Joanna Blythman Writing

Meat or veg?

Published in The Grocer 19 February 2011

If the environmental movement wants to be taken seriously by farmers and consumers, it must stop trotting out uncritically its anti-meat, dairy and egg party line and urgently refine its arguments. At the moment, American voices like that of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, shape the debate. His attack is crude and generic. Using the worst-case scenarios of the US’s industrial hog “farms” and feedlots, he argues that all livestock foods entail a greater or lesser degree of animal cruelty and contribute to the forthcoming ecological apocalypse. It doesn’t matter if meat, dairy and eggs are free-range, grass-fed, or organic, these are just lesser forms of the same broad-brush evil.

This approach is simplistic and lazy. There is no acknowledgement that UK and European farming is generally smaller-scale and more extensive. Yes, we do have large intensive farms and misguided voices are pushing for even larger ones, but we also have many smaller, more traditional, broadly progressive farms. To lump them in with industrial mega-farms is unfair, what’s more, its reactionary in effect because it polarises debate when we need productive dialogue. The discussion should not be whether we eat animal products at all, but what sort we eat, and in what quantity.

Part of the problem is that although those evangelising the anti-meat and dairy gospel talk a language of localism, they hand out a universal prescription for global woes. So because Americans eat grotesque amounts of meat, whole populations elsewhere must become vegan to correct the global imbalance. Using this logic, inhabitants of the lush, green Swiss Alps would be told that dairy is unsustainable and urged to switch to imported lentils, while the milk, meat and blood-consuming Masai tribesmen on arid East African land would be exhorted to live on lettuce.

In the UK, the promise of a sustainable diet based on plant food is cloud cuckoo land stuff. Our land is well-suited to livestock production; vegetables and fruit are never going to be our strongest hand. Moreover, many Britons could benefit nutritionally from eating more, not less, meat, dairy and eggs. Generic attacks on animal foods simply drive consumption of the cheap carbs and sugary processed products that fuel obesity. No wonder rickets is making a come-back. Would-be environmentalists need to re-write their script and take note.

Keep your hands off my rump

Published in Observer Food Monthly 22 June 2008

Apparently I need to reform my eating habits. A spot check of my fridge reveals the remains of a curry made from Scottish lamb, six free-range pork sausages from rare-breed Berkshire pigs, three cartons of organic yoghurt from Herefordshire at various stages of consumption, odds and ends of cheese (European and British), from ewe's, cow's and goat's milk, plus local organic milk, eggs and butter. In the freezer compartment, two trotters from Tamworth pigs peep out from behind a half-eaten carton of organic ice cream.

Authoritative voices of the ethical food world tell me that if I want to take useful personal action to help the world's spiralling population feed itself, then this little lot should go right in the bin. Methane from livestock contributes to global warming, livestock competes with people for staple food and devours scant water resources, the meat and dairy-heavy western diet makes people fat and unhealthy ... all unarguable truths.

But you know what? I'm not going to convert to any form of vegetarianism. I am suspicious of any universal prescription for addressing the global food crisis that doesn't take account of geographically specific cultural and agricultural circumstances. Try telling the Masai tribesmen who have reared livestock for millennia that they should plough up scrubby Kenyan savannah and plant millet.

Unless we want to cut down rainforest to free up more productive land, we have to face the fact that only some 35 per cent of the world's land area is suitable for growing crops, so in more places than not, vegetarianism isn't an option. In the global quest for food security, nations must surely support their native food economy first and foremost, and in Britain our agricultural strengths are most definitely milk and meat. That's not to knock Britain's horticultural sector. We can cultivate a surprisingly exciting and diverse range of fruit, vegetables and salads, but it is scarcely the strongest card in the UK's food-producing portfolio. But wet, green Britain lends itself to livestock production. Huge upland swathes of the country are quite incapable of growing food crops, but this otherwise agriculturally useless land can be grazed by cattle, sheep, goat, deer and other game. When meat and milk comes from predominantly free-ranging, grass-fed animals, this isn't stealing mountains of grain out the mouths of people, but harnessing natural resources to produce quality, healthy food.

It's now accepted that milk and meat from organic and pasture-fed animals has a superior nutritional profile to the grain-fed, intensively reared equivalent, with a better fatty-acid balance and higher vitamin levels. There's a social component, too. Upland livestock enterprises keep people on the land when otherwise they would drift to cities.

It is true that Britain also has extensive areas of semi-natural grassland with richer soil, currently used for livestock that could, theoretically, be drained and ploughed to grow fruit, vegetable and cereals. But in that process, all the carbon that is currently taken out of the atmosphere and stored in grass pasture would be released into the environment.

I also wonder about the practicalities of a UK-based vegetarian diet. I do 90 per cent of my food shopping in local, independent shops and at my weekly farmers' market. Meat and dairy stalls form the dominant category in the market, a snapshot of the contemporary realities of small-scale food production. It's all part of our battered UK artisan food heritage, and I'm not about to let it go without a fight.

There's a compromise to be struck here. None of us needs to eat huge quantities of meat or dairy products. It makes ecological sense to focus on beef, lamb and game, and show more restraint with pork and poultry, since grain forms a larger element in the diet of pigs and birds. Let's enjoy small amounts of well-raised meat and milk, never balking at paying the price required to produce it equitably, and wasting nothing.

A low meat and dairy diet? I have no problems with that. A no meat or dairy diet? Sorry, that sounds like ideology triumphing over common sense, time-honoured custom and appetite. I've stopped listening.