Tuesday, May 22, 2012

If we lose our foods we lose who we are

I was born in the late 50'ies in the Faroe Islands. At that time we pretty much had a subsistence way of life in this remote place on earth with a hostile climate and an environment that humans could never hope to survive in without eating animals. 

In winter, our region is stormy and dark for months on end, and the summer is very short. There are no trees outside sheltered areas in towns and villages and just a few edible plants. And yet, somehow we, the Faroese people, have survived here for more than a thousand years, relying on an intimate knowledge and understanding of our environment for our survival, constantly walking a tightrope between life and death.

In my childhood the Faroese still harvested most of our own food, integrating healthy, wild edibles into our diet. Most of our food supply was right outside our front door, and we used time-tested methods for living off the land and the sea. Our people were unencumbered, only depending on nature’s resources and the skill in our hands. Sudden food cost increases or empty grocery shelves caused by turmoil on the international market were not our biggest concerns. The only uncertainties were the whims of nature.

I remember the foods of my childhood. We ate mostly fish, some sheep meat and quite a lot of whale meat and blubber, served with homegrown potatoes. And afterwards we would have porridge made from homegrown rhubarbs, for instance. Our storage of dry and salted food and our new freezer were filled with fish, sheep meat and whale meat and blubber, my family had provided directly from natures larder. Our dairy products were from local farmers. But the grains, flours and sugar we used for baking bread and cakes were imported. And we only eat vegetables and fruits, if we could afford it. They were very expensive, because they came from far away, so they were luxury foods, we could not have everyday.

Times they are a'changing 
But things changed. Our fishing became industrialized. We got money on our hands. And suddenly we were able to import exotic foods from countries far away, like oranges and bananas. When I was a teenager in the 70'ies, we probably already eat fifty-fifty, half traditional Faroese food, half regular European food. Today the division is more like eighty-twenty, at least for people living in the bigger towns, while people in smaller and less affluent villages still try to reduce food costs by holding on to the old traditional diet.

No one, not even indigenous residents of the northernmost arctic villages on Earth, eats an entirely traditional northern diet anymore. Not even the Eskimos—which include the Inupiat and the Yupiks of Alaska, the Canadian Inuit and Inuvialuit, Inuit Greenlanders, and the Siberian Yupiks––or the Sami people in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. They have probably seen more changes in their diet in a lifetime than their ancestors did over thousands of years.(1)

But it's very doubtful whether the modern foods replacing the traditional foods, are any better or healthier. The opposite is more likely. The closer people live to towns and the more access they have to stores and cash-paying jobs, the more likely they are to have westernized their eating. And with westernization comes processed foods and cheap carbohydrates—soda, cookies, chips, pizza, fries and the like. The young and urbanized are increasingly into fast food. So much so that type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other diseases of Western civilization are becoming causes for great concern in our country too.

An inadequate diet? 
Up until the 60'ies the Faroese people mostly subsisted on what they hunted and fished. We were island people exploiting the sea and the little land we had in a sustainable way. The main nutritional challenge was avoiding starvation in late winter if primary meat sources became too scarce or lean. But how did people get along eating so much meat and so few vegetables and fruit? How could such a diet possibly be adequate? This diet hardly makes up the “balanced” diet most other people elsewhere have grown up with. It looks nothing like the mix of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy as seen in conventional food pyramid diagrams.

Still, Faroese people have been quite healthy––healthier than they are today now that modern foods have replaced much of their traditional food. Now, when almost everyone in western societies is on some kind of a fancy diet and nobody seems sure of what to eat to stay healthy, it’s surprising to learn how well northern people like the Faroese did on a high-protein, high-fat diet, even though this diet had little in the way of plant food, not many agricultural products and a few dairy products, and it was also relatively low in carbohydrates.

Well, it seems that there are no essential foods—only essential nutrients. (2) And humans can get those nutrients from diverse sources. One might, for instance, imagine gross vitamin deficiencies arising from a diet very scarce on fresh fruits and vegetables. People in southern climes derive much of their Vitamin A from colorful plant foods, constructing it from pigmented plant precursors called carotenoids (as in carrots). But vitamin A, which is oil soluble, is also plentiful in the oils of cold-water fishes and sea mammals, as well as in the animals’ livers, where fat is processed.

These dietary staples also provide vitamin D, another oil-soluble vitamin needed for bones. Those living in temperate and tropical climates, on the other hand, usually make vitamin D indirectly by exposing skin to strong sun—hardly an option in the long and dark winters in the north.

How to overcome vitamin deficiensies 
As for vitamin C, the source in northern peoples' diet was long a mystery. Most animals can synthesize their own vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, in their livers, but humans are among the exceptions, along with other primates like guinea pigs and bats. If we don’t ingest enough of it, we fall apart from scurvy, a gruesome connective-tissue disease.

In southern climes the people can get ample supplies from orange juice, citrus fruits, and fresh vegetables. But vitamin C oxidizes with time. Getting enough from a ship’s provisions was tricky for people living far away out in the ocean, like the Faroese, or in other not easily accessible northern regions. Scurvy—joint pain, rotting gums, leaky blood vessels, physical and mental degeneration—are known to have plagued European and U.S. expeditions in the arctic area even in the 20th century. However, natives in these arctic and subarctic areas living on fresh fish and meat were free of the disease.

