Terms such as carnivore and predation are well established in zoology and ecology as they relate to animals eating other animals. The study of predator-prey interactions has a long and deep-rooted lineage within zoology and forms some of the core principles within many ecological studies. When humans are the predator, however, the language used can change and many important and controversial social and political questions are brought to the fore.
The practice of eating animals – from cows, fish and chickens to crocodiles and insects – is unavoidably bound up with issues of science, sustainability and politics. The production of the meats with which many of us are most familiar, beef, pork, chicken and lamb, is in many parts of the world shifting from farms and butchers shops, to factories and supermarkets. At the same time, fishing practices, from the recreational to factory ships and aquaculture, present us with a range of continuing and emerging challenges. Considering the vast biodiversity of invertebrates, it is surprising that only a few groups are commonly farmed or eaten in the ‘west’: crustaceans (prawns) and molluscs (mussels, scallops, abalone and oysters) foremost among them. Of course, many other cultures have long established practices of, for example, eating insects – and a growing number of environmental groups, like “Little Herds” in the USA, are calling for the expansion of this practice. One could also go through the supermarket and list all the animal food products, such as honey, eggs, milk, and cheese.
The consumption of each of these animal foods raises a range of questions in the broad areas of ecology, ethics, food security, sustainability, legal constraints and options, and more. The food systems that we eat within are intimately connected to processes of habitat loss and the management of remnant native vegetation, as well as the consumption of incredible quantities of fossil fuels in the production, packaging and transportation of food. Today, hunting and fishing are often similarly complex, raising intractable issues around social justice and access to land, as well as the ethics and efficacy of various approaches to ‘pest’ and threatened species management. Nothing is simple when animals are on the table.
Political concerns cover many areas of zoology, but this forum will hold its focus on the politics of eating animals. Zoologists can contribute to this critical debate about what we eat. There is also often a divide between some humanities scholars and those in the sciences on this issue and, in part, this forum aims to exchange points of view to explore the intellectual backgrounds that lie behind some of the positions and to look for common ground.
We do expect a day of strongly held views, and that debates will be robust, not personal, and that ideas will be centre stage. Audience participation is central to the way RZS forums are conducted, and the voices from the floor are recorded and become part of the publication to follow, which will be in Australian Zoologist. Do come to the forum and join the discussion.
Martin Predavec, Dan Lunney, Thom van Dooren
Photo by Paul Esson, “Bowen Cattle”