Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The great vegetarian debate... or the elephant in the room?

After last weeks episode of MasterChef where myself, Tim, Sara, Tom, James and Annie were invited back to take part in the programme, and a rather fab dinner cooked for us by the final 12 with JT on the pass, there has been somewhat of a hoo ha about the fact that I ate seafood. After last years anti vegetarian backlash, this year it seems the fundamentalist veggies have gone on the attack.

It's impossible to defend yourself on twitter in 140 characters or less and I think this topic is worthy of more consideration as there are so many elephants in the room that we all shy away from discussing when talking food politics.

I am not ashamed that I ate seafood. I have never said that I am 100% vegetarian. I have only ever described myself as having a mostly vegetarian diet. Of the 760 or so meals I eat each year,757 or so consist of no meat or fish products. Does this make me pescatarian or vegetarian? I don't think that either label fits entirely. The fact that I have had to defend myself across the camps illustrates one of the underlying problems that alienates vegetarians and non vegetarians in the first place.

For me, the priority is about creating a great plate of food regardless of whether there is meat or fish on the plate. In my younger days, I was more radical and yes, it did alienate people. One of things I have learned over the years is that life, politics and more specifically, food politics is a complex debate and that things are rarely black and white, but in fact many shades of grey.

I stopped eating meat and fish as a teenager because I was saddened at the farming conditions that existed at that time. I never disliked the taste or texture of meat and fish, and in fact, it has always been a struggle to resist the temptation of falling off the vegetarian wagon. There ain't nothing like the smell of bacon in the morning! When we went travelling as a family, we spent extended periods of time in remote places. Often this meant we lacked access to protein (we soon learned that carrying a jar of peanut butter and crackers was essential). But as someone who has struggled with iron deficiency anaemia throughout my life, not because of my 'mostly vegetarian' diet but because my body struggles to absorb it, along with with B12, I became more relaxed about supplementing my diet with fish. Having a more relaxed attitude (about more things than just food too) was something that I gained from travelling. The fact that I was eating line caught local fish played a big part too.

When we returned in 2006, I decided that I would allow myself to enjoy seafood on my birthday and if it was a very special occasion (such as having the master chef final 12 cook for us or when the producers took me out for dinner at the fanciest restaurant I'd ever been to in my life). Does this mean I care any less about how we farm meat or the environment destroying methods employed in the fishing industry? I don't think so.  I'm a practising Buddhist which means I try to observe the precepts and follow the eightfold path.  This is what guides my choices these days.  Not someone telling me that I'm not 'pure' in my vegetarianism.  Interestingly, someone said to me in a cooking class last night that although they are completely vegetarian, they have one exception of using fish sauce in SE Asian food.  Who am I (or anyone else come to that) to tell this person they wrong to describe themselves as vegetarian?

My biggest concern is that when people react like they have, it does nothing to move the debate forward and further alienates vegetarians from non vegetarians. On the one hand, it illustrates a kind of fundamentalism that, let's face it, does nothing to serve anyone's cause. On the other, I've always felt that if we have a spectrum of beliefs, then we need the radicals at one end to balance out the people at the other end who couldn't give a monkeys about anyone or anything. But their knee jerk and somewhat narrowminded reaction to me eating fish is a real waste of their energy.

There are so many important issues in food that we shouldn't feel like we have to shy away from discussing. It's important that we see the contradictions in our own behaviour and choices. So let's get stuck in...

Most vegetarians consume dairy. The dairy industry is one of the most intensively farmed of all the food industries. Even organic dairy doesn't prevent the cull of male 'useless' calves because the public have got it into their head that all veal is bad. Very few have taken to understanding the difference between milk fed veal and rose veal. The former is illegal to farm in the UK (as far as I'm aware) and the latter is really no different to eating lamb. I admire Jimmy Doherty's efforts to get Rose veal back on the menu. Why? Because it's more sustainable than culling them. And having seen how happy those pigs are on his farm, I have no doubt the calves will be raised with the greatest care and attention.

Then there's eggs. Once again, the useless male chicks are literally thrown away (actually into a blender like machine). So vegetarians need to be very careful about the stones they throw because their house is most definitely made of glass. And that's before we even start discussing whether someone has a leather bag, shoes or a down jacket (and I have all 3).  Maybe a 'pure' vegetarian doesn't wear leather, but there's a good chance those Converse trainers they might be wearing were probably made in a SE Asian border town where human conditions were last than satisfactory. 

The list can go on and on.  Palm sugar and palm oil, for example, are responsible for the destruction of unique natural habitats that threaten the existance of certain animals.  Does this mean palm sugar isn't vegetarian, if it is indirectly responsible for endangering them? Does shipping food across the span of the planet make that produce non vegetarian, because coral is dying from the increase in water temperatures caused by global warming? (If coral isn't cute enough, we could talk polar bears here).

