I decided, age 11, that I wasn’t eating meat. Not no more. Not no how. My mother was horrified and thought I would die of malnourishment. To be fair to her, she learned to cook a few staple dishes: her version of a veggie paella (with burnt tomatoes that tasted surprisingly good) and a cheese, potato and onion bake. We also discovered pasta – a never seen before carb’ in our potato dominated house.
As you will note, I lived! I soon found out about various aspects of nutrition, which sparked a life-long interest (and various certificates along the way) in diet, food and cooking. The average supermarket didn’t have ‘veggie options’ in the early 70’s and meat-spurners were forced to buy weird things from wholefood shops that were packed in brown paper bags. You had to be creative and engaged to survive without turning into a lentil-eating, sandal-wearing hippy. As an up-coming teen, that was definitely not a cool vibe. Rose Elliot, and later Sarah Brown, were my lifelines. I cooked every recipe in those original books, discovering the amazing array of plant based foods, without the need for weird things from hushed wholefood emporiums.
I remained a vegetarian for over 30 years, fairly strictly. I was never a vegan, I relied on eggs too much, but I’ve since dabbled with vegan cooking and enjoy the challenge from time to time, although not as a permanent lifestyle choice. Being a vegetarian definitely made me more adventurous than my meat and two-veg mates, though it by no means guarantees a healthy lifestyle. Over dependence on dairy can be a recipe for weight gain, and eating vegetarian versions of junk food – pizza, chips, convenience foods – will leave you equally lacking in vital nutrients and as drowning in surplus calories as your carnivorous counterparts.
I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop being a vegetarian. I simply decided to add a little fish protein to my diet at a time when I was unwell and needed to make an extra effort to look after myself. I’m not saying that you can’t be healthy and look after your nutritional needs on a plant based diet – I did it for over 3 decades. What I am saying is that for me, eating sustainably sourced fish was something that I incorporated into my diet and found I enjoyed.
When I moved to the Highlands of Scotland I decided to try wild venison. A healthy and sustainable option for meat protein. (The deer need to be managed, to some extent, to keep numbers supportable in the environment, and make sure weak herd members don’t starve in harsh winters. ) So, I enjoy some locally caught and butchered wild venison occasionally. And occasionally is the key word. My diet is still largely based around vegetables meals, with one fish dish a week and a meat meal very rarely.
There is absolutely no doubt that in the UK we all need to reduce our meat consumption. The current levels are not sustainable. There are issues with the conditions of animals reared in other countries. There are issue with transportation of livestock. There is also some question as to the ultimate healthiness of a high meat protein diet. Above all there are environmental issues with excessive meat consumption, where land is given over to growing meat, when it would be better used for growing crops. However, it is also true that there are areas of the UK where crops cannot be grown. Some areas of the highlands are prime examples. The land is designated as ‘rough grazing’ and the fact is that you couldn’t grow crops on it if you wanted to. In this instance, ruminating animals are the best way of turning poor grassland into a viable protein source. If we all reduce our meat consumption and concentrated on buying better quality grass-fed UK animals, we could do a lot better by our farmers, who often struggle to turn a living, never mind a profit. Farmers in the highlands, along with crofters, have always struggled with the poor land and the harsh environment, if they were supported with better networks and better prices, we could be self-sufficient in beef and lamb, without the need for imports.
Raising meat well takes time and effort. The inputs are greater and it costs more, but it is a better option than antibiotic laced, GM fed imports. I appreciate not everyone can afford the price of an organic chicken or a slow-growing grass-fed piece of beef, but if you only ate it once a month, once every few months, it would make it more likely.
Many people will disagree with my stance, and that’s fine. I’m not preaching for people to stop being vegetarians, or to become vegetarians. I’m encouraging you to be conscious about what you’re eating and the implications it has for your health and the health of the planet.
If everyone became vegetarian tomorrow, or next week, it would not save the world! Many vegetarians eat soya, which has its own set of ethical issues. The UK would not return to some mythical ‘green and pleasant’ land. It is more likely to become a barren place of housing estates, out-of-town shopping centres and miles of tarmac. In the highlands, where some of the grazing animals contribute to environmental schemes, the land would be overrun with non-native species and gorse, the deer would run riot, and new forestry would be under threat. The natural world has a delicate balance and humanity has intervened for centuries, impacting it for both good and bad. Without management, many highland species of plant and animal life would not survive. Already threatened by habitat loss, they would struggle even more with herds of wild deer and sheep rampaging across the countryside.
Eating is both an ethical and political issue these days. There is much to despise in modern farming, and there is also much to admire: there is good husbandry and bad; people who care about the environment, and people who don’t. As consumers we need to encourage the good practices by demanding high welfare, slow growing, grass fed, non GM fed animals. We need to be prepared to eat less meat and pay more for it. We need to shun cheap imports that out-compete our home-grown meat on price, but not on quality.
So much of my life has been spent as a vegetarian that I still think of myself as such. Most of my meals continue to be plant based, and when I do eat meat protein, it is always locally sourced, usually from someone I know personally. We don’t all have the luxury of those choices, but we do all have the responsibility to think about what we eat and where it comes from. My way of eating doesn’t have a label. It’s individual, and so will yours be – flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore – it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a thought-out position. That will mean you’re doing what you can with the resources you have, to eat well – for you and the planet.
Food ethics, security and sustainability is a huge topic. If you want to find out more, the food ethics council is a good place to start: