Ponderings of an omnivore

August 31, 2016 11:26 am
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If you are a Buddhist and believe that any creature could be your mother from your past or in future, being vegetarian probably makes an awful lot of sense. But from a health and well being standpoint, could vegetarianism equate to a longer life, like that which can be seen in the Seventh Day Adventists who are vegetarians and among the longest-living people on the planet?

On the other hand, contrary to numerous reports citing meat as the most recent anti-Christ, could eating meat actually be the key to longevity? It seemed to be for the Plains Indians, who lived on buffalo and had the highest number of centenarians in history.

Ever since I (accidentally) booked to stay in a ‘Holistic Vegan Retreat’ during my honeymoon (believing it to be a spa hotel; the website was misleading!), the concept of veganism, as well as vegetarianism, has always slightly intrigued me. I still laugh out loud when I think of the shock (then anger) on my husband’s face when, upon arrival, we had a beetroot juice thrust into our hands before being herded off to our first ‘Sacred Yoga’ class. And I can’t help but cringe when I recall sitting in a tent waving crystal wands around while simultaneously hyperventilating and pretending to be a tiger. But aside from all the craziness, the vegan food wasn’t actually that bad – in fact it was surprisingly good if I’m honest. And the more I spoke to other guests (none of whom had been ‘duped’ by the website in the same way I had), the more the concept of veganism started to make sense and sound like a good, if not extreme, thing to do.

Anyway, four years on, I am still a meat eater, coming from a long line of meat eaters (everybody in my extended family and friendship group eats meat). My father claims that any meal without meat is ‘not a proper meal’ and would describe vegetarianism as an eating disorder. So rest assured when I say this article is not aimed at converting you, as that would be rather hypocritical.

So first thing’s first, what is a vegetarian, and what is a vegan? I didn’t know the difference until four years ago, but a vegetarian is someone who eats no meat at all (including fish) but does eat dairy products and eggs. A vegan is someone who does not eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or any other animal-derived product (e.g. honey or gelatine). Then there are lacto-vegetarians who are vegetarians that don’t eat eggs but do eat dairy, and ovo-vegetarians who are vegetarians that don’t eat dairy products, but do eat eggs. Finally, there are pescatarians, vegetarians that do eat fish, as well as dairy products and eggs. And just when you thought that was it, last but not least there are now ‘flexitarians’, followers of an increasingly popular ‘hybrid’ diet who do not want to commit to a full vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Flexitarians avoid meat most of the time but allow themselves the odd animal indulgence, be that a tasty steak or a Sunday roast, and generally try to make sure their occasional pound of flesh is ethically sourced and environmentally friendly.

The reasons for being vegan or vegetarian are numerous: rising meat prices, health concerns, compelling moral arguments, and an increased environmental awareness. With estimations that the world population will rise by more than 30% by 2050, the demand for meat is unlikely to be met. According to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO), 40% of food grown in the world today is feed for animals, and this figure is likely to rise. Approximately 23% of the planet’s arable land is used for cattle to graze, and it takes 7kg of grain and 15,415 litres of water to produce just 1kg of beef. In addition, that same quantity of beef produces 27kg of CO2 as a by-product! Wouldn’t it make more sense if humans simply ate the grain themselves thereby leaving more food to feed the world population while causing less damage to the environment? A country taking this matter into its own hands is Denmark, which has this year announced a proposal to introduce a tax on red meat with the aim of positively impacting climate change. It is well known that the Danes love their meat, but with reports that cattle contribute at least a tenth to global greenhouse gas emissions, and considering Denmark’s commitment to a 40% carbon reduction target by 2020, the Danish Council of Ethics decided that consumers alone cannot be relied upon to curb their own consumption of red meat. Thus it would be encouraged by way of a climate tax. Will other nations be inspired to follow suit?

Aside from the very real concerns surrounding the impact that meat-eating has on the environment, there is also the ever evolving debate on the medical and health issues posed by meat consumption.  A recent report by The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that processed meat and bacon are carcinogenic and that most likely so too is red meat. This association between red and processed meats with cancer mortality (colon cancer in particular) and cardiovascular disease mortality have long been recognised. A 2010 study carried out by Oxford University’s department of public health reported that eating meat no more than three times a week could prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer, and 5,000 deaths from stroke, as well as save the NHS £1.2 billion per year. In addition, there is mounting concern that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is driving up antibiotic resistance in humans, which could potentially lead to ‘superbugs’. Antibiotics are used in intensive animal farming in order to prevent disease, promote growth rates, and improve feed efficiency in the animals. However, the overuse of these drugs means that bacteria become resistant to them through overexposure, and the prospect of death from common infections which were once easily curable, suddenly becomes very real.

