Thursday, 12 February 2009

The Carnivore's Quandary

Recently there has been a lot of buzz in the food world about something very controversial. Both professionals and environmentalists alike are recommending we seriously cut back on the amount of meat we eat.

For a credit crunched, previously hedonistic society, this has come as quite a shock . Not only is food becoming a minefield of political correctness, with the posing of awkward questions ranging from “can you maintain your ethics and eat foie gras?” to “did you use free range eggs in that cake?” but now we are being asked to change the whole way we eat. And the even more worrying thing is, the people who are asking us to do this are anything but vegetarians. They include members of the United Nations, Nobel Prize winners, doctors and food writers.

Apart from about a year where I dabbled with vegetarianism in my early twenties, I have always been a confirmed meat eater. I love a good steak and chicken features in a huge number of my recipes. Like many other people, I have been rather alarmed by the idea of seriously cutting back on my meat consumption. As a food writer, I have written more vegetarian recipes recently because people seem to be interested in them, and I do love vegetarian food – but I seriously doubt I could make the huge commitment involved in becoming a proper vegetarian. A dear friend of mine who has been a vegetarian for years says if you can withstand the smell of a hot bacon sandwich, then you are truly committed to the vegetarian way of life. Well, I’d never manage that to start with.

Doctors have long advised us that meat consumption can cause serious health problems. Eating too much meat can cause heart problems, cancer and other nasty diseases. Not only that, but too much meat equals too much protein – and that can only be excreted through your urine – putting pressure on the kidneys. We don’t often think much about our kidneys - but if they don’t work properly, it can kill you. More people than you think die of kidney failure – my own wonderful Dad was one of them.

But now it is not only a matter of health, but also one of environmental stability. Some of the reasons many knowledgeable people cite for seriously cutting back on meat consumption are enough to make even a hardened meat eater worry about the environment. Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, writes that the problem with raising animals for food is that they consume more resources than they produce. He states that the environmental impact of eating a typical family of four steak dinner is to drive around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home. Oh dear, that does not sound like a good idea at all. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently recommended that people should aim for one meat free day a week, before scaling down their consumption even further, to help the climate become more stable. Furthermore, Compassion in World Farming calculate that if every average household in the UK cut their meat consumption by fifty percent it would cut emissions more than if car use was halved. As someone who loves her cars, I have to confess I’d much rather cut back on meat than use my cars less – although I appreciate that the idea is probably that I actually do both.

Needless to say, all this has caused considerable alarm in the farming community. The poor farmers have had rough time in the last few years – particularly in the UK, with Mad Cow Disease, Foot and Mouth and Bird Flu scares. Now all these professionals are recommending people cut back on meat, presumably cutting back rather seriously on the farmers’ livelihoods. It is no surprise that farmers have responded angrily to these suggestions. They believe they have been unfairly targeted and that moderate meat consumption benefits health. Not only that, but they feel there are other ways to effect climate change.

On some levels they may be right. Moderate consumption of lean meats can offer health benefits. Most of those of us who get into difficulties with our health due to meat consumption simply eat too much of it. In fact, not so long ago the USDA Agriculture Fact Book reported that since the 1950’s, meat consumption has increased by over fifty-seven pounds annually per person in the United States. Fifty-seven pounds is one heck of a lot of meat for one person to be increasing their consumption by, and I’m not even going to begin trying to multiply that by the number of people living in the United States. Yes, God did tell us we have dominion over the animals and we could eat them, but I am pretty sure He did not have the 16 ounce steaks offered on many restaurant menus today in mind when He said that. It all comes back to the old saying “a little of what you fancy does you good”.

Lucky for us, most of the people recommending we cut back on meat are preaching moderation and not abstinence. I would really miss my ultimate comfort meal of a good steak and a glass of red wine. I do think we need to heed these recommendations though. Carrying on as we are is simply not an option, unless we want to live very unhealthy lives in a world ravaged by climate change. We each need to take responsibility for making the small, necessary changes in our individual lives in order to benefit both ourselves and the planet.

As for me, the recommendations have encouraged me to explore the vegetarian side of my culinary work even further by developing more meat free recipes. I’m also planning to keep some days meat free in the 21st Century Household. I hope other people will take action too so that we can all keep on enjoying reasonable quantities of meat – and a stable environment - for years to come.

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