Against all my expectations I have embraced demi-vegetarianism, and the financial, health, and environmental benefits have been remarkable
Something has happened that I never thought would. Against all my expectations, prejudices, and better judgement I have become a partial vegetarian, or, to use the style magazine vernacular, a 'demi-veg'. I know, if you are playing a game of environmentalist bingo, that sentence has probably just helped you win.
This development surprised me for many reasons. Firstly, if I have a hobby it is cooking and like many (but by no means all) foodies I'd argue there are few things more satisfying than a medium-rare steak, or a hunters stew, or a chicken jalfrezi. My kitchen skills are nowhere near advanced enough to trouble the judges on Masterchef, but I know how to chop an onion, I know you never undercook chicken or overcook vegetables, and I know that people who don't cook with chilli and garlic value decorum above pleasure and are probably not worth knowing. Consequently, I'd also picked up the prevailing kitchen culture belief that a meal without meat is in some way lacking.
Secondly, I grew up in the semi-rural hinterland that is East Anglia, surrounded by fields filled with animals that would make it onto your plate and the sound of shotguns taking out those pheasants that hadn't already fallen foul of the traffic. The complaint that children don't know where their food comes from would have held no sway in north Essex in the late 1980s, where classes were routinely granted a tour of the chicken sheds on the edge of the village and my father and I would each autumn pick up a quarter of a cow from one of the local farmers. I'm aware this invites the condemnation of true vegetarians, but I made my peace with the moral questions presented by meat-eating long ago and am still yet to be convinced by the arguments against an omnivorous diet.
Thirdly, my sister ended up making a different ethical choice and embraced vegetarianism for about a decade, and as a result I've dabbled with a vegetarian diet on many occasions over the years. Whenever I undertook such an experiment I quickly found myself both bored by food and reflecting on the wisdom contained in Paul Weller's reported response to a question about why he gave up on vegetarianism: "Because I was fed up being bloody hungry".
In short, I was in no way a receptive audience to the launch of the Meat Free Monday campaign five years ago. So what changed? How did I go from vegetable-sceptic to someone who on average eschews meat at least once, and more often three or four times, a week? Why have I shifted from being ambivalent towards the Meat Free Monday campaign to today being comfortable signing up to their new Climate Pledge?
Like any successful shift in behaviour it was driven by a number of factors. The initial launch of the Meat Free Monday campaign played a part, providing a once a week template that was far less restrictive than the all or nothing challenge presented by full vegetarianism. But it was reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals in 2009 that really provided the trigger for the gradual change in my diet. I remained largely unmoved by the philosophical arguments against animal-eating, but the full scale of the environmental impacts Safran Foer documented did spark in me a desire to curb the environmental footprint of my food.
And yet it was not until about 18 months ago that this desire manifested itself in a genuine and consistent shift in behaviour that has seen my wife and I drastically reduce the amount of meat we eat. This tipping point was informed by a number of factors - a pre-wedding desire to lose a bit of weight, a realisation that food price inflation was making the weekly shop an ever more expensive undertaking, the nagging sense that here was a way to slash my environmental impact - but the real trigger was remarkably prosaic: we found a couple of decent cookbooks.
The combination of one vegetarian cookbook and one Indian cookbook that was dominated by veg (and seafood dishes) demonstrated that good home-cooked vegetarian food was possible. After all, why wouldn't you want to eat a paneer and pepper curry or a vegetable chilli? From that point on, one, two, sometimes even three days a week of meat-free meals have become the norm in our house.
The benefits have been myriad. We're healthier, I've become a better cook (making food interesting and tasty without meat means you have to get cleverer with the use of spices and embrace a wider range of food cultures - again, if this time you are playing middle class bingo, you're welcome), we've saved money, and the environmental benefits have been huge. As Greg Barker noted this morning at the launch of the new Climate Pledge campaign, shifting to a meat free diet one day a week can deliver a carbon emissions saving equivalent to taking a car off the road for a month.
Most of all though, I enjoy food even more than I did before. By broadening our diet we've not only discovered that there are ways to make meat-free meals enjoyable, but we've also ended up enjoying meat-based meals more. Partly this is because we're lucky enough to be able to use the money saved through demi-vegetarianism on better cuts of meat, but mainly it is because you savour a fillet of steak or sea bass more when it is an occasional treat (I know, forget bingo, my Insufferable Urbanite Foodie Top Trumps score has just gone through the roof).
Are there any wider lessons to be learnt from this experience? The answer is yes and no. As a topic food is hugely political, but it is also hugely personal. I'd be extremely wary of advising anyone too forcefully about what they should eat, partly because it is rude and partly because, as my previous opposition to vegetarian activists demonstrates, it just serves to alienate people. Thanks for reading this far, but ultimately my diet choices are of little concern to anyone but me, and that is precisely how it should be.
But equally, I'm not sure the behaviour change that has happened in my kitchen is particularly unique. As with most issues in life, there is a natural resistance to proscriptive all or nothing proposals and a much greater willingness to embrace incremental change. That is why Meat Free Monday is more attractive than full-blown vegetarianism, and why a balanced diet that simply trims levels of meat in general and red meat in particular is more attractive than both.
There is a big lesson here for campaigners as they seek to find a way to successfully address a massive source of carbon emissions that they have previously shied away from tacking for fear of being characterised as mung bean-eating killjoys. And there is also a lesson for businesses and food retailers, in so much as if you are going to address environmental impacts in every other part of your business there is an obligation to address those environmental impacts related to the food you supply, be it through a supermarket chain or a small staff canteen.
The reality is that if we are going to try and tackle the carbon footprint of meat it seems self-evident that a big bold commitment to aggressively promote vegetarianism will only alienate customers and employees. The more sensible approach has to be a gradual shift, properly communicated, that offers better meat-free options, favours lower carbon meat dishes, and ensures the cost and environmental health benefits that come with his approach are explained to customers. You could also start by asking if the Meat Free Monday Climate Pledge could work for your organisation? You never know, you might end up surprising yourself with how easy it is.
Equally, as with every other aspect of the low carbon transition from green energy tariffs to electric cars and solar panels to energy efficient appliances, the key often lies in making the green option attractive and easy to embrace. It is a simple lesson that is too often forgotten when businesses and NGOs seek to promote the latest clean technology or green activity. A decent cookbook is often worth a thousand green celebrity endorsements.
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