If you have some fresh meat in your diet every day and don’t overcook it, there will be enough vitamin C from that source alone to prevent scurvy. In fact, all it takes to ward off scurvy is a daily dose of 10 milligrams (3). Native foods, like in the Faroes for instance, easily supply those 10 milligrams of scurvy prevention, especially when organ meats are on the menu. As you might guess from its antiscorbutic role, vitamin C is crucial for the synthesis of connective tissue, including the matrix of skin. Wherever collagen’s made, you can expect vitamin C (1). Traditional Faroese practices like freezing or drying meat and fish and frequently eating them raw, conserve vitamin C, which is easily cooked off and lost in food processing, so eating dry fish, sheep or whale meat and blubber is as good as drinking orange juice.

Hunter-gatherer diets like those of the Faroese and other northern groups, as well as other traditional diets based on nomadic herding or subsistence farming are among the older approaches to human eating. Some of these eating plans might seem strange to others—diets centered around milk, meat, and blood among the East African pastoralists, enthusiastic tuber eating by the Quechua living in the High Andes, the staple use of the mongongo nut in the southern African !Kung—but all proved resourceful adaptations to particular eco-niches.

Fat is very important 
No people, though, may have been forced to push the nutritional envelope further than those living at Earth’s frozen extremes. In general, hunter-gatherers tend to eat more animal protein than people do in their standard Western diet, with its reliance on agriculture and carbohydrates derived from grains and starchy plants. Lowest of all in carbohydrate, and highest in combined fat and protein, are the diets of peoples living in the Far North, where they make up for fewer plant foods with extra fish.

The simplest, fastest way to make energy is to convert carbohydrates into glucose, our body’s primary fuel. But if the body is out of carbs, it can burn fat, or if necessary, break down protein. Arctic and subarctic people had plenty of protein but little carbohydrate, so they often relied on fat. Protein can’t be the sole source of energy for humans. (4) Anyone eating a meaty diet that is low in carbohydrates must have fat as well, or else they will weaken over time and eventually die even though they have lots of food, high in protein, but low in carbohydrates and fat.

No discussion about diet these days can avoid the "Atkins diet". You can say that the northern way of eating is the “original Atkins". Just like the diet in the arctic-subarctic area, Atkins is low in carbohydrates and very high in fat. But numerous researchers point out that there are profound differences, though, between the two diets, beginning with the type of meat and fat eaten.

Healthy and unhealthy fats 
Fats have been demonized in modern western cultures. But all fats are not created equal. (5) This lies at the heart of a paradox. In the northern areas, people on a traditional fatty diet don’t die of heart attacks at nearly the same rates as other people in Europe or America. The cardiac death rate is about half as high in the arctic region as it is in the US or in most northern European countries. So what causes that reduced risk? It is intriguing because the arctic-subarctic diet is nothing like the famously heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, with its cornucopia of vegetables, fruits, grains, herbs, spices, olive oil, and red wine.

A key difference is that more than 50 percent of the calories in native foods in the arctic-subarctic areas come from fats. Much more important, the fats come from wild animals or domestic animals living in the wild all year round. Wild-animal fats are different from both farm-animal fats and processed fats. Farm animals, cooped up and stuffed with agricultural grains (carbohydrates) typically have lots of solid, highly saturated fat. Much of the processed food is also riddled with solid fats, or so-called trans fats, such as the reengineered vegetable oils and shortenings cached in baked goods and snacks. A lot of the packaged food on supermarket shelves contains them. So do commercial french fries. (5)

Trans fats are polyunsaturated vegetable oils tricked up to make them more solid at room temperature. Manufacturers do this by hydrogenating the oils—adding extra hydrogen atoms to their molecular structures—which “twists” their shapes. These man-made fats are dangerous, even worse for the heart than saturated fats. They not only lower high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, the “good” cholesterol) but they also raise low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides. In the process, trans fats set the stage for heart attacks because they lead to the increase of fatty buildup in artery walls.

Wild animals provide healthier fats 
Wild animals and / or animals that range freely and eat what nature intended have fat that is far more healthful. Less of their fat is saturated, and more of it is in the monounsaturated form (like olive oil). What’s more, cold-water fishes and sea mammals are particularly rich in polyunsaturated fats called n-3 fatty acids or omega-3 fatty acids. These fats appear to benefit the heart and vascular system. But the polyunsaturated fats in most Europeans and Americans’ diets are the omega-6 fatty acids supplied by vegetable oils. By contrast, whale blubber consists of 70 percent monounsaturated fat and close to 30 percent omega-3s. (5)

Omega-3s evidently help raise HDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides, and are known for anticlotting effects. These fatty acids are believed to protect the heart from life-threatening arrhythmias that can lead to sudden cardiac death. And like a “natural aspirin", omega-3 polyunsaturated fats help put a damper on runaway inflammatory processes, which play a part in atherosclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, and other so-called diseases of civilization.

Needless to say, the subsistence diets of the north are not “dieting.” Dieting is the price people pay for too little exercise and too much mass-produced food. Northern diets were a way of life in places too cold for agriculture, where food, whether hunted, fished, or foraged, could not be taken for granted. They were about keeping weight on.

