How being an ethical carnivore taught me to eat less meat
What is an ethical carnivore? And could being more in touch with where our meat comes from help us to eat less of it?
For the last couple of years I have been skinning rabbits, gutting deer and butchering pigs. I have also been writing a book on why we should eat less meat.
It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but I see no problem in caring about where my meat comes from and getting my hands dirty learning to kill and process the animals myself. In fact, I would argue it is the most ethical way to eat meat. When you do it yourself, you make absolutely certain the animal has had a good life and when the moment comes - a good death. Most importantly, it makes you want to eat less meat.
This is a perfectly human response. Throughout history we have limited our meat intake because of the difficulty in raising and slaughtering animals. We always respected meat because we had to look the quarry in the eye. Yet in the modern age we have forgotten this. Meat comes to the table easily and cheaply and as a consequence we eat too much. It is estimated in the rich world we are eating three or four times as much animal protein as we need. The World Health Organisation recently warned that red and processed meat in particular is a cancer risk.
We are also damaging the planet. As former Environment Correspondent at the Daily Telegraph, I am all too aware of the role of animal agriculture in driving man-made climate change. Livestock pumps out more greenhouse gases than all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles put together.
Most of us are aware of these frightening statistics on the health and environmental impact of eating too much meat. We also know how animals are treated in factory farms, thanks to grainy undercover videos made by animal rights groups.
So why aren’t we all vegetarian? I believe it is because of our deeply ingrained cultural norms. We are only given two options: be vegetarian or shut up and eat plenty of meat. In fact, most of us fall somewhere in the middle, we eat meat but are scared to question where it comes from for fear of being labelled a hypocrite.
It is this audience I have sought to address in my first book The Ethical Carnivore. I wanted to educate people about where their meat comes from and the most effective way I could see to do this was to only eat animals I killed myself. I began with wild game like fish and rabbits. Although I found it upsetting at first, I learnt to respect the men and women who source food in the countryside and picked up their skills. I also wanted to show how mainstream meat is produced by following pigs, chicken and cattle all the way from the field to the fork, including through the slaughter house. Again, it was upsetting but it gave me great respect for the men and women responsible for providing our meat and most of all the animals themselves.
So far the response has been positive. I expected a backlash for killing animals, even though I always made clear how difficult I found it. But in fact people have welcomed the opportunity to discuss openly the truth about where our food comes from. Do we really want cheap chicken if the animals are kept in barns without daylight? If raising a free range cow is that expensive then should we be learning again how to use every single delicious cut?
I feel like I am riding a wave of public concern. One of the future food trends for 2017 and beyond is vegetarian and vegan options as the public demands more ethical food.
Eating Better picked up on this a long time ago and started to bring together NGOs, government bodies and the NHS to discuss how to make it easier for the public to reduce meat. I applaud their work and look forward to a time when more people have the confidence to question where their food comes from.
Of course I would not suggest people do the same as me and only eat animals they kill themselves. But I do think people should understand where meat is from. This is what I call being an ethical carnivore or to give it another word, human.
Louise Gray is an environmental journalist. She has written for the Daily Telegraph,and worked for the BBC, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Country Life, The Spectator and Scottish Field.
Louise's book, The Ethical Carnivore, is out now.
Portrait picture by Nancy MacDonald. All other images © Louise Gray