by Sam Saunders
Now, this isn’t going to be a tirade against Vegans and Vegetarians, they’re lovely for the most part. I can’t fault their life choices or their sometimes-selfless decision to forgo eating meat/animal products to save lives or the planet. Modern farming methods, as well as our increased knowledge of what our diets can do to the Earth are key factors in why so many people make these life choices, and it’s something that I myself have often wrestled with. I’ve written before about how I have recently tried to eat less meat, but what I want to explain to you all here is my personal dilemmas around being vegan or vegetarian, why I find the ideas very noble, but ultimately very difficult to consider putting into practice, and why I think it’s incredibly difficult to blame any of our generation who don’t choose to change their diets.
First things first, I love food. That’s not to say I’m a foodie, who will search out the best restaurants and the most out-there places, but I do love finding new types of food that are delicious. As well as this, and I’ll get it out of the way early-on, I like eating meat. And cheese. And drinking milk. They’re great, an English breakfast doesn’t feel complete without bacon or a sausage, and even if I were vegetarian, a Christmas or roast dinner would still be incredibly difficult to ignore. Did I mention cheese? It’s amazing. There are so many different varieties, you can have it on pretty much anything and there aren’t too many dishes I could name that wouldn’t be improved by adding cheese to them. In France last year it was just another world, as I’ve already described in these pages, raclette, fondue and tartiflette will be amongst my favourite dishes for the rest of my life. Milk, and all the various forms that we’ve made it in to over the years; butter, yogurt and cream, to name but a few, also feels like an essential part of my food life, I mean, I’m drinking a cup of tea with cow’s milk in as I write this. What I’m trying to illustrate is that I use all of these things pretty much every day, and it’s as much because they’re nice and I like them as it is because that’s what I’ve always done, or what my Mum and Dad do or did. Or at least, it used to be, because recently, I’ve been feeling guilty about my food choices, and wondering if it behoves me to change the way that I see our relationship with animals or not.
If you’re someone who has already changed their diet, you might be thinking to yourself, ‘Duh! Has this guy been living under a rock for the last few years?’, unless, that is, you haven’t already turned over after my vivid animal product descriptions. And if you’re someone who still eats meat and is completely unconcerned with change, I may have caused you to spit out that cup of tea you were drinking.
These thoughts have been troubling me since I’ve been at university really, which I think is because in my leafy middle-class grammar school life in Kent, there wasn’t really ever a challenge to eating meat, apart from a few people who were vegans. As I said, my Mum is staunchly against veganism and vegetarianism, frequently asking, ‘what would you eat?’ Her concerns focus mainly on a lack of variety than animal welfare. It was only when I came to Cardiff, met a wider range of people and started reading around the issues that our diets can cause for our planet that I sat up and took notice.
I think this was for two main reasons. The first, which I’ve already alluded to, is the environmental cost of raising animals for slaughter, which is huge. I’ve already written a column which mentioned these costs, so I won’t repeat that point here, but it remains the fact that raising animals requires a huge amount of water, agricultural land that could be used for crops, agricultural land that could be used to produce to feed humans instead used for soy production for animal feed, deforestation in South America to raise cattle and grow soy… The list is actually almost endless, and I didn’t even mention greenhouse gas emissions and concerns over environmental damage caused by fertilisers. Even worse news for me, raising cows is by far the most environmentally harmful activity, which wouldn’t exactly make me feel any better for giving up meat and still consuming products made with cow’s milk.
The other reason, and it’s a big one, is animal welfare. I’ve seen many stories that have commented on the shocking conditions that factory farmed chickens have lived in before being slaughtered, and I don’t condone this at all. I highly doubt that anyone in the UK wants to actually see an animal suffer during its life. Of course, slaughter will always be a time when this occurs, but I don’t want to see a chicken or a pig in a space so tight that it can’t move. It is difficult to know what sort of environment an animal was raised in; however, Red Tractor Assured Food Standards and other labels do give some assurances of conditions, but it can be of little comfort when there’s no explanation on the packet. The Red Tractor website does set out some facts about their farms that reassure me, but it’s still a troubling thought. At least with this certification consumers know that the food was produced/raised in the United Kingdom, where food standards are high. I for one wouldn’t want our food market being flooded with American chlorinated chicken. As a student, I can’t really afford to buy free-range everything, but I stick to that with eggs and I have rarely bought meat that is not at least red tractor assured. As I mentioned in my previous article, I’ve also been trying to eat less red meat and meat in general, which is partly due to the environmental damage that the meat industry causes, as well as my concerns about animal welfare. It’s not the biggest step, I know, but I think it’s an important one.
My reluctance at the very thought of giving up milk, cheese or meat is mostly due to the feeling that these are all home comforts and habits. I’ve always eaten these foods, and I associate them with happy childhood memories, dinner with my family, meals on family holidays, even just my Mum’s roast, which is the undisputed best in the world (as everyone’s is). It’s for this reason that this issue isn’t as black and white as diet change. What scientists are actually asking us to do when they propose the ‘planetary health diet’ is to give up change our culture too, as food is interlinked with culture in so many ways. I mean, most national dishes contain products that damage the environment, particularly in Western Europe. I can’t say that it’s responsible to continue consuming as we have done for the rest of time, as there’ll be no Earth left if we do, but I do think we need to recognise that diet change on a huge scale will involve much more than just a choice of forgoing meat and dairy.