Another big motivation to become vegan or vegetarian is to prevent the unnecessary pain and suffering of animals. Many believe that if it is wrong to hurt a cat or a dog, then the appalling treatment which we inflict upon other (often just as sentient) creatures can surely not be justified. I wouldn’t consider myself to be a great animal lover but the thought of billions of animals being raised in intensive factory farms, caged in cramped and overcrowded conditions with no access to daylight or fresh air, and often diseased, injured and dying due to the unnatural conditions they are kept in, makes me think twice before biting into that double cheeseburger. At this point my father would dispute that it is a fact of life: animals kill and eat other animals therefore it is no different if a human does the same. Except I think it is. I imagine alien invaders one day discovering humans as a less intelligent life form, herding us into cages, separating us from our mothers and killing our friends and family in front of our eyes, before turning us into a pulled person burger. In a century’s time, or less, will people look back on our treatment of livestock as cruel and primitive, and those of us who eat meat as inhumane and immoral? I wonder if, in my defence when confronted by these aliens, I could plead my case as a mere ‘occasional’ consumer of meat, and one which only partakes in the organic variety. But the truth is, organic food probably isn’t as sustainable as we think. It is expensive and therefore not economically viable to a large proportion of the population, plus the large amount of space required means that there simply wouldn’t be enough land in the world to make everything free range. Unless of course, we all ate a lot less meat…

One particularly famous family trying to encourage the movement towards vegetarianism (at least once a week) are the McCartneys. Paul, Mary and Stella who, since 2009, have campaigned for us to partake in meat-free Mondays. The idea is that by abstaining from eating meat for one day a week we will benefit the environment, preserve the world’s natural resources, reduce certain health conditions, and make a positive financial impact through lower cost meat-free staples such as beans, rice and corn. Although the McCartneys are really championing this movement, the concept of not eating meat for one day a week is actually an old one. Alongside ‘Wheatless Wednesday’, ‘Meat-free Monday’ was originally started as a way of reducing the consumption of key staples during World Wars I and II. And even before that, people in medieval Britain had to ration their consumption of meat due to the expense, availability, and difficulty in preservation. But for those who can’t stomach a day without meat every week, there is always ‘World Meat Free Day’ on 13th June, which I’m sure even my carnivorous father could stretch to! A slightly more futuristic approach to a meat-free diet is the development of cultured meat, also called in vitro meat, which is the production of animal meat by means of ‘tissue-engineering’. The process involves cells being painlessly removed from animals, nurtured in a lab, and multiplied to create muscle tissue. Researchers claim that it is a sustainable way of meeting the global demand for meat, albeit an incredibly expensive one due to the infancy of the technology. It is, however, hoped that in 20 years’ time, cultured meat will be as common in our supermarkets as animal meat is today, with the added appeal of being environmentally friendlier, more ethical, and without associated animal suffering.

As omnivores consuming both plants and animals, human beings reap numerous benefits from a varied and balanced diet which incorporates everything from bacteria, fungus and plants, to crustaceans, birds and mammals. Despite our omnivorous nature leaning more towards plants (knowledge of early humans shows a more agricultural, plant eating dietary tendency than it does hunting and eating animals), it is highly unrealistic to expect everyone to stop eating meat completely. I think that the desire to eat meat is undeniable (indeed our hunter-gatherer ancestors were hugely desirous of it) and there is much research suggesting that the killing of animals and consumption of their meat played a large part in the evolution of human intelligence. Clearly, as a meat-eater myself, I don’t really have a leg to stand on in the argument for a meat-free future. While I battle with a myriad of emotions relating to my carniverous habits, I seek comfort from the knowledge that a bacon sandwich has been the downfall of some of the most dedicated of vegetarians. The unethical treatment of animals, the unsustainability of livestock farming, the gross use of antibiotics in agriculture, and the alleged health implications all associated with eating meat don’t sit quite so well though. In my journey to vegetarianism (or not) I shall adopt the term ‘flexitarian’ for my own eating habits. I hope that by reducing my meat consumption, as well as supporting small ethical farms equally appalled by modern industrialised meat production, I can influence the industry from the inside and be a small part of steering it towards more ethical and less cruel ways of farming. There are some who criticise flexitarianism for having the best of both worlds (I can’t disagree) and ‘cheating’, but I believe it also serves as a valuable gateway diet, ushering the half-hearted like myself towards a much healthier, sustainable diet where meat needn’t always be the ‘plat du jour’. And maybe, just maybe when the aliens come, they may acknowledge my good intentions and I’ll be towards the end of the queue for the human meat-grinder!


Written by Lyndsey Rose, Coriolis Ltd