I was impressed with the enthusiasm with which Yearly Meeting 2019 tackled Earthcare and climate change. I was, however, was somewhat perturbed with the haste with which the Meeting supported the suggestion that future Quaker gatherings be fed only vegetarian or vegan fare. I thought this decision should have received further research and spiritual discernment.
It was somewhat to my relief, therefore, that my attention was drawn to On Eating Meat by Matthew Evans. Evans, a trained chef, then a food writer and restaurant critic, now a farmer in southern Tasmania, has written the book as a guide for the “Ethical Omnivore”. He treads a well-balanced path between the vegetarian/vegan camp and industrial agriculture. He writes “I don’t see meat as a commodity. I see it as a privilege.”
Evans describes feedlots, piggeries, and poultry farms (160,000 birds slaughtered a day). He was far from impressed with either the animal welfare standards or the end product. And these were the ones he was allowed to see; we can assume that the others were worse. He argues that animals selected and reared for quick growth and slaughtered at a young age produce tender but tasteless meat. Good meat comes from animals which grow slowly and have maximum freedom of movement. From animals that live enjoyable lives, up until the last day – or the last second if it can be managed that way. He is no callous meat eater. He devotes one entire emotional chapter to his feelings when he has one of his steers killed on the farm.
But, Evans argues, the death of an animal slaughtered for meat, even in a less than ideal abattoir, is probably less unpleasant than deaths of animals in nature. In “natural” settings animals prey on others, perhaps the greatest predators being feral cats. And yet, he points out, it is “animal welfare” groups, often led by vegetarians and vegans, who resist measures to control feral animals.
Vegans believe that no animals are harmed in the production of their food, but Evans points out this is far from true. Crops grown in the field are enticing to many animals, and many kangaroos, wallabies and rabbits need to be shot, trapped or poisoned to protect even the innocent lentil. Many hundreds of thousands of mice need to be poisoned to protect cereal crops in plague years, and this is all before we look at slugs, snails and aphids killed to protect vegetable crops. Evans argues that vegetarians that eat dairy products and eggs should also eat veal and chicken to make use of the male calves and chickens that are killed at birth or soon after.
There is a belief among vegetarians and vegans that by avoiding eating meat they are protecting the environment. Evans questions this. Growing monospecific crops – cereals, lentils, soybeans – involves cultivating the land using fossil fuels, damaging soil structure, and reducing soil carbon. Soil fertility is then restored by using nitrogen fertilisers manufactured from fossil fuels, or by applying animal manures. In fact farming is difficult without animals. We depend on the ability of ruminants to digest crop residues and to make use of vegetation growing in areas not suitable for cropping. Yes, ruminants produce methane, a highly potent but relatively short lived greenhouse gas, but Evans argues that we may have to accept this as a by-product of their ability to digest fibre.
Evans’s main concern is animal welfare, and he suggests the possibility of a joint action by vegans and meat eaters in this cause. While vegans tend to protest raucously in the streets, ethical omnivores can make their beliefs felt even more strongly at the checkout by refusing to buy animal products produced without at least minimal animal welfare practices.
“What we need is less discussion of arbitrary person choices,” writes Evans, “and more talk about animal welfare, about lives won and lost, about a definition of suffering.”
“The way forward is filled with light, not dark, with love not hate. It involves compromises and the recognition that your own personal moral compass isn’t the only one in the world.”
Surely a Quaker concept.
On eating meat by Matthew Evans is published by Murdoch Books, Sydney and London, 2019.
David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting