AN ETHICAL OMNIVORE (WHERE POSSIBLE),
MUSES ON VEGANISM


It seems that making jokes about veganism is a risky business. William Sitwell, for many years editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated in the UK, stepped down after replying to an email from a freelancer who had proposed a regular feature for vegans. His terse response was, in effect, a joke in rather poor taste about those who eschew all animal-related foods.

It seems a rather minor matter over which to resign but the same can’t be said of the death threats which Sitwell is said to have received when the story broke.

When I was on Seán O’Rourke’s radio programme the other day, I suggested that veganism may be a new form of puritanism. After all, we have largely given up being puritanical about sex, so perhaps we are looking elsewhere for an issue around which we can give vent to what may well be a deeply held human tendency to wag fingers, adopt extreme positions and, as a result, feel better about ourselves.

Veganism as a personal morality or set of ethics is all fine and dandy, as far as I’m concerned. I can perfectly understand people not wanting to eat animals; and if they feel that the way dairy farming is conducted can’t possibly justify a slice of Gubbeen or a spoonful of Époisses, I will defend their right not to have to eat such things. If you avoid honey because you believe it exploits bees, that’s grand if a little eccentric.

I respect the vegan’s right to be a vegan; I just ask that vegans respect my right to eat what I choose to eat. And I choose as carefully as I can because I know that truly ethical eating is a minefield. There is no simple, straightforward path to guilt-free food consumption and it’s disingenuous of vegans to pretend that there is.

Producing enough plant food for a vegan planet would be very challenging. Do you want to sustain such production with animal manure or with oil-based fertilisers. Sure, you could try to fuel such agriculture on compost but it’s by no means certain that this could work globally. And it would require, so I’m told, a nine year rotation system as against the current organic three year system.

The human alimentary canal has evolved to work on a diet of both animal and plant foods. It starts with our teeth which strongly suggest a carnivorous element to our descent; and it continues to the gut where meat, vegetables and fruit in combination sustain a healthy bacterial flora.

Natural meat, fruit and vegetables are good for that flora but highly processed foods damage it.

And how are the vegan imitation foods made? The vegan cheese and vegan bacon, vegan sausages and vegan ice cream and what have you. They are highly processed (and mostly pretty unpleasant to my omnivorous palate).

Veganism, and the debate around it, is doing us some favours. Omnivores who want to eat ethically need to consider certain uncomfortable facts. For example, it makes no sense at all to feed cattle on grain when they are so inefficient at turning it into muscle and fat. This is one reason why Irish grass-fed beef is probably the best in the world.

We need to stop feeding grain to cattle, which produce 22% of the world’s meat. Pigs, which account for most the world’s meat and which thrive on an omnivorous diet, don’t need grain. Poultry, the second biggest source of meat in the world, too, are omnivores and don’t need grain. We would have much less meat, of course, about half what we produce globally now. But it would be a fairer world. That doesn’t strike me as a huge sacrifice, considering the benefit: less meat, but better, and more appreciated.

It’s rather unfair to claim that a vegan diet is essentially unhealthy. It tends to be rich in vitamins C and E, in phytochemicals, folic acid, magnesium and fibre. That can’t be a bad thing. But the fact the vegans need to take a vitamin B12 supplement means that a vegan diet is not complete. If you want to eat a diet that requires supplements – and a lot of omnivores use supplements – that’s fine. It just seems sub-optimal and, frankly, rather unnatural.

John Seymour, the late, great apostle of living simply off the land, the patron saint of smallholders, once wrote that civilised living is impossible without garlic. He was also sound on cheese-making and butchery.

Personally, I believe that civilised living is impossible without meat and dairy. But I don’t believe that people who choose to live without these delights, in a world that can be pretty grim, are uncivilised.

I just believe that they are missing out on a great deal of pleasure.