Saturday, 3 September 2011

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall is absolutely right, but please don’t all follow his advice at once…

A new potato and caulifower curry, just to prove I do vegetables too (even if I never did get round to writing up the recipe...)

In last Saturday’s Guardian Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall wrote about how he has drastically reduced his consumption of meat, and fish, and made vegetables the mainstay of his diet.  And urged us all to follow his lead, for the sake of our own well being, that of the animals we would otherwise be eating, and, most of all, the well being of the planet itself.

I have to say, even speaking as one who, as regular readers will know, does like their meat, that I cannot fault his argument: scientifically, ethically and logically, it’s pretty unimpeachable; his conclusion, therefore, becomes pretty unavoidable.  Frankly he’s absolutely right: we will all be better off if we all consume less meat.  The only effective way each of us as individuals can contribute to that is by eating less meat ourselves.  I cannot disagree.  No, more than that, I positively agree.  I do however, have one considerable concern with his position.

Not a concern, oddly enough that anyone seemed to raise in the comments attached to his piece in the Guardian online.  A tedious number of those – presumably, I’m afraid, from vegetarians (I say ‘afraid’ because this really isn’t a veggie vs. carnivore issue, and although HFW is not advocating vegetarianism, he doesn’t dismiss it either, indeed acknowledges it as the logical endpoint of his argument) – start off by praising him for his new found passion for veg, then sarcastically point out that, oh, he just happens to have a book on the subject to plug.  As if that undermines his argument.  Which rather overlooks the fact that the man’s a professional food writer.  And if he felt sufficiently passionate about any food related issue we would surely, therefore, expect him to write a book about it.  Wouldn’t we?  Or am I being naïve?

Personally I’m not worried in the slightest about the advocacy or otherwise of vegetarianism, nor the naked cynicism of a food writer having the brass neck to write a book about food, what concerns me is the potential consequences of too many people following Hugh’s lead.  Because, let’s face it, it’s not McDonalds, or Bernard Matthews turkey farms that’ll feel the impact, is it? 

For many years HFW has campaigned tirelessly (some would no doubt say cynically, what with him having a book to sell and all…) for a more ethical meat industry and sustainable fisheries, with better standards of welfare for the animals and less harm done to the environment.  He is far from alone in this, but his is one of the best known and most influential voices in the movement.  That influence though, surely, does not extend far beyond that intersection of the demographic Venn diagram where foodie and Guardian reader cross.  And while this demographic makes up no more than a tiny fraction of the global meat market, they undoubtedly make up a sizeable chunk if not, frankly, all, of the market for just the kind of ethical, sustainable, high welfare, low environmental impact British meat and fish producers he has previously championed.  It seems to me that if ALL of Hugh’s readers heed his advice, and drastically reduce their meat consumption, while it will make no statistically significant difference to global meat consumption (and therefore neither on the welfare of any of the beasts processed by the industry that feeds that consumption, nor on its environmental impact) it would have direct and dire consequences for the meat and fish industries good guys.  So much so that when we came to seek out organic, high welfare meat for our occasional meat treats, we might just find that all the suppliers of it have gone out of business, and all that is left available to us is factory farmed, antibiotic and steroid pumped, low welfare, water injected, shrink wrapped supermarket pap.  Or organic, high welfare meat at prices only the super wealthy could afford.

HFW’s current advocacy of reduced meat/increased veg consumption is not, in truth, as dramatic a U-turn is it may seem for a self described ‘notorious carnivore’.  His position has always been that the ethical meat eater should be responsible for the killing of fewer animals, well cared for while alive, and made the most extensive use possible of once dead (the ‘nose to tail’ philosophy).  His current position is simply a shift further along the same line of thought.  I would urge caution in everyone who cares about the ethics of meat rushing to follow Hugh to the logical endpoint of that line.  Otherwise we might just be the unwitting instruments of the destruction of all that Hugh, and many others, some of whom have sunk their life’s work into it, have been striving for these past ten years or so.  Please, let’s not allow that to happen.  Reduce your meat consumption by all means, most of us could probably do with doing that, I know I could, and have long intended to, without ever really getting round to it.  But let’s not leave the good meat producers entirely without a market.

That said, we did do a version of Hugh’s aubergine and green bean curry, substituting runner beans from the garden for the green beans, and very nice it was too.  We added the juice of a lime to the curry paste recipe as given, and reduced the quantity of water accordingly.  Not having had a control sample of the lime free paste to directly compare, I can’t categorically say it was an improvement, but I think it probably was.

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