In the latest in our occasional series of blogs about food, Deirdre Henderson makes the case for vegetarianism and ethical food shoppping.
Kerry McCarthy, Labour’s new Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been getting a lot of stick for being a vegan and expressing her concerns that the public needs educating that eating meat has negative consequences, as happened with the consumption of tobacco.
Having not eaten meat for almost 40 years I can tell you that the UK eating habits have changed enormously since the 1970s. My motivation for giving up meat was watching a lunchtime factual farming programme that showed the inside of a slaughter house. It was the first time that I understood that meat came from an animal that had to suffer to feed me. As a vegetarian child people would always look to your shoes to ask if they were leather. As a teenage vegan, people would frequently ask if I knew Spock as he came from the planet Vegan., apparently.
Skip forward to the present and many mainstream restaurant menus list vegan dishes, specialist vegetarian shops / restaurants have sprung up, supermarkets stock different varieties of plant based milks. I no longer get asked about Spock, instead people ask sensible questions. We have come a long way culturally and never has it been so easy to be vegetarian or vegan at home and abroad.
What has also changed in my lifetime is the understanding of the power of consumer spending and how the way that you shop and what you put in your trolley affect the decisions of the multinational producers. A simple example being the change of supermarket eggs, which were all intensively farmed, to most eggs now being free range. Packaging of course is tricky, descriptions such as Farm Fresh or Natural mean very little. Another example is the expanding range of Fairtrade goods that enables a regular and better premium for producers in countries outside the EU. Fairtrade producing communities can use this premium to invest in their families, their community and reduce pollution, as they control the environment that they live and work in. In some communities it can offer a realistic income that otherwise might have to be gained by growing narcotics. It can also reduce religious extremism if communities are not blighted by extreme poverty caused by the greed of the corporations based in the richest countries. In response to consumer demand, the supermarkets are stocking Fairtrade products as standard.
Whilst people may choose not to eat meat because of animal welfare concerns more and more people understand the link to how the use of land is affecting climate change. Large swathes of South American rainforests are being cut down to grow feed for cattle, or to farm cattle. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/12/humans-have-already-used-up-2015s-supply-of-earths-resources-analysis# This is not the tree felling we see in Scotland where trees grow back in a lifetime. These are mature trees that support unique and endangered ecosystems, providing the oxygen we need to survive. It is also difficult to disregard the links that the meat industry has to what are sometimes seen as separate industries such as dairy, furniture, clothing, and confectionary.
On a planet with finite resources and climate change undeniably happening, ethically minded people are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. Reducing meat consumption is definitely a huge factor in this. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25795-going-vegetarian-halves-co2-emissions-from-your-food Especially as more and more grain is grown to feed animals rather than to feed people directly.
For the ethical food shopper you can have many competing concerns to address – Fairtrade, organic or not, or what is in the ingredients? There is also the consideration of distance travelled and the amount of packaging. Apples are a prime example of a product that can be grown in the UK and yet almost all the apples come from Chile or New Zealand in the supermarkets. Whilst we told we have lots of choice in reality we do not have choice of where the products come from if they all travel long haul.
In remote and rural areas of Scotland fresh produce will have perished longer before arriving and so packets of six items or short shelf life products are more likely to be wasted as they are inedible much quicker. I am always amazed by the supremely better quality of fresh produce in the central belt than to those sold in the West Coast.
Not everyone has choice in this world. There is a global food crisis on the way and we will start to notice this in what the supermarkets offer, and at what price, as well as an increase in conflict over food. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/08/climate-change-set-fuel-global-food-crisis-150814144555459.html We ignore the realities of using more resources that we can globally afford to do at our peril.
However, we can all do our bit to change the culture of food choices available to us. We can make choices about what we eat, where it comes from and how we use it. We can lobby multinationals to change their producing and purchasing habits. We can try to grow our own. None of us is perfect. We will do things that we know are not in the best interest of the planet, that we need to survive, but when we can make choices we should consider how we can be better earth residents for ourselves and future populations who are likely to have fewer choices.
So was Kerry McCarthy right to draw a link between meat and tobacco? Such comparisons are made in the new documentary Cowspiracy (http://www.cowspiracy.com) about how animal agriculture affects climate change . We know that meat consumption is not good for the climate of everyone on the planet. Culturally we are conditioned to see meat consumption as habitually normal and non meat consumption as abnormal or ‘cranky’. Only 50 years ago smoking was seen as desirable, whilst tobacco corporations knew their cigarettes were carcinogenic. It will be interesting to see what the eating habits of the UK are in the next 40 years, and how Kerry McCarthy’s comments are then viewed.
Deirdre Henderson is a Community Worker, working in health information and support. Living in remote and rural Kintyre she is a Kintyre Women for Independence Organiser. She is a mother of two and married to a meat eater for over 25 years. Deirdre is a lover of fresh, tasty vegan food.