The planet has a problem. We are consuming more than the planet can sustain. There are many aspects of this that we have discussed in this column. When I started writing this, I wanted to explore solutions, not problems. In a perfect world, once people recognised there might be a problem, they would instantly change all of their behaviorus and the problem would go away. In the real world it is far more complex. From a sustainability perspective, it would be a good thing, if we planned what we eat with how the food affects the environment in mind.
My view is that us meat eaters should move to a diet with less meat, but of a better quality. Free range meat, farmed organically is something we should always be considering. I generally eat meat 2-3 days a week. When I do it is good quality, purchased from our local butcher. I eat fish 1/2 days a week and a semi vegan diet the rest of the time.
The trouble for many is that they may want to change, but wouldn't even know where to start. There are a few questions I get asked. Here is my take on these
1) What do you mean by 'semi vegan'?
This is basically one of practicality. Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I largely avoid dairy products. Once in a while I will have a bit of cheese. Before my diagnosis, I would allow myself certain things, such as milk in tea on my 'vegan' days. There were two reasons, the first is that I did not like the taste of any of the alternatives. The second is that I didn't believe the occasional small amount of things like butter and eggs in recipies, where there was no good alternative in the house, was a fair and reasonable compromise. Especially when our children were younger, it was hard to convince them to eat completely vegan pasta dishes etc without a bit of parmesan on top. I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the odd bit of parmesan or milk in tea that are making our eating habits unsustainable. This 'icing on the cake' often make dishes far more appealing and as people shift, eventually better alternatives will become available, once manufacturers see a market. I think we should look at the bigger picture here. I had a dish with vegan cheese last week and it was very good. I genuinely wouldn't have known, but it takes time to shift to this.
2) If you think meat is wrong, how can you ever eat it?
The answer to this is that I don't think eating meat is wrong. I do get people who do. I do however have an issue with intensive farming methods. I believe these to be bad for us. Overuse of anti biotics in meat production leads to resistant diseases. I happen to think battery farming is inhuman. I do my very best to avoid the products produced in this way. I believe that if all of the Western meat eaters ate good quality meat 2-3 times a week, they would be healthier and the planet would benefit enormously and the problems of sustainability would be largely addressed. The fact so many eat poorly farmed meat every day is the issue.
3. How can beans from Kenya be less environmentally damaging than beef from down the road? I tend to agree with this sentiment, if the beef is free range. Of course, especially in winter, many farm animals are fed on all manner of feeds that are not farmed sustainably, but again, if we nudge farmers away from this and say "listen, I will pay more for meat if it is farmed sustainably" I think it is a win/win.
4. Doesn't the fishing industry also cause massive ecological damage? Some aspects of it do. This again is why I try and buy sustainably fished products. The UK is surrounded by waters teeming with fish. If these are fished responsibly, I see no reason why this should be an issue.
5. How can you be sure that meat and fish are produced responsibly?
This is where the law, regulation and inspection comes in. The UK is good at these things. That doesn't mena bad things don't occasionally happen, but any seller cheating will see their reputation destroyed.
6. I would like to try going vegan one day a week, but what will I eat?
I love my food. We have spent a long time building up an array of recipies.Most of the supermarkets have a whole range of excellent vegan products these days. I find that there are some excellent meat free sausages on the market that work well in many recipies.
Here is what I am eating today
Breakfast. A bowl of porridge and fresh fruit
Lunch. Chick pea, tomato and mushroom curry, with Jasmine rice (prepared yesterday and warmed in the work microwave - I tend to prepare lunches in advance to bring in)
Dinner. Vegan Sausage, chilli and tomato spaghetti topped with vegan cheese.
One of the things I've found is that whilst I am not overly keen on vegan sausages in a fry up (you always feel a bit like you are missing out), they go well in things like a Sausage Spagbol. With some nice fresh chillies and a good recipe, they are delicious.
I genuinely don't think I am missing out. I tend to experiment with herbs and spices. Some smoked paprika in with the sausages is a real winner for me. By the time I get to Sunday, I do look forward to the Sunday roast, but I equally look forward to many of the other meals that don't have meat. I enjoy planning new recipies and planning different ways of cooking things. On Saturday, I made Tempura Shitake mushrooms, made with beer batter that were absolutely delicious.
