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, them 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 challenge 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?
Mick Burns 2009