This is not to say that the Faroese or other people in the north were fat: Subsistence living requires exercise—hard physical work. Indeed, among the good reasons for native people to maintain their old way of eating, as far as it’s possible today, is that it provides a hedge against obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

The real threats to the food chain 
Unfortunately, no place on Earth has escaped the spreading taint of growth and development. The very well-being of the northern food chain is under threat from global warming, land development, and industrial pollutants in the marine environment.

Global warming we don’t seem to have control over. But we could reduce the amount of plastics and other pollutants, we release into nature, and we could, for example, do cleanups of communication cables leaching lead into fish-spawning areas. And we can help communities make informed choices. A young woman of childbearing age may choose not to eat certain foods that concentrate contaminants. As individuals, we do have options. And eating our fish, our sheep and our whale meat and blubber might still be a much better option than pulling something processed that’s full of additives off a store shelf.

Kinship with our food sources
How often do you hear someone living in an industrial society speak familiarly about “our” food animals? How often do people talk of “our pigs” and “our beef.” Most people in the modern world are taught to think in boxes and have lost that sense of kinship with food sources. But in the Faroese hunting and farming village culture the connectivity between humans, animals, plants, the land we live on, and the air we share has not been lost––not yet, at least. It is still ingrained in most Faroese from birth.

Many of our young people and people in bigger towns are quite influenced by western urbanized culture and food habits. They are slowly getting alienated to our old traditions. However, it is still not possible, really, to separate the way many of us still get our food from the way we live in this society as a whole. How we get our traditional food is intrinsic to our culture. It’s how we pass on our values and knowledge to the young. When you go out with your father, mother, aunts and uncles to fish in the sea, to heard the sheep, to gather plants, to hunt birds and other animals or catch whales, you learn to smell the air, watch the wind, understand the way the currents move and know the land. You get to know where to pick which plants and what animals to take.

This way of life has been an integrated part of our culture for so long, and it still is to a degree, especially in the smaller villages, where people share their food with the community. They show respect to their elders and the weak in the society by offering them part of the catch. They give thanks to the animals that gave up their life for their sustenance. They get all the physical activity of harvesting their own food, all the social activity of sharing and preparing it, and all the spiritual aspects as well. You certainly don’t get all that when you buy prepackaged food from a store.

That is why some of us here in the Faroe Islands––and people in the Far North as a whole––are working hard to protect what is left of our old way of life, so that our people can continue to live and work in our remote villages, as independently as possible from polluting transport systems and a fraud-ful modern economic infrastructure. Because if we don’t take care of our food, it won’t be there for us in the future. And if we lose our foods, we lose who we are.

This blog post is inspired by the statements of Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat from Northwestern Alaska directing the Alaska Native Science Commission, in an article written by Patricia Gadsby for Discover magazine, October 2004, about "The Inuit Paradox: How can people who gorge on fat and rarely see a vegetable be healthier than we are?" (http://discovermagazine.com/2004/oct/inuit-paradox/article_view?b_start:int=0&-C=). 

The scientific facts referred to in this post are based on quotes from the same article from the experts below: 
  1. Harriet Kuhnlein, director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Montreal 
  2. Harold Draper, a biochemist and expert in Eskimo nutrition 
  3. Karen Fediuk, a consulting dietitian and former graduate student of Harriet Kuhnlein’s who did her master’s thesis on vitamin C (http://members.shaw.ca/karen.fediuk/VitaminCintheInuitdiet.pdf
  4. Loren Cordain, a professor of evolutionary nutrition at Colorado State University at Fort Collins 
  5. Eric Dewailly, a professor of preventive medicine at Laval University in Quebec

Monday, May 7, 2012

Why most arguments against pilot whaling fail

People who are against pilot whaling in the Faroe Islands often refer to the following 12 reasons for why pilot whaling should stop. Here is why 10 of them fail to have an impact on the Faroese and why 2 do have an impact, since they are – partially – right. 

1. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because the pilot whales are endangered. 

The pilot whale is one of the most common whale species in the oceans all over the world, especially the long finned pilot whale. Pilot whales are not endangered according to the authorities in this matter. The NAMMCO (North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission) is the real authority on all matters regarding the North Atlantic pilot whale. The NAMMCO base their estimation on sightings – and they estimate that the number of long finned pilot whales in the North- and East Atlantic is 780.000, and that’s excluding the West Atlantic, so the number might be, even significantly higher. The ACS (American Cetacean Society) agrees with those numbers and the IUCN also agrees that the pilot whale hunt is, as they say: ‘probably sustainable’. The IWC doesn’t consider itself an authority on small cetaceans, of which the long finned pilot whale is one. So the pilot whale is not on the list of endangered animal species. The Sea Shepherd organization stands alone in its claims that the long finned pilot whale is endangered.

The Faroese have killed pilot whales for at least 1.200 years, so the pilot whales should probably have been extinct by now, if the pilot whaling in the Faroes was a threat to the population as a whole. Since 1584 (that is how long it’s been carefully monitored) the Faroese have killed 850 pilot whales (in later years around 800) on average a year, so that’s a tenth of a percent (0.1%) of the pilot whale population only in the North Atlantic, which is very far from exceeding the pilot whales' reproduction rate at around 2%. There is nothing to indicate that the pilot whale population is in decline. As long as the pilot whale is not endangered, this is not a rational argument. So this is a failed argument.

2. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because the pilot whale slaughter is cruel. 

Most images and videos of pilot whale slaughter on the internet are outdated. It doesn’t happen like that any more. The whales are not being stabbed and hacked to death with spears and hooks. Killing methods have improved a lot, especially since the 1980s. Spears are forbidden, and hooks are now rounded and put into the blowholes of the whales to drag them into a better position for a quick kill. New methods have been developed which have decreased the time to death of each whale to 2-4 seconds. The pilot whale slaughters were without a doubt more violent than necessary years ago, but it’s different today. Besides, it is not possible to hunt and kill wild animals in any ‘pretty’ or non-bloody way. No hunting is pretty and bloodless.

People often claim that comparison to other kinds of animal slaughters is not relevant – it is like comparing oranges and apples, they say. But if you accept all animals as equals when it comes to the right not to be killed in a cruel way – and if there is no reason to believe that pilot whale slaughter, as it is conducted today, is crueler than other accepted ways of slaughtering animals, it IS relevant. Because if the slaughter of pilot whales still is labelled ‘cruel’, then many forms of accepted animal slaughter must also be labelled as ‘cruel’. You can’t demand a ban of the slaughter of pilot whales on these grounds, and then NOT demand a ban of other kinds of animal hunting and slaughter just as ‘cruel’.

Furthermore, it wouldn’t be feasible to ban all animal slaughter and therefore, this is not a rational argument. The banning of all hunting of wild animals would also have incalculable consequences for all the indigenous people in this world, who base their livelihoods on hunting. So this is a failed argument.

 3. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because the slaughter is bloody and gory. 

The killing of animals is bloody. It might look ghastly when the sea turns red during a pilot whale slaughter, but basically it doesn’t make this kind of slaughter much different or worse than the common slaughter of captive animals in slaughter houses. All animals bleed and are emptied of blood when they’re slaughtered. The difference is that slaughter houses have drains that go into underground sewers, but you can’t kill pilot whales in a slaughter house. It must be done in the shallows by a beach, which makes this slaughter seem much bloodier or ‘graphic’ than other kinds of slaughters. Pilot whales are also big animals, so of course there is a lot of blood.

Furthermore, since marine mammals can dive for long periods at a time, there is a lot of oxygen in their blood, which means that their blood is more intensely red than blood in mammals on land. This also contributes to the coloring of the sea. Blood also spreads quickly in water. Just try to put one drop of blood in a glass of water and watch what happens.

It’s not a rational argument to say, the Faroese have to stop killing whales because it is too bloody. This is irrational and a failed argument too.

4. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because such a tradition doesn’t belong to the 21st century. They shouldn’t do this just because it is a tradition. 

People in the Faroe Islands don’t kill pilot whales because it is a tradition. They do it for food, as they’ve always done. But opponents call this practice of getting food ‘a tradition’, because this way of living off of the natural resources of the ocean has been common on these islands for more than 1,200 years. Pilot whale meat and blubber is so common and natural for the Faroese to eat that to them this food is no different than beef or bacon is to people in other countries, where they have a tradition for eating cattle or pig meat. It’s just that you can’t breed pilot whales in the same manner as you can breed cattle or pigs. But why would you want to do that, if there is an abundance of pilot whales around the islands living free their whole life? Why would the Faroese deprive the whales of that privilege and somehow cage them or put them in ocean feed lots?

Who’s to decide what belongs to the 21st century or not? Or which traditions are worth keeping for the Faroese or not? It is definitely not for people outside the Faroe Islands to decide. The right word for this is ethnocentrism. That is: judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one’s own culture. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion. Ethnocentrism is not rational, so again a failed argument.

5. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because it’s appalling that the Faroese people are so insensitive to these poor animals. 

This is a purely emotional, judgmental and also an irrational argument, which also belongs to the category: Ethnocentrism. The Faroese people are not more ‘insensitive’ to animals than other people. If the Faroese are to be labelled ‘insensitive’, every meat-eater in the world must be labelled just as insensitive to the animal he or she eats.

People outside the Faroe Islands tend to forget that they also have ‘insensitive’ butchers in the livestock industry in their own country, whom they do not question in the same way. If you do not question the butchers’ ‘insensitive behavior’ in your own country just as much, this is not a valid argument. It’s not only a failed argument, it is also hypocritical.

6. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because it is not necessary for them to kill pilot whales. They have plenty of other foods they can eat. 

It is not up to others to decide, what is necessary for the Faroese and what is not. This is – again: ethnocentrism and shows a lack of understanding or knowledge of the circumstances in the Faroe Islands.

It is also logically inconsistent. With this logic one could just as well claim that it is not ‘necessary’ to breed cattle or pigs for food. Live stock industry depletes and pollutes the earth to a great extent, and the utilization rate of available land for pasture for the breeding of cattle or pigs, for instance, is much lower compared to the utilization rate by growing vegetables directly for human consumption on the same area. But people still feel they have ‘the right’ to have meat for dinner, even if that – from a rational, holistic perspective – is not beneficial nor very sensible, because it means that there is much less food available for the human population as a whole. Therefore, one could just as well say, it is ‘unnecessary’ or even irrational to eat meat from livestock animals in a world on a fast track towards overpopulation.

