I read in the press over the Christmas period that government advisor Professor Tim Lang is now recommending that people eat meat no more than once a week. Aside from the scientific flaws in his argument that meat is responsible for obesity, type 2 diabetes and global warming, for any government to try to implement his suggestion would be such political suicide that I can only assume the comment was never meant seriously but merely to provoke debate. In that vein, I want to examine whether it really could be the only possible solution to feeding the world’s growing population.
Whilst Professor Lang uses the medieval period to demonstrate that there is cultural precedence for eating meat only on feast days, history also shows that we have not enjoyed our past days of enforced fasting, whether they be as a result of financial, religious or wartime pressures. And in the past fish was seen as the main alternative to meat, whereas nowadays the dwindling stocks in our seas would not be sufficient for us to increase our consumption. In addition to limiting meat to weekly “feast days”, Professor Lang talks also of cutting out dairy produce, which of course carries its own environmental costs, and appears to be suggesting an almost entirely vegan diet.
He is, I’m sure, addressing his comments to the vast majority who buy their meat from supermarkets, and whose meat eating consists mainly of the more intensively farmed animals. It never ceases to amaze me how limited the range is even amongst meat eaters –of the principal four farmed meats lamb is now considered too dear by many, and eating genuinely wild game, such as pigeon, is quite a rarity. Yet wild game has very little environmental impact – that is to say beyond the damage that they do to farmers crops and sheep often make a positive environmental impact through their grazing.
Most days I walk in an area of the Mendips known as Ubley Warren that was once mined for lead. The name Warren crops up in a number of farms and roads in the area and stems from the time when rabbits were kept here. Rabbits were first brought to Britain by the Normans following the conquest in 1066. At this time Britain was considered too cold for the rabbits to survive and so Warreners were employed to build mounds for them to live in and to trap them for their fur and meat when needed. One of these mounds, some 60 metres long by 3 metres wide, survives at Ubley Warren pretty much intact, with a second one running parallel to it now appearing a row of humps as a result of disturbance by subsequent mining. The whole area is covered with rabbit holes and you need only sit still and quiet for a minute or two before the rabbits start popping up all over the place. Periodically their numbers are reduced by an outbreak of Myxomatotis, the disease that almost wiped them out back in the 1950’s and which has led many who remember it never to eat rabbit again. However, whilst the disease did pass to some other animals, it never transferred to humans and the rabbits themselves eventually developed some immunity, such that it is now estimated that only 50% of those that get the disease actually die from it and, according to a Land Registry survey carried out in 2005, the rabbit population as a whole continues to multiply three-fold every two years. So Myxomatosis, controversially introduced first into Australia to control rabbit numbers there and subsequently illegally into France from whence it spread to the rest of Europe, has not ultimately proved successful in its goal. During the war we were actively encouraged to kill and eat rabbit, which was outside of the usual meat rationing, and presenting a great threat to crop production. Farmers are still eager to allow shooters onto their land to control this pest and whilst some of this rabbit finds its way into the food chain, the vast majority of rabbit sold in our supermarkets is imported rabbit farmed in China. Now how ridiculous is that?
In addition to rabbit what other meat could we be eating that has minimal environmental impact? Well, venison, the meat of kings and a King amongst meats, also needs controlling in the wild. It is actually getting so popular to eat that it is farmed as well, and whilst some people claim only to enjoy farmed venison, others, myself included, take the opposite view. Roe deer is considered the best of all the deer for eating, on French menus it is always accorded the distinction of being named as Chevreuil rather than the generic term of Venaison. Serendipitously roe deer also happens to be the species whose numbers are getting most out of hand.
Pigeon may also be shot as a pest and historically of course they were also kept in dovecotes for eating. The reared Squab pigeon (one that has had its wings clipped to prevent it flying and thus it puts on more weight) is considered fine restaurant fare, but even the humble woodpigeon provides meat that can be cooked and eaten like steak.
Two other garden pests that sometimes find their way to my table are snails and grey squirrel. Granted, there is not much meat on either, but snails, long enjoyed by the French, also have a cultural connection with this area. They favour the limestone of the Mendips as it is said to strengthen their shell and Mendip Wallfish, as the snails were known in these parts, were gathered from the dry stone walls and served at the Miners Arms for something like 30 years until no-one could be bothered to gather them anymore.
Most of the rivers run deep underground in the Mendips, but elsewhere in the country crayfish (first the Signal, and now some other foreign invader) are breeding in vast numbers and need to be caught. Perhaps we could also build ponds, as used to be found in all monasteries, and breed Carp or other non-carnivorous fish.
So you see for me there is little need to be forsaking flesh protein anytime soon, but I do think we need to be much more open about the form it takes. If we ate meat only on a weekly “Feast Day” presumably for most people this would be the Sunday Roast – with perhaps a steak cooked on the barbecue in the Summer. So with prime cuts the choice of for most people for their weekly feast what would become of the rest of the carcase? When would we eat faggots? Perhaps it will take something as radical as the non-availability of the more usual farmed options before people will consider these alternatives and perhaps this is what Professor Lang is actually trying to provoke.
I think also that we need to become equally open-minded and adventurous in our choice of vegetable matter. A well-to-do medieval household would have had a garden full of herbs and cultivated wild greens that we use very seldom nowadays. We have become very narrow in our “meat and two veg” mentality, so much so that even when visiting those foreign countries that have reputations for a much greater consumption of vegetables, we can miss them if we opt for our familiar main course meal structure. In his recent six-month experiment with vegetarianism, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also found that the solution to enjoyable vegetable consumption was to abandon the very British meal structure in favour of something more akin to the mezze or tapas style you might experience abroad. Personally, I love this relaxed way of eating, which is usually associated with meals that last for hours, but whilst the British rarely take their full hour for lunch, opting instead to eat a sandwich at their computer, there is a lot more that needs to change in our culture before I can see this style of eating catching on in a big way.
But on the positive side, vegetarianism has made inroads in the UK that are unparalleled in other European countries. There is now almost always a vegetarian option on even the shortest of menus in mainstream restaurants and school dinners. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall found that his vegetarian options were more popular at the first course than the second, or, when chosen as a main course, only at lunchtimes. Both of these however seem eminently do-able steps towards lowering our meat consumption to once a day rather than once a week. Vegetarian options should not however always be considered the most sustainable choice – after all they nearly always include cheese and/or imported nuts. But they will help us widen the range of foods eaten, and when meat is chosen, if this can also be from more sustainable options such as wild game or pasture fed lamb and beef, we will be making very positive steps forward. We need then to continue to campaign for more sustainable farming practices, such as bringing back pigswill rather than paying for expensive food disposal. This is the vision of Real Farming that I will be taking forward in our Food Culture section this year. Challenging you to consider new options but stopping well short of suggesting a complete revolution that overturns everything about our historic food preferences.