I became vegetarian (no meat, no shellfish/fish, no gelatine in puddings, and certainly no days on/days off) quite late in life. It took a little over forty years, Juliet Gellatley’s excellent ‘The Silent Ark‘, and the example of my partner and soulmate who’d been vegetarian since her teens to give up meat. I remember the moment well, staring down at the thin and fragile bones in a chicken korma in a hotel in India (after spending a day’s birdwatching of course). Suddenly I just knew that I didn’t ever want to have any responsibility at all for another miserable chicken’s miserable short life. Yes, the chicken would have been killed anyway, but it wouldn’t have been killed for me. And nearly ten years later I don’t regret the decision for a moment.
Yes, it was hard at first. I love the taste of all sorts of meat. I do believe that humans evolved to eat meat (not as much as we do now, but some nonetheless). But I don’t believe that animals are born simply to be killed so I can eat them, that sweeping the oceans clear of fish so I can have a ‘cod’ with my chips can possibly be ‘sustainable’ in any way at all, that intensive farming is morally right, that killing animals for sport (even if they’re to be eaten) is justifiable, or that humans can’t exist without meat in their diets.
I believe all of that very strongly.
My decision was also based on not wanting to fund animal-based industries. I wanted to be able to look a pig in the eye and know I wouldn’t be paying for it to die. I feel better for not having to make excuses to myself for doing what I fundamentally believe I shouldn’t: supporting an unethical pillage of the earth so I can eat a few slices of meat that I really don’t need.
For some reason though, veganism has always seemed a step too far. No animal products whatsoever. No honey, eggs, or dairy products. Vegetarianism seems quite normal, veganism seemed somehow evangelical and not for ‘people like me’. I had no idea why I felt that way. But then the badger cull came along and I sat down and really thought about it (Badger cull: who’s to blame?).
And now – more than a year later – I’ve thought about it again. Here’s the thing. Essentially veganism means giving up stuff that I really like. I’ve already given up a lot of food I really like. Eating – to be honest – is a little dull. I’ve never been a ‘foody’ but when I look in the fridge or the cupboard (and especially on the ‘snack’ shelves of the local shops) I rarely feel inspired by what’s on offer for a veggie. I can cope with that though. Better to be bored than backing industries I dislike with what little money I have these days.
But giving up custard doughnuts, milk in my tea, cream cakes, milk chocolate, cheese on the already very dull pizzas we eat…?
Before answering that though, let’s get back to the badger cull. Why are badgers going to be culled? Because they’re blamed for spreading Bovine TB to cattle. Btb causes losses to the dairy industry [RADBF: "bTB costs farmers and indirectly, consumers millions of pounds a year through loss of infected livestock and control of the disease"] and naturally enough the dairy industry doesn’t like that. The dairy industry has actually intensified enormously in the last few decades (as demand has soared) and that’s not been good for cows but should have meant more money for farmers. But it hasn’t. Prices at the farm gate have been driven lower and lower by consumers. Consumers like me. No wonder dairy farmers worry about losses to badgers.
Some dairy farmers (some, not many) think that the best way to maximise profits is to keep cows indoors all year and feed them on grain in vast ‘mega-dairies. That would be even worse for cows. Even now though the dairy industry is really no better (farmers might say no worse perhaps?) than the beef industry. Which I already won’t support. Female cows produce milk when they’re pregnant. They’re inseminated endlessly to ensure pregnancy until they’re worn out and killed and turned into low-grade meat products. Their calves are removed almost immediately so that they don’t drink the milk their mothers produce. The dairy industry doesn’t want male cows either. They don’t produce milk of course. Male calves are either slaughtered or kept confined and sold as veal.
It’s not nice. And now hundreds of thousands of badgers might be killed to ensure that the dairy industry keeps hold of its profits too.
If that seems very simplistic it’s because it is. Bottom line, badgers will be killed because the dairy industry believe they impact on their profits. It’s a simple link, a simple connection, and I believe that I’m – quite simply – a part of the process by buying the products the industry produces.
When I hear people say, ‘I can’t give up bacon/steak/fish, I like it too much’ I understand how hard it is. I really do. But at the same time I think of the huge loss of life, the loss of land to grain that needs to be grown to feed farm animals, the wild fish caught to be ground up and fed to fish in fish farms, the methane released into the atmosphere, the vast amounts of water the food industry needs. But – when confronted with the reality of the dairy industry, the same release of methane, the same water being used, the same grains fed to essentially the same animals, the use of those animals until they can’t be used anymore and are disposed of, and of a badger cull I loathe – more and more my saying, ‘But I really like cheese’ sounds nothing less than a perfect echo of that same meat-eater who despite all the evidence of the damage that meat production does to the environment and the animals it devours won’t give it up because they really like the taste of bacon…
Do I really need milk in my tea? Can’t I live without custard doughnuts (actually I can probably live far longer without them)? Life without cheese – hmm, that’s a real problem, but not insurmountable (of course not). And do I really want to feel, however minutely, that I’m partly responsible for the deaths of British badgers?
There are no clear answers, no absolute solutions, I know that. These are complex issues. I’m fully aware that one person’s actions very, very rarely change things very much. But this is now much more about how I feel, about what I know is right, than attempting to change the world by putting rice milk in my morning cuppa. It’s about feeling today the way I did when I looked at those tiny bones nine years ago.
The final frontier? I’m going to have to cross it soon, I really am.
- This essay has been reposted on the influential Vegetarian Society of El Paso website with a response from my good friend Jamie Newlin.