The fact that the Faroese have access – and the economical opportunity (to a degree) at the moment – to buy (very expensive) imported foods, is not a valid argument against the Faroese utilizing locally available resources. Unlike people living in warmer climates with lots of flatland and space they can use for breeding and feeding livestock, the Faroe Islands is a very limited, quite mountainous area in the middle of the ocean in one of the stormiest areas in the world with almost no flatland or fertile soil, where you only can grow grass for the sheep to eat, a few potatoes and some rhubarb, as well as farm some salmon in the fjords. It’s still not enough food for the inhabitants, though. Summer season is also very short. (We’re in the beginning of May right now and it has been snowing for a couple of days).

Regardless, it’s still not for others to decide, what the Faroese need or don’t need. So a failed argument again.

7. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because the whales are intelligent.

Measuring intelligence is highly complex, and scientists do not agree on how to precisely measure intelligence, even when it comes to people.

Sea Shepherd founder Capt. Watson claims that it is a sign of highly developed intelligence that the whales have figured out how to live in harmony with nature, unlike us humans, so therefore they are more intelligent than people. Okay, if that is his logic, he could just as well claim a squirrel is more intelligent than humans. A squirrel also lives in harmony with nature, and nobody would say that a squirrel is more intelligent than a human being for that reason. Capt. Watson is just being manipulative.

There is no doubt that bottle-nosed dolphins are some of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom. Dolphins are good at learning tricks, especially in captivity – also pilot whales to a degree. Dolphins are proven more intelligent than most other animals, but they are still very far from being as intelligent as people. And not all whales rank that high. The pilot whale is in the dolphin family, but pilot whales are not the most intelligent of the dolphins. Pilot whales are not especially intelligent in comparison to many other mammals either. Other animal species that humans kill for food are also proven highly ‘intelligent’. So this argument is inconsistent, if those who claim it is wrong to kill pilot whales because of their intelligence do not also oppose the killing of other intelligent animals for food.

Whether humans should refrain from killing “intelligent” animals or not is a matter of opinion. And there is no rational reason for claiming that one opinion is morally more right than the other. So again a failed argument. (See also under 9. here below).

8. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because the whales are sentient and sociable.

Yes, pilot whales are sentient and sociable, that is true. And so are all other animals too, more or less. Animals, most people in the world eat – like cows and pigs, even chickens – are also sentient and sociable. So you can’t on the one hand say that the Faroese shouldn’t kill whales on these grounds, and at the same time accept the killing of other sentient and sociable animals.

If you are against the killing of animals because they are sentient and sociable, you are inconsistent if you don’t include all animals in the equation – that is: you must also oppose the killing of cattle, pigs and chickens, yes, any animal in fact. That is unrealistic. So… failed argument.

9. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because they kill entire pods. Whales have strong ties to their group and killing entire pods is the same as wiping out a whole culture. 

If that is so, then it would have been even more cruel to kill half of the pod and let the other half go free. The whales have strong ties to their group, yes, but to claim that the whales have a culture – and by killing an entire pod, you wipe out a whole culture – is quite far-fetched, and just another one of Capt. Watson’s manipulative claims, manufactured to affect people emotionally who have a tendency to romanticize these “gentle giants” – as if they are some kind of ‘human beings of the sea’. But this is belief – not a fact.

There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that pilot whales develop any kind of advanced cultures like human beings. They are sociable animals and they communicate with each other, yes, and they might act friendly to people, but so do dogs and pigs for the most part as well. On these grounds you could just as well say these animals have some kind of ‘culture’ too. It doesn’t make the whale any more special than dogs or pigs, for instance, or many other animals.

Whales are wild animals and there are examples of whales attacking people unprovoked, also pilot whales, even though they mostly let humans in peace, probably because humans are not interesting as prey for them. Whales are carnivores. They kill and eat other animal species. In other words, they are nothing special. They are not good, they are not bad. They are just animals, even though they might be fascinating in some ways, because they’re so big and relatively intelligent too – as far as animals are concerned.

Some people, who feel saddened by the alarming development in our ailing world as a whole, just seem to have a strong need for turning the whales into something special: A symbol of something more innocent and more pure than us humans. These people seem to project their hopes for a better world into these animals and thus, they elevate them into something they’re not. Consequently, everyone who kills these animals must therefore ‘commit an evil act’ destroying the best things in this world, and therefore should be strongly opposed. This is romantic, but not rational. So this is also a failed argument.

10. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because, despite of what the Faroese claim, the whaling is commercial. There is evidence that shows that you can buy whale meat in supermarkets and in restaurants. 

It is true that one sometimes can buy pilot whale meat and blubber in a supermarket or in a restaurant – in small amounts, but this is not evidence that the pilot whaling is done for commercial purposes. It’s not – and it won’t be in the future either. The pilot whale catch is distributed for free among those assisting in catching the whales and the local village communities in the area, as well as to hospitals, elderly homes and orphanages in the nearby areas.

Sometimes, in small villages with not many inhabitants, there might be a surplus which might end up on the shelfs in a supermarket or in a restaurant in Tórshavn, the capital, but this could never become big business, because – as already stated – the vast majority of the people who want whale meat and blubber can get it for free, so there is no reason for them to go into the supermarket and buy it.