My point is, I have spent many hours of my life being overwhelmed by thinking about all this stuff and the one thing I know is that as a forty something woman, there are some things in life where I will never see the answer clearly, and that some of my views are contradictory and shifting, because thats generally what happens when you look at all the evidence, and changes to that evidence.  Why do think researchers disagree with each other so much?

The crux of the issue for me is about treating animals and the environment with care. Sustainability is more important to me than going all gooey eyed over a cute cow (and yes I do think they are cute with their Ermentrude eyelashes). I'm not saying I personally want to eat one. But I accept that people will always want to eat meat and fish. I would rather join in the debate to help make that happen more sustainably and in a way that reduces any cruelty and pain for the animals. And if I can encourage people to eat less meat and fish because I can make an equally good plate of food without it, then that's even better.


  1. Thank you so much for this article, it reflects my beliefs exactly. I've been a "vegetarian" for about 7 years, but I do occasionally eat fish and I'm so tired of having to justify myself!
    It's not about being a perfect human, it's about making one step at a time. I think that most people who don't eat meat, but sometimes fish, don't replace all the meat they would usually have with fish, so it's a step in the right direction in my opinion!
    I also think that it's way more important to buy sustainable meat/fish/other products, than to not consume them, after all it's nature to eat fish and meat, I just know that for ME, it's easier to just not eat meat, rather than making sure it's from a good source.
    I, too, always cook meat-less for people to prove the point, that it can be equally delicious, but rather than trying to make them vegetarians, I try to as you said "to make it happen more sustainably..." and to show them that it doesn't hurt to have meat-less meals every now and again.

  2. Thanks Jackie for this well written, structured and balanced article.
    I agree with the very wise and thought approach( can tell you were a scientist before you became a great chef ), especially about palm oil and veal.
    Finally someone shows real balls and says it as it is

  3. Hi Jackie,
    I have a slightly different view to you but agree that it is highly complex and a personal choice. I remember having discussions with you and you stood against factory farming conditions not against the idea that humans had the right to eat meat per se. This is where you and I differ but i do appreciate your view and appreciate that you act on it by boycotting meat for the most part and certainly never buying meat that is factory farmed.

    I also appreciate that you are willing to air these issues and do so in a moderate way. I quite agree with you that the militant food police alienate when i believe that education is the better way forward. Most times, if you discuss reasonably with people, where their food comes from you find they are shocked and will make changes to their diet based on this new information.

    While a vegan-ideal world is something i heartily wish for i realise it isn't possible now (and may never be) and rather than angrily push my views on others who then have a great reason to walk away and dismiss my arguments i choose, like you, to talk about these things as moderately as possible.

    It remains a sad fact that as a category food animals are the most abused and have terrible lives (for the most part). Furthermore it's also the case that they represent the greatest number of animals abused and killed for human wants (not needs!). So, let's do something about it. If a vegetarian - or semi vegetarian - diet is what you are willing to do right now, well, it's better than nothing. And it's also based on an informed choice (which is more than for many) and I'm not sure we can ask for more than that.

    So, to my mind, seafood or not, you keep on raising the issue and you keep on forcing people to think about it. While we have differing ideologies I'll support you all the way in this,


  4. Very well said!!! I couldn't agree more

  5. A fantastic argument - thank you so much for stating what so many people do not - that there is no one 'true' opinion wen it comes to our food choices. Surely what matters more is that we are making conscious, informed choices, rather than blindly consuming. Thanks for a great blog post.

  6. Well said indeed! People getting completely hung up on labels are doing the movement a disservice. Don't let it get you down.

  7. We are in the early stages of Rose Veal production on our Farm in Devon.

    thank you for writing this interesting article.

    Joyce and Steve

  8. Jackie, at your level, people will unfortunately judge you to the minute details :( and I don't know if you remember but we have had a discussion about the fact that people try and invade your space if the space held is desirable... Anyway, you know that a lot of times in the uk there is a lack of vegetarian dishes. well, in Mauritius (which you have to visit as you said once... ) the variety of vegetarian dishes cooked at home is quite wide and people love it. If you go, there are loads of dishes you need to taste and i'll get you in touch with my parents who will make sure you taste them at the right places ;)

    I think the whole thing about being vegetarian here is the challenge faced, thus the importance of being different shown..

  9. Thanks so much to all of you for such great feedback and interesting comments from such a variety of corners. It makes me happy to see so many of us with differing views and practices, but that we often share similar ultimate goals.
    Thanks again for your much appreciated support Jxx