Having ummed and ahhed for a long time, I finally committed to vegetarianism at the turn of the year. The whys and wherefores I might save for another post, partly because it’ll probably be a long one, and partly because, whilst I think vegetarianism is a good thing, I am still thinking through my specific reasons.
Animal welfare lies at the heart of it, although to be honest I feel it's the environment that's the more pressing concern in my day-to-day life. If animal welfare is my principle reason than, logically, for me at least, veganism is the way forward. I’m not ready for that yet, in terms of commitment and discipline, and I’m not sure I will be any time soon – time will tell. It has been enough of an ask at home to become vegetarian given that my wife – like pretty much every other Norwegian I have ever met – thinks a meal isn’t a meal unless there is some form of meat on the plate, and I am the one that does 95% of the cooking.
I spent a long time being a non-beef eater by default because of my quasi-Hindu upbringing, but I ‘reasoned’ my way out of it after giving it some thought. What I came to realize later, only very recently, really, is that I was also a meat-eater by default; I hadn’t ever weighed up the pros and cons of eating meat, I just ate meat because I always had and because it's tasty and I like(d) cooking it.
To help me work through my reasons for making what is a pretty big lifestyle/ethical/moral change, and make it easier for me to explain this change to others, I’ve committed myself to reading more about the animal welfare and environmental issues.
It was through reading Alex Renton’s review of Julian Baggini’s new book The Virtues of the Table that I came across Renton's Guardian Short, Planet Carnivore. I had enjoyed Renton’s review, and at only £1.99 on the Kindle I thought it would be worth a read whilst I waited on heftier stuff like Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals to wing their way to me from the Book Repository.
One of my biggest concerns with books/articles about environmental and animal welfare is that it’s very hard to get a balanced account of things because people feel so strongly about the issue; things have a tendency to veer all too near propaganda rather than being genuinely informative.
Whilst I have a couple of issues with Planet Carnivore, Renton actually does a pretty good job laying bare the health, financial and ethical costs of our love of eating meat, but, crucially, he does this without getting preachy or judgemental (which would be hard for him to do, given than one of the appendices is him recounting his families continue consumption of meat).
Whilst diets used to be largely confined to what could be grown and slaughtered locally, food security, distribution and consumption is now a truly global issue: animal welfare, moral principles and ethical environmentalism need to be woven into considerations of social politics and micro and macro-economics - we're talking about hundreds of millions of people and animals, and billions of pounds. Drawing on scientific literature, the views of prominent academics and the odd reference to Margret Atwood’s Chickienobs (read the MaddAddam books; they are brilliant), Renton does a really good job of explaining the factors that feed into, and the consequences of, a financially and environmentally unsustainable food system driven by an economic market that forces the price of meat ever cheaper whilst the cost of producing it continues to rise.
Some of the numbers, especially ones that take into account what is required to feed the growing meat-eating middle classes of China, are staggering. At the same time, however, it’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric and I’m reminded that I pays not to get too sucked in by shocking numbers. In a chapter that begins with the line “The maths of predicting the future is full of questionable assumptions, economic and demographic”, Renton follows up with “If all the 9 billion people of the 2050 world were to eat the average 2013-rich world citizen’s 80kg of meat, we would have to nearly triple current meat production to 720m tonnes”. These kinds of speculative ‘statistics’ are unhelpful and so close to meaningless they hold no weight or purposes, undermining somewhat the imapact of some of the more concrete data laid out in the book.
I found the patchy referencing a niggling frustration, but that's because I'm generalyl a stickler for it. The only other bone I have to pick with Renton (if you’ll excuse the pun) is his suggestion that education programs encouraging understanding of the food system are doomed to fail, and that governments should instead enforce action through taxation and price hikes, much in the same way they have with curbing smoking. I’m of a mind that education and awareness is key, but then again I can see the folly of naivety: as Renton grimly recounts, the demand for cheap meat was hardly dented by last year’s horse meat scandal.
Much like a poor factory-farmed pig, Planet Carnivore, is short, meaty and smart. The trouble is, bacon is far more palatalbe than some of the uneasy truths about how it gets onto the plate. Mmmmm… bacon. (Good lord do I miss it.)