A few restaurants and hotels offer pilot whale meat and blubber to tourists during the summer season, because, of course, there are tourists curious enough to taste the Faroese national dish, but this is done on a very small scale, and could never become a big business. So again, pilot whaling is not done for commercial purposes. It doesn’t and wouldn’t pay in any way. So this argument fails.

11. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because this tradition damages the image of their country in the outside world. 

This is partially right. At least it might very well hurt the image some people have of the Faroe Islands and the Faroese people (if they have any image of the islands and their people, that is). It depends, though, on their worldview – and especially their view on whales. It seems that many people, who consider whales to be very special creatures, find it very disturbing and even ‘sick’ that the Faroese kill pilot whales. Based on the thousands of protesting letters the Faroese authorities receive every year, it is obvious that the majority of the protesters are city-dwellers and/or children – not people living directly in nature and off of nature’s larder.

The fact is that the Faroese also get significant support from many people around the world, mainly people who live in parts of the world where they also hunt animals for food. These people have a worldview similar to the Faroese and understand the circumstances in the Faroe Islands. It is also a fact that tourists visiting the islands are curious to taste pilot whale meat and blubber, which is why it is offered usually as a starter on the menu in the summer season in a few restaurants in the Faroe Islands. It wouldn’t seem that these tourists are opposed to pilot whaling.

Though the anti-whaling activists would want everyone to believe that “the whole world” is against pilot whaling in the Faroe Islands, there is reason to believe that the majority is quite indifferent and hasn’t taken a stand on this question. Anti-whaling activists have for many years endorsed that the Faroe Islands should be boycotted by the international community as long as they kill pilot whales. But they have never succeeded in getting any real support for these efforts.

It seems that the series “Whale Wars – Viking Shores” aired in the USA for the time being, which deals with the Sea Shepherd Organization’s interference with the pilot whaling in the Faroe Islands, has divided the viewers. It’s likely that many take the anti-whaling activists side, but judging from all the comments, for instance, on YouTube and Facebook, it seems that just as many take the Faroese side. Among other things the series has revealed natures stunning beauty in the Faroe Islands, and also that the Faroese have a very strong culture. Many of the commentators declare that now that they have had an impression of how it is in the Faroe Islands, these beautiful islands have become one of those places they feel they must visit at least once before they die. So after all, this series might turn out to be an effective advertisement for the Faroe Islands for a lot of people around the world, who never knew this place existed before they saw the series.

12. The Faroese should stop killing pilot whales because pilot whale meat and blubber are contaminated and it is dangerous for the Faroese people’s health to eat it. 

Of all the allegations mentioned above, only this last one is truly a valid point seen from a rational point of view, even though the health dangers are kind of exaggerated. But it does not change the fact that it is still up to the Faroese to decide for themselves, whether they want to eat contaminated food or not.

The Faroese will likely stop the pilot whaling gradually over the coming years, because pilot whale meat and blubber does contain mercury/methyl mercury at levels considered too high. Pilot whales also contain other toxins coming from man-made pollution, like PCB and DTD. And there are indications that exposure to some of these contaminants may affect human fetuses and their development. This fact is absolutely relevant and the majority of the Faroese people recognize this. But the anti-whaling activists often exaggerate the effects of this contamination, which are more subtle than they let people believe. There has, for instance, not been one single reported fatality due to eating pilot whale meat and blubber, not ever.

As was first demonstrated with lead, and then with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and methyl mercury, exposures in early life to neurotoxic chemicals can interfere with brain development and produce long-lasting detrimental effects on cognition and behavior. A new generation of chemicals termed endocrine disruptors – among them phthalates, bisphenol A, and certain pesticides – which can alter the availability and actions of endogenous hormones, is suspected of being capable of interfering with early brain development. It is hypothesized that certain chemical exposures in early life, perhaps acting in concert with genetic and social factors, may impact the prevalence of developmental disabilities across the population, and account in part for the apparent population-wide increases in neurodevelopmental abnormalities observed over recent years.

As stated, these are indications – not finally proven conclusions, but it is, of course, still very important to study this further, and take precautions.

The long-term intakes of total mercury, methyl mercury and cadmium from eating pilot whale in the Faroe Islands have been estimated. The long-term intakes of both total and methyl mercury exceed the Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intakes (PTWI) recommended by WHO. For the general population the PTWI’s are 300 and 200 μg mercury per person per week for total and methyl mercury, respectively. The calculated intake of methyl mercury approaches the lower value (1200 μg/person/week) of the recognized critical level of methyl mercury intoxication in the general population.

It is therefore concluded in several studies that the general Faroe Islands population should significantly restrict the consumption of pilot whale foods. One study (Dr. Pál Weihe’s) concludes the Faroese should totally refrain from it. The Faroese health authorities have looked into this study and also looked at other studies, and what they have come to is not as radical. They recommend that pregnant women, or women who plan on being pregnant, should not eat pilot whale foods at all, as the critical levels for methyl mercury intoxication of pregnant women and fetuses are lower by a factor of 2–5 than for the general population. They do not recommend that pilot whale meat and blubber should be served to younger children, while it seems to be within safe limits for the rest of the population to eat pilot whale meat and blubber once to twice a month.

