I became a vegetarian after I read this book, but a seed was planted long before that: my mum was a vegetarian until I was around 8 years old (her culinary repertoire remained largely vegetarian even after she reintroduced meat to her diet), and I didn’t like red meat as a child anyway (not to mention my whole family always did and still do love animals A LOT). Back then I was almost vegetarian by default.
But things changed when we moved to New Zealand: Encouraged by a culture that really and truly loves its meat (and arguably, some of the meat here is of much higher quality than a lot of that found overseas – ALL New Zealand cows are grassfed, for example), I became a proper carnivore. Medium rare steak was my favourite thing at restaurants; I’d go fishing with my then boyfriend, then gut the fish and fillet them like a pro; and I’d eat the wild deer he’d bring home, taking some comfort in knowing that at least the animal had had a better life (and death) than most farm animals could hope to have. I ate more lamb and beef than anything else during my undergraduate years at university, because most of my friends came from sheep and beef farms = free meat supply.
When I described this lifestyle to friends and family in London and Warsaw, I often got the same reaction: “that’s…gross” and, “your boyfriend HUNTS?” The irony was that they were meat-eaters themselves – it’s just that their meat came nicely packed in trays and cellophane with little evidence that it was ever a living being, which likely lived its short life in terrible conditions. The sad truth is that we are so divorced from the reality of where our food comes from, that that is half the reason our food system continues to be in the state its in.
Still, I started having trouble even thinking about the wild dear in a way that justified my eating it. I was plagued with thoughts of a philosophical nature… do I need to eat this dear? Why do I think that my horse deserves a life, but the dear doesn’t? I consoled myself by repeating. “it’s the circle of life. And I am the lion.” Only I’m not a lion… but I’ll come back to that.
In 2009, New Zealand’s pig farming methods and laws came under media scrutiny. As I sat watching the news one night, I was appalled to hear of the cruelty taking place in our piggeries. I vowed not to eat pork again, and, realising that chickens were no better off, chicken was off the menu too. This, coupled with my constant philosophising, meant my relationship with meat became tenuous. 6 months later I came across ‘Eating Animals’ in a bookshop and, well, that was that.
I want to elaborate on a few conclusions I have come to in my journey to vegetarianism: I still don’t know whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to kill animals for consumption (to go back to the lion analogy, I’m not like a lion because I have a CHOICE. But not all humans have (or feel like they have) a choice either…). I think that a right-or-wrong standpoint is too simple, and does not take into account the many, many reasons people have for eating meat. My decision to stop eating meat altogether – even the wild and organic kind – is a personal choice that feels right for me.
I do however think that intensive farming practices are abhorrent. It is a system that abuses both animal and human rights, and places the welfare of our planet in jeopardy. Do I think that my decision not to eat this meat has a direct effect on market demand? No, but by choosing not to eat it, it gives me a little piece of mind that I am not part of ‘the system.’ And I hope that as the number of people who call themselves vegetarian, vegan or ‘conscious omnivore’ increases, the more awareness there will be around the topic, and the greater the chance for a revolution (!)
My final note is on labels, and, as I anticipate the question, why aren’t you vegan? I will answer that here too: I call myself a vegetarian, but in truth I am not such a fan of labelling at all – it can lead people to feel guilty for ‘failing’ their label, should they ever eat foods outside of those ‘allowed.’ I think this is very unhelpful, as anyone trying their best to make a difference should never feel judged for their food choices. For example, when I am with my family, I will occasionally eat (sustainably caught) fish. I am not vegan because, whilst I think the vegan lifestyle is admirable, I personally am happy to eat organic eggs from content chickens (I try to limit the eggs I do eat to ones from farms I know, because the labelling of ‘organic’ and ‘free range’ eggs in supermarkets is a contentious issue. One day, I’d like to own my own chickens!). I try not to eat any dairy, although I am partial to goat’s feta. I think a rigid dogma around what constitutes veganism or vegetarianism is something that really puts-off anyone who might otherwise be curious to know more, and do what they feel is right – whether that be avoiding all animal products, eating only ethically raised meat, or simply restricting their meat consumption to weekends. My conclusion: labels-shmabels – lets just support each other!
If you’re interested in making ethical choices around meat and animal products, I recommend gathering some info from Farm Forward (it is an American website, but a lot of the information is relevant to the Western diet in general). Also, ‘Veg Everyday’ is a fantastic cookbook by British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who is not a vegetarian or vegan, but who nonetheless believes that people would do well to cut down on their meat intake. He is also keen to emphasise that vegetables CAN be the dinner plate’s centrepiece!
I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment below! X.