Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Ethics of Eating in the 21st Century

This might be a bit of a personal question, but do you buy free range or organic meat? Your answer is more important than you might think. I know it all seems like a bit much to be asked this sort of question during a time of economic meltdown. Not only that, but it seems like every week there is a new scandal around some sort of food, particularly meat. I mean, aside from luxury meats, like foie gras and veal, there really is no reason to be concerned about animal welfare is there? It can’t be that bad.

Wrong. While we were busy focusing on veal calves, ducks and geese, many other animals destined for our plates continue to be raised using intensive farming methods that are quite shocking.

This next bit is not pretty – in fact if you are of a sensitive disposition you might want to skip this paragraph entirely. But I hope you don’t, because it is something you really need to know. Here goes. Intensively farmed chickens spend their short lives in windowless sheds confined to a space about eight inches square. They can hardly move, and the bedding they are placed on often becomes so saturated with their own urine that the ammonia burns their legs. There are 850 million chickens destined for the plate produced in the United Kingdom a year and of these over ninety-five percent are intensively farmed. The statistics are even worse in North America. Turkeys have been intensively farmed for years, and spend much of their short lives in long windowless barns, crammed in so tightly that they barely have room to move. Pigs are also farmed intensively all over the world. In many cases, sows spend the majority of their lives in gestation crates which are only seven feet long and two feet wide, being bred intensively, one litter after the other until they are slaughtered two or three years later. Piglets, taken from their mothers at as little as ten days old, are often raised in crates until they are similarly slaughtered.

At this point, you might mistake me for a newly converted animal rights activist or at the very least, a vegetarian, but I am neither of these. However, I am becoming more and more concerned about where the meat I eat comes from and how it gets to my plate because the sad fact is, unless you are buying free range or organic meat, it’s almost certain that the meat you are eating has come from an animal that has not had a very nice life at all.

In the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and others have attempted to highlight the plight of many of our farm animals and awareness is slowly growing. The refusal of some American chefs (including Wolfgang Puck) to serve veal and pork from animals reared in crates has helped raise public awareness in North America. But we still have a long way to go. Most of us buy intensively reared meat and poultry on a regular basis, especially in these days of economic woe. Many of us choose to turn a blind eye to how the meat we buy gets from the farm to the supermarket shelves, not necessarily out of ignorance, but out of what appears to be necessity. And the more demand we create for cheap meat, the more animals will have really horrible lives. I mean, it’s bad enough we kill them in the end, shouldn’t we make sure they at least have a nice life?

But what can we do? We are all on tight budgets, and frankly don’t we have enough to worry about? How can we make a difference if the organic and free-range choices on offer are simply too expensive for us?

The answer is an easy one, but it is one many people find hard to swallow. The last thing we need right now is someone telling us we have to choose the more expensive option. It’s just not practical when times are tight. Plus it’s hard for a generation raised to believe in the wisdom of 16 ounce steaks and endless buckets of chicken wings to embrace the idea that less is more – in difficult times, it is easy to believe that quantity equals abundance and abundance equals security. However the plain truth is most of us eat far too much meat anyway - more than we need, indeed more than is good for us. I put it to you that it is better to only eat meat three or four times a week, using your meat budget to buy humanely raised meat, than to eat meat every day and claim you cannot afford to buy the humanely raised stuff.

Before you panic, please be reassured. I regularly cook delicious and nutritious meat free meals without any need for meat or meat substitutes. I simply cook with vegetables, rice, pasta and beans and we just don’t miss the meat. I entertain a lot and my guests don’t miss the meat either. There are lots of recipes out there for delicious vegetarian meals. When we do eat meat, we really enjoy it, safe in the knowledge that it has been ethically produced. On average, my family eats four main meals containing meat a week, and three that don’t. We are happier and healthier for it and I stay within my budget.

If this argument has had no effect on you, let me appeal to your taste buds. Free-range meat really does taste better – not just a little bit better, but a lot better. In fact, once you taste free-range meat, the difference between it and the intensively reared stuff is glaringly obvious. Free range chicken is more tender and has more flavour because the chickens eat what chickens are supposed to eat, not pelletised food that contains goodness knows what. Pork from free-range pigs is leaner and more delicious as the pigs actually use their muscles instead of being cooped up, and as for free-range turkey – well it is utterly different from the almost flavourless intensively reared stuff. Seriously, try it and see.

Free range and organic meat is also better for you. For the most part the animals are fed a vegetarian diet, and live in cleaner conditions. Do you really want to eat an intensive raised chicken whose legs were burned by its own urine?

If consumers begin to demand ethically raised meat from supermarkets, the lives of animals and humans will be improved no end. The animals will live happier lives and we humans will be better off as well eating healthy amounts of meat that has been raised carefully without cruelty. If demand decreases for cheap meats, then hopefully farmers that are using intensive methods will be encouraged to change.

It’s a challenge, but as a society, we need to change our whole attitude towards meat in order to allow us to start using our power as consumers to end the cruel practices that exist in parts of the farming industry today. Intensive farming is affecting not just the animals, but also our own health and our environment. It’s time to encourage the industry to begin to move towards raising all the animals destined for our plates ethically and without cruelty by using our purchasing power to demand more free range, ethically produced meat. And the best way to do that is by buying it.

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