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Coronavirus, wet markets and Paul McCartney

I disagree with Paul McCartney. Not about everything. I mean, I love the Beatles and I’m sure if I met him in person, we’d hit it off. But I do disagree with something he said.

“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarian”.

I understand the point he’s making. We live in a sanitised world and as a result, we don’t tend to see what happens to the 70 billion animals that are killed each year for food and then turn up, neatly packaged, on our supermarket shelves. It’s hidden from us. Intentionally. Because it’s awful. And if it wasn’t hidden, we’d all be so horrified by what we saw that we would potentially never eat meat again.

But industrialised factory farming, of the kind that Paul McCartney’s talking about, has really only been a thing since the late 1940’s. Before that, farming was pretty much how we might describe farms to our children; all sunshine and fields and frolicking animals. And less death.

That traditional way of farming was much more holistic because it wasn’t just about producing meat but having the animals as part of a more complete farming system that was equally reliant on producing fertiliser and wool and eggs and milk. The kinds of things that rely on the animals actually remaining alive for a bit. This kind of subsistence farming is still the norm throughout much of Africa and parts of Asia and small holdings throughout the world.

But then, after the World War Two, there was a push to ensure food security in the UK, (food rationing carried on until 1954). So, the introduction of intensive farming was actually started with good intentions. Even from an animal welfare point of view, the intention was supposed to be good. “If we keep all the animals together, we can keep a closer eye on them, care for them better and make sure they’re okay… until, you know, we kill them”.

But after a few years, those good intentions were forgotten. Animal production was scaled up and any thoughts of welfare were replaced by ideas of how quickly and profitably farms could get as many animals as possible through the system. Animals became a commodity and a series of problems to be solved. If you keep pigs in overcrowded and unnatural conditions, for example, how do you prevent them from getting so stressed that they start biting each other’s tails off? What’s that? Reduce the overcrowding? Provide them with a more natural environment? Well, you could do that, you hippy… or… you could just grind down their teeth and remove their tails when they’re piglets.

Intensive farming, it turns out, is a really shitty idea.

And that’s obviously what Paul McCartney is talking about. Nobody wants to see that. Nobody would eat meat if they saw that kind of brutality. Except… except there are countries all over the world where animals are sold and slaughtered in vast numbers, at markets, in front of people, every single day.

It’s hard for those of us who don’t live in these places, to imagine going down to the market and have someone casually kill a chicken in front of you to take home. But don’t think it isn’t normal, because for millions of people, it is.

In these places, there are no glass walls. In fact, there aren’t any walls at all. And because people have an extraordinary capacity to acclimatise to what’s around them, seeing something every day means they get used to it. Think of it like a therapy technique to systematically desensitise you to a phobia.

Our gut reaction, here in our sanitised world, might be to say, “That’s barbaric! That’s disgusting! How could they?” And that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now as the world pours scorn on the wet markets of Asia for their role in the introduction of Covid-19.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these wet markets are the source of this pandemic, and they do need to be closed down, but let’s also not forget that there are plenty of other diseases lining up to kill us that aren’t limited to Asia or wildlife markets. Just because this pandemic came from bats and pangolins in China doesn’t mean that the next one won’t come from chickens or pigs in factory farms and that’s before we get started on antibiotic resistance.

By agreeing with Paul McCartney, we provide ourselves with a convenient way to point fingers and assign blame elsewhere. By dehumanising people from another country, we allow ourselves to think of them as somehow less than us. Because they butcher and sell meat more openly that we do, they must be more brutal, more sadistic, less caring. But the truth is, they’re not. They are us and we could so easily be them.

We need to look closer at the glass wall and realise that all we’re seeing is a reflection of ourselves.

We can choose not to look, or we can point fingers elsewhere, but until we recognise that the way in which we treat animals and produce food is deeply flawed, then we’re all culpable for whatever comes next.

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