I work in the building trade, moving from site to site, and regularly sharing my lunch break space with fellow workers, many of whom I have not met before. Discussion inevitably turns to food at some point after football and sex have been exhausted. Building site canteens are not over endowed with intellectual conversations so much so that when asked an intelligent question I am sometimes surprised by it. Being a vegetarian on a building site is a bit like being the only gay in the village, I am immediately looked at as a bit odd. Often looked at with puzzlement and even pity, and sometimes anger, in case I might challenge their right to eat meat. So usually I quickly try explain I am not a rabid animal rights terrorist and they can relax and enjoy their bacon sandwich. The most common question worthy of a serious answer I am faced with is “why are you vegetarian?” There are many possible answers to this question, because there are many reasons why I choose to avoid meat and fish.
Perhaps my food choices are best explained by my personal history. Like most people in the world I was bought up by omnivorous parents. They did their best to feed me well and I grew up strong and healthy for the most part. I was not a fussy eater as a child and with a few exceptions ate pretty much anything if I was hungry. Around my 16th birthday I started working as a general farm labourer, a job I really enjoyed. It was a small mixed farm with grazing for fifty or so milk cows some fattening calves, fattening lambs in the winter, chickens for the Christmas market and some fields of wheat and barley. The farm workforce was the farmer and me and a part time lad who helped out on weekends and harvest time. I spent just one year as a general farm labourer and during that year I learned a great deal. The best thing I learned was to how to enjoy work. But I also learned where my food came from and some of the consequences of its production.
The small mixed farm of the type I worked on is by all accounts almost a thing of the past, but the basic principles of farming remain, its just the technology and the scale of production that have moved on. Almost all the food we eat is grown on farms, some well run some not so, and all that food costs. Not just the immediate price of buying it but also environmental costs and animal welfare costs too. The environmental costs of meat production are very steep. I takes at least 10 kg of vegetable protein to produce 1 kg of beef. Chickens turn vegetable protein into meat protein somewhat more efficiently than cattle but often in conditions of such cruelty that is a shame upon those who buy the meat and those that profit from it's production and sale. It is possible to rear animals for meat in a humane way and these methods can also produce a higher quality meat. If you must eat meat, then choose quality over quantity if you care about animal welfare.
A year or so after working on the farm I was the lodger in the house of a young couple who were vegetarians, so I ate what they ate. When I ate elsewhere I ate meat but I found that the meat that had always been a part of my everyday diet was no longer so palatable any more. It wasn't that I had any great moral objection at that time it's just that having not eaten it much for some months I tasted it anew, and it just didn't taste or feel nice any more. I realised that immediately after eating meat I felt torpid and later I felt slightly achy, like a very mild hangover. Vegetarian food by contrast felt light, delicious, and energising.
Many people around the world are not concerned with which sort of food to eat, just concerned with getting enough of any sort of food to eat. For them the question of food choice does not exist. But for those of us living above the poverty line we do have choice. Most people wear similar clothes, speak the same language and eat the same food as their parents and friends. Fashions in food come and go like fashions in clothes. Wearing designer clothes, driving the right car are symbols of status in our society. Meat eating was and still is to some extent also a symbol of being “well off.” Poor people eat lentils, rich people eat steak. These ways of thinking are deeply engrained in our culture. The challenge is to question the culture, question why we eat what we eat? We live in a society with shops and supermarkets that contain a bewildering array of foodstuffs. We are blessed with a choice of foods from around the world. Meat is an easy way to get most of the nutrients your body needs. It is a body you are eating after all! The long term health problems of over consumption of meat are very well known and documented. If a vegetarian diet is to give you all the nutrients your body needs it does require more effort, but that effort is repaid many fold. It is not the health benefits of a diet based on fresh fruit, vegetables and pulses that makes me choose vegetarian food, it is the way it makes me feel that does it for me. For me vegetarian food is not about not eating meat or fish its not about denial its about choosing quality. I have the choice to eat fresh and delicious, or processed and packaged.
For all the moral, ethical, environmental, sustainability arguments for vegetarianism the real reason I choose it is because it is the best quality food I can buy. Why would I choose anything else?