Until recently the slaughter of animals for human consumption was almost invisible; many of us consumed meat but remained ignorant of its origins. From the late 20th century onwards a series of farming crises raised concerns about animal welfare within industrial food production systems, but the slaughter of animals was rarely discussed. Over the first decades of the 21st century this has started to change. Animal slaughter is now debated more openly than at any time over the last 250 years.
The invisibility of animal slaughter is part of what Norbert Elias (2000) refers to as the process of civilisation. As people have come to live together in greater numbers over the course of many centuries, Elias shows that many of the things taken to be offensive in ‘civilised society’ have gradually disappeared from view – pushed behind the scenes of everyday life. The development of the modern abattoir is a prime example. From the 18th century onwards, large public abattoirs gradually replaced small private slaughterhouses, before they too were pushed out to the urban fringe where they could no longer offend ‘civilised sensibilities’ (Otter 2008). As Vialles (1994, p. 27) notes:
“Forced out of towns, they [abattoirs] were equally banished from the countryside. Condemned to an existence on the fringes of urban and rural society, they were cut off from the consumer and from the stockbreeder alike. The former could henceforth be unaware of the origin of the meat he was eating, the latter of the destination of the animal he was rearing” (1994, p. 27).
As the civilising process progressed throughout the 20th century, ethnic minorities gradually gained power in their relations with previously superior groups. As the mass migration of former colonial peoples into countries such as the UK and France increased, the cultural practices of minorities became more visible. Over recent decades, a number of complex global processes have combined to push these developments in new directions. One notable trend has been the rapid growth and development of markets for ‘authentic’ halal meat products. Recent #halalhysteria in the UK bears witness to the extraordinary social and cultural (never mind economic) impact of these developments.
The welfare of animals at the time of killing is significant in these debates, yet if we take a longer-term view it is clear that there are much bigger issues at stake. Over recent decades, consumers everywhere have been hit by food scandals and trust in food has become a major issue. While consumers in the UK were outraged by horsemeat scandal of 2013, Muslim consumers are equally concerned by the threat of haram ingredients and contaminants in halal products. This situation draws attention to important debates about global food sustainability and security.
Farm animal welfare & sustainable development
Improving animal welfare is as a central component of the three pillars of sustainable development – Environment, Society and Economy. Environmentally animal agriculture has a significant impact on climate change and it has been estimated that in total it generates 18% of all greenhouse gases. Animal agriculture is also in direct competition with humans for water, food, space and other scarce resources and it therefore has a significant impact on food security. There are also impacts on water sanitation, ecosystems and ecological conservation; improving the conditions under which animals are kept is essential if we are to improve outcomes in this area. On the societal level, improving animal welfare can impact human health by countering the spread of pathogens with the potential to spread infectious disease; it can also help to create sustainable livelihoods in rural communities. And on the economic front, better farm animal welfare has the potential for greater efficiencies of production, sustainable procurement and consumption practices and enhanced food safety.
As concerns over sustainability and food security intensify over the coming decades, the concerns of consumer everywhere will be aligned around these emergent global issues. While not so long ago debate about animal slaughter was pushed behind the scenes of everyday life because it offended ‘civilised sensibilities’, today it is discussed and debated more openly. Over the long term this cannot be a bad thing; the more visible animal slaughter becomes, the more it will draw attention towards a range of invisible issues threatening the sustainability and security of global food production.