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Octopus farms are the future The exploitation of animals is central to our existence

Is octopus meat murder? Credit: Per-Anders Pettersson


April 1, 2022   5 mins

When the Spanish seafood firm Nueva Pescanova recently announced its plan to open the world’s first octopus farm, many animal rights activists (and the wider public) reacted with horror. Taking intelligent creatures from the wild to exploit them for human gain is seen instinctively as a moral step backwards.

In fact, octopuses are one of the species about to gain a new level of protection in the UK, along with decapods (lobsters, shrimp, and so on) and all vertebrates. The new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, currently working its way through parliament, calls for the creation of a committee to assess whether government decisions have due regard for the welfare of animals “as sentient beings”. It will join EU legislation, which has recognised animal sentience since 2009, as well as that of countries including Australia, Switzerland and Brazil. Going a step further, a number of bodies in recent years have attempted to secure legal personhood for individual animals held in zoos and research facilities, though with little success to date.

These efforts owe much to the concept of “speciesism”, popularised in the Seventies by bioethicist Peter Singer. Drawing a provocative comparison with racism and sexism, he argues that there is no reason that a morality based on minimising suffering should be limited only to humans. Fifty years ago, this argument was radical. But today, the idea (or something like it) is banal enough that the passing of the Animal Sentience Bill has come up against virtually no opposition. Few would argue that animals do not have sentience (“the capacity to experience feelings and sensations”) — though the moral implications remain much more controversial.

The fact that this conversation is being had at all is in itself a striking reflection of how far the Enlightenment moral project has come. If you suggested to the average person living 500 years ago that keeping octopuses in confinement was an unconscionable cruelty, I expect they’d have thought you were mad. This was an era when public torture and executions were good family fun, and London Bridge was decorated with the severed heads of victims; when people thought nothing of children or servants being flogged for misdemeanours, and unwanted infants were left to perish in their thousands. People would have been inured to brutality and death to a degree that is almost unimaginable to us nowadays.

While the world around us has become steadily less violent, until the very recent past any stirrings of empathy for animals would have been hammered out of people at an early age. If from childhood you are wringing the necks of chickens you’ve raised yourself and plucking them for dinner, there is no space for worrying about their sentience. What good would it do you?

The emotions that guide our morality — empathy, guilt, a sense of fairness — don’t exist to guide us towards some objective moral truth. We’re evolved creatures, and these are adaptations that help us get along with each other — and aid our relatives or allies in times of need. Depending on when and where we live, these emotions might take very different forms.

Today, a child’s interaction with live animals is most probably limited to pets, who are increasingly treated as part of the family, or even as an alternative to having children of one’s own. For many of us (or at least, the 99% who aren’t vegan), reminders of the flesh and blood origins of the food we eat elicit pangs of guilt, and feel like a hangover from a more bloodthirsty and animalistic past.

But this is the elephant in the room in all discussions of animal welfare. Despite our newfound squeamishness over seeing how the sausage is made, the exploitation of animals for food is central to our species’ way of life. As the human population has become much larger and wealthier in the last century, global meat consumption has climbed to unprecedented heights, both per capita and in absolute terms. When it comes to chickens in particular, the scale of increase boggles the mind — over ten times as many chickens are eaten today as at the beginning of the Sixties. Though supermarkets in the Anglosphere are increasingly likely to stock plant-based No Chicken Kievs as an alternative, these put barely a dent in the market for the real thing, which is projected to continue expanding for years to come.

For all our talk of animal welfare, the ancient and widespread practice of killing animals for food is not going anywhere any time soon. And while this is the case, legal proclamations like the sentience bill seem rather toothless and hypocritical. What can it mean to recognise animal sentience if we also condone the slaughter of animals in their billions every year?

It’s not just the eating of animals where a true rejection of speciesism would have profound consequences. For instance, if we stop and think about the sentience of rats and mice — social, intelligent creatures — can we really justify razing entire communities of them simply because we don’t want them in our restaurants and cafĂ©s?

Then there are the animal genocides we commit in the name of conservation. Efforts to preserve the biological integrity of the Galapagos islands have seen sniper hit squads hunting down invasive goats by helicopter. In 2018, the largest eradication scheme in history led to the island of South Georgia, home to albatrosses and other endangered seabirds, being declared officially rodent-free. And if you have a pet cat, her continued survival depends on the deaths of the chickens, cows, and fish that go into her can of Purina, not to mention the hundred or so small mammals and birds she personally dispatches in an average year.

Should we let the albatross and the Galapagos tortoise go extinct, or euthanise our pets for the greater good of animal kind? And for that matter, what about all the carnivorous animals in nature subjecting their brethren to horrific ends every minute of every day? What of those that die in even greater numbers from exposure, starvation and disease? Why shouldn’t our duty of care for animals as sentient beings extend to preventing their suffering too, as it surely would for humans?

All of these questions become impossibly knotty unless we do what we’re accustomed to doing for our own sanity and convenience, which is to draw a sharp dividing line between humans and non-human animals, declaring that only the individuals on the near side of that line are worthy of our full moral consideration. Even if we could prevent all animal suffering, we wouldn’t want to — this would mean a total dismantling of the circle of life that keeps all the planet’s ecosystems in balance.

