Ethically eating: is it worth chewing over?

By Matt Williams

We in the UK seem to be increasingly interested in healthy living. Whether it’s Jamie Oliver and his school meals crusade, NHS reminders about getting tested for this or that, or even the BBC’s Olympics-induced ‘Get Inspired’ campaign, we are being urged from all sides to take active responsibility for our health. This has made certain ‘niche’ practices more mainstream; everybody sports gym wear around town, and thousands do an organised park run each Saturday (both things unimaginable a decade ago!) Likewise with ‘conscious eating’ – vegetarian or vegan diets are far less ‘niche’ than they used to be. In short, people who don’t eat meat (or even don’t use any animal products) no longer need to fear the label “weirdo.” So why are people choosing to ‘go veggie’? Well, first of all, it is cleaner.

As well as being ‘cleaner and leaner,’ less animal-dependent eating patterns are also kinder. First, they are kinder to the animals bred for our consumption, which are often in kept in cramped, dirty conditions and pumped full of harmful chemicals to make them grow faster and bigger. Secondly, we aid the environment by reducing atmospheric methane (to which cows contribute), which has at least some impact on global warming, even if the extent of this impact is still under debate. Thirdly, and most significantly, cutting down on animal consumption is kinder to other people; as well as our general social responsibility to care for the environment, livestock depends on a constant supply of grain, which in turn depends on a huge area of fertile farmland at a time when land is increasingly scarce for subsistence farmers.

Scientists in health, nutrition, and the environment continue to debate over the optimum human lifestyle for the common good. The very basic dietary guidelines from the World Health Organisation makes it plain that what is quickest, cheapest, tastiest and most immediately satisfying is diametrically opposed to what is actually best.

So the inevitable challenge comes: how can the tide be turned? How can vegetable-based diets become the norm? Certainly education has something to do with it, since the educational process should ideally make us judge what we feel by what we know to be true. The media can also help by focusing more on the healthy dietary habits of role models, especially sports stars, whilst on a local level, we could do with more community farms and private vegetable patches. At the same time, corporations bear responsibility for directing their commercial efforts towards their own gain rather than people’s wellbeing. But none of these measures will turn into actual solutions without the most basic factor of all. To turn from a pattern of life where immediate personal satisfaction trumps the pursuit of long-term common good requires nothing less than a change of heart. And how that can be brought about is a whole other question.

Photograph: Moyan Brenn

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