Friday, November 2, 2012

Meat Eater

This is the first of a series of posts about food. My diet has changed considerably over the past few years, largely informed by various books and documentaries about food politics and food ethics. I postponed reading Peter Singer and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What We Eat until last year, concerned that it would "turn me vegan" (in the way that I was moved by Singer's The Life You Can Save). I admire my vegan friends but I'm still eating meat, despite compelling arguments against it and pretty unsubstantial arguments in support of it. Here I try to figure out why.

Growing up, I ate what was probably a standard Aussie diet - meat and two veg every evening and the occasional meat product in my lunchtime sandwich (although polony and chicken loaf are stretching the definition of "meat"). Typical dinner offerings from mum's kitchen included pork chops, lamb chops, spaghetti bolognese, fish fingers, grilled chicken wings and, for special occasions, steak and eggs. For most of my life, I felt that a lunch or dinner without meat was incomplete.

I remember the meat industry TV advertisements of my childhood. like the catchy "Get Some Pork on Your Fork" (and the less catchy "Pork - The Other White Meat"). There was the one featuring a before-she-was-famous Naomi Watts turning down dinner with Tom Cruise* because "Mum's doing a lamb roast." Then there was Sam the sexist butcher and the dorky Dad cooking an exotic beef stir-fry.

I don't notice as many meat ads now (except a dancing Sam Neill praising red meat for its "evolutionary benefits" and that angry racist lamb guy) but I guess the meat companies don't need to push themselves in TV ads because they can get to us through our voracious appetite for fast food and TV cooking shows. In the Masterchef All Stars Finale (one of the highest-rating TV shows in Australia), the first challenge was to cook a "family feast". When eventual winner Callum Hann announces that he is cooking a vegetarian feast (because his sister is a vegetarian and they always have vegetarian meals at family gatherings), some of the other contestants are incredulous (skip to 10:25 in this video). The judges eventually persuade him to cook a meat dish, insinuating that he cannot win if he cooks a vegetarian meal. I was very disappointed by this. Surely it would demonstrate superior skill to cook a vegetarian feast to satisfy fourteen meat-eating judges?

So, why should I meat? (Hmm...insert graphic of tumbleweed...crickets chirping too...)
  • Um, it tastes good and I enjoy it. Not a very convincing argument. 
  • I've heard arguments that farm animals will go extinct if we don't eat them - that seems pretty silly. Some of the animals that have been selectively bred to maximise meat production in the shortest lifespan have horrible, painful lives because of their bizarre anatomy. Also many non-farm animals are made extinct by clearing farmland to farm animals. 
  • Yes, meat is a good source of protein but most of us eat many times more meat than is required for adequate protein intake. A vegetarian diet can easily provide adequate protein.
  • One of the best arguments I've seen for (or at least to justify) meat eating is one by Jay Bost that won a reader competition in the New York Times earlier this year about the ethics of eating meat (and judged by some of my heroes including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and Peter Singer). He sums up the purpose of this entire blog post succinctly (had I known about it earlier, I might not have bothered).
I can think of many arguments against eating meat:
  • The cruelty (not just of killing animals but the inhumane conditions under which they are raised). 
  • The huge amount of water consumed, when millions of humans don't have access to clean water.
  • The huge amount of feed consumed, when millions of people are starving.
  • The massive amounts of pollution from factory farms.
  • The land cleared for farming.
  • The health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

My compromise is to eat less meat - once per week is my current target. I only eat organic or free range poultry, eggs and pig (which does not include "bred free range") and grass-fed beef. (Organic certification in Australia requires the animals to range freely on pasture.) I try to purchase this from farmers' markets, where I can talk directly to the farmer. My next aim is to visit some of the farms. When dining out, if the restaurant cannot guarantee the animal ingredients are free range then I stick to a vegetarian option.

I have not gone into seafood and non-farmed animals here - I'll save those for another time.

I have only been doing this for 18 months or so but I have found it easy to adhere to these rules and I find it has made my diet more interesting. I appreciate meat much more than I did previously. If I'm wavering over (non-free range) bacon and eggs on a breakfast menu, I just picture the cruel conditions under which these animals are raised.

Animals Australia recently launched a "Make It Possible" campaign to end factory farming, featuring (Australian) celebrities. You can take a pledge to refuse factory-farmed meat, eat less meat, go meat-free or donate to the cause.

*Younger readers: It is difficult to imagine but in the 1980s, dinner with Tom Cruise was considered a desirable prize for many women.

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