Sustainable agriculture, animal rights and rural campaigning: a tough row to hoe
I won’t mince words (no pun intended) — campaigning on animal rights in a rural seat is a bloody tough gig. But I believe it’s an issue we Greens must take on if we are to make progress where it most counts, at the farm gate.
The invocation of animal rights routinely whips up a perfect political storm of visceral responses from proponents on all sides of the debates, together with fraught philosophical, moral and ethical disputes.
At the heart of it all, I believe, is a disjunction between democracy as primarily a people-focused enterprise, and something I like to call ‘ethocracy’. This is an approach to politics that is guided by ethics and rights in addition to those pertaining solely to people, but which also extends to legal rights for nonhuman animals, and extending to the ecosphere as a whole.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of rural NSW families trying to make a living any way they can, often in parlous circumstances themselves, responding to the civilisation in whose service they toil. This civilisation ceaselessly demands meat, wool, leather, eggs, honey, dairy, seafoods, brushes and gelatine. It has further devised a duopolistic capitalist supply chain that insists on procuring all these at either belowsubsistence prices for the growers, or at expensive premiums for ‘ethical’ and ‘organic’ methods that put such produce beyond ready reach for much of the population they are trying to feed.
In considering the roles for which we cast animals in agricultural systems, we’re not just talking about what people eat, but what they wear as well — and this can also set off another round of visceral and emotive responses from all sides, since for many, our clothing is of no lesser importance to our personal identity construction than is the food we eat.
But it would be a mistake to assume that farmers are themselves not intimately connected with, and understanding of, the needs and wellbeing of the animals they tend. Indeed, their own livelihood and that of their families depends critically on remaining mindful of such at all times. I have worked with and heard from enough farmers to know that their care is not solely, or even chiefly, of a proprietorial or exploitative nature. For even life-long farmers are still affected emotionally when their flocks or herds suffer, for example when they have to attend to a difficult lambing, when disease strikes their flock, or when the ribs of their cattle are showing.
Those who live off the land are often the closest to it, and in this truth lies the prospect for an authentic and fruitful (honestly, no pun) engagement with the farming community over this issue; one that is so close to their livelihoods, their families and, yes, their hearts.
Greens NSW Sustainable Agriculture policy recognises, correctly in my view, that “animals are an integral part of farming systems”. This is an essential point, because even if we as a civilisation moved entirely towards vegan permaculture, we would still need to maintain a partnership with animals for soil maintenance, tilling, fertilisation, pollination, seed dispersal, pest and weed control. Without animals present in the farming landscape, as equal members of the ecosphere, we are doomed to an agricultural systems crash.
Thus emerges a picture where, under an ‘ethocratic’ approach, we could look towards the establishment of a partnership with animals, rather than the enslavement we currently practice. This is something that many farmers would recognise readily, as it conforms with the daily experience of their own practice in which they do hard labour in support of their animals’ feed and water needs, disease control, birthing and rearing.
A key change that could bring this about would be to devise a new category of laws that define rights for nonhuman animals. These would differ from current ‘animal rights’ statutes, all of which devolve from animals’ present legal status as property (e.g. livestock, pets, or even the ‘common estate’ of wildlife). Unlike our present laws, this approach recognises that animals are beings in and of themselves, imbued with birthrights of their own. This would form the necessary legal underpinning to the establishment of an ethically meaningful partnership between legallyrecognised sentient beings.
All this is why I intend to make animal rights in agriculture a key issue for the coming election, in which I will be campaigning against the Minister for Agriculture and now Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. I’ll be calling on the government to end the unspeakably cruel Live Export trade, while we in the Greens will to continue to develop a more comprehensive animal rights platform that conceptually unites our many single- issue campaigns relating to animals.
I believe this is an important and potentially inspirational issue to focus on for this rural seat, and I would encourage all other candidates across NSW to consider how they too can communicate specifically with their own electorates on these matters.
Democracy in ancient Athens began with a farmers’ revolt. So too, perhaps, could Ethocracy.