Something disturbing happens when the idea of eating less and better meat gets raised in discussions about food, farming and the climate. In my experience, there is often an immediate, emotional and polarising response.
It is like a portcullis coming down against further discussion, with people unhelpfully rooted in different camps. Voices become angry and hectoring; pot-shots are thrown; common understanding and nuance are lost.
There’s growing understanding that the human species needs to reduce our reliance on intensively-produced livestock. The climate numbers, precipitous biodiversity decline and growing antibiotic-resistant superbugs tell us so. But are we listening? Or do we too easily let our own portcullis come down before we properly listen and think about what is best to do?
It’s a really strange effect. I’ve witnessed it so many times over the past 20 years. Raise the idea of ‘less’ polluting and industrialised meat production for the good of animal welfare, decent farming livelihoods, antibiotics stewardship and the climate, and the simplistic response I have so often heard is: “What would the countryside look like if we all went vegetarian?” But why? The message ‘less and better’ is not the same as ‘none’. Why is the message received and played back in such a polarising light?
It’s not helped by how this issue is presented in the media. In my work, I frequently field calls from broadcast journalists asking me if I can connect them with an angry meat farmer and an angry vegan, whose polarised debate will ‘make good telly’.
My answer? No. No, I can’t and won’t be party to that. Polarisation helps no-one, least of all the farmers, vegans, meat reducers and farm animals.
What about a discussion between an enthusiastic school chef, a caring farmer and a local authority procurement officer? This needs to become good telly, so that people can properly balance the arguments and decide sensibly what to do.
I will never forget a terrible five hours – probably the worst in my career – that I spent in the Strangers’ Gallery in Westminster, watching a debate about sustainable animal feed. The idea on the parliamentary table was to prevent rainforest destruction (i.e. a critical part of our planet’s ability to provide the life-support system for human life) by setting environmental standards for animal feed and growing more animal feed domestically.
Controversial? You wouldn’t think so. Yet the response of a significant number of backbenchers on one side of the House was to filibuster for most of those long, horrible hours, and to moo and laugh – literally to “moo” in Parliament. I sometimes wonder if the poor Hansard stenographers had to transcribe such behaviour. Whatever happened to our ability to listen and to develop workable solutions?
Here’s one thing I have heard this month. I invite you to join me in hearing it and noticing your own internal reaction to it – does a portcullis come down? In the run up to our Sustain summit this 12 October, where we’ll look for balance in this debate, keynote speaker Professor Tim Benton shared this startling fact with us: “A 15 per cent reduction in pig and chicken consumption across the EU would have nullified the global grain shortage caused by the War in Ukraine.” I cried when I read this. Fifteen per cent less. That’s roughly one day per week.
If we ate a bit less pig and chicken, we could be playing our part in relieving the horror of famine in Yemen, made so much worse by global grain shortages and food price rises.
Join us in the conversation this 12 October. Bring your best ears.