Ethics Expert Peter Singer Calls on Spanish Govt, EU to Stop World’s First Octopus Farm

By William J. Furney 

Renowned ethicist, animal rights activist and philosopher Peter Singer has urged the Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez to call a halt to a contentious €60 million project in the Canary Islands that will see octopuses farmed on a mass scale. 

Believed to be the first of its kind in the world, the factory farm is set to begin operations in a port area of Las Palmas, capital of the island of Gran Canaria, sometime this summer. 

Protests against the development have been held locally and around the world in the past year after Spanish seafood multinational Nueva Pescanova announced a breakthrough in breeding octopuses in captivity — a world first — and its intention to use its method to farm the creatures because of what it says is soaring global demand for octopus. 

Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University in the United States and often viewed as the father of the animal rights movement due to his seminal 1975 book Animal Liberation, said octopuses, which are understood to be highly intelligent, should not be farmed for food. 

“I oppose farming octopuses. They are sentient beings, very different from us, but it is now widely recognised by scientists that they can feel pain — recently the UK included them in its Animal Sentience legislation,” he told Furney Times.  

“So we should not be confining them, or restricting their movements in any way, let alone killing them.”

Octopus Farm Claims: For Sustainability and Human Health

Nueva Pescanova, based in the northwestern Spanish city of Galicia, argues that its octopus farm will result in fewer octopuses being taken from the sea, and so it is a boost for sustainability. 

“The construction of an octopus farming plant in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is another step in the extensive and complex scientific challenge of guaranteeing a sustainable yield of the common octopus, a food in growing worldwide demand for its extraordinary health and nutritional properties,” the company’s representatives previously told Furney Times

Singer, an Australian who was awarded the $1 million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture in 2021, said he doubted that eating octopus was beneficial for human health.

“I would like to see the evidence that octopus has such extraordinary ‘health and nutritional properties.’ I am highly sceptical about that. There is no need for anyone to eat octopus.”

Octopus Farm Halt Call: Australian bioethicist Peter Singer. (Photograph: Alletta Vaandering)

He added that “as with all confined animal farms, food will have to be provided for the captive animals, and the food value that goes into the animals is always higher than that which comes out. I expect that to produce 3,000 tons of octopuses, at least 6,000 tons of fish will have to be caught and fed to them — perhaps even more. And fish are also sentient beings.”

Octopus is a favourite of Spanish people, in a tapa called pulpo a la gallega, and so attempting to convince them to eat less, or become vegetarian or vegan, as Singer is, could be an uphill battle. Singer, however, is optimistic. 

“I hope it is not futile,” he said, “but I don’t know. In the long run, we may be able to grow octopus at the cellular level, so that there is never a sentient organism. This is already being done with several animal products. It only needs to be scaled up so that the cost is competitive.

“All sentient beings should be protected, and most of the animals people eat are much more intelligent than those who eat them think they are; but there are some grounds for thinking that more intelligent animals need special protection because they may be more aware of what is happening to them, and so suffer more.”

His message to the Spanish authorities as well as in wider Europe?

“I would say to [the Spanish central and Gran Canaria governments as well as the European Union] what I have just said… They should not let this project go ahead.”

Christos Economou, acting director at the Directorate General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries at the European Commission, told Furney Times in June last year that he was aware of the octopus farm plan. 

“We already received a lot of questions about it from different stakeholders expressing views against as well as in favour of octopus farming,” he said.

He said that while it was up to EU member states how they managed their aquaculture, they must do so within the framework of current EU regulations.

“I would like to underline that the competence for the management of aquaculture lies largely with the member states of the Union. Article 34 of the Regulation on the  Common Fisheries policy establishes an ‘Open Method of Coordination’ among EU member states facilitated by the Commission, aimed at supporting the objective of developing sustainable and competitive aquaculture across the EU.”

