Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Happy meat, schmappy schmeat, or: No such thing!

The Age has continued its slightly right but mostly wrong series on non-meat eating. Today's offering, "Who Needs Meat" by Nikki Fisher, gives the impression that vegetarianism is a grand new adventure, something a little bit craaaazy that the general public might be amused to read about. Those craaaazy kids! Next they'll be stuffing phone booths and having midnight feasts on campus and driving down to the lake in that old jalopy! Gee whiz!

The article begins promisingly, with:
WHEN trainee book editor Jane Winning first stopped eating meat eight years ago, she was motivated by a concern for animals and the way they died. Today it is a way of life for Winning, a keen cook who lives in Melbourne's inner north and shops for fresh produce regularly at Footscray and Preston markets.
Snaps to Jane! Jane continued the good work:
More recently, she has become aware of the toll that meat consumption takes on the environment. She says that after being a vegetarian for a couple of years, she discovered the work of Australian ethicist Peter Singer, who wrote the influential book Animal Liberation and later co-wrote The Ethics of What We Eat.
So far, so good. The article sets up the animal rights/welfare concerns like a flick of a left jab, follows it up with a solid right hook of the environment, and finishes off with a one-two combo of globalism and health benefits. That there's some teeth on the floor!
Winning typifies a growing awareness of how our food choices have a global impact. Coupled with the health benefits of reducing meat consumption, it is changing perceptions of vegetarian cuisine and who eats it. The mung-bean-munching whiff of hippiedom has gone; today's vegetarians match pinot gris with terrine of baby heritage tomatoes and sage and goat's cheese mousse. And they satisfy their consciences to boot.
And floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, Fisher delivers this one:

For those who have made the change or are moving towards it, the sophisticated vegetarian palate is well sated. Take Jacques Reymond's restaurant, for example, where you might sit down to a zucchini flower spiced with Japanese sancho pepper and cooked in lighter-than-air tempura batter, enhanced by the contrasting textures and flavours of cauliflower and horseradish dressing and sweet, slightly acidic beetroot glaze. Or perhaps tender white asparagus paired with green pea and mint puree and citrus emulsion.Hungry?

My goodness lordy lordy me, yes. Following comments from Vue du Monde echo the commitments of some of Melbourne's best dining rooms to non-meat cooking.

So how did it end up with our hero being KOd? Unfortunately Fisher appears to have wandered astray and taken the environmental route to the detriment of any meaningful discussion of why else people may choose to avoid meat. Like previous articles in The Age, this one completely fails to interrogate the assumption (or even recognise its existence) about the validity of eating meat in the first place. This is compounded by the linking of otherwise valid environmental concerns to the 'happy meat' argument:

Book editor Winning agrees. She says she knows several people who had been vegetarian for environmental reasons but now eat kangaroo meat and free-range organic chicken because "the farming of these animals doesn't have nearly as negative an effect on the environment as the farming of cattle does".


CARMEN Bateson, part-time food co-ordinator at Friends of the Earth cafe in Collingwood, eats meat occasionally, but it must be wild, organic or biodynamic.

I am always naively shocked by things like this. I know that many people's prime reason for being veg*n is environmental. For many animal or health issues come second, and I'm cool with that. But to feel that 'happy meat' so ameliorates all those ethical concerns that it's ok to chow down on kangaroos whose joeys may have been clubbed to death in the pouch, or on cows who may have led exactly the same existence as the ones who ended up in Big Macs except for the lack of chemicals in their feed, astonishes me. Happy meat is not ethical. It may be environmentally nicer, but the fact remains it doesn't guarantee any humanity in the life or death of creature killed, it still requires the death of living being, and I think that if you care enough about the environment to want to eat flesh that when alive hadn't consumed chemical feed, you should probably care a bit about the animal too. Eating happy meat means that you don't. At all. So just call yourself a chemical-free eater, not an 'ethical meat eater'.

I also found that the article presented vegetarianism like I imagine it was sometime in the early 1980s - tricky, unusual and at odds with the general population (oops, that's veganism!). Comments like these ones don't really do much to embed vegetarianism in the normal operaiton of society:

Winton cites gastro-pubs as being the worst offenders for offering the vegetarian little beyond a bowl of chips.
Winton again:
"Unfortunately some vegetarian restaurants give vegetarian food a bad name by serving bland food with no texture," Winton says. "I wouldn't expect my friends, who all eat meat, to go to a vegetarian restaurant - even a good one - so I go to a lot of non-vegetarian restaurants and wish their menus were more balanced."
In 17 years of vegetarianism across three continents I never, ever had to eat just a bowl of chips (and again ... that's veganism!). Sure, many pubs have little to offer, and many restaurants appear not to have let the 1980s with their veggie dishes, but just chips? Surely not. More to the point, though, is that these comments are not exactly welcoming or encouraging. A lot of would-be veggies are apprehensive about how they would manage their new choices in environments where they have previously relied on, say, a parma. Hearing that there's a lot of bad food out there (as though every meat dish necessarily tastes like manna mixed with ambrosia) and that friends shouldn't be expected to visit vegetarian restaurants - even good ones! - could be pretty disheartening.

