Sunday, November 1, 2009

Should the RSPCA campaign for veganism and abandon Freedom Food?

This was put to me as a serious question and I think it deserves a serious answer (as always, please remember that these are my personal views and no-one else is responsible).

Firstly, I believe there's a substantial moral issue about the desirability of trying to bring about a future in which no animals would live in association with humans. This would mean substantial disruption even for some wild species which have adapted to live in a landscape which has been modified by human activities (such as keeping grazing animals). Some domestic animals would become extinct; in some cases this might be better for them than continuing to be kept inhumanely but this wouldn't always be the case. Some would possibly survive as feral populations, bringing further questions about the justifiability or otherwise of human control of their numbers. Unless we reintroduced large carnivores, it's likely that populations of some wild animals such as deer would still need to be limited by human action. Members of some species would have significantly more uncomfortable lives if they had to live in a feral state.

Secondly, there's the practical question of whether an RSPCA campaign in favour of veganism might overall do more harm than good. My answer to this is that it might do good provided it remained one element of a range of activities that were generally acceptable to the broad mass of the animal-loving public. If anyone is doubtful about the possibility of doing harm, they should look at the reaction to Lord Stern's advocacy of vegetarianism as a means of reducing climate change.

On the whole ordinary animal lovers are quite sympathetic to other people who don't eat meat because they care about animals and they would probably be happy, or at least unconcerned by, a campaign to increase the number of vegans. In any case, reducing the total consumption of meat is almost certainly the only realistic way to make high-welfare systems viable; otherwise the pressure to for intensive farming will be irresistible.

Once campaigns get more radical than that, suspicion begins that the campaigners don't really care about animals but are "political". At worst, a substantial campaign in favour of veganism might be used to justify claims that RSPCA investigations of cruelty to animals are part of a plot to destroy animal farming.

There has already been a petition on the number ten website asking for a government enquiry into the policies of the RSPCA apparently with the intention of removing an alleged bias in favour of animal rights. In fact the government petitions site demonstrates exactly how oddly the RSPCA is viewed (by both friends and enemies) as no other charity attracts remotely similar numbers of demands for the government to do something about it. Topics include one asking the Prime Minister to tell the RSPCA to abandon the Freedom Food scheme (rejected on the grounds that this was nothing to do with the government.)

Thirdly, of course, there are legal limitations on the way the RSPCA can campaign. With the introduction of a more rigorous public benefit test for charities it is likely that more campaigns may be challenged in the future, particularly if they appear to have political aspects.

The main objections made to the Freedom Food initiative appear to be:
  • That it may make agriculture more acceptable to people who otherwise might demand that animal farming is ended altogether.
  • That it operates on the assumption that farmers basically want to do the right thing and need technical advice about the best ways to improve welfare instead of assuming that people will be cruel to animals unless they are carefully watched.
  • That it does no good because the only people willing to spend more on high-welfare products are those who would become vegans if they were only pushed hard enough.
  • That the RSPCA could stop all use of animals if it wanted to.
  • The objector in fact dislikes something else that the RSPCA does (e.g. campaigning for a ban on hare-coursing) and Freedom Food is just a convenient weapon.
But if it is assumed that most people can't be trusted to treat animals humanely it becomes difficult to explain how closing Freedom Food could be expected to produce a net increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans. In contrast, there is at least some evidence that people who are not prepared to become vegetarians are willing to pay more for higher welfare.

Freedom Food is by no means perfect, but anyone who believes it should be abolished needs to prove it would be preferable for welfare certification schemes to be controlled entirely by commercial interests. My own view is that it is better to have an imperfect scheme which is continually under pressure to improve.


  1. Dear Madam/Sir,
    I find it very concerning that the RSPCA would promote some form of reduction in the amount of meat (dairy, eggs, honey, wool, fur, silk) as morally justifiable. I would hazard a guess, that a lot of your donations come from meat eaters, a collection of people who currently see it as okay to love their dog, and stick a fork into a cow, I ask you - what is the moral difference?

    Adverts with celebrities are often aired, promoting Freedom Foods as some sort of salvation for animals, the clear message to someone being that the animal was covered by some welfare conditions, so it is morally okay to eat it. It rather bizarrely puts the RSPCA in a position of endorsing the use nonhuman animals.

    To only "reduce" animal exploitation, will do absolutely nothing to educate the general public that animal use is utterly deplorable, and only adds to the serious moral confusion abundant in our culture.

    Richard Frost

  2. Well said, Richard Frost - articles like this from the RSPCA (even if cloaked as just the opinion of one member) cannot help but confirm the abolitionist position that what must be tackled is any and all exploitation of other species - nothing else can be considered a coherent moral position. In endorsing confused nonsense such as this article, the RSPCA becomes a conscience-salver for omnivores and exploiters of every stripe. This is no way forward at all. Goodness knows, vegansim is not difficult!

  3. "Cloaked" is a bit unreasonable - I am just one member. If you want to take it up with HQ you need to twitter @rspca_official or email