Secret Farm Documents Revealed

Confidential plans for the Las Palmas octopus farm submitted to the local government and obtained by activist organisation Eurogroup for Animals reveal that Nueva Pescanova is aiming to produce about 3,000 tons of common octopus (octopus vulgaris) a year, amounting to around 1 million animals. 

The creatures, which are solitary, would be raised in tanks with other octopuses, and they would be killed by plunging them into freezing water of -3C, the documents show. 

“Blindly establishing a new farming system without consideration of the ethical and environmental implications is a step in all the wrong directions and flies in the face of the EU’s plans for a sustainable food transformation,” said Eurogroup for Animals CEO Reineke Hameleers.

“With the current revision of the animal welfare legislation, the European Commission now has the real opportunity to avoid the terrible suffering of millions of animals. We cannot afford to leave aquatic animals behind. We’re calling on the EU to include a ban on octopus farming before it ever sees the light of day, in order to avoid plunging more sentient beings into a living hell.”

Mass Farming Plan: The common octopus. (Photograph: Getty Images)

The Eurogroup revelations drew outrage from scientists, including Peter Tse, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College in the US, who told the BBC the octopuses would suffer in their tanks and die a painful and slow death in the icy water. 

 “[I]t would be very cruel and should not be allowed,” he said.

Second Global Octopus Farm Protest Planned

Plans are underway for a second global protest against the octopus farm, due to be held on April 23. The organiser of an event in Las Palmas, Iris Sanchez of the Animalist Party Against Mistreatment of Animals (PACMA) and who is running as a candidate in upcoming local elections in the port city, said the Gran Canaria government was not listening.

“It is politically irresponsible to open this octopus farm, as it would be an environmental catastrophe and a cruel new form of violence, exploitation and suffering for millions of animals,” she told Furney Times. 

”Leading animal rights groups and also an entire scientific community from around the world are raising their voices but the government of the Canary Islands is deaf to what they say.

“Our goal is to immediately stop this project that will kill millions of octopuses. This international protest is an opportunity for the entire world to show its rejection and the government of the Canary Islands must be aware of this.”

Animal Rebellion Condemns Proposed Octopus Farm 

Interview with Claudia Penna Rojas of Animal Rebellion UK.

What is Animal Rebellion's view of the proposed octopus farm in Gran Canaria? 

In a world of people who mostly consider themselves animal lovers, the concept of opening any kind of facility such as this one, where animals will be subjected to immense suffering, is a direct contradiction to this. 

Time and time again, octopuses have been proven to be smarter than most people initially believed, proven to experience both pleasure and pain. 

Today we have more options on what we eat than ever before, allowing us to make the choice to transition to a plant-based food system, sparing billions of animals from exploitation. This farm is a step backwards, and we all must ask ourselves: Why are we allowing this to happen when there are so many alternatives? 

What do you think are the solutions, if proposed to the developer, Nueva Pescanova?

At the core of so many of the issues we face today -- the crisis of animal suffering, the climate crisis, etc -- is our broken relationship with other animals and the natural world. To mend this, we must change our way of being, and a huge part of this is our current food system. 

Making the transition to a plant-based food system will not only spare billions of animals from suffering but also help us to tackle the climate crisis and give us greater stability. 

This transition would reduce the amount of land we use to produce food by over 60%, allowing us to feed more people on less land. This freed-up land -- including marine habitats -- could then be rewilded, to restore valuable ecosystems and drawdown carbon from the atmosphere. It’s all win-win solution, for animals, for us and for our only home. 

Is it impossible to convince people to stop eating octopus, in Spain, Japan or anywhere else?

While it may be difficult to create a cultural shift to a plant-based food system, it's absolutely essential if we want a better world. 

As someone who comes from a background where “seafood” plays a huge part in our traditional cuisine, I understand it is a big change for many people, and that it will not happen overnight. 

But we must begin to have these conversations, to look at impact of our actions and, most importantly, to look at how much better things can be if we change and adapt. 

Throughout history we have done things that we have later come to widely recognise as morally wrong and damaging, and I truly believe that our exploitation of animals is no different. 

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