I’m not a vegetarian. Chances are, you aren’t a vegetarian either. In 2014, Mintel calculated that just 12%
of the UK is vegan or vegetarian. Clearly, therefore, we meat-eaters aren’t under siege. Vegetarians are about one-in-10 of the population and the majority go about their lives quietly.
They may occasionally complain about the ubiquity of goat’s cheese on pub menus. If you ask politely, they may explain why they’re vegetarian. But it’s almost unknown in mainstream public life for meat-eaters to be subject to vegetarian propaganda. We’re not harangued in the media. We suffer little online abuse. There aren’t any militant vegans waiting for us outside Byron with sharpened asparagus spears.
Yes, the UN and World Health Organisation have, gently, urged us to eat less meat to combat climate change and colon cancer, but if you want to eat bacon butties until the cows come home, and then turn those cows into juicy rib-eye steaks, you can. No one’s stopping you.
But, despite this, many carnivores take a bullishly aggressive stance toward vegetarians. There can be no online discussion of vegetarianism that does not include BTL trolling about how, “meat is murder; tasty, tasty murder” or gags about malnourished vegetarians. Vegans are routinely dismissed as self-righteous. “How do you know someone is vegan?” runs the lame joke. “They will tell you, repeatedly.”
On social media, the tone is even more macho and provocative: #meatporn. Many people can’t Instagram a burger or tweet about a steak without attacking those who they imagine subsist on Quorn and kale crisps. “Look at what you’re missing you poor, sexless vegetarians!” runs the standard LOLZ-free rhetoric.
Simultaneously, meat-eaters hold vegetarians to a strict moral code. They’re desperate to expose their so-called hypocrisy. Do they wear leather shoes? Do they drink beer made with isinglass? Why don’t vegans campaign about the exploitation of workers on fruit farms? It’s a bizarre line of attack, particularly considering the socially aware, left-leaning politics of many vegetarians, but it will invariably reach a crescendo through 16-22 May, during National Vegetarian Week.
Why all the hate? My theory is that, buried under layers of lard and jamón ibérico, many meat-eaters harbour a nagging moral insecurity. I know I do. They attack vegetarians because, deep down, they worry that vegetarians might be right.
How many of us have ever really questioned our meat consumption? For the vast majority of us, meat has always been there. We learned to love it as children, and little wonder. Meat is very tasty. And that was that. Subsequently, very few
of us will have seriously engaged with meat as an ethical question.
But that question refuses to go away. In an imaginary Year Zero situation, with all we now know, would we choose to eat meat? How many of us would be able personally to kill an animal? The meat industry sells us neatly shrink-wrapped joints unrecognisable as animal parts precisely because most people (many of them blowhard he-men online), could not stomach the grisly reality of meat production.
Personally, the fact that animals are killed to provide me with food doesn’t keep me awake at night, but nor am I proud of it. The fact that the animals I eat suffer pain and distress is ethically problematic. At a low level, I’m conflicted about eating meat. Not to the extent that I’m going to do anything radical about it, because I’m (a bit) lazy and I’ve eaten roast rib of Hereford Longhorn beef and don’t want to give that up. But, nonetheless, meat is troubling.
I can’t pretend that there are, necessarily, better ways to eat meat, either. Yes, we should buy meat slaughtered in a humane, stress-free way. It will taste better and dispatching the animal efficiently is the least we can do. We should eat
its squidgy offal, too. Not because this ‘honours’ the animal (note: a dead lamb takes no comfort from the fact you ate its sweetbreads), but because such nose-to-tail eating is ecologically sound.
But even the most sensitively reared meat comes with some ethical baggage and, honestly, who eats that responsibly all the time? I try, but like you I also regularly eat products that contain processed meat whose origin is murkier than the horsemeat scandal. What can I say? I’m a flawed human being.
If all this sounds ridiculously woolly, it’s meant to. This is reality for many meat-eaters: we’re not rabidly pro-meat – it exists, we enjoy it, but we also have issues with industrial meat production and we know that the days of cheap, unlimited meat are numbered. Eventually, we in Western societies will be called upon, if not forced, to eat less meat. You can sulk. You can bury yourself in repeats of Man v. Food. You can bait vegetarians online. Or you can embrace that.
Across India and East Asia, millions of people eat amazingly well while consuming little or no meat. In Britain, we’ve barely begun to engage with how, for instance, meat-free Levantine cooking, post-Noma pickling and fermentation, or clever Gujarati spicing might transform our understanding of the variety and depth that can be achieved in vegetarian food. But, long-term, that’s our future.
National Vegetarian Week is a good time to call a truce. Vegetarians aren’t the enemy. In fact, if you care about eating well (in all senses of these words), vegetarianism should be an inspiration.
Written by Tony Naylor. First published April 2016
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