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Principles in Mind, Fork in Hand: Ethical Eating

General Assembly 2009 Event 3013

Presenters: Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh, co-minister of Winchester Unitarian Society and chair of the Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice core team; Wayne Pacelle, president and  chief executive officer  of the Humane Society of the United States.

Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh framed the Ethical Eating Congregational Study/Action Issue by reminding attendees that this issue is not raised to provide a prescribed answer, but to lead all Unitarian Universalists to develop individual visions that will guide each of us to make nutritious food choices that fit our ethical and spiritual values.

What if we tried to take our seventh principle to heart, he posited, to respect the interdependent web of existence as it relates to our food choices? How do we balance our habits and tastes with our ethical sensibilities?

Millspaugh referenced the Ethical Eating Resources Guide, which explores multiple implications of our food choices. Friday’s presentation focused on the environment, public health, and human responsibility to animals of other species.

Millspaugh traced the history of Unitarian Universalist concern for animals as an extension of our first principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” He cited Unitarian minister Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) as well as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He spoke about Henry David Thoreau, who advocated reducing meat consumption out of concern for animal suffering. Millspaugh also named other historical Unitarian Universalist animal rights activists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Judith Sargent and John Murray, Louisa May Alcott, Horace Greeley, and Susan B. Anthony.

Millspaugh then introduced Wayne Pacelle, who began by elaborating upon Millspaugh's historical comments. He noted that Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA in 1866, after the Civil War, when many people turned their concern from slavery abolition to animal rights. He noted that the 1950s saw a resurgence of concern for animals in a post-World War II society thinking about repopulating the planet, and that the 1970s also saw a surge of interest with the advent of research showing animals to be sentient beings.

Pacelle said the big picture on animal issues today is fraught with contradictions. On one hand, we see manifestations of love and appreciation for animals. Two-thirds of American households have pets, and these households buy products and services totaling $44 billion. Some 71 million Americans “appreciate” wildlife, in the form of activities like whale watching or seeking information on wild animals. There are statutes prohibiting cruelty to animals in every state. Yet there is also routine exploitation of animals in the United States, Pacelle said. Abuses can be found in factory farming, animal testing, sport shooting, fur trade, animal fights, and rodeos.

We share the “spark of life” with animals, Pacelle said. However, humans have developed greater power. We must limit our conduct toward animals, he reasoned, so animals can live their natural lives.

The Humane Society of the United States, he said, strives to remind people to treat animals as more than mere resources. As intelligent as we are, humans often find ways to excuse our treatment of animals. One way is our use of euphemistic language to separate us from reality. For example, industrial literature refers to farm livestock as “units,” test animals as “tools,” and hunting out indigenous animals as “harvesting.”

Humans have learned how to survive and prosper through agriculture and animal domestication, yet animal cruelty has increased, Pacelle said. He added that in the United States there are 12,000 organizations working to protect animals.

After Hurricane Katrina, when responders were sent out to rescue flood victims, there were no instructions about what to do with animals. Pacelle witnessed refusals of rescue if pets would be left behind. Since then, through the work of the Humane Society, twenty states have passed laws to care for animals during crises.

Pacelle told how the Humane Society spoke out against Michael Vick, a professional football player found to be staging a large-scale dogfighting operation, and worked to upgrade legislation to prevent future abuses. Now that Vick has served his debt to society, the Humane Society has engaged him in its outreach programs to mentor inner-city youth at risk for becoming involved with dogfighting.

The Humane Society also investigates reported agricultural abuses. Pacelle spoke of one undercover investigation where “spent” dairy cows were reported as being treated inhumanely. Although this factory farm was highly rated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and seventeen auditing agencies, the Humane Society found ill and injured cows being mistreated into slaughter. Exposure of these practices led to major recall s of meat and closure of the plant where the mistreament occurred.

Pacelle talked about the Humane Society’s work behind Proposition 2 in California, a referendum to stop confinement of animals on factory farms. This measure passed in 2008, banning many inhumane practices.

Pacelle also noted that there are many environmental and health problems wrought by commercial agriculture still not resolved, including greenhouse gases (18 percent of which can be traced to livestock production); a majority of corn and soy (80 percent) going to animal feed; untreated animal waste causing environmental and public health problems; illness from foods; widespread obesity; and large amounts of antibiotics (70 percent of all produced) fed to animals.

Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Sunday, February 12, 2012.

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