Deciding what to eat

There’s been a short hiatus while I have been on leave away from the Hebrides. I’ve been in Brighton for the last ten days, and we’ve eaten out like kings and queens. I had the opportunity to take my mother out, as well as my husband and two daughters, and we spoke about food. These are discussions we have had many times over the years. This Christmas, out of seventeen people, five of us will be looking to reduce our meat consumption in some way. One vegan, one occasional vegan, two vegetarians and a lapsed vegetarian.

SO we talked, about definitions and choices, about misconceptions and fallibility, about the times we have been offered fish as the vegetarian choice, about the vegetables roasted in duck fat, about the reasons for our choices.


Why reduce meat consumption? One of our vegetarians has chosen to reduce meat consumption for animal welfare reasons and a rejection of the meat industry. This includes battery farming, high intensity breeding, high antibiotic use, transport of animals to large slaughter houses, as main factors in the European meat industry. I know this doesn’t apply to croft-raised animals, but it does apply to the meat on the shelves of our shops.

The vegans amongst us are arguing that the focus on animal protein is overlooking the origins of hunger, about sustainably feeding our world population of seven billion people without destroying environments. The land required to be turned over to agriculture to produce animal protein is far higher than that required for vegan diet. Hebridean livestock are fed imported sheep-nuts and other feedstuffs, and contribute to this dilemma.

What about fish? Sustainable fishing and the use of fishing quotas is a hot topic – just consider the fall-out from the book ‘Shetland’. The authors raise the issue of the commercial trade in fishing quotas, and allude to practices that evade true control of sustainable fishing. I find it so hard to weigh up the politics and impact of the fishing industry that I feel guilty if I don’t know the provenance and fishing method used when I eat fish. Was it farmed? And what was the farmed fish fed on? Has this contributed to falling stocks of sand-eels, falling populations of sea birds? What about the antibiotics, the environmental fall-out on wild stocks? Was my fish line-caught? Or trawled? What was the by-catch; was it dolphin, or an endandered species? What about the ropes and gear that remain in the sea, shedding plastic and entangling larger animals? Were our scallops dredged, with massive collateral environmental destruction?

How should we support local economies? There are many people in our communities who depend on food for their livelihoods; the crofters, the fishermen, the salmon farms, the restaurants and shops and cafes. The people who prepare our food, who choose local produce, whose artistry makes sublime meals, their skill deserves attention.

Personally I don’t think there is one answer that fits every situation every time. Better, more independent information at the point of purchase seems sensible, but this would need to be well-researched, easy to understand, quick to read. More widespread debate about the politics of food at every level of our society would help drive change.

Some changes have already taken place: eating veal has become less popular over the last fifty years, and food labelling has also improved. Most menus include at least on vegetarian choice for each course, and these choices are more innovative than they were. Fast food restaurants indicate which dishes are vegan or vegetarian, and we are encouraged to speak to staff if we have questions.

I am encouraged that we can continue to raise the agenda, to improve our understanding of the environmental impact of what we eat, and how to eat well without compromising our principals.

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