But this kind of approach becomes less and less acceptable to a world that is increasingly sensitive to violence, and where morality is derived from utilitarian principles (whose founder, Jeremy Bentham, said of animals: “The question is not can they reason … but can they suffer?”) rather than God-given (“Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you”). With speciesism, we may have reached the first point where modern moral sensibilities, having emerged from instincts evolved to help our species thrive as small bands of kin millions of years ago, hit a major roadblock imposed by the limitations of the physical world.

The UK’s animal sentience bill is brief, containing no detail as to how exactly animal interests should be weighted. Even PETA’s press release celebrating the passing of the bill doesn’t mention any specific practices that they hope it might restrict. As our aversion to violence increases further, I expect we will see a ramping up of non-specific proclamations in favour of animal rights, and of debates over banning things such as trophy hunting or foie gras, which are so minor in the scheme of things they might as well be symbolic gestures.

But at the same time, the number of animals killed for our consumption shows no sign of declining or even plateauing. A hundred years from now the prospect of putting a genuinely anti-speciesist worldview into practice is likely to remain as impracticable as it is today. Our moral intuitions may be changing, but we have no way of escaping the natural world that we’re part of, red in tooth and claw. A substantially brighter future for animals seems unlikely. And for humans, the future spells a lot more cognitive dissonance, as our evolving ideals will continue to bump up against the constraints of the world in which we find ourselves.


Ellen Pasternack is a PhD student in evolutionary biology at Oxford University.

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Kevin
Kevin
2 years ago

I suspect that Ms Pasternak is missing the point of concerns about octopus farming.
I am a confirmed meat-eater and my favourites include a rack of lamb and a nice juicy steak but my favourite dish of all is octopus stew. I am well aware that for me to enjoy my culinary delights, animals have to die. That fact does not overly concern me. It is the way of the natural world. I would gladly slaughter the lamb or kill the octopus myself.
However, I am absolutely appalled by the way that industrial farming treats animals, especially in the USA, which mostly follows Ms Pasternak’s ethical preference to treat only animals on the near side of the human/other line with respect.
You’ve all, no doubt, seen the way that industrial farmers keep breeding sows in cages where the sow is unable to move or even see her piglets. You’ve seen the dark, fetid charnel houses where chickens are raised for eating. You’ve seen the way that calves are removed from their mothers and crammed into warehouses of death.
I have no time for militant vegetarians who want to ban meat-eating. I don’t think it’s morally justified but neither is it good politics. Meat eaters have too many votes for this approach to be successful.
I have, however, been persuaded that the suffering we inflict on animals in the food production industry is cruel and unnecessary and it demeans us as well as them. It’s perfectly possible to raise cows, pigs and sheep with respect and to kill them humanely. We have been doing it for thousands of years.
Ms Pasternak’s ethical bright line should be extended to include the animals that we rely on for food and that rely on us for care. The way that we raise chickens is appalling but I dread to imagine the horrors that we will inflict on conscious and intelligent molluscs. I gave up eating octopus three weeks ago for precisely this reason.
An ethical approach to meat-eating will require us to eat less meat and to source it from farmers who treat their animals with respect. We’ll have to learn to treat ribeye steak as an occasional luxury instead of a cheap sandwich that we eat 5 days a week. Pigs raised in humane conditions actually taste nicer. You should try them. For the other days of the week, vegetarian substitutes are a pleasant variation.
An ethical approach to sustainable farming is the way forward — no need to ban meat-eating — if we want to move past this atrocious period in animal husbandry. The climate will thank us too.

Elizabeth Fairburn
Elizabeth Fairburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin

Thank you for that comment. As a farmers daughter I was brought up with the adage ” look after the animal and it will thrive – treat it mean/cruel and it will loose money ” I eat meat but I do like to know where it comes from. Also I am against ethical slaughter of any animal for religious reasons. Let any animal have a good life, quick death and the meat will taste better for it! – Sorry I am no good with words hence I don’t post often.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

its been great to see so many tv programmes about livestock farming in recent years on the main channels, especially focussing on how much the farmers love their animals and care about their welfare, and not just because it makes them money in produce.

Terry Davies
Terry Davies
2 years ago

You are fine with words! Keep on posting with your insights.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

I wonder if this will be ‘theatre’ legislation? The EU may have an animal sentience bill but bull-fighting is allowed. There will be exceptions to the bill allowing kosher and halal slaughter of animals (I’ve seen it in action) with false assertions that death via these methods is instantaneous. Meanwhile the Government can look morally virtuous going after a few big-game hunters.
Since Ellen raised the point can I add the stat that domestic cats are estimated to kill 3 billion birds per year. I believe they have caused the extinction of dozens of songbird species. Banning cats would definitely improve the environment! As far as sentience goes, rats are some of the most intelligent of the small mammals. You can test this yourself by trying to trap them!

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Feral cats are a menace in New Zealand and decimate native ground-nesting birds. My brother traps and dispatches them. They can be enormous and fierce. Stoats and ferrets, all non-native, are equally destructive and thriving, unfortunately. I think legislation was proposed at some stage to ban cat ownership, not sure how that panned out.

