We’ve had the horse meat scandal in the UK, with horse DNA turning up in processed food. As I see it there’s no reason to be sentimental over one endearing mammal (horse) and happily scoffing another (cows), but people do. What we should be talking about is why this has happened, and whether the cow DNA came from properly sourced cows. Were we getting healthy cows, or sick rejects in those burgers? No one seems to be asking, much less checking. It is the pressure from supermarkets to push down the prices they pay farmers that has lead to this. Quite simply, if we want it very, very cheap, we cannot also expect to have it be very, very good.
We keep animals in crowded, unnatural conditions as it is, to answer western demand for a high meat diet. 50% of the grain grown in the world goes to feed animals for the meat market (according to the BBC this morning). At the same time European advisors recommend we should not eat more than 20 grams of processed meat a day. That’s about one slice of ham, if you aren’t metric. We’ve known for a while that processed meats increase risk of heart disease and cancer. Processed meats use up all the stray bits you wouldn’t buy if you could see them ‘in the raw’. Lips and arseholes and all that. Now, my feeling is if you are going to kill an animal to eat it, you have an ethical obligation not to throw bits of it away, so that puts me in favour of processed meat, and it tends to be your protein for the poorer consumer as well. Cheap unwanted bits have been with us for a long time, and that could be made to work. I assume it’s not the meat content of the processed meat that causes the issue here because officialdom says that non-processed is fine. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they’re right. Processed foods however, are loaded with salt, and chemicals – especially preservatives.
I should mention that I’m a vegetarian. Not out of any particular ethical principle, I have too strong a sense of plants as living individuals too. I’m a vegetarian because when I ate meat, it made me very ill, all the time. I react to it like it was a toxin, without going into the grim details. I suspect it has nothing to do with the flesh and everything to do with the chemicals pumped into the flesh, both during the lifetime of the creature (I get sick on antibiotics too) and in the processing part. But, we’re not talking about identifying and clamping down on dangerous chemicals in our food that cause heart disease and cancer. Oh no. We’re talking about your 20 grams a day. That makes me uncomfortable.
I strongly believe that as a culture we consume too much meat. It isn’t environmentally sustainable (go back to that grain statistic), it create greenhouse gases, the animal suffering is increased dramatically as well. If you assume your meat comes from happy free range creatures, that’s a lot more comfortable than picturing the misery of battery farming, the endless pens, the animals that are turned into units of production and not allowed to be animals at all.
All that said, I recognise there is blood spilled regularly for vegetarianism, and that veganism would mean no more spring lambs in the field and radical changes to a British landscape that evolved around keeping animals. There’s a whole other essay to write there. However, in an ideal situation, animals get to live as animals in good conditions that allow them to be themselves up until we eat them. Animals contribute to the fertility of the land, when you do it right, are farmed where you can’t grow crops anyway, live on locally grown hay and grass, not imported grain, and are part of a holistic and functional system. Current demands don’t allow that. A percentage of people going vegan and vegetarian helps to bring demand down, and if that works for you, excellent. For everyone else, a low meat diet is, I think, the best option. That means thinking about how we ate say, 50 years ago, where it wasn’t a case of meat every day, and potentially at every meal. Having some days off from meat each week is evidently better for your body, with the whole heart failure and cancer issues to consider.
We’ve come to associate eating meat with wealth and luxury. We associate it with status, with being macho, and we still have people claiming that you need meat for a healthy diet. We don’t. We need protein. We don’t need meat so much that its worth having every bargain basement cow of uncertain provenance sneaking into the food chain. We don’t need chemical poisoning either. What we do need, is a radical rethink of our whole food culture.