7. Will I get enough vitamins and nutrients if I give the meat a miss?
Without knowing what anyone is eating throughout the week, it is of course impossible to say, but if you were eating meat every single day and you stop for one day a week, it is highly likley that you will actually get a far better nutritional mix than you were before. I am not qualified to give medical or nutritional advice, so I would advise doing some homework. I saw a nutritionalist a few years ago who advised me that what I was eating was 'about right' with this sort of pattern. I do take two turmeric capsules and an 'over 50's vitamin suppliment' and I feel pretty good at the moment. There are many symptoms of dietry deficiencies/problems, flecks on finger nails, fatigue, eczema, etc. If you suffer from any of these it is worth a chat with your GP.
8. Where is the best place to find vegan recipies?
Now this is a tricky one. I actually find many vegan recipie cites are not great for people 'giving it a try'. Once you have got into the mindset that a big lump of meat is not the meal and the rest of the plate is not just garnish it is a bit easier, but avowed carnivores just see a non meat meal as not a 'proper meal'. I would start with Italian or Indian recipies. Some such as the sausage spaghetti or a chicken (substitute) Jalfrazi work well with a meat substitute from the supermarket. Vegan pies, especially with mushroom selections are also pretty good. Sometimes I do things like getting the Naan and Onion Bhaji's from the local Indian restaurant and making the rice and the main course myself. Also making a big Mushroom pie and getting a bag of chips from the chippy works well. I love chips, but have never managed to get them to 'chippy' quality.
9. What about if I want to eat out?
My view is that if you are going out for a meal, have what you like. For most of us, it's a treat and if you start to think you own self imposed rules are making you not enjoy things, then they won't work. My wife doesn't eat meat, which makes it a bit easier (last night she had fish when we had Sirloin steak). If we eat out, I'll often have things like Liver and bacon, which I'd never cook at home. It actually makes it even more enjoyable.
10. I think I am too Hedonistic to ever try vegan food.
My brother L:aurie is a big classical studies scholar. He once told me that the Hedonists get a bad press and we don't really appreciate their philosophy. Whilst they believed in massive over indulgence, this was more one of enjoying massive parties. The rest of the time, they were saving up to pay for the parties. It was far more nuanced than we give them credit for. But aside from the classics lessons, I do find that having a more varied diet makes everything seem more interesting.
11. I have a sweet tooth, I would miss milk chocolate, cakes made with egg and custard tarts far too much to give up.
This is why I recommend a semi-vegan approach. Just suppose that you really can't do without the piece of chocolate or the cream on the cake after your vegan main course, then have it. Regard it as a treat and that in the bigger picture you are moving in the right direction. As more people adapt, products will become available and if you really can't find one you like, don't beat yourself up. Do your best
If you are going to try going semi vegan, do your homework first. Read up on a few recipies that you fancy and make sure you get the ingredients in. I honestly think the way to do these things is to gradually shift ourselves. I first started my journey in 1984, when a friend sitting next to me persuaded me that modern farming methods were cruel. It took me a about five years to get tothe point where I could organise my fridge to have anything I wanted to eat. I ate a lot of curries (mostly Bhuna Prawn Masala's and Onion Bhajis) and a lot of Penne Arrabiata. It seemed every sandwich was cheese and every barbecue was a dry veggie sausage that tasted of cardboard. I well remember when someone gave me a 'Linda McCarntney' banger. It wasn't a meat sausage, but it was the first time I ate one that I wasn't completely disappointed and a couple on a Barbie in a bun weren't too bad. Things have come on a lot. I didn't eat meat for sixteen years and for much of that, the only pub option was a veggie lasagne or a cheese ploghmans. As someone who loves food this was a difficult period, but I soon learned to check places out in advance if possible. I got into cuisines that meat wasn't so important in many dishes and got more adventurous. When I discovered the vegetarian Indian restaurants in Drummond St, this was amazing, although it was another matter getting carnivore friends to go.
In 2000, I was persuaded that if we supported the organic movement and ate locally produced, ethically farmed meat, it would help build a more sustainable option and would be a responsible way to go. These days it is far easier to get organic meat that is traceable and guaranateed sustainable, so I do think consumer power has a part to play in this. My position has evolved over the years. I would not go back to a full time non meat diet, but I respect those that do.
For all you radical vegans out there, who feel this is heresy. I'm not making a case for you to have a bacon sandwich, I am trying to open a few doors to people who might otherwise feel that all of this would be far too difficult for them.