Jeffrey Chongsathien
Jeffrey Chongsathien
2 years ago

The thing that annoys me most about these movements is the intrinsic delusion that other species don’t depend on feeding off each other. While we can modulate our own behaviour to avoid cruelty, it’s ignorant to disregard that Nature is the cruelest of all.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago

Yes, there is cruelty in nature. Many people (but not all) find this abhorrent. Does this have any relevance to the debate about our moral obligations towards how we look after other species?

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago

“…reminders of the flesh and blood origins of the food we eat elicit pangs of guilt, and feel like a hangover from a more bloodthirsty and animalistic past…” Nope

Sheridan G
Sheridan G
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Doyle

Not even remotely.

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago

Excellent article. It doesn’t offer a reason that we can morally justify our treatment of animals (besides religious reasons, which may work for an individual but make a bad talking point in the public sphere); one can’t easily argue from a utilitarian perspective – and I don’t think Pasternack missed this, even if her challenge to vegan ideas stems from the fact that they are extraordinarily impractical to humans. However, it clearly shows that the problem at hand is far more complex than just “be nice to our furry friends”. Socrates would be proud.

If only the rich, performative utilitarians so obsessed with having their vegan choice universalized spared similar passion (but less inclination towards legislation) for the poor and the marginalized. They might say they do, of course, but one choice is easy and even beneficial to some, while the other requires one to “go sell all that thou hast and divide it to the poor”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Wilson
Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Wilson

It is a moral, rather than a rational, issue, and the morality is complex. I could make a case for eating fish, but not birds or mammals. And eating most invertebrates (not sure about octopus).

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

Agreed with the last bit, although, given that we’re in the public square and not the field of personal convictions, surely the morals and the rationalities are inextricably intertwined?

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Wilson

Yes, I agree that they are inextricably intertwined. Rationality can assess animal suffering and offer ways to reduce it, but ultimately it is the moral sense that decides whether a certain procedure can be permitted.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Although octopuses are considerably brighter than most of the Great British Public, their lifespans are somewhat shorter, ranging from six months to four years.
They also taste rather good, so does any of this matter? If you were to ask those culinary connoisseurs, the Chinese, their response to conservation would be : “tough”! Would it not?

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Accidental flag, sorry

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

“tough”? – yes it can be.

Squid needs to be cooked quickly whereas octopus needs to be tenderised and stewed slowly.

D M
D M
2 years ago

It’s easy and justifiable to be angry about cruelty to animals but, presumably, not at the expense of humanity dying out. Amongst those who have studied ancient diets there is some belief that no major civilisation has survived without recourse to eating animal foods. If this is true, as it probably is, veganism is highly risky in which case the best we can do, if we are to survive as a species is to prepare animal foods as humanely as practicably.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago
Reply to  D M

What about the Jain?

D M
D M
2 years ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

There is nothing to say that humans might not be able to adapt to veganism over thousands of years, as several Indian communities have been able to embrace vegetarianism. But genes take a long time to adapt so veganism is risky , vegetarianism less so if one can tolerate available dairy products, though the ability to do so is by no means universal in civilisations across the world.

James H Johnson
James H Johnson
2 years ago

Idea: Let us use genetic manipulation to dumb our food supply critters to a level where the question of sentient just goes away? Fat, dumb and happy? Sounds delicious.
Of course we’ll know what we’ve done to the poor things and inevitably some UnHerd contributor will write a stirring piece informing of our moral failure.
On the other hand we could just get real. And realize that survival of the fitted was the law of the land about 100-million years long before some early human looked at an oyster and said ‘wow, that looks delicious!’

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Shout out for H Beam Piper’s Fuzzy series of sci-fi books, the first of which was published 60! years ago, and covered the concept of animal sentience. I loved reading these as a wee boy.
Can I be the first to ask if the Octopus farm will have a garden?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

These bills are not toothless.

Australia, with its small population and vast coastline, is surrounded by an ever growing chain of “marine parks” and now consumes more imported fish and seafood (more than twice as much) than local.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brendan O'Leary
Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
2 years ago

An interesting discussion of a complex moral issue. The history could be a bit more nuanced, though. There is indeed a trend towards greeter kindness to animals, more concern for animal welfare, starting, perhaps, with the first UK legislation in 1822 and the funding of the SPCA (to become the RSPCA) two years later.
There is also a trend the other way. Many humans, before modern times, were able to combine a respect for the souls of other animals with the pragmatic acceptance of the need to kill them for food. Until recently, British farmers took a personal interest in the welfare of each of their farm animals. This has been lost in present large-scale industrial farming (I’ve been reading James Rebanks’ English Pastoral).

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

The trend you have discerned is entirely among the shrinking and increasingly irrelevant Western middle classes .

Meat consumption per head is increasing dramatically in Africa, Asia and South America

JĂĄnos Klein
JĂĄnos Klein
2 years ago

What, no mention of cultured (lab-grown) meat ?
Or humane animal slaughter.

Last edited 2 years ago by JĂĄnos Klein