Children are more inclined to think farm animals deserve the same respect as dogs and humans in comparison to adults, a recent study conducted by the University of Exeter and University of Oxford has found.
The report reveals children begin to develop ‘speciesism’ – the belief certain species are above others and are ‘morally more important’ – once they begin to reach their teenage years.
Researchers found most children believed pigs deserved the same treatment as dogs or humans. They also tended not to view animals as food as much as adolescents and adults.
A total of 479 people from different age groups, all living in England, were asked about their views on the treatment of farm animals such as pigs, pets such as dogs, and people. These age groups ranged from children between nine and 11, adolescents from 18 to 21, and older adults aged 29 to 59.
The two older groups were found to have similar moral standpoints, with most agreeing dogs have a status of being “our friends”, while pigs can be categorised as “food”, and therefore oughtn’t receive the same respect as canines. Children on the other hand saw pigs both as pets and as food.
Dr Luke McGuire from the University of Exeter commented on the study: “Humans’ relationship with animals is full of ethical double standards. Some animals are beloved household companions, while others are kept in factory farms for economic benefit.”
According to the report, children are less likely to distinguish some animals as food because the process of “attributing moral value based on species membership” has not yet emerged at this stage in life.
Adults in comparison appear to accept food production systems “involving harm to maintain their eating practices”. They are also more likely to see farm animals as food, and therefore “tacitly endorse” their maltreatment, the study suggested.
“It’s important to note that even adults in our study thought eating meat was less morally acceptable than eating animal products like milk,” said Dr McGuire, “So aversion to animals – including farm animals – being harmed does not disappear entirely.”
The next key step in the research is to determine what age children begin to learn and accept speciesism.
“If we want people to move towards more plant-based diets for environmental reasons, we have to disrupt the current system somewhere,” Dr McGuire added.
“For example, if children ate more plant-based food in schools, that might be more in line with their moral values, and might reduce the ‘normalisation’ towards adult values that we identify in this study.”
Earlier this year, ProVeg UK launched their School Plates programme to encourage schools and local authorities to introduce more nutritious plant-based meals, by offering menu reviews, new recipes, and plant-based cooking classes in schools at no extra cost.
The NGO has so far encouraged the introduction of over five million meat-free school meals across the country.
In collaboration with the Meatless Farm, ProVeg UK also launched the Green School Menu League competition in February, calling on schools to develop healthier menus that have low environmental impact.
Parents and guardians have become more supportive of plant-based meals in recent years, as a recent report from The Vegan Society shows, 69% of them approved of the idea of more vegan options being on offer at schools.
Jimmy Pierson, Director of ProVeg UK, said: “There’s a quiet revolution going on in UK schools. We’ve been inundated with school caterers wanting our help to make their menus healthier and more sustainable. We’re seeing menu change accelerate faster than ever before and, in the last six months, our School Plates programme has doubled in size. Now we’ve reached 5 million school meals, we’re aiming to make it 10 million by the end of the year.
“Young people care about climate change and they care about the planet, more than any other generation. And they clearly love our plant-based recipes, especially when they’re paired with education around their positive impact. Yet, so often, their school lunches are unsustainable. We owe it to them to make food a key solution to the climate crisis, starting with the food they eat every day at school.”