Should we eat meat?

by Melissa Stewart

25 September 2018

This is the hot topic up for debate at one of this year's Dartmouth Food Festival events. We got a sneaky preview of what to expect from the players involved

The 2018 Dartmouth Food Festival is shaping up to be a good one. Alongsidethe usual smorgasbord of exhibitor stalls, chef demos and copious amounts of tasty food, there’ll be some lively discussions around the state of the UK food industry. One such chat, which will take place in the Eat Your Words yurt on the Saturday, is entitled ‘Clash of the Carnivores’. It centres on the debate around the ethics of eating meat, and brings together Peter Greig from Piper’s Farm, chef and activist Tom Hunt and James Whetlor from Cabrito Goat Meat, with the chat chaired by Shane Holland from Slow Food in the UK. Ahead of what’s sure to be an animated conversation, we had a quick chat with the panel to get a taster of what to expect.

There’s no denying that the number of vegans in the UK has risen. Research from the Vegan Society in 2016 estimates that there are now around 540,000 UK vegans, up from 150,000 in 2006. The vegan food industry is also booming, with the UK market for meat free foods worth £572m, and this is expected to rise to £658m by 2021, according to Mintel. So, is this just another millennial-driven foodie trend, or a wider move by people to cut out meat altogether? And, if so, should we all be following suit?

“I don’t accept the idea that eating meat is in some way inherently unethical,” says James, owner of Cabrito Goat Meat, who champions the use of kid goat meat as a foodstuff rather than the kids being unnecessarily euthanised as a by-product of the dairy industry.

“Biologically, we’re carnivores; evolutionary, we’re carnivores; and also, culturally, we’re farmers. What separates us from the animal world is our ability to manipulate our own environment, and one way we do that is through farming.”

Meat eaters we historically may be, but is this enough of an argument for continuing to eat it, particularly as the global population rises and, with it, the number of people eating meat? Shane, who as head of Slow Food in the UK is committed to campaigning for better food for all, argues that for the food industry to sustain itself we all need to be cutting back on the volume of meat we eat.

“Globally, we’ve roughly doubled our meat consumption over the past 50 years, which isn’t sustainable,” he says. “And we’re seeing countries that traditionally didn’t eat much meat, like China, consuming far more than they previously did. My view would be that we need to eat much less meat, and we have to be mindful of where our meat is coming from. We need to ditch all the snackables and lunchables. Meat used to be eaten once a day, or as leftovers from your main meal and turned into something else, and we’d eat far smaller quantities. We should go back to that, and cherish the meat we eat.”

Eating less meat or, in his own case, no meat, is something that Tom, a vegan, hugely advocates, not just for ethical reasons but for the wider impact on the environment. “There is a general consensus between nutritionists, health specialists and environmental organisations that we should all eat less meat – quite a lot less, in fact – for both our own health and for the health of the environment,” he says. “Reducing our meat intake is the biggest thing we can do to reduce our environmental impact, alongside reducing our waste. The World Resources Institute and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimate that, globally, meat production is responsible for between 14% and 18% of human greenhouse gas emissions.”

Cutting back on meat is one thing, but, argues Shane, it’s not as simple as saying meat eating = bad, and veganism = good.

“The issue is that many vegan products are just as industrially and intensely produced as many animal products,” he says. “I appreciate if you’re an ethical vegan and for you it’s about sentient beings being treated badly, but if we’re talking about high-impact industrial agriculture that’s harming the planet because it’s kicking up huge amounts of carbon then you can’t go much more wrong than buying a soy burger from Lidl for 50p, because to create that requires chopping down the rainforest, making it just as bad as a Lidl chicken burger.”

With this in mind, perhaps the focus of the conversation needs to shift away from unhelpful headlines pitting meat eating against veganism, and onto a wider conversation around where our food comes from and how it’s produced.

“If you’re going to have a mature discussion about this, you cannot simply take a generic definition of meat, and then say all of it is basically the same,” agrees Peter, whose business, Piper’s Farm, champions sustainable livestock farming through slow grown, purely grass-reared animals.

“From our point of view, the most important component of the discussion is to make a clear distinction between systems of meat production. At Piper’s, our belief in our system of meat production takes absolute account of the natural world around us, and the incredible tapestry of biodiversity within which we operate. Our job as farmers is not only food production, but as guardians of an incredibly precious and complex landscape that has been around for many millions of years. Be in no doubt, nature is an incredible force and, as farmers, we do not respect it at our peril.”

Unfortunately, not all farmers practise the same responsible, slow food farming methods as Peter and the team at Piper’s. The demand from supermarkets and the food industry for a 52-weeks-a-year supply of cheap meat means that industrial and intensive farming methods are still prevalent across the UK.

“Can we blame the farmer?” asks Shane. “Consumers like blaming farmers, but if a farmer’s not able to produce a product at the price a consumer wants to pay for it, I can’t blame them. I don’t think the consumer knows the consequences of what they’re asking for.”

For James, the buck stops with the supermarkets; he believes that tougher legislation should be brought in to regulate what they’re selling. “If you are the chairman or CEO of a supermarket, and you’re selling horsemeat and labelling it as beef, you shouldn’t be able to weasel out of any blame. You’re culpable for it,” he says.

“You’ve gone back to the supplier and said, ‘We need you to cut the price, we need you to cut the price,’ and then turned the other way when the price kept dropping. You’re not asking the question, ‘How come you can sell me ground beef for half the price of the other guy?’ I think you can legislate by making buyers in supermarkets responsible for what’s on their shelves and not let them pass that responsibility onto the producer, which is what currently happens.”

This also leads onto the role of the consumer in all this. At what point should we, as individuals, start taking responsibility for what we put in our mouths? Tom says that, until we start taking ownership of our choices, things are unlikely to improve.

“I believe we’ve become disconnected from our food and its origins and, ultimately, nature,” he says. “This is causing us, and the world, all sorts of problems, which is essentially the globalisation of our food system. I found that even though I’m someone who is obsessed with food and good food, I was still eating meat that I was unsure of in terms of its quality and its origins. You can’t always find that out when you’re at a restaurant, or buying from a butcher.”

For Tom, cutting out meat from his diet completely was the simplest way to avoid eating low-welfare cuts, but for those of us who can’t face going vegan full-time, what should we be doing to improve the quality of the meat we eat here in the UK?

“Supermarkets react to supply and demand. As consumers, we need to say we’re not going to buy things like cheap chicken breasts any more,” urges Shane. “Then they’d be off the shelves. If we all started saying we’re going to shop for meat in farmers’ markets, in high-welfare butchers, and from brands like Piper’s, then we’d see an increase in the availability of quality products.”

And James agrees. “One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I started as a chef was to buy the best products you can and don’t f*ck with them,” he says. “If you’re having a pork roast, buy the best pork you can. The meat will be a bit more expensive, but that’s a good thing, as it means you eat less, so meat production goes down, which is good for the planet. And it’s good for people producing meat in the ‘right way’ – free range, chemical free, with good genetics. Those people will have their livelihoods supported.”

To hear James, Peter, Tom and Shane discuss this topic in more depth, sign up to the free Eat Your Words session at the Dartmouth Food Festival, at 11.15am on Saturday 20th October; dartmouthfoodfestival.com