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Has Eating Meat Become More Socially Unacceptable Than Doing Drugs?

I’ve started to feel like a social pariah because whisper it I love meat

A Sunday roast pork belly. Pre-period PMS steak and red wine. McDonald’s at the end of a night out with my mates (chicken selects, obviously). Rare beef pho with friends. Buttered toast at Nan’s house. Dad’s spaghetti Bolognese. Consolation break up roast chicken. Special occasion celebration beef wellington. Throughout my entire life, I have come together with the people I love over food but, specifically, meat.

Over the last few years, I’ve resisted the inevitable pull of vegetarianism and veganism. I took the time to watch Cowspiracy. I also tried not to be too sceptical about some of What The Health’s more spurious claims. I was moved by Leonardo Di Caprio’s Before The Flood. But, still, I ate meat and I enjoyed it.

This year, however, I reached a tipping point and, so it seems, have 85% of the people I love and respect who have decided to eschew meat. If they haven’t gone the whole hog and turned to veganism, they’ve gone vegetarian, pescatarian or flexitarian. Restaurant critic Grace Dent has come out as (almost) vegan. And even my boyfriend, who clung to the carnivores’ melting ice cap with me, suddenly stopped eating meat cold turkey (sorry).

However, something that strikes me about a lot of the people who are giving up meat for ethical reasons as that they’re still more than happy to order in a gram of coke on a Friday night. Are we really going to pretend that you can offset the moral maze of cocaine because you’re trying to get into tofu? In case there is any confusion over how unethical the yuppie drug of choice is: between 2007 and 2014 no fewer than 164,000 people were murdered in Mexico as a direct result of the cocaine trade.

It feels like the scales are finally falling from our eyes when it comes to the environmental and ethical impacts of industrial farming in the same way that we’re waking up to how problematic fast fashion is and yet, so many of us so easily turn a blind eye to the serious harm caused by a line of coke.

Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke has even gone as far as to warn that there is a concrete link between middle class people who take cocaine at dinner parties and the rise in crime in London and other cities in the UK.

When I told my friend Ben* (a vociferous carnivore who refuses to watch any of the ‘vegan propaganda’ documentaries as he calls them and has a penchant for getting on it at the weekends) that I had cheated and started low key eating meat again when I wasn’t at home, he laughed. ‘Well…’ he said, ‘there’s some debate about where chickens are even conscious’. I googled it, he’s wrong but I guess we all tell ourselves stories in order to live. The general consensus is that chickens are definitely sentient beings.

After our chat, I went to a farm and I looked at all of the animals. In the style of Bear Grylls’ The Island I tried to work out what I could kill with my bare hands. The pigs? Definitely not. The sheep? Nope. The cows? HELL NO. A fish? I think so. And then, I reached the chickens. A pluming and puffing cock stood proudly atop a heap of shit. Could I kill him? No. The hens that stalked around him, could I snap one of their necks? I’d love to say yes but, let’s be real, it’s probably a no.

After that, I came across an Economist Instagram post about a pig factory farm in China where pigs never see daylight. I felt sick. I haven’t eaten pork since.

This growing sense I have that everyone is waking up, smelling the bacon and opting for oat milk porridge instead isn’t just the product of my own guilty paranoia. In 2016, the Vegan Society got pollsters Ipsos Mori to survey people about their dietary habits. This revealed that the population of vegans in Britain had increased from 150,000 to 542,000 in just a decade. This was in addition to 1.14 million vegetarians. More than this, 63% of vegans were female and close to half were aged 15-34.

There is no exact figure for the number of vegans In Britain in 2018. However, earlier this year comparethemarket.com (of all people) released a survey which said that there are now more than 3.5 million people in Britain who identify as ‘vegan’.

It’s almost impossible to scroll through Instagram without coming across some #vegan content, there are 61,482,981 posts about it.

This week, Sainsbury’s announced that they will be selling ‘fake’ vegan meat right next to the real thing because the flexitarian market is booming so much is testament to how going vegan is no longer only for Veganuary or niche health food shops.

It feels as though a cultural shift is taking place. Where once I was unapologetic about eating meat, albeit as organic and free range as I could possibly source. Today, I’m a lot more cautious about admitting that I still enjoy eating it. My boyfriend has been so strict about his new diet, I caved after three weeks and I have struggled to tell him the truth about the full extent of my fall from the meat wagon. To be honest, I’m a bit ashamed.

Why do I feel this way? Well, the evidence about how damaging the meat industry is for the environment is pretty compelling. For someone, like me, who strives to be ethical in other areas of my life it’s fairly hard to justify being complicit in the destruction of Earth.

Studies have shown that farming livestock has had a bigger impact on the environment than anything else, yes, even more so than cars. Beef and dairy are by far the worst offenders, using 28 times more land and 11 times more water thank pork and chicken. In fact, according to the UN, three meat companies emitted more greenhouses gases in one year than the whole of France and some of the biggest oil companies like Exxon, BP and Shell. Sadly, grass fed cows, raised in lovely rolling pastures, aren’t much better.

For Otegha, 28, this was also the push she needed to try giving up meat. ‘I know a lot of people [go vegan or vegetarian] because of the animal welfare but that wasn’t the key motivation for me’ she tells me. For her ‘it was about the environmental stuff’. What was it that got her? ‘For me…it was very much like “what are we doing to our environment, to the planet that we all need to survive”. I just felt like we are all shooting ourselves in the foot and damaging the planet for people who are poorer in other countries around the world. Let me put it this way, if food prices go up because of water shortages, for example, that’s going to be very difficult for people – I felt a responsibility to other human beings and future generations.’

