The foie gras and fur ban was never really about animal suffering

20 February 2022

12:43 AM

20 February 2022

12:43 AM

Well, too bad Carrie and Zac. It looks like the government is going to drop its commitment to banning imports of foie gras and fur.

A combination of Jacob Rees-Mogg objecting to the foie gras ban on the grounds of consumer choice and Ben Wallace, Defence Minister, agitating for the Guards to continue to have their bearskin hats, seems to have seen that off.

Issues such as these are interesting in that they combine otherwise incompatible groups and individuals in opposition. In Tory terms, the kind of people who campaign about foie gras and fur tend to be posh Tories – it was no accident that Zac Goldsmith first promised the ban – who regard animal welfare issues as part of their stewardship of the environment, which in turn derives from land ownership.

It’s a benign form of paternalism, extended to brute creation. It’s also the kind of social activism that often calls for a bit of background abroad, the way that Prince William’s vigorous campaigning against the ivory trade is a product of his family’s association with Africa, on account of the Empire.

That extends, incidentally, to a preposterous ban on antique ivory, which was formerly regarded as just one artistic medium alongside any other: the V&A is full of exquisite medieval ivory pieces; so is nearly every old piano.

The other element of the coalition against foie gras and fur are of course the Peta-style animal rights activists, who are incapable of distinguishing between any kind of activity that relates to human use of animal products and who will use the worst abuses of animal husbandry to discredit the lot. They tend to be viscerally anti-human as well as pro-animal – ‘it takes 40 dumb animals to make a fur coat, but only one to wear it’, as the Greenpeace advert went.

What both groups unite on is an unwillingness to distinguish between different kinds of animal exploitation and animal husbandry.

Fur farming or trapping animals for fur is a fraught matter, but the Guards’ bearskins come from controlled culling in Canada, not from shooting Winnie the Pooh for the fun of it. And that, I’d say, is a perfectly ethical thing to do, like culling deer.

On foie gras, there is obviously any amount of animal cruelty involved in many farms that produce it but it is not necessarily true of all of them.

Ducks and geese do not have a gagging mechanism and their respiratory system is different from ours, which means they don’t gag or suffocate when a feeding tube is put in their throat.

It takes a bit of digging, but there are farms which treat their geese and ducks humanely; their foie gras is more expensive, and more delicious than the equivalent of factory farming for livers. See this example from the US on why foie gras is not necessarily unethical or this from Spain.

And on small family farms in France where a small flock is scrutinised by a single farmer there is every incentive to monitor the birds closely; the legendary Pierre Koffmann’s memoir of his grandparents’ and uncle’s farm, Memories of Gascony, gives an account of such a system.

Buying foie gras of this quality needs money and care; it’s not, however, impossible. So, it should be permitted. And paceJacob Reese-Mogg, it is possible for consumers to compromise and eat foie royale, a duck or goose liver product which does not involve gavage or force feeding, which you can buy in Waitrose.

But in both cases, a great deal of moral energy is expended on issues that are marginal to most cases of animal cruelty when it comes to food production, which take place in producing some of the produce we all eat and drink: pork, beef and milk.

It’s in the intensive or factory farming of sentient creatures that most of us eat where the real scandals lie. But remedying that requires spending more money on what we buy – ethical meat is dearer than intensively farmed stuff – and doing a bit of investigation when it comes to provenance.

If you’re interested in doing that research, let me offer some reflections for this magazine which I did earlier. On meat, there are good suppliers mentioned here and milk here.

Doing this research is less glamorous and less showy than sounding off about foie gras and fur which few of us, with or without an import ban, will ever be eating or wearing, but far more important in terms of diminishing animal suffering.

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