Last week I was invited to speak on Otherwise, an SAFM programme hosted by Nancy Richards.  No specific agenda, just a chance to share my enthusiasm for things green with whoever happened to be listening.

I was preceded, on the air, by Toni Brockhoven, who was introducing her new book, the ‘Living Without Cruelty Cookbook‘.  The book is meant to ‘make things easier for people considering changing their eating habits’ and is ‘a cookbook with locally available ingredients and with easy and often familiar recipes, albeit with a twist’.

The launch of the book was timed to coincide with the World Day for the Abolition of Meat (30 January 2010), an occasion aimed at ‘promoting the abolition of the idea of treating/viewing/exploiting animals as food’.  A touchy subject, to say the least, and one about which Toni is rather passionate.

The main idea put forward, aside from the emotional aspect of eating meat, was the effect global vegetarianism might have on global warming.  If we all became vegetarians overnight, the theory goes, our carbon woes might well be solved, and the world would be a happier, prettier place.

Well, as anyone listening will know, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, and very soon found myself weighing in on the subject.  In my view, a more balanced approach is necessary – that of cutting down drastically on the amount of meat we eat, steering way away from the mass-production that leads to battery-farms and feedlots, and being more connected with where, when and how our food was created.  To quote Michael Pollan, we get to vote with our forks three times a day, and that is the way I choose to do it.

I wouldn’t have thought that was too controversial, but I soon received a number of emails from ‘concerned listeners’, who viewed my stance as contrary to my ‘green’ persona, and took umbrage to what I had said.

So, because I’m not too sure about my verbal skills, and far better at expressing myself in words (and because I don’t want you folks out there thinking I’m an animal-hating harpy), I’d like to share the response I sent to those mails:

Thank you for getting in touch, and for challenging me on this issue.

I am well aware of the detrimental effects of producing meat on a massive scale – the strain on the planet’s resources, as well as the physical and likely mental suffering of the animals themselves. I am not ignorant of the conditions experienced on these factory farms, and am strongly against them. Perhaps I was not as clear about that as I would like to have been – I am far better at expressing my views in writing, rather than verbally.

I could never become a vegetarian because of my appreciation of the great diversity of food sources available to us as omnivores, but I do try to limit the amount of meat I eat, and to further limit that to meat that has, to the best of my knowledge, been raised in a humane and sustainable manner.

I do not think it realistic that human beings are going to very suddenly change their diets completely, and become vegetarians overnight. Some may be able to so, but I am for a more moderate approach: one of reducing significantly the amount of meat we eat, and supporting only those farmers that treat their animals with respect and care. The more we support them, the more likely it is that other farmers will choose to farm sustainably as well.

In contrast with this, I’d like to point out that, if done in a well managed, sustainable manner, raising grass-fed cattle (for example) can potentially preserve the environment, rather than destroying it. A recent article in Time Magazine went into this in some detail, showing that properly managed cattle farms can actually sequester more carbon than is produced, meaning they could help reverse the effects of global warming.

Feedlots are not the way to raise animals – on this point I entirely agree with you. Feedlots, battery farms and other means of mass-producing animals have come about because of mankind’s greed for cheap meat, and plenty of it. It is these operations that have taken animals out of a more natural habitat into one that requires the many external inputs that result in such high environmental costs: mass production of grain (which usually requires pesticides, artificial fertilisers and plenty of water), transport of the grain (often over long distances), the ridiculous amounts of water required to flush out the fetid, cramped quarters the animals must inhabit and more besides.

Naturally-raised animals, however, need not have such a high environmental cost, and can in fact form a self-sustaining system that no longer requires external inputs. It is a delicate balance, though: cows (for example) eat the grass and create manure; chickens follow behind and feast on the bugs contained in the manure; and the manure provides the ground with nourishment. By keeping the numbers limited – by eating cows, chickens and eggs – we become part of the cycle, and provide that balance. If there were too many cows, the land would be overrun, and the grass unable to replenish itself (the cycle would be disrupted).

And what of land that cannot be cultivated? If we are to feed the world’s population, we must use our space wisely and carefully. And eating animals that are able to graze that land is, in my view, a better use of available resources than shipping in plant-based foods from somewhere else.

It is a complex and multifaceted issue, but my personal belief is that the solution lies in mankind becoming less greedy, treating the earth and its creatures better, and developing a greater understanding of what our individual and collective impact is on this beautiful earth. Through this we can make better, greener choices, and rediscover how to live in harmony with nature – vegetarians and omnivores alike.

What’s your take on this?  I really do welcome constructive debate, so if you have something to add, please leave a comment below!

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