By Lauren Edwards
I have been a strict vegetarian, a vegan, a pescatarian (just fish), a pollotarian (chicken and fish) and a fegan (chicken and fish but no dairy). Nowadays, I’m a fairly dairy free vegetarian and recently, on occasion, I have started eating a fish again; I have given up trying to name myself! My husband and two sons are carnivores and my daughter claims to be a vegetarian (apart from the occasional Dorrington’s sausage roll).
I would never tell anyone to give up meat, but I do think that we should all remember that the meat we eat was once an animal. I personally try to ensure that the meat I buy for my family is organic, free-range, outdoor bred, and to try and convince myself that each chicken that makes up my son’s mainly chicken based diet had a nice life and was slaughtered in a humane way; preferably by having its beak stroked while it was gently put to sleep.
When I was 14, my parents took me and my then 17-year-old brother to a cottage holiday in Wales. It was a beautiful place with a natural waterfall at the end of the field which housed our little cottage. The field also contained a farmhouse at one end and a flock of sheep with their young lambs. We loved having them there, waking each morning to the sounds of the ewes bleating and the lambs curiously springing towards us at our gate so we could rub their heads.
However, one morning I skipped out to see the lambs only to find that they were missing and that only the ewes were left in the field. My parents tried to reassure me that ‘the lambs had perhaps been taken indoors?’ But I knew what had happened. I finally understood how Hannibal Lector had got inside Clarice’s head when forcing her to relive her childhood memories in ‘The Silence of the Lambs‘. I gave up meat that day.
Now 14-year-olds don’t do things by half, we like to make a point. If we are becoming vegetarians it means soya milk, plastic shoes, and campaigning for animal rights. No sooner had I unpacked my suitcase from the ‘sheep holiday’, I was then rallying my friends to paint a placard against vivisection and join a march on Trafalgar Square. I was trying to teach my friends the evils of McDonald’s and refusing to eat anything that had even been in contact with an animal.
My Mum has been a vegetarian for over 50 years, she quit meat back when Paul McCartney was still eating bacon butties. But she had to be inventive with her cooking as there was no such thing as Quorn, no vegetarian foods in supermarkets and the word vegan meant you wore only hemp clothing and had a long beard. We didn’t talk about plant-based diets or had any idea that we would one day be ordering almond milk lattes in Starbucks. My Mum and I had to get the bus to the one health food shop that sold the raw ingredients for her homemade recipes. I can still smell the aroma of aniseed and spices from within the little Aladdin’s Cave of ingredients fit for a vegetarian. As a child there were often bowls of mung beans soaking in water in our kitchen overnight and my Mum would forever be creating and cooking her lentil concoctions from scratch.
She was the original veggie but never forced her views on us and used to ‘switch off’ as she prepared our meaty dinners. Following the Wales holiday, she was concerned about my sudden refusal to eat meat or dairy. It was okay when I was at home for her nutritious dinners but for school dinners; my daily diet of a plain jacket potato or chocolate spread sandwich was not really covering my required food groups. However, over the years I have adopted a healthier approach to my vegetarianism and am thankful of the explosion of choices in recent years with veganism now becoming an everyday word.
I remember when my children were small, and I was feeding them a high meat diet and the horse meat scandal hit the headlines. People were horrified with the realisation that supermarkets had sold ‘beef’ burgers containing horse meat, I was one of the few people that was not surprised. I mean if you’re spending £2 on a pack of burgers, can you really expect it to be prime cuts of beef?
When me and hubby first co-habited, we had a long debate in the meat aisle of Sainsbury’s about the price of free-range chicken. I didn’t want to buy 4 chicken breasts for £3 as I knew we would buying a chicken from a battery farm that had lived a miserable existence. I wanted to know that the free-range chicken breast at twice the price had once been scratching around in the open air. I tried to defend the reason that free range chicken was much smaller and more expensive is because it is actually chicken and not part chicken, part pig skin and 70% water.
The upshot is that it’s just not sustainable for the planet for everyone to continue eating meat every day. Forests all over the world are being cut down to provide land for cattle or animal feed. Modern factory farming systems allow for mass production of meat at low costs, which is torturous for the animal and a breeding ground for germs. Pre-packaged meat often contains animal antibiotics, bulking ingredients, and a mixture of other meat.
Our Covid world this past year has encouraged much of us to embrace home cooking again and, although my weekly wine and chocolate intake has risen to unhealthy amounts in my own household, we have all sat together as a family for mealtimes more than ever before. We have embraced more adventurous recipes – there hasn’t been much else to do! I even managed to get my 17-year-old steak loving son to eat a butternut squash curry and not ask for ‘chicken on the side’.
So, what is the answer? Many families are on a budget so buying cheaper meat is often a necessity. Farmers are having to reduce their costs to compete with supermarket prices so may be forced to reduce their welfare standards. I think that meat should be seen as more of a treat and that a plant-based dinner is not inferior but a tasty and healthier alternative. When buying meat, we could try to shop locally sourced meat so that we are supporting local farmers and know that the animal has not been intensively farmed or that the meat you buy hasn’t been reared overseas.
But, if you are not quite ready to quit your quarter pounder, you could always give ‘cellular agriculture’ a go. This new phenomenon of lab grown ‘meat’ could significantly minimise the effects the meat industry has on the environment and from a moral standpoint, no animals are hurt in the process. The sciencey bit is that a cell is extracted from a live chicken, it is fed nutrients and left to mature over two weeks (the cell, not the chicken) after which time it becomes raw minced meat. I’m not sure what you would call yourself though? A cellulartarian? A cegan?