I spent January as a vegetarian. Nothing to do with the recent UK scandal about horse meat and food security (which became news after I’d started) but for my own personal reasons. I’m not squeamish about meat eating – after all, I have long owned a copy of John Seymour’s ‘Complete Book on Self Sufficiency’,which contains the unforgettable line ‘first lure your pig to the killing room’, but it’s the sheer quantity of meat that it seems people are eating that I am uncomfortable with.
Meat used to be revered. Reserved for High Days and holidays, a piece of meat would be cooked – perhaps for Sunday dinner – and then the left-overs used through the week to make more dishes. Thrifty cooks still do that now, and there are a proliferation of good cook books and websites on thrifty cooking and eating. But what makes my stomach turn is the unthinking way in which meat is eaten all the time – and largely poor quality, untraceable meat, in mince, burgers, chicken nuggets, etc etc.
It’s simply not sustainable for the planet for an ever increasing population to eat meat in the quantities we do. Huge emerging middle classes in quickly developing countries are now eating more like the UK or USA, when previous traditional diets were largely vegetarian. Great swathes of rain forest are getting cut down to graze beef cattle. Field after field of grain is grown – not to feed people, but to feed animals that will then feed people. The difference in resources required is enormous.
And as for fish, it is a worry that the humble mackerel, once the king of under-appreciated fish, has now made it’s way onto the MSC‘s list of unsustainable fish. I’d say the MSC is the best place to look if you’re interested in making good choices about the fish you eat.
I’m not suggesting that the world turn vegetarian. Though it would help, and it will be interesting to see what impacts the recent horse meat scandal has on the long term eating habits in the UK – though really I suspect very little. What I’m suggesting is that, by reducing the amount of meat we eat, choosing it carefully when we do eat it, and really enjoying it, instead of mindlessly buying another burger, we might help reduce the impact on the planet’s resources. I know that it is something of a middle class answer to talk about ‘making friends with your local butcher’ as not everyone has the luxury of either the time, money or indeed butcher, to make that decision, but choosing to eat less meat is within everyone’s grasp.
So, I shall climb down from my soap-box now.
What I’ve realised after a month of vegetarianism is that it can be much cheaper. A bag of lentils as a source of protein is far less expensive than even the cheapest cut of meat. I wanted to spend the month cooking proper food, not heating up vegetarian pre-prepared stuff, and I found that everything I cooked was cheaper than a meat containing equivalent.
I ate more vegetables too. I realise that this sounds obvious but I do not think for one second that a vegetarian diet is immediately healthier than an omnivorous one. After all, crisps, sweets and chocolate are meat-free, and I have met vegetarians in the past who have existed largely on chips. But when I’ve taken the time to cook new vegetarian dishes, it’s felt really positive, and not a second rate option.
I have a goal to try one new vegetarian dish each week for the year, and I’m keeping a little record of what I’ve cooked. I have been using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Veg Every Day’ and Sarah Raven’s ‘Garden Cookbook’ a lot, and also the recipes which come from Abel and Cole. My veg box is a place of ever increasing interest because of this shift in my eating and I can only hope that my allotment will be too.
I said that I’d had a month of vegetarianism, and since the end of January I have re-introduced meat into my diet. I’ve eaten meat twice. On both occasions, it was a really considered choice, in places with a strong provenance. I didn’t regret my decision, and thoroughly enjoyed what I was eating. Mindful eating definitely is a key, in my mind, to that decision. Apart from those two occasions, I have remained meat free and I am likely to carry on eating like this for some time.
(Incidentally, if you’re looking for good articles on the recent horse meat scandal, and the UK attitude to eating horse meat, try Them Apples)