Six small words, but what do they really mean when we are talking supper, lunch or even breakfast? What do they really mean to someone who thinks he shops pretty well anyway? What is “less”?
The UN tells us that the average person on Earth eats 42kg of meat a year; here in the UK it’s double that at 82kg, in the USA for an average citizen it’s treble, a whopping 120kg. Leaving aside cow burps and flatulence, this is a climatic nightmare, as a host of nations from China to Russia are chowing down to play catch up, which means a whole lot more ruminants, swine and fowl.
Traditional small scale agriculture acts as a carbon sink; small fields with cattle cause the grass to be trampled into the soil, sequestering the carbon – something now utilised in mob grazing; sheep turn what is effectively waste ground on our uplands into flavourful lamb, and create the jaw-dropping vistas that we flock to the countryside to see when we have a spare weekend. Pigs converted our waste to delicious pork, and poultry were nature's bug eaters.
The reality of our burgeoning meat consumption is that only a fraction is farmed in a way that we would like to believe it is produced. Polyface Farm in Virginia, Northfield and Sillfield Farms here in England, are exceptions to the rule, not the norm.
Industrially produced meat is also about more than broiler chickens collapsing with urea burns, or hogs with their tails docked so they don’t become carnivorous in their tight pens. It’s about creating a vast food system to feed these animals on pellets, much of it soya, much of it GM, causing large-scale deforestation to make space for crops to feed animals. In fact 33% of the planet's arable land is there to provide feed for animals that should be grazing on pasture.
Sadly, our consumption of fish isn’t much better; we eat only a small handful of species, and we have fallen upon farmed Salmon as though we are eating something as cheap as baked beans. The salmon are fed by vacuuming the seas to provide fish meal, ironically leaving barren seas so that we can eat farmed fish.
So what is the solution? As a committed omnivore – when it’s time for me to meet my maker, please let me have shards of salty crispy pork skin before I go – I don’t want to give up meat entirely. Not only does it taste (yes!) really good, but I want to preserve the skills and heritage of our agricultural communities. I don’t want to see heritage breeds in zoos – unless we eat these animals, then that is where they will be.
What I do want to see is the end of industrial, small pen, and high intensity farming. Bye-bye feedlots of thousands of head of cattle, and yes please to something my grandfather would have recognised. I also realise something has to give, and that means reducing my meat consumption below the global average of 42kg to something more like 30kg a year; less than half what the average Brit eats in a year. It also means more wild and semi wild meat; as much pheasant and pigeon as beef and pork. It also means more esoteric cuts to control my shopping budget by not just buying the prime cuts. Clod, skirt and neck will be my new best friends; rib-eye will be for high-days and holidays only.
But even this won’t be enough on its own, so not only will I decrease my meat portion sizes, I intend to eat meat no more than three days a week. The other four will be at least vegetarian, and at least one of those will be a vegan day. Vegan, that word that conjures up tofu and nut butter, is almost heretical to a Cornishman whose veins run with dairy rather than blood; yet I am convinced that with some intelligent shopping and creative cooking, I won’t consider these totally animal-free days as poorer than any other eating day.
I’ll be writing monthly about the experience, and you’ll be able to follow my progress on twitter As January ushered in the new year, I said goodbye to my meat-filled past by eating supper at The Hawksmoor; a steak dribbling bloody juices and weighing in at a whopping 400g, more than two days of my new “meat allowance”. The game season is now coming to an end, and the “hungry gap” is fast approaching in the market gardens.
It will be an interesting year.
Shane Holland is Director for England, Slow Food UK, and Chair of Slow Food London