Voting with my fork

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!

7 Comments

  • Birthe says:

    The world would be a better place if we all did things in moderation – that is emotionally and mentally. What you have done, Pia, is “thinking things through” and used a moderate approach – and I am proud of you!

  • Juno says:

    Hi Pia

    I heard this interview on the radio, and I was impressed at your balanced and considered alternative viewpoint.

    I also liked the way you stuck to your guns.

    The very notion that all humans should abandon eating meat altogether is, to me, ludicrous, unrealistic and frankly pie-in-the-sky. However worthy its logic, this idea is just not in touch with reality. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but it’s all very well to promote veganism from the comfort of one’s suburban home, but a different matter altogether when you are an impoverished shack-dweller confronted by six protein-starved urchin children. In this case, a tin of pilchards is an unimaginable luxury.

  • brendan says:

    Hi Pia,
    I too have drunk the Michael Pollan coolade. I eat meat and feel as an omnivore its something I should do, as long as its happy meat and you have some idea of where its come from and how its been raised and slaughtered.
    Having returned six months ago from living in the Netherlands I had an organic butchery 2 doors down from a game butchery so I was spoiled for choice, which is less apparent here unfortunately.
    Where do you get your happy meat from? I go to the Wild Butchery in Woodstock, the German guy at the top of Kloof street, but i dont know where to find decent pork…

  • Rishad Omar says:

    Hi Pia,

    I’m sorry I missed your talk on radio but the topic is close to my heart. Today’s animals are “farmed” very intensively and lead very poor lives. I’m working towards becoming a vegan for 3 reasons:

    1) My health. Animals are fed anti-biotics, hormones and food that is not wholesome. One example is that the feces of cows is being recycled and fed to the cows. True, this does provide the needed nutrition to the animal – but do I want to eat the animal that is grown like this?

    2) Morally contemptible. I’m sure when anyone of us looks back we think how cruel apartheid was. How cruel slavery was. Yet many people who lived through those years thought it completely acceptable. It is so cruel the way we bring up animals in factories (also called farms). A good book I read was: “The pig who sang to the moon” which provides great motivation for us to reconsider the part we play in this world.

    3) Destroying the Earth. The land that cows graze on can be more productively used for vegetables. Every day, more of the rain forests disappear to make space for grazing land. We’re also decimating the diverse number of creatures that inhabit this planet that we share and not own.

    Thanks, Rishad

    P.S. Anyone wants to borrow “The pig who sang to the moon” contact me via Pia.

  • Colleen says:

    Hi Pia,
    Very interesting subject. I used to be a regular meat eater but these days not as much. I was sent over to your blog by Juno from Scrumptious South Africa.

    I am busy organizing the first SA Food Bloggers Conference in Cape Town and hope you might be interested in attending. Here is the link for more information….it is a work in progress over there but the general information is all on the site….

    http://sa-food-blogging-conference.blogspot.com/

    Do let me know if you would be interested in booking a seat. Thanx so much,
    Colleen
    .-= Colleen´s last blog ..HOT CHEFS AND CAPE TOWN FOOD BLOGGERS CONFERENCE 2010 =-.

  • Pia Taylor says:

    Hi all, and thanks for your comments!

    @Juno – nicely put. People just aren’t seeing the bigger picture, only their tiny little slice of it, and we all need to gain a lot more perspective before we can change things for the better.

    @brendan – we Capetonian ‘flexitarians’ are starting to have it a bit easier. I too go to Wild, and I’m starting to see Spier’s sustainably raised ‘happy’ chickens at all sorts of places, like the Earth Fair Market in Tokai (I think it was at Rudi’s sausages, or the next door stall) and Kwalapa in Newlands. Not sure about pork – I don’t eat that that much – but going by the Wholefood Almanac, you can find some at Joostenburg Deli (Stellenbosch – 021 884 4303) and Oak Valley (Elgin – 021 859 2510). Perhaps a bit far out of town, but they may supply delis in Cape Town.

    I’m also chatting soon with a few interested parties about getting some sort of ‘buying club’ together that could bring us Pollanites together to buy ethically produced meat direct from the farmer. I’ll let you know how that goes.

    @Rishad: Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that factory farming is having the devastating effects you mention, and that it is totally abhorrent. On your last point, I think the main problem is that so much fertile land is being ripped up to plant the grains that are fed to cows – not that there’s an excess of grass-feeding going on.

    Feeding cows on grass is sustainable, because it works in rotation, their grazing encourages grass growth, and their dung nourishes the ground as they move along. Plus, the motion of their hooves, when they are rotated effectively, creates aeration and a balance needed by the soil. I don’t think eliminating the cow’s role is necessarily the way to go – but we need to make it a more natural one.

    @Colleen: Sounds very interesting! I’ll take a look and get back to you…

  • Sharon says:

    Hi,

    I’m so glad I found your article. I have been desperately researching this very subject on the internet and have not, until now, found anything about cruelty free meat. I would be willing to pay a lot more for meat that I know is from humanely treated and killed animals.

    I sent an email to the chairperson of Beauty without Cruelty the other day to find out, but all she would say to me was that it’s cruel to eat meat and there is no un-cruel way to kill animals. I told her that I was going to try to cut down on meat, but that my husband would still be eating meat, and therefore did they know of any places that sold such meat. She didn’t deign to reply…

    So my question is quite urgent as I feel quite strongly about this… Do you (or anyone else) know of a place in Jo’burg that I can get some cruelty free meat??

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