I’m with her, after watching Before The Flood I caught myself thinking ‘well…I’ll be long gone when…’ and then realised how selfish it was. I confess this to Otegha. ‘I know’ she says, ‘I don’t think the true effects of this are going to be felt in our lifetime, but I think the effects of the past 50 to 100 years will be felt by future generations and it seems really selfish.’

And yet, despite how heavily the morals of meat eating weigh on her, like me, Otegha has struggled to give it up. ‘I feel so genuinely embarrassed about the fact that I’m eating meat again’ she explains ‘6 weeks ago I had this realisation – I love food and I really enjoy it. I take pleasure in food and so do my friends. We are all and always have been big meat eaters’ she explains ‘we’re the sort of group who go to a restaurant and our eyes are falling out of our heads at the sight of a big steak’.

It was when her friends started going veggie, vegan or pescatarian one by one that she felt it was time to change. ‘I just started to think “you’re like me…maybe it’s time”. I felt in my heart and my gut that this was the right thing to do.’

Part of the reason that I have caved and started eating meat again is, honestly, because I just don’t have the time to do the meal prep I need to do. I find it easy to be veggie or pescatarian at home but, during the working week, limp salads and luke warm lentils in Pret don’t exactly turn me on. Otegha says this was a big factor for her too, ‘I’m not ruling out ever doing it again’ she says, ‘I just feel like my lifestyle isn’t set up for it…it felt like I would have to spend all my time cooking or at least thinking about what to eat.’

It goes without saying that there’s a reasonable amount of privilege attached to what I am about to say: perhaps my vegetarian repertoire isn’t up to scratch but, no word of a lie, during the weeks I was avoiding meat I spent more time at the local grocers, roasting cauliflowers and scouring the Internet for recipes than I did anything else. I persevered, thinking of the imminent global drought which will be brought on by industrial farming but, in the end, I got sick of cooking.

Maria, also 28, went veggie, occasionally eating fish, a couple of years ago. What prompted her to give up meat after over 20 years of eating it? ‘I do worry about the environment’ she says ‘but that wasn’t my primary reason for doing this. It was more about my own health…about how meat makes me feel. My housemates at the time gave me a book called Eating Animals’ she reflects, ‘it’s about the meat industry...which is really grim when you think about it’. Is this, by which I mean industrial farming, why she went veggie? ‘To be honest’ she says ‘it was more about the hormones…the stuff you hear about being injected into cheap meat which made me decide to do it. I suddenly thought about what I was putting in my body because the book talked about the way chickens are reared, how they’re dunked in these tanks of grotty water once they’re dead and pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones…it put me off’.

While the hormone situation is far worse in the US than it is in the UK – which is why there’s a massive debate about where we will import meat from after Brexit ], she’s not wrong. Intensively farmed broiler chickens are kept in an artificially lit shed of around 20,000-30,000 birds. Disease spreads fast, as you would imagine, [so antibiotics are often needed. That said, a lot of the most enticing health claims made by vegan diet advocates have been queried by experts.

Maria had a roast on Sunday at her mum’s house last weekend. It was her first in a while. She doesn’t regret it, but she says she won’t be doing it again any time soon. ‘I feel alright about eating meat occasionally’ she says, ‘in an ideal world…occasionally I to go to a really nice organic butchers and treat myself but I don’t want to eat it regularly again’.

Why not? ‘I do think there is a bit of a stigma around eating meat now’ she tells me ‘veganism has become so huge and so mainstream that there is a stigma if you’re not on board’. However, she says ‘but I wouldn’t personally really judge anyone if they wanted to eat meat. I don’t really talk about the fact I’m trying to give it up that much or tell people about what I’m doing unless it comes up in conversation but…some people talk about being vegan a lot...they shouldn’t make other people feel bad’.

They do, and I think for a long time that’s partly what put me off it. I felt pressured into veganism as #cleaneating which is, without question, a branch of diet culture or shamed by people sharing pictures of slaughterhouses on social media. That said, what both Otegha and Maria have reminded me is that it’s OK to try and fail occasionally. ‘I don’t judge people for eating meat’ Otegha says ‘I’m just like “oh maybe you haven’t got there yet”...there shouldn’t be judgement.’

If everyone gave up meat, would it save the planet? Quite possibly. Do we all have a responsibility to animal welfare and the environment? Unquestionably. It does feel like the tide has turned and, perhaps, we will look back in 200 years in horror about how people in the 2000s treated both animals and the environment with a complete disregard.

I have failed at being truly vegetarian but, like Otegha and Maria, I have seriously cut down my meat intake. I won’t apologise for eating it occasionally. I, however, will admit the arguments against consuming a lot of it are very compelling and that I feel guilty if I overdo it.

‘Our demand for meat has got to the point where the only way to sustain it is having these huge systems which are really damaging to the environment’ says Otegha ‘so maybe even if we all ate less of it that would be better’. She adds ‘of course, it’s hard to force yourself to change your habits when you know that you’re just a drop in the ocean of millions – but that’s obviously not the point.’

I now eat a lot less meat. And, when I do, I think a lot about what I’m buying and whether I actually want it. I am fully flexitarian, that’s also how Maria and Otegha describe themselves. We aren’t saying we’ll never eat meat again, we’re just trying hard to be more conscious about what we consume.

These days, it seems to have become perfectly acceptable to tell people they shouldn’t be eating meat and, probably, that’s a good thing. How much longer we we going to continue eating fast food as though it wasn’t the product of torturous battery farming?

But, if we’re serious about ethical eating then we need to be serious about applying those ethics in other parts of our lives. If you’re eschewing animal flesh and reaching for the Quorn with one hand whilst Whatsapping your dealer with the other, you’re a hypocrite. There is no such thing as free range or organic cocaine but, somehow, the implications of casual drug use still seem all too easy to overlook

*some names have been changed to protect identities