceived in Norway, but in Australia, Britain and USA I would see the environmental issues as equally significant, and I certainly know people who are most concerned with the questions of animal welfare. It would be risky to stake the case for organic food purely on health questions.

ØH: Is the demands for food safety and health issues a threat to organic food?

PS: There are problems of meeting regulations when you’re a small-scale producer. One I’ve come across, in the US you can’t slaughter pigs or cattle on the farm, you have to truck them off to a slaughterhouse, which is both stressful for the animals and the farmer loses control. I can understand the meaning behind it, but it poses a problem for small producers who want to follow their animals all the way. It would be quite important to make the regulations more feasible for small farmers.

ØH: Do you believe organic food is more environmental?

PS: Yes, in general, I think it is. For one thing I think eating carries with it long term soil sustainability, because you don’t use chemical fertilizers. And so you tend to use organic fertilizers, compost, manure and so on, which builds up the soil and put humus into the soil in ways that chemical fertilizers may not. You’re not using synthetic herbicides and pesticides, and there have been studies that there is greater biodiversity around organic farms. They want to make use of the local ecology, insects and farms, leave hedgerows so that the birds have that to nest it. The typical non-organic producers will clear out the hedgerows, and produce large fields of monocultures and fertilize them synthetically. In the long run, that is not good for the environment.

ØH: In the Norwegian debate some believe that the belief that organic farming is more environmental is a myth. Organic farmers use more animal fertilizers, which produce more methane and nitrous oxide.

PS: There is a problem with methane and animal manure, but the counter-argument, as I understand it, by putting more humus into the soil you lock away carbon in the soil. Organic soil stores a lot more carbon than the soil in non-organic farming.

ØH: Growing organic food also uses more resources and land?

PS: Only very slightly, some people would deny it in the long run. The organic farmer will maintain the fertility. When you start you may need 10-20 percent more land for the same production, but 10-20 years down the track the organic farmers are still producing as well as it was, but the non-organic is not. That was research in USA says, large mechanized farms, completely different system. I have no knowledge of Norwegian farming, the differences start to dwindle after a time and they are not that great in the beginning. There is a higher skill requirement for organic food, but if you manage it you get good production.

ØH: Do we need more farmers and more, but smaller farms?

PS: I think you do, especially in places where people are farming large areas of land with a lot of machinery and little labor. To move to organic systems you have to do something to increase the workforce, but reduce the capital intensity, with less machinery and fossil fuels. Which is a good thing to rural areas, which have been depopulated.

ØH: What kind of incentives could be used?

PS: An educated public, and people must be prepared to pay a bit more for food. You can’t say that it would be produced at the same price, you can hope to get reasonably close, but I think there will always be at least a 10 percent difference. We pay so little for food in affluent places, in historial view we don’t have to work so few hours to produce enough calories to feed ourselves, it’s a historical view. We can afford to spend 10-20 percent more in the affluent world, it wouldn’t’ be a problem for most people.

ØH: Do you see organc food as a fashion, as food for mostly yuppies?

PS: Well, just look at the people who eat it. They tend to be better better-educated professionals who know what they’re looking for and have some views about food should be. Or they may be alternative hippie types, that was the stereotype of organic food back in the 70’s, but I think it probably has diminished now. Not too much of organic food is produced by long-haired people with headbands, but there is still a bit of that image around.

ØH: Maybe this is more about education?

PS: The founder and presidents of Whole Food Markets in USA, the largest chain with stores in England, said the following: When they look at where to put a new store, they don’t look at income in the neighbourhood, the actually look at the educational level, which of course corraborates a bit with income, but is a better indicator than income.

ØH: Organic food is also about branding, putting stickers and words on products. It sometimes feels hard to navigate…

PS: It’s getting a bit hard, there is some confusion, and it varies from place to place. In the US there is one organic label, which is supposed to be certified by the Departement of Agriculture. There are other labels like «humanely raised» and «bio-dynamic», but how many knows what that means? We have “natural”, which means nothing really. In the US there is governmental control, but there are different labels with different certifying bodies. There’s not too much confusion in Australia, but a bit more in the US.

ØH: Is industrial food too cheap?

PS: Well, possibly. In the US a lot of food is so cheap because of agricultural subsidies, especially when it comes to corn. This affects not only corn and things with high fructose corn syrup, but also affects grain-fed meat, because you can only feed so much grain to cattle because it is so cheap. I think we have to educate people to be prepared to pay a little bit more for organic food, but for various reasons ending the grain subsidies in the US would be a desirable thing to do. Not only for food in the US, but also for agricultural export from the third world.

ØH: Don’t we need genetically manipulated food to feed the world’s poor?

PS: I don’t have any general oppositiosn to GM food, you have to take it on a case by case basis. Not been any justified health alarms for GM food yet, some environmental risks with the crossing of seeds into the wild environment, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. We have to be careful when producing new varietes, but I am not against it in general and I see that in some cases it could have environmental benefits. Bt corn or cotton you don’t have to spray, because it produces a naturally occurring pesticide.

ØH: Vaclav Smil concluded that we can feed nine billion without GM food, but we may soon be more than that…

PS: We probably do, especially in regards to draught resistant plants. We also need to work to keep the population around nine billion, it can’t grow indefinitely.

ØH: Do we forget animal rights when we’re discussing organic food.

PS: Animals have a better life on organic farms than non-organic farms. Not to say it is ideal, but it certainly is much better. If you’re going to eat meat, you should look for organic and humanely raised meat.

ØH: What about animal-free meat?

PS: I think it could be a solution, it seems perfectely feasible. Today it’s just a cost issue, but still vastly more expensive. I think it’s possible, whether it is desirable is another issue. I don’t really know if we need it, but to reduce the animal population is beneficial for the climate and the rest of the animals. I do think it’s too little research and not enough funding, there haven’t been any breakthroughs.

ØH: Is it best to be vegetarian?

PS: Yes, I think it is an important thing. It doesn’t solve all problems, but it is an important step in the right direction.

ØH: So our first step in saving the world should be to eat less meat?

PS: Yes, cut down on the amount of meat you’re eating. That is good for your health, good for the environment and good for the animals. It’s a win-win-win situation. Governments are thinking more about climate change, but they also have to take food production into account. That is important, and they haven’t done that enough. They have to make it more rewarding to be a farmer, and encourage small organic farms.

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