I write this column for many reasons. I write because I often have the feeling that science has become disconnected from the wider community. I write because I feel passionate about the health of populations and the issues I try to tackle. But I also write because I am inspired by the interest and feedback from readers – you. So it was a pleasure when I recently received an email from a reader, suggesting I had omitted an important possible New Year’s resolution from my last article. That in fact, when it comes to planet and human health, a major lifestyle change and step in the right direction had been left off the list.
Julia was right, and hence this article.
Like many, I am addicted to TED talks. Short for Technology, Entertainment, Design, I have largely grown up (intellectually at least) with these vodcasts and will discuss at length, my favourites from the last years of viewing. Online, narrative-based 5-20 minute presentations by leading thinkers from around the globe, these knowledge morsels captivate, challenge and inspire – and the best, can be life-changing.
Some years ago, I watched one on vegetarianism. Now apart from a brief time when I was fourteen, I have never been a full-time vegetarian. To be honest, I like meat. But unlike the negative, guilt-invoking campaigns of old, Graham Hill through his TED talk made a compelling case for eating less animal. It wasn’t the typical talk, urging a population to relinquish their protein addiction and go cold turkey on, well, turkey. Mr Hill instead, suggested a very sensible conversation about the concept of a finite planet, a growing population, the challenges of overconsumption-fuelled disease and the need to have an honest conversation about our approach to animal welfare.
To cut a long story short, Hill made the very sensible case for us all to become a ‘Weekday Vegetarian’. Lose the meat from Monday to Friday, but enjoy our steak on weekends and a little bacon with our eggs on Sunday. A mature, logical and reasonable approach – to an often sensitive and polarising issue.
Meating the Challenge
So as Meat Free Week approaches, I want to echo Julia’s concerns and add one more resolution to the list for 2014: Weekday Vegetarianism. And for three good reasons…
Altruistic, selfish and existential.
First, is the traditional argument of altruism - think of the animals. If we ate less meat but were willing to pay a little more for the meat we did consume, there would be less need for animals to be ‘factory-produced’ in frankly horrific conditions. Think about a $6 whole chook for a moment, how can we possibly provide a reasonable, respectful life to a chicken for that price? As a result, meat production becomes a conveyor-belt of dreadful cruelty, including the use of antibiotics, rapid feeding techniques and mass, inhumane slaughtering.
The second reason is the selfish, but also important one - think of yourself. In short, eating less animal fat would likely lead to enormous health benefits for many – individually and collectively. In a world where unhealthy diet is the leading risk factor for early death, fewer marbled steaks or grilled snags may also lead to a longer life! For our own health, replacing some ‘pork’ with ‘plant’ could be a good move.
Finally, the existential reasoning - think of the planet. Why are we on this planet and why do we exist? Surely it is to improve the world in which we live for the generations who will follow. Meat is not good news for the ecological health of the earth, producing one-sixth of all global carbon emissions and just by cutting beef out of the diet, we halve our culinary carbon footprint. In fact, along with energy production, meat production is one of the major carbon-emitting sectors in society. Facing a warmer world and some serious challenges from a changing climate, a nation of Weekday Vegetarians is actually really good news for planet earth!
Meating a Compromise
So I know that vegetarianism is not for everyone, and maybe I have missed the boat on your 2014 resolutions. Giving up meat might not be on the menu for you, so let me suggest instead three guiding principles to follow, as you beef up the courage to drop the drumstick.
1. Eat less – make meat AN ingredient, not THE ingredient when you cook.
2. Eat better quality – instead of the $6 whole chook (I still don’t understand how that is possible), go for the best you can afford. Look for meat that is free from antibiotics and chemicals and animals that have been produced in smaller quantities with space to move.
3. Eat consciously – if nothing else changes for you, just be conscious of the meat you consume. Know how much you eat, and think about the fact that this is not anonymous protein, but a life that deserves respect, on a planet under stress. Meat is a privilege, not a right.
A TED talk and a wonderful email of inspiration later, maybe 2014 is the time to vote with your fork and try Weekday Vegetarianism. With Meat Free Week coming soon, there couldn’t be an easier time to give it a go.
After all, when it comes to your health and the health of our planet, a little less steak might just save our bacon.
This article was inspired by and is dedicated to Julia of New South Wales, Australia.