Friday, 15 February 2008

meat - no more............

Moments of epiphany can happen in unusual places. Mine occurred after two hours of a Hindhu harvest festival.

Cold November sleet and rain lashed down over old Nottingham but here inside a converted print works the faithful met to give thanks, to sing and pray and hear the saffron robed monks. As two hours of Guajarati on a Sunday afternoon go, this was up with the best.

As the ceremony ended I was startled from my reverie on hearing my name through the PA.

‘We have a guest here today: Mr Carlyle is here. He is president of Mornington Primary School, he has a Hindu calendar on his wall – and he is a vegetarian. He would like to say a few words’.

Let’s deal with those statements in order:

Yes – ish.


No I’m not.

Definitely not.

But I went to the front in my stockinged feet and four hundred of the faithful waited on my ‘few words’. A man of greater moral fibre would have declaimed there and then that he was not a vegetarian. A member of the congregation who had made me a chicken curry a few weeks before could have punctured my balloon at that moment. But I did not and neither did she. And I resolved at that moment, in that holy place, with the monks and their congregation as my witness, that I would not be a hypocrite. I would be a vegetarian from that moment on.

My family had been vegetarian for over twenty years. Under this stiletto dictatorship few steaks cooked in our kitchen. A modest fish finger sandwich would induce retching in the masses. A less-sensitive human being would probably have grilled on regardless but I had got used to a largely meat free diet and so the move to not eating meat at all was not a giant leap. If I’m honest, I’d known it was going to happen.

But why??????

First of all, I am not against killing animals. In fact I do it myself. I set a rat trap by the compost bins; I crush asparagus beetles between thumb and forefinger, stamp on snails and collect caterpillars in a jar for the hens to eat. If I was allowed, I would shoot the wood pigeons that destroy my broccoli and do the same for the ubiquitous and fat grey squirrels that are a pest everywhere. We have three bantam hens in the back garden and when their brothers were knecked and eaten I felt this was entirely right. We have become denatured as a society and no longer understand that we must kill. No, killing isn’t a problem.

And eating meat is not a problem. I love it! When my friend chose a Gloucester Old Spot pork sausage roll packed with meat I sat by him asking him to describe each mouthful. I made sure he had enough brown sauce.

My vegetarianism is driven by the ways in which modern meat is produced and brought to the table.

The transport from one end of the country to another of live animals for slaughter is plainly wrong. These animals have been taken from an environment with which they are familiar and then driven hundreds of miles in cramped and frightening conditions. I remember watching a double-decker animal transporter waiting in the sweltering heat of a summer heat wave, its cargo of pigs baking in the sun. Transported animals are clearly unhappy. This is unnecessarily stressful and should stop.

Slaughtering on the farm, where animals have been raised, should be the way. I have seen animals in livestock markets that were terrified. I have seen cattle in pens outside slaughterhouses awaiting slaughter. You could smell their fear. Slaughter does not have to be mechanised and brutal. It is done with humanity all over the world. But not in the UK and not anymore.

And of course, methods of production are rightly being challenged. Hurrah for British farmers who rear pigs outdoors! Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver have rightly publicised intensive chicken production. It is iniquitous and unnecessary. But what of other meat production?

I remember the stench of fish food being administered to intensively-reared Scottish salmon when on Mull. We eat them after they’ve eaten that?? The whole issue of animal welfare should not be the province of the middle class foody. We should all be asking questions about how our meat is raised.

The routine use of antibiotics in intensive meat and milk production alone should give us huge concern. There is anxiety that these antibiotics, which are sometimes very similar to those we use, are transmitted to us through the meat and milk we consume. Are we routinely self-administering antibiotics every time we reach for the bucket of fried chicken?

So, we move to eating fish, until we discover that 60% of all catches are thrown back, dead, into the water because of catch restrictions to preserve stocks.

Of course there are more questions than answers. If we all consumed organic meat raised to the highest ethical standards there wouldn’t be a problem. Or possibly enough room on the planet!

So, my vegetarianism continues but it remains a challenge. My love of good food sits awkwardly as I look from my plate to that presented to my carnivorous friends. Quite whether the resolve is firm when I visit the Magpie Café in Whitby and my friend orders fish and chips remains to be seen.

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