The Faroese people are not indifferent to this unfortunate development. People are taking action personally – many do not serve pilot whale meat and blubber to their children any longer, and most younger women as well as child-bearing women choose not to eat pilot whale meat and blubber at all. The local authorities in the different whaling districts are making efforts to restrict pilot whaling even more than it was before, making sure that those involved don’t kill more whales than people can eat. The local village whaling associations who manage the catching of the whales agree with these restrictions, because they accept what science has shown.

But as long as the health authorities haven’t recommended that the Faroese population as a whole completely refrain from eating pilot whale meat and blubber (which, by the way, is the Faroese national dish), and, as long as pilot whaling is done in a responsible, sustainable, care-taking manner, the Faroese see no reason for stopping pilot whaling altogether. And they think that there is absolutely no valid reason for others to interfere in Faroese matters, trying to force the Faroese not to utilize this natural resource in their own country.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Media Whale Warfare

A comment by Elin Brimheim Heinesen to the discussion triggered by the TV series on Animal Planet "Whale Wars - Viking Shores".

I wish this issue was simpler, but it's not. I'm Faroese and I do not condone pilot whale killing in the Faroe Islands unconditionally. I'm absolutely opposed to unnecessary cruelty and the killing of animals just 'for fun' or as part of a 'ritual'. If this really was the case in regard to pilot whaling in the Faroes, I would be against it. I know for a fact it's not. Regardless of what some might claim.

For various unknown reasons some people perceive pilot whale killing as a sport, a celebration or a ritualistic event for the locals in the Faroe Islands. I do not. The purpose of pilot whaling is to put food on the table. People who believe anything else have not really understood or have twisted what Faroe Islanders or others have tried to say about pilot whaling – or they have been misled by people, interested in discrediting this practice.

Pilot whaling in the Faroes is no different – that is: no better, nor worse – than so many other accepted ways of providing meat. I've spoken to many foreigners who have witnessed a pilot whale slaughter. After they've seen it in real life, they aren't opposed to it any more in the same way because they saw with their own eyes, that – in spite of the fact that it wasn't pleasant – it was far from as cruel and dramatic as they had seen it portrayed by biased anti-whaling activists.

Usually a whole pod is killed in a few minutes and each whale is killed within seconds. Of course, it's unpleasant to watch a pilot whale slaughter – just as it would be to visit a common slaughter house for anyone, not used to see such things. Most of us aren't used to see what is going on, when animals are being slaughtered, and react naturally with shock. Watching someone taking the lives of living beings is a harsh reality, we very rarely experience.

Humans are predators
The way we have established ourselves and our communities in the modern world, has led us almost to forget the fact that all meat-eating people are predators. Whether we like it or not, it is the truth. I don't like that fact either. But humans are, and have always been meat-eaters, the vast majority of them. This means that, basically, we're no different than other predators who kill other animal species to have them for food. And that is not pretty.

I'm always shocked when I, for instance, watch a nature program on TV and see a lion catch a zebra and tear it apart – or an orca catch a seal and throw it up in the air before it bites the seal's head of with its sharp teeth. It's brutal and bloody, but I know the lion and the orca don't do this because they're evil. They do it to survive. That's nature, and nature can be gruesome.

Some might say that you can't compare what humans do to animals to what happens in nature, because most humans have 'evolved' (as they call it) and they kill animals more 'humanely' than a lion or an orca does, but to me that's clearly a delusion.

Killing always brutal
No sound and healthy being wishes to die – neither animals nor humans, neither in the wild nor in farm factories. A zebra doesn't want to be eaten by a lion. A seal doesn't want to be eaten by an orca. A whale doesn't want to be killed and eaten by people, neither does a pig. Nobody wants to be killed by anyone else. All living beings want to live and thrive. We might sophisticate our killing methods. But nevertheless, it's still killing. Saying that it is more 'humane' to kill animals in a farm factory slaughter house, corresponds to saying that it was more 'humane' to kill people in gas chambers during the holocaust, rather then, for instance, to hang them or stone them to death.

No matter how we try to bend or twist it – we cannot run away and pretend it is not what it is: It IS brutal to kill animals – any animal, any human – one way or another, regardless of who does the killing – animals or humans – and regardless of how 'humanely' we try to do it. It's still taking another beings life. And ALL animals, including humans, resist to being killed by others.

So I feel sorry for the zebra. I feel sorry for the seal. I also feel sorry for the cows and the pigs. I feel sorry for the chickens and the turkeys. I feel sorry for the sheep, the reindeers, the buffalos. And I feel sorry for the whales. I feel sorry for every single animal on earth that has to sacrifice it's life in order to feed another animal, including us humans. In my fantasies I wish that nobody had to kill any other being and that we all could live just in peace together and love each other. At the same time I know that this is an utterly impossible utopian dream.

A delusional world
The fact is that most people in the world eat meat, which means that people have to kill animals. If humans want to have meat for dinner there must be shed blood. I don't like this fact anymore than most other people who have a heart. I just have to realize that this will be reality as long as people want to enjoy their steaks. Some people also live in barren areas on earth were they have no other choice than to eat meat. And I'm pretty sure this will continue to be reality for a long time to come.

Many people – especially city dwellers who don't live in and directly off nature – seem to have a need to displace these facts, as if they have nothing to do with it, even though they gladly munch burgers themselves. They see themselves as animal lovers and get emotional and sentimental, when they see animals being killed. And they accuse animal killers of being underdeveloped people, who don't live in the 21st century. It's a bad, bad thing they wish would go away. As if they'd like the whole world to turn into some kind of Disney World, where everyone is cute and kind to each other, where animals become almost like humans, and some are even superior to humans.

Even though they love a good steak, most people have likely never been responsible for or been involved in the animal killing process, needed to provide the steak. They probably couldn't stand to kill an animal. Yak! So they must have others do the 'dirty work' for them. And then they can go on pretending the killing doesn't really happen, and that they're really good, innocent 'evolved' people, who never would harm anyone. But no matter what they think or do – deep down they're still predators, responsible for causing pain and death to other earthlings.

These people defend themselves vigorously if anyone tries to tell them that they are in fact kidding themselves if they don't realize that as meat-eaters, basically, they are no better nor worse than, for instance, the Faroese, who kill and eat pilot whales! No, no, no – there's a big difference, they claim. Can't be compared at all. But they can't really explain what the difference is, based on facts, and that's frustrating, so they get angry, point their fingers away from themselves and proclaim the animal killers – or those who defend them – as the only bad guys. But you can't make an unpleasant reality go away by shooting the messenger.

Alienated to the natural
The Faroese fishermen, farmers and hunters don't displace the fact that we as humans prey on other animal species, and they take the full responsibility for that. They do the dirty work. And they are honest about it. They don't – and they have never – hidden from the world what they do. Not even when the world condemns them.

People can claim from now on and forever that the Faroese do what they do for all kinds of unacceptable reasons, but it does not change the fact that the Faroese kill whales for one reason only: to provide food for themselves and the community, just as they've done on these islands for more than a thousand years. The Faroese don't understand why they should stop doing what they do, only because some other people in the world are alienated to something that has been perfectly natural for human beings to do for ever: namely kill animals for food.

Every country on earth kills animals. It's just not common elsewhere to kill exactly this kind of animals. But the Faroese kill pilot whales, because there is an abundance of them around the islands (the pilot whale is not on the endangered animal species list) – and the Faroes are an island nation, dependent on ocean resources.

Decide who's fit for killing
Can anyone make a list of animals, fit for killing, and explain why some animals aren't fit for killing and others are? Where exactly do – or can – you draw the line? Why is it OK to exploit some animals and not others?  Is it because it is a 'tradition' to kill cows, pigs, chickens and so on? And why is it that this 'tradition' is more legitimate than the Faroese 'tradition' of killing pilot whales? What's the actual difference between these animals and a whale?

If the degree of intelligence is the criteria, why is it okay to kill 'stupid' animals? If sociability or sentience is the criteria, well...  mammals in general are very sociable animals, aren't they? And aren't all animals more or less sentient? So shouldn't we stop killing all animals then? Is it even possible to stop the killing of ALL kinds of animals? What about people living in arctic areas where you can't grow vegetables? Why should they have to import all their food from far away, when there are animals, quite fit for eating, walking or swimming right outside their door?

Why is it 'unnecessary' to kill pilot whales, and not 'unnecessary' to kill other animals for food? Who's to decide what people 'need' and what they don't 'need' to eat? Do the Faroese 'need' to buy meat in the store from enormous polluting farm factory slaughter houses, who don't treat animals any less crueler than the Faroese treat the pilot whales? In fact much crueler, because most livestock animals live a miserable life their whole life and have no chance what so ever to escape being killed for food. Why would the Faroese want to buy more expensive food that has to be transported from far away in polluting freight vessels and not want to use the available food resources they get for free in their own environment?

Disproportionate priority
Shouldn't anyone, who thinks it's their business to demand of the Faroese that they should stay away from the meat they are accustomed to eat, not refrain themselves from buying and eating their own traditional meat, unless they can explain the basic difference between the animals they eat and the animals the Faroese eat – and legitimize why it is more okay to kill these animals rather then the animals the Faroese kill? If they can explain that there really is a significant difference, then they might even succeed in convincing the Faroese...!

But if they have no answer to these questions, shouldn't they take a good look in the mirror first – and then try to put their effort and their money first and foremost into some much bigger problems animals face in this world? They could, for instance, try to improve the lives of some of the billions and billions of unfortunate cows, pigs or chickens, living and dying under gruesome and cruel conditions in farm factories all over the world, before they blow the Faroese pilot whaling way out of proportions and spend millions of dollars on trying to save a few hundred pilot whales that only might be killed by the Faroese during the course of a year. Remember, some years the Faroese do not kill a single whale, because the whales don't always migrate right past the islands.

In my opinion it's a waste of the donators' money, because instead of spending so much money on expensive equipment with highly questionable beneficial effects, couldn't all of this money have been used much more effectively and have helped many more animals which are much worse off, if these people really wanted the money to make any real difference?

Just asking...

And again - I do NOT support pilot whaling unconditionally. I just happen to think that people should look in the mirror before they judge the Faroese for what they are doing, because are you yourselves really that different?