Some sensible comments about health, such as this one by Dave Hughes:

Hughes says his motivations for abandoning meat were health and the environment. "I read that red meat can be linked to bowel problems. I haven't studied all the science, of course,but it made sense to me. Some of my family members had issues with bowel cancer ... once I get something in my head I just go with it."

were great. But some others made me gnash my teeth in grrrargh frustration:

"I'm no purist though," says Gowing. "If I feel like I need to eat some meat, I do."

In my year 8 Commerce class Mrs Eng taught us the difference between a need and a want. Guess which is which. Just admit you want it because you want it.

Nonetheless, the article presented a number of positive comments, although I note that most were made by people who have been involved in the vegetarian world for some time, or who really consider the beauty of cooking:

Paul Mathis, who opened Soulmama in St Kilda in 2002, has seen big changes in the business, especially in the diners at his dedicated vegetarian restaurant. "We get big, brutish men coming in now; we didn't have that six years ago," he says.

Mathis believes environmental concerns have sparked the shift. "Reasons to eat less meat are becoming clearer to more and more people through the general media..."

Beh Kim Un, chef and co-owner of Carlton's Shakahari, attributes the restaurant's success over more than three decades (it is the only vegetarian restaurant consistently included in The Age Good Food Guide) to its light-hearted approach to vegetarianism and food that balances vegetarian protein and texture in a mainstream way.

"Today 80 per cent of our customers are non-vegetarian; they come to Shakahari to supplement their meat diets," he says. This includes more men and people with environmental concerns.

Un brings produce from his organic farm outside Kyneton to the Shakahari kitchen. "If you have a good apple or beans you don't have to do much, and you don't crave anything else when you eat nutritious food," he says.
This is the other thing that Beh Kim Un said, and I think it deserves italics:

"The food touches people's psyche and they don't know why it is so good."

I might suggest that people who choose not to eat meat do know why, but that the universality of eating food that is as good for you as it is simply good, is a powerful thing.

So, let's get over the happy meat thing. It's okeydokey to be a veg*n whose prime motivator is the environment or health rather than the animals. But this doesn't mean that happy meat is cool. Or that vegetrianism is hard. Or that you should get all pretendy about.


lisa said...

I heartily support this rant! Although I do think that a lot of the blame for the crapness of the article lies with the people interviewed, not just the writer. I mean seriously, the FOE lady 'I eat meat' - WTF?! (And WTF is 'wild' meat when it's at home... wouldn't wild meat be, um, alive?) The nutritionist 'I eat meat because I need it' - WTF?! The woman who says 'I wouldn't expect my friends to eat at a vegetarian restaurant' - WTF?! I'm spluttering and rolling my eyes at the same time.

The author of the article also seems to conflate vegetarianism with pescetarianism (fish eaters, a term I prefer to vegaquarian because it sounds so different from vegetarian), and also seems to believe that people who eat meat can be vegetarian. If you want to eat meat, fine, but then don't call yourself a veg*n, simple.

I long to read an article that represents my real experience of veg*nism, i.e. that it's not hard and it's actually not much of an issue, and there's lots of tasty food that you don't have to pay $250 at Vue de Monde for. But this article just panders to an audience who are probably aware that they shouldn't be eating meat but is unwillinging to change their habits; lazily, it just works to confirm their belief that eating 'happy meat' is a good alternative. Gnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.

(Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this article but none of my quotes included. Kudos to them for plugging the Guide though - it's first The Age appearance!)

naturoo22 said...

I was interested to read the article as well. I'd have to agree that many people go vegie or vegan for environmental reasons as well as health and animal welfare, but many also return to being meat eaters for a variety of reasons so if they do directing them to Kangaroo makes a lot of sense.

Before you faint at that comment consider this point of view.

If aboriginals were able to exist here for 40,000 – 60,000 years eating kangaroos and a whole range of native flora a fauna do you think there may be something to learn from their agricultural ( or lack of ) practices.
Why in just a short 200 years did the poms manage to stuff our environment? Was it because they tried to bring European agriculture to Australia and land that is just not suited to it?

