I’ve been a pretty devout vegetarian for sixteen years – ever since I was nine years old. One Hebridian lamb put an end to it all – at least for one evening. Although it was only a couple of bites, and to any outsider it probably isn’t a big deal, but to me and those who know me, it is fairly massive!
A little bit of context:
I went veggie when our family moved houses, and our bus route to school changed to one where we passed a meat packing plant everyday. It was then I started to connect the bacon on my plate to the pig in the pen. Other influences – notably my sister turning veggie for a spell, and Lisa on the Simpsons turning vegetarian – no doubt made the transition a little easier. I was so convinced of this point of view, as a 12 year old I would moo or oink at the dinner table when beef or pork was served.
It became more then just a choice about food – to a certain extent vegetarianism became an identity for me. As I went to university in the hippie capital of Canada (Victoria, B.C.) and studied Environmental Issues and Geography, it became clear that not eating meat was in line with my social and environmental values. It makes sense on a lot of levels.
It isn’t a necessity to eat meat in modern society, comparative to times when a variety of food was limited. These days we have access to an abundant cornucopia of foodstuffs to get an adequate amount of calories and nutrients from plant sources to meet our needs .
Growing animal products for food makes little sense from an energy input/output perspective. This is especially true in North American factory farming scenarios, where grains and legumes that could be used for human consumption is fed to animals. The arable land and resources used to create animal feed could instead be used to feed some of the millions of people who go hungry everyday – although arguably much of that problem is based in distribution instead of production. Johnathan Safran Foer (author of the fabulous book, Eating Animals) gives a succinct explanation of the facts and problems surrounding how most of the developed world sources its meat – factory farming. I would highly recommend his book, as his perspective is one of a very ‘regular guy’ who had a kid and wanted to know what he was feeding him, so started to ask some questions about the meat industry.
Ethically, eating and using animals isn’t inherently wrong, at least for me personally. This I have gone back and forth with through my life, but I’ve never been one to see animals as completely ‘equal’ beings to humans to the point of them having the same rights as us. It seems a bit arrogant of me to say that, yet I couldn’t see myself prefering to use synthetic, oil-based fabrics over wool, on the basis of ethics – as this clashes with another strong set of values I have: environmental values.
^^ (Pretty ideal living conditions, comparative to most meat raised on factory farms) >>
This is where the water surrounding meat and animal product consumption gets quite murky. On the surface, veganism seems to be the best environmentally friendly practice. .. at least in theory. Calorie for calorie, animal products use more energy, water, land and carbon to produce than their plant counterparts (at least in terms of the North American factory-farmed variety). Yet, when you get into specifics about how the animals are raised, where you are living, and the realistic food options available to you locally, the veganism/vegetarian argument isn’t so environmentally cut and dry.
Where I am currently living is a good example. I live in the north of England at the minute, which has little arable land, sunshine and warmth – so not the ideal growing conditions for lots of veggies, fruit, lentils, or nuts. It does however, have copious amounts of pasture land, fells, moorland, etc – which means a lot of grass. Where I live specifically, in the national park that is the Lake District, there is a political incentive to keep lots of sheep on the fells, as they keep the hills clear of trees/bushes so that they maintain their distinct ‘naked’ look that the Lake District is famous for. As raising sheep isn’t the most profitable option for farmers up here, there are subsidies available to encourage sheep grazing for this purpose (along with keeping heritage breeds like Herdwick alive and kicking). So – lots of sheep. Lots of mainly grass-fed sheep. Sheep are a very embedded part of the cultural landscape here – and I don’t think that would change drastically any time soon.
So in a lot of environmental ways, eating sheep and using wool in this context makes a lot of sense. It’s a locally sourced food, raised in relatively humane way (grazing the fells most of their life), that is in abundant supply, that makes good use out of landscapes that are both politically and practically unsuitable for agriculture. In this context, it makes sense to me to eat sheep and use wool in an environmental context. Yet, if you read the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eaters Guide, you would see lamb at the top of the list for worst environmental impact. This is based largely on an assumption of lamb coming from New Zealand to North American markets. While this report is fabulous (highly recommend you have a look, vegan, veggie or meat-eater), I’m just making the point that the environmental values surrounding food choices need to be viewed within your own context.
So, that is why after 16 years of being a vegetarian, I ate some Hebridian lamb. The experience was really, really underwhelming. It was a really big deal for me, and I was expecting to either a) be sick, or b) massively enjoy it. I didn’t feel sick, but I also didn’t really like it. I guess you could put it down to me not eating meat for so long, therefore losing the taste of it. But honestly, I’d rather have had the delicious squash, potatoes, brussel sprouts, mushroom patties, etc etc that were served – they tasted a lot better than that lamb. Apparently the lamb was very well done in terms of its taste and how it was cooked (from the meat-eaters at the dinner) …. so my ideas of how it tasted were just my own!
It was a very illuminating experience for myself, as it solidified my beliefs surrounding meat and its place in my food choices. While my partner is more open to the idea of eating meat as ‘an occasion’ in a certain context, I came away from my first meat in 16 years without any real want to eat any more. I didn’t really enjoy the taste, I was a bit dubious about cooking it (is it cooked enough?!!?), and after such a long time being a vegetarian, I just don’t see the need – I am more than satisfied with my food without adding meat into the equation. I also still have the residual ideas from John Robbins book The Food Revolution about the role of animal products and ill-health (also very highly recommended book, the book that basically turned me vegan for a couple years), so I don’t think I would whole-heartedly ever embrace a meat-based existence.
In the end, eating meat again after so long was really an anti-climax for myself. And, although I’ve found a source of meat that is aligned with all of my morals and values, I’m still a vegetarian at heart.