Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Interview with Peter Singer
May 2006

KERRY O'BRIEN: Peter Singer was once described by the 'New Yorker' magazine as "the most influential philosopher alive". The 'Wall Street Journal', on the other hand, likened him to infamous Nazi Martin Bormann. The softly-spoken Melbourne academic ethicist first blazed the animal liberation trail more than 30 years ago and has since stirred controversy across a range of humanity's ethical conundrums like euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research. These days he spends nine months of the year as a Professor of Bioethics in the American Ivy League cloisters of Princeton University, and the other three months as a laureate professor at Melbourne Uni. His latest book - published in Australia this week - reviews the ethics of the way we eat, and paints a horrific picture of what he calls factory farming of livestock in the developed world, though he says there's a bright side. Peter Singer will appear at the Sydney Writers' Festival later this week, but he was in Melbourne when I spoke with him today. Peter Singer, it's more than 30 years since you first became involved in animal liberation. What since then, has changed for the better?

PROFESSOR PETER SINGER, ETHICIST: Well, one thing that's changed for the better is people are much more aware of the issues and of thinking about where their food comes from, for example. There's a big interest in that now. And so people know more about the fact that a lot of the animal products they eat come from factory farms and they've started to become more concerned about that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now when you say "people know more", some people have absorbed it. Is it wrong to suggest that the bulk of people are still largely ignorant of that or alternatively, have found it all too hard?

PROFESSOR PETER SINGER: Well, I think that there has been response in Europe, in particular. The European Union is now phasing out a whole lot of methods of factory farming which we still use and which we haven't started phasing out. But by 2012, a lot of things will be illegal in Europe that we still do.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Give me a "for instance"?

PROFESSOR PETER SINGER: Well, for instance, it will be illegal to have hens in the kind of cages that we have. Bare wire cages, which is perfectly standard here. In the European Union, they will have to have nesting boxes, they will have to have somewhere to scratch. They'll have to have a lot more space in their cages. The pigs, too, the sows will have to have room to walk around, to turn around, which they can't do in the standard Australian sow stalls. So, you know, these are quite significant differences that are transforming European farming and we're just lagging a little bit behind, unfortunately.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm looking for some of the examples in your book where people have sought to be different in the way they sell food and the kind of food they buy. What about the Chipotle fast food chain?

PROFESSOR PETER SINGER: Well, Chipotle's interesting, because you don't associate fast food with any standards of animal welfare. And it was started by a guy called Steve Ells in Colorado who was interested in where his meat came from and he was actually shocked to discover what factory farming was like, particularly for pigs. He was selling burritos and a lot of these things with pork products in them. And so he went and looked at them and said, "We've got to stop this. "We've got to get different suppliers of pork." So he went to a guy called Bill Niman, who was running some more traditional pig farms where the pigs were outside and asked him to supply it. And that produced a big demand because Chipotle has also expanded into a national chain now and they actually tell the story. They tell the customers the story of where the food comes from, whereas the typical fast food chain does exactly the reverse - it tries to hide where it comes from. And he's been highly successful and he's been responsible for, I think, hundreds of new small farmers being able to rear their animals in a traditional way so they get to walk around outside and live a more natural life.

full story: