Sunday, August 19, 2007

Monkey Business

This news article discussing the potential lifting of a ban on the export of macaques from Kuala Lumpur for food, pet and medical experiments got me thinking that people who want to extinguish the meat industry in the industrial and post industrial economies of the world should consider the potential impact of success on global populations of wild animals.

Historically, underproduction of meat in emerging economies coupled with the need to protect populations of domestic animals and game from predators has had disastrous impacts on wild populations. From precolonial times onwards populations of wild and delicious North American fishes, game birds and mammals were decimated by meat loving aboriginal and post- colonial hunters. Wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest were speared and netted by the millions and passenger pigeons, who numbered in the billions, were driven into extinction by hungry farmers who blasted them from the sky with huge fowling pieces or clubbed them to death with sticks as they perched in trees. Predators did not fare much better as wolves, bobcat, eagles, hawks, bears and mountain lions were killed to protect stocks of wild and later, domestic animals for human consumption.

I suspect that if all animal farming and meat production stopped tomorrow, millions would pick up guns, fishing rods and nets and begin harvesting wild animals at an unprecedented rate. There's a lot more people around now than there was when native Americans allegedly ate up the North American horse, or when 19th and early 20th century Americans converted most of the buffalo population into rugs and pickled tongue. Large animals would disappear very quickly forcing humans to compete with predators like house cats who already take an estimated 60 million birds and small mammals each year in N. America alone.

One could argue that large scale production of meat has been a boon for wildlife. It certainly seems that the opposite is true. In many parts of Africa where the hunger for meat is not being met by farmers, wild game is disappearing at an alarming rate. Of course, production of all farmed products in these areas is low relative to the west. So perhaps a large increase in efficiency of the production of plant based foods would mute the appetite for bush meat in these areas.

It's fair to say that the market for imported monkey meat in China and Taiwan is not being driven by people who cannot get access to farm products. My sense is that the only thing that is going to dissuade these folks from eating wild and often endangered species is cultural pressure coupled with the desire of the Chinese to be perceived as modern and overtly conforming to western cultural norms. Something like this happened in South Korea where until recently dog-eating was very popular (It still is in isolationist and impoverished North Korea.).

In the end, I think it's a lot easier for me to imagine a world in which animals are no longer raised for food, than it is to believe that all humans will lose their appetite for meat and their lust to hunt it. For that to happen something truly remarkable is going to have to occur; something profound and completely transforming of human consciousnesses. And that, I'm sad to say, is beyond my imagining.

Possible Open Season on Monkeys?

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