Vegetarianism is often viewed as the domain of hippies, oddballs, eccentrics and at times maybe a little ‘chic’. There still persists the notion that vegetables are for flakes. People who don’t eat meat are regarded as utterly lacking in taste, unnatural and/or just plain weird. People are frequently surprised that I’ve concerned myself with the issue at all – least of all for the last 15 years. At the end of the day, I also look far too ‘healthy’ (read: Big Boned) to be a vegetable only guy.
So what’s my issue?
When talking about food, ethical objections are generally divided into opposition for the act of killing in general, or opposition to certain agricultural practices surrounding the production of meat. I have always fallen into the later. Reasons for objecting to the practices involved in killing animals for consumption may include animal rights, environmental ethics, or religious reasons. Personally, none of the above really fit. I’m principally concerned with animal welfare – a subtle difference.
“To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.” Mahatma Gandhi
I’m not exactly of this vein, but I certainly acquiesce to the view that meat does involve murder – and as such should be handled with care, kindness and compassion. I have always maintained I would happily raise, kill, cook and eat my own cattle if I was confident I could do it well in a manner that was ‘humane’. Obviously this course of action hasn’t feasible or realistic for me – I’m not specialised (or indeed capable) in any facet of agriculture and neither am I interested in being a farmer, slaughter-man or butcher. Instead I abstained.
For me, catching/farming and killing fish was always more reasonable with far less suffering on the part of the fish. For as long as I could remember I’ve been a pescatarian (though I didn’t always know the title). My problem has always been practical one. If I was invited to a friend’s and they had prepared dinner without realising my issues (and they were MY issues) I was resolved to smiling and carrying on with dinner without a fuss.
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” Albert Einstein
Despite what Albert might think, there’s very little no doubt in my mind that not eating meat is bad for you in at least some respects. For me, you either have to be a good vegetarian and eat a well managed and full diet (heavy on fish and fruit) or suffer as a bad vegetarian. With many of the studies supporting non-meat diets in my corner, I worked for a balanced diet (and like almost everyone was mostly unsuccessful). I consumed too many carbohydrates, too little protein and cheese has been far to regularly the ‘substance’ attached to my meals.
In reality, the solely plant-based diets of some warmer, eastern countries probably doesn’t really suit Irish people, our climate and our way of life. Practicality is likely a factor as why, according to a recent report prepared by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), Ireland has the second lowest rate of vegetarianism among 29 countries.
After over a decade of refusing to eat meat. Why now?
The opinions of my teens have becoming an increasingly dated position. Friends know I’ve never had a problem in principle with farming livestock. It has always been a number of intensive farming methods that have made industrial farming impossible for me to defend, but this is a reason for passing laws to protect animals better not excluding myself from the system. My principled decision to ‘save’ the furry creatures one meal at a time was mostly brought about as a result of a abhorrence at the state of live animal imports/exports and the terrible animal standards applied within mass meat production. I stand by the decision for that time. As a child, I had no power to influence behaviour other than controlling my own diet. I have long appreciated the phrase “There is no right or wrong – There is only what serves you and what does not.” My historical position then, no longer serves me well enough.
With the establishment of international and national standards surrounding the care and concern for animals in commerce has resulted in significant improvements in animal welfare. For instance, the 2007 EU ruling (Council Regulation (EC) 1 of 2005 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations) on the protection of animals during transport came into operation. The impact of legislation to enforce animal identification and regulation for travel, has encouraged significant improvement in the welfare of animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, dogs and poultry, during transport throughout the European Union for commercial purposes. This was given legal effect in Ireland by the European Communities (Animal Transport and Control Post) Regulations 2006 (S.I. No. 675 of 2006). No longer is it acceptable to bring cattle for days without water or the ability to move – as had been the case. With regulation that allows us to track food from farm to plate and the advent code of practice we are now in a position to be far more secure in our understanding of what is on our plate and how it got there.
Indeed by continuing to ‘boycott’ I have in fact failed to support domestic producers who have invested greatly in reaching the standards I had been so keen to see. As is so often the case, abstaining didn’t enhance the debate or bring resolution any closer.
As I see it now, it would have been more effective to support best practise. Supporting those who apply acceptable minimum standards and offering support for those who seek changes to agricultural policy seeking to provide farmers with incentives to convert to higher welfare systems. I also now understand that these improvement on the supply side must be matched by complementary demand side developments in issues like effective and transparent food labelling, public information campaigns to assist consumers and the exposing of the proliferation of sham ‘standards’ that have taken advantage of shoppers good will. Abstaining does nothing to support the very positive steps being taken.
So, what’s the change?
Well in practical terms very little. I doubt I’d ever be a big meat eater. After so many years I don’t really feel much of a draw to it. There may be less funny looks around the dinner table though. I’ll probably be less annoying to cook for and take out for dinner too.
Going forward, I’ll be more open to what’s available. That won’t mean I’ll be any less dogmatic. I’ll insist my food supports all of the buzz words when choosing my shopping and deciding on items from menus: Free range, organic, 100% local produce and supporting producer with a fair deal etc etc. I’ll always seek out only those foods certified by state bodies or reputable authorities such as the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association. With the support of these ‘standards’ I’ll probably decide to dabble with eating beef, possibly pork and probably never chicken.
“The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” ~Leonardo da Vinci
Fortunate to have been raised in a developed western country, I had to luxury of following ‘Ethical Vegetarianism’. I don’t doubt that affluence has been a caused of this popular consideration; indeed, it has ironically been broadly underpinned by the spread of factory farming.
However, in closing, I’d say that not eating meat might be unnatural – but so is farming our prey rather than hunting it. Farming has been a vital to our development as a people – now we have reached this point so too will be our adherence to animal welfare standards.