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All creatures great and small

Irish priest Conal O’Connell (left) blesses with holy water household pets during the feast of St. Francis of Assissi, the patron saint of animals and ecology, at a church in Manila. File

Irish priest Conal O’Connell (left) blesses with holy water household pets during the feast of St. Francis of Assissi, the patron saint of animals and ecology, at a church in Manila. File   | Photo Credit: AFP

World Animal Rights Day falls on October 4. It coincides with the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron Saint of animals and the environment. As far back as the 12th century, he recognised the importance of extending compassion towards animals. Today, with the help of scientific inquiry we have learnt that it is in our best interest to extend compassion to other living beings, be it by protecting their habitats or refraining from intensively farming them. It has become increasingly clear that the welfare of humans and other animals is closely interlinked.

Pressing problems

Consider, for example, the bee, whose population is declining at an alarming rate today because of climate change, pesticides and habitat loss. Bees pollinate 70 of nearly 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. Insects help in the decomposition of organic materials, including bodies of the dead, and enrich the soil. Dung beetles evolved 65 million years ago and, as their name suggests, eat dung, recycle nutrients and improve the quality of the soil. Half of the world’s species are insects, so if insects go extinct, the consequence would be complete degradation of our soil consequently leading to the disappearance of all remaining life.

A second dimension of concern for animal rights centres on farming. We keep billions of animals intensively confined in factory farms for meat, eggs and dairy. There are serious repercussions of these practices, both for animals and humans. Hens kept in battery cage farms see the sun twice in their lives — once on the way to the farm and the second on the way to the slaughterhouse. These factory farms are responsible for the formation of dead pools around them, have a massive odour, and attract pests. The people who live in the vicinity of these farms suffer from several health issues including breathing problems. Hence, while it may make financial sense to cram animals into factory farms, the consequences can be considerable. To mitigate this, the system of intensive farm animal production needs to become more humane and less exploitative, for both animals and people. Governments can take a first step by prohibiting the cruelty of battery cages.

The deleterious impact of animal agriculture, including pastoral activities, is captured in research that shows that the Amazon fires were caused by ranchers who wanted to use the land for cattle grazing and farming. Indian forests are also being degraded by the excessive pressure of animal agriculture. The United Nations has found that “livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity”.

Animal welfare

Our legal system treats animals as if they are non-sentient commodities that can be owned and disposed by people. Animal husbandry has an entire department dedicated to it. Thousands of crores are invested in slaughterhouses. Conversely, animal welfare is relegated to one board, which must look after the welfare of billions of animals in the country. Policy reform in this space is such a low priority that while parking fines are at least ₹10,000 in Mumbai, the penalty for beating an animal in India is ₹50. It is time for our government to depute a Ministry and budget for the welfare of animals.

Animal lives can be saved by commercialising the innovations of plant-based and cultured or clean meat. Clean meat is grown in a lab from a small sample of cells taken from an animal. Both plant-based meat and clean meat are free of the negative externalities that animal meat production is responsible for, such as climate change, and are healthier as they are also free of antibiotics.

We hold the future of billions of animals in our hands. We have an opportunity to translate our philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam into action. We must act in our collective best interest.

Ambika Hiranandani is a lawyer, animal rights activist and environmentalist

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 6:07:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/all-creatures-great-and-small/article29587116.ece

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