Over the years, I have tried several times to be a vegetarian. The longest I managed was for a year in 2015, which was my way of participating in Fast For The Climate in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit. Ironically, it was while I was in Paris for the start of the summit that I started eating meat again, as I was eating in restaurants and there wasn’t a lot of option. These days, we probably eat meat once or twice a week, and we make sure that it’s organic and as local as possible. But it’s a shoddy compromise.
One of my problems is that I really, really like meat. I was brought up eating meat at least once a day, but usually more than once, and I love it. I still have this feeling that a proper meal consists of meat, mashed potatoes and a vegetable. That’s a deep-seated reason why I have struggled to be vegetarian. Another reason is simply lack of imagination and time. I get home from work tired and really can’t be bothered to think too hard about what to cook for the family supper. I know that I could tackle this by looking through some vegetarian recipes and making a plan, but I don’t do it.
One thing that de-motivates me is that I’m aware that being a vegetarian doesn’t solve the issues that I want it to, in terms of either the environment or animal welfare. I watched a short video last night called ‘Dairy is Scary’. I can’t embed video on this blog, but you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB72wd819Ck I know it’s sensationalist and that American food standards are often lower than those in Europe, but even so, I was appalled and found myself shaking my head and saying ‘No’ through much of it. The thing is that it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I already knew that, for environmental and welfare reasons, not eating meat is not enough – I should also stop eating milk and cheese. Whereas, in fact, being a vegetarian led me to eating much more cheese than before.
And that leads to another consideration. In a meat-eating culture, giving hospitality to a vegetarian is a nuisance and, in my erstwhile vegetarian experience, hosts often just substitute a slab of meat for a slab of cheese. It’s either that, or you end up eating a lot of Quorn. So – is it better to be gracious in giving and receiving hospitality (and simply living in the company of others) by eating meat or easy substitutes, or should you find a way of sticking to your principles, in humility and grace? Is it better for the environment to eat some chicken that was organically farmed up the road, or some weird stuff that was made in a factory somewhere, wrapped in plastic and driven for miles? What about almonds grown in drought-stricken California? Is it better to eat butter made, in a simple process, from English organic milk and wrapped in paper, or margarine made in a factory from Indonesian palm oil (Palm oil! No!!) and wrapped in a plastic tub? I have wrestled with these kind of questions for several years, but today I feel that the answers come more easily when the mental image is still playing in my head of milked-out exhausted dairy cows being dragged across concrete by a tractor, thrashing their legs as they go to be hung up, still conscious, by those legs while some man eventually gets around to killing them since they’ve given all the lovely milk that they possibly could and are no use to humans any more.
[Pause to shed some tears]
I recently heard someone say, while defending the oil industry against the divestment movement, that for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, clear, easily understood and wrong. My own response is that for every problem that can be made complicated as a way of avoiding change, there is a solution that is simple, right and scary. In this case, how can the solution be other than adopting a vegan diet?
Here are a few thoughts about it…
- A low-impact, plant-based diet is going to be very different from a meat-based diet. Substitutes like Quorn and margarine are problematic in their own ways, so the answer lies in re-thinking food. It occurs to me that re-thinking food in a dietary culture shaped through animal-exploitation is similar to the challenge of re-thinking the use of fossil-fuels in a culture based on cheap energy. You tend not to notice the culture in which you’re raised – it’s just the way life is – so the values go right to your core and often go unnoticed. Going against the culture means dragging those values into the open, naming them and changing them and the change goes right to the core of who you are. That couldn’t possibly be easy, but when the culture is destructive, a new culture that affirms life will be far better in every way once you transition into it – and holding onto that prospect in hope, disciplined hope, will (hopefully) help the transition.
- Ethics don’t begin and end with animals. An animal-free diet still presents moral challenges to do with the origins of our food, including impact on soil, water and wildlife, packaging waste, food miles, and emissions and waste from processing.
- Time is of the essence. I’m thinking of time to think about what to buy and cook, as well as time to prepare food. As I’ve written elsewhere, saving time often costs the earth.
- No regrets! Rather than thinking about what I’m missing out on, I should focus on what is gained by this change and make it positive rather than reductive. I need to figure this one out, because it just feels reductive, not only in terms of my diet and the food I enjoy, but also reductive in terms of the suffering of farm animals.
I’ll let you know how I get on. It’s not going to be instant, not least because I live and eat with other people. I think that trying to live a morally good life in the modern world is always going to be an exercise in deciding where the compromises are going to fall. But, step by step, I hope to move the compromise nearer to what I believe in.
Is this an issue that you’ve wrestled with? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.