We need to reinvent luxury. We need a better understanding of high quality. We need to treat ourselves, but treat ourselves well. Or to rediscover.
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was a hedonist, and spent a considerable amount of time pondering what made for a good life. When it came to food, he advised only bread and water which, he argued, always tasted sublime to a person experiencing real hunger.
This article was first published as the Foreword to Envirocidal: How Livestock Farming is Killing the Planet, published by Viva!
For hundreds of years meat has occupied the territory of luxury. The old kings of England used the country as a hunting ground and paintings of the era show feasts resplendent with dead animals.
Indeed, the foundation myth of our origins as humans is that we were apes rolling around in the forest undergrowth eating leaves until the desertification of the Savanna. Then we became man, upstanding, a hunter, an eater of meat. There is actually no evidence to support this, the prevailing hypothesis about what makes us human.
And yet, if it is true, what does it tell us about ourselves? That we are a contented beast, a great animal surrounded by an abundance of food. The African forest contained all the wealth we early humans could possibly need – it was this environment rich in foods including plant proteins that allowed us to develop such a powerful mind.
The transition to meat was in fact the act of desperation. The effective suckling of goats and cows in this story does not seem luxurious but really quite grim. The bleeding of cattle, and eventually the slaughtering of our fellow living creatures seems utterly dreadful. Yet this is the myth that is supposed to make eating meat a natural part of who we are.
So what does this mean for us today? I think we need to evoke the deep emotional relationship we have with food in order to influence behaviours towards what is healthy for us as human beings and also what is sustainable for our planet. We need to celebrate plant food, and build customs and myths that place the beetroot and the potato at the centre of our celebrations, of our identities.
Luxury, when one really digs into its meaning, is simply that which is not affordable to everyone. We show off by eating meat. But meat is cheap, and dirty, and everywhere. Real luxury is organic foods, locally sourced foods, home grown foods, plant based food. These foods need to be rich with stories – grown by those we love, only for us, over time and with great care.
Meat in turn needs to be treated with disgust. As a journalist, I have seen the new mega farms spreading into British agriculture like mould. The cows are chained, clearly in pain, barely able to suffer the weight of their bloated udders. Thousands of them. Living within the rivers of slurry they produce. It’s not luxury, it is despair, and it is disgusting.
The publication of this second edition of the Envirocidal report could not be more timely.
Sir David Attenborough has finally taken the message to middle England that climate change is an existential threat. The inspiring and innovative manifestation of Extinction Rebellion, with more than a thousand people willing to be arrested peacefully protesting in London, and the direct actions simultaneously taking place in cities around the world, show that people of all ages are determined to act on climate change – and also biodiversity loss.
Veganism is becoming the new normal. I became vegan this year after holding a vote of readers of The Ecologist asking whether its editor could have a pescatarian diet without some level of hypocrisy. The answer was resounding.
And as this report makes clear, eating fish and foregoing other meat is not sufficient if we want to significantly reduce our personal climate impacts – and lead in our communities and in our countries on carbon reduction.
This report is most valuable because it provides a comprehensive review of the current scientific literature. While it is an appeal to emotion and identity that will influence behaviour, we really do need to be confident about our claims before we go into the world making demands of other people. We need to be clear about the rational arguments, as well as the emotional appeal.
This report sets out beyond reasonable doubt that continuing to eat meat is irrational, and dangerous. It reveals exactly how livestock farming is linked to all the main areas of concern including global warming and climate change, land and water use, overfishing, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, air pollution, antibiotic resistance, world hunger and food waste.
Those of us who are already committed to environmentalism now have to face up to the fact that the vegan diet (perhaps peppered with the occasional supplement) is the only truly green diet.
The best solution to the compound crises of climate, biodiversity, soil depletion is to simply stop eating animals. A global switch to diets that rely less on meat, fish, dairy and eggs and more on fruit and vegetables could make a huge difference to us and future generations.
I am also encouraged that this report talks about government action. We can only do so much as individuals and fundamental change will come only through changes in how we eat, how we farm, how we produce at a national and international level. We need to lobby, transform and replace many of the institutions that form our civil society.
Our schools can no longer have any ethical authority while serving meat based meals to our children. Our hospitals cannot serve meat that, in time, will make patients sick. The government needs the Green Pea Marketing Board, sending free food into our schools just as when I was young we were given free milk.
But ultimately, we need to change our feelings about food. Plants are healthy, rich, plentiful and tasty – they are luxurious.
Spice is very obviously the spice of life. Animals bring us tremendous joy especially as companion animals – but the idea that they should be minced and ground down to form part of our diets is macabre and grotesque.
This report explains the many benefits of moving to a plant-based diet. But this is not about sacrificing meat, it’s about discovering that we can and must do so much better.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article was first published as the Foreword to Envirocidal: How Livestock Farming is Killing the Planet, published by Viva!