Before you complain about "cold blooded" people in the Kangaroo industry ( I've met a few and I can assure they were all warm blooded)these people are entitled to their position just as much as the extremist on the other side. It’s the job of our society to navigate a middle path between the extremes.

Let me pose however this scenario.
Being a good vegetarian I love my Soy based products I can eat my tofu and righteously complain about all those meat cold blooded meat eaters destroying those wonderful animals. I can sit at a BBQ with my pretend sausages and glare at all the carnivores with hate and disgust in my heart justifying because I am holding an equal amount of love for the poor animals that were sacrificed for the " Great Aussie tradition"
But just what was the ecological cost of soy burger?
Well firstly we take some virgin bush and clear the native trees and undergrowth ( this means destroying the homes of hundreds of thousands of native animals and insects for every hectare cleared) yes most of those animals will die and the environment destroyed for ever - that’s ok I didn't eat that sausage at the BBQ.
Next we plough up the ground which destroys the native ground cover and the homes of the remaining insects and reptiles and marsupials that burrow, have you seen the number of dead animals left in the wake of plough? Sure they may not be as big or as cute as a Kangaroo so they don't really count, but then the kangaroos used to eat those native grasses that we have just killed off didn't they?
Anyway back to growing this wonderful soy burger that I'm eating while holding hate in my heart for all those cold blooded people that kill animals.

Now we plant my genetically modified soy ( over 80% of the worlds soy is genetically modified). next we have to spray with some herbicide to ensure that those weeds ( native plants that used to provide homes an food for native animals) don't ruin our crop.
We let it grow a while and then as we get close to spring we now there will be a increase in the number of insects so we spray our crop with insecticide to stop them destroying our crop ( opps insects are the start of a massive food chain and the ecosystem relies on then for a whole range of diverse functions) guess we have just committed ecological genocide - Oh well at least this soy burger tastes good - or is that a slight chemical taste in my mouth.
Well now its time to harvest my crop, so in come our huge harvesters to strip our crop and take it away for more chemical processing because soy is actually poisonous and has to be processed in a factory through a chemical process to make it safe to eat - but its sure a cheap food source.
Back at the BBQ I can stare at that cold blooded monster with a black heart yes that one eating the Kangaroo steak - he was responsible for the death of a Kangaroo and I'll never forgive him for it - while on the other hand I'm just eating my soy burger !
Hope this opens another level of thinking for you.
For all the animals and the entire eco system – just the cute ones!

Miss T said...

Wow, cold-blooded. I don't think I ever said that, or implied it. Sorry if I did, but as my family, partner and most of my friends are omni I'd be pretty cold-blooded myself to think that!

Craig, the issue is not cuteness or the management of the environment by Indigenous peoples. It's about the ethics of eating a sentient being, and how we treat animals.

Most simply, the 'harvesting' practices for kangaroos allow for the killing of mothers with small joeys still in pouch, who are then allowed to be clubbed to death and disposed of al collateral waste. Adolescent joeys are often not with their mother but are unable to survive without her and die abandoned. This is my concern as it is deliberately cruel, not whether the animal in question is cute. I used the example of kangaroos in my piece because that is what was mentioned in the article, not because joeys elicit particular sympathy. I'm not quite sure though what you mean about the way in which Indigenous people lived pre-invasion - that's really not the issue here, although it's clear that Indigenous land management practices are valuable. If you are trying to say that eating kangaroo meat is environmentally more sound that beef from CAFOs, then it probably is - but to my mind that still doesn't make it right (also, land might be cleared to grow soy, but it's also cleared to run cattle and sheep!)

Further, the agricultural production of any plant matter involves some form of environmental modification. It's interesting that you use soy as an example. Animal Aid notes that soy is the most intensive water-using crop, requiring 2,000 litres of water for every kilo produced. Beef, on the other hand, requires 100,000 litres per kg, as well as the inherent ecologial damage. I would also suggest that using the example of the chemicals used in soy production is a bit disengenuous - this is the case in most plant matter production, and with meat too - I recommend Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation for a frightening description of the chemicals in food scent alone.

I also suggest Peter Singer and Jim Mason's "The Ethics of What We Eat" for an in-depth analysis of exactly how many creatures die as a result of cultivation and harvesting, although I have to say that I think it's a bit of a moot point in the context of veganism - we try to reduce suffering as much as possible, knowing that it is impossible to eliminate it. To stop trying because we know it will never be entirely eliminated is a bit of a cop out.

In summary, veganism stems from as many causes as there are vegans. But for people who choose veganism for primarily environmental concerns, I don't think that eating meat will ever be on the agenda because.

Thank you for your comments Craig. You obviously put a lot of time into them and that's the great thing about blogging: hearing from people about their views.

Miss T