I am not a vegetarian. Sometimes I feel I should be, but I cannot bring myself to take that step. So instead I like to describe myself as an ethical meat eater.
I have always been quite aware where meat comes from, unlike a lot of children. My granddad used to work for a village butcher when I was little. I remember that I have been there more than once seeing animals being killed and slaughtered. It sounds gruesome, but actually I think it’s a very useful lesson for a child to learn. These little local butchers where they do the killing round the back unfortunately do not seem to exist anymore. I say unfortunately, because for the animal it was not that stressful. They come, they get killed (well and truly), hung and then later on (depending)… well… chopped up. It did mean that I was aware that that bit of ham on my sandwich came from a pig, that that McDonalds hamburger was once a living breathing cow, etc.
In my adult life I have come across a lot of vegetarians, vegans and pescetarians, and I have great respect for each of them, regardless of the reason that they made that choice, may it be animal welfare or health reasons. There have been plenty of vegetarians who have tried to convert me to their way of thinking. They do not need to. I get it. I really do! I have also come across avid meat eaters, the sort of people that cannot fathom why anyone would make the choice to not eat meat. After all, what is more delicious that a great big bleeding steak on your plate, right? I eat meat, and to be honest, it is the second bunch of people that I find more obnoxious. The choice to not eat meat should be encouraged, even if it is not the choice I made.
As for my choice, I have come to sit somewhere in between. I eat meat, but I try and buy organic or free range. I do not eat chicken while out and about, unless it specifically says that it is free range organic. Over the years there has been a lot said about organically produced meat, but for me personally it is the best option.
In a beautiful little village in Devon (England) friends of mine have a small organic beef farm. They have a small herd of a local breed of duel purpose cattle (milk & beef). I have learned an awful lot from them. I am sure they have been sick to their eye balls of me asking questions about the way their stock is raised. To me, their way of rearing cattle is the ideal, though it would not be sustainable on a large scale. I will try and explain.
They have a small herd of cows and one bull. They live outside on the gorgeous Devon hillsides almost year round, fed purely on the grass they graze on and hay made from their fields in winter. Each cow produces a calf every year (if they are lucky). The calves stay with their mums until they are ready to be separated. The first winter they spend in a spacious enclosure on straw. When the straw gets dirty another layer of straw goes on top until it’s dirty, then another layer of straw and so it builds up. This combination of muck and straw is spread out on the fields in springtime to fertilise the ground. Then the now one-year-old calves go out to grow big and strong in the sunshine (and rain), grazing on grass and wild plants that naturally grow in their fields. It really is quite a good life out there.
One of the things that has changed significantly for my friends’ beef farm is the distance they need to travel to take their lovingly reared stock to slaughter. There used to be a small abattoir nearby, so they used to take their cattle there themselves in pairs in a small trailer. Not very stressful for the animals and it felt right for my friends. Regulations have forced these small local abattoirs to shut down and there are now only really big ‘meat-processing plants’ left, which means the cattle often have to travel long distances to get there, something that goes against my friends’ values, but also something that they have little choice in.
They told me that if you try to be a moral meat eater, the main meats to definitely avoid (unless organic or free range) are chicken and pork, which are most prone to welfare issues. Beef also, but not as much. Lamb/mutton do not thrive well without good husbandry, so are slightly less of an issue apparently.
Having talked a lot about farmed meat, of course there are also a lot of issues with overfishing and trawling, prawn farms, etc. There are equally a lot issues with the way crops are farmed. The whole way our food production system works needs looking at if you ask my honest opinion, not just the meat side. The way many crops are farmed causes a lot of problems for wildlife habitats and the diversity of the natural world around us.
I think the most important thing is to realise that the way our food is produced, meat and vegetarian, is riddled with issues and problems that are not easily solved.