Meat: an ethical dilemma

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Louise Gray spent a year only eating meat from animals that she had killed herself. Then she wrote a book about it to try to understand why she wasn’t simply a vegan. Could she be an ‘ethical carnivore’ and what will persuade the British to face up to the reality of factory farming?

(This is an edited version of Louise’s essay which appears in the Seed issue of Locavore. Subscribe or purchase a single issue to read the full-length article along with a wide range of features, reviews and columns not available online.)

The bacon butty. Just the thought of it conjures up a smell and a taste that few of us can resist. It is famously the dish to break many a weak vegetarian, with a cracking hangover and a mischievous housemate. It is also a symbol of Britishness, masculinity and tradition. In other words a sacred cow, or rather pig, that you knock down at your own risk.

As a writer, knocking down sacred cows is my job and it fascinated me that eating animals, something many of us do more than once a day, was such a taboo subject. Ok, we can talk about the provenance of the meat: the fact that more than half of our bacon actually comes from outside the UK. Or welfare: the fact that pigs are generally kept indoors without any straw to root around in. But we can never, ever talk about how the animal died. In fact, ask many people and they seem to be surprised that it was once an animal at all.

It may seem a little bloody-minded but I wanted to get to the bottom of this problem. At the beginning of 2014, after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, I started to tell people that I only ate animals I killed myself. At first I just meant to shock people into debate but it became clear this was an important subject of keen interest to many people.

I was environment correspondent on The Daily Telegraph at the time and more than aware of the carbon impact of eating meat. A recent Chatham House report had estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are equivalent to all the tailpipe emissions from the world’s trains, planes and automobiles put together. So, I knew that going vegetarian is the easiest way to cut our carbon footprint.

There was also the question of water stress, habitat destruction, species extinction, even world famine. A third of the world’s ice-free land is used for animal agriculture. If we could release those resources surely we could use them for feeding the hungry of the world? In his book Planet Carnivore Alex Renton states that one of the reasons 870 million people are hungry today is that 40 per cent of grain the world produces is being fed to animals raised for the richest to eat.

Like many of you, I was aware of all these facts. I even sought them out by going on internet forums and reading the books mentioned. I couldn’t help thinking, why on Earth am I not a vegan? Is it simply greed? The smell of a bacon butty?

But it was more than that. As a farmer’s daughter I was aware of the care and hard work farmers put into raising high quality meat, including pork. I saw pigs living in those little domes, snuffling around in the earth and they looked happy to me. I met the farmers fighting to retain businesses in areas where there was little other industry. In some areas of Britain, such as pasture in the South West, the land can be used for little else other than grazing animals. Such pastures store carbon just like rainforests; do we want to plough them up? What about pigs fed on food waste that would otherwise be buried in landfill? What about all the other uses of animal products, such as medicine? I was also aware of the fact that many animals are killed as part of pest control in arable agriculture, such as rabbits and pigeons. All these seemed ethical – as long as I understood exactly where the animals came from. I wanted to investigate if I could eat only these sources of meat. Or perhaps I just wanted to eat a bacon butty again without this gnawing sense of guilt.

In July 2014 I took on the challenge for real. I began with animals killed anyway as part of vermin control, what I thought would a straight-forward example of ethical meat. But it quickly became clear that investigating meat is an emotional as well as a philosophical journey. The first kill, a rabbit with a white blaze, was upsetting for both me and the gamekeeper. Although I had practiced on targets, I was unprepared for looking at live quarry down the barrel of a gun. At the last moment I flinched and the bullet went slightly high. The rabbit disappeared into the undergrowth and I had to spend hours in the gloaming searching for my kill. When I eventually found the beautiful creature and realised I had shot it in the neck, rather than the heart, I alone had to take responsibility.

I spent the next year learning from country men and women how to kill game in the British countryside. Rifle shooting is about psychological control. You have to be sure of your target and keep your emotions in check to stay still and avoid any flinching. I shot more rabbits and a grey squirrel. I crawled around woods in the dawn light, learnt more than at any other time in my life about species of plants, birds and animals and most of the time failed to get anything to eat at all.

At the end of the year, I had practiced enough to shoot a red stag. In a way this was my most ethical kill because it was being dispatched to control deer numbers in an area of reforestation. It was also the moment I grew up. All my life my father has stalked deer. I thought at times I was writing the book to imitate or impress him in some way. But forcing myself to be honest about my emotions also forced me to see the truth. My father loves me whatever I do. Like everything in life, I had to do it my own way.

Fishing was more straight forward. More than four million people in the UK practise angling as a hobby. It is not only a way to source sustainable food, as long as fish are being taken from a healthy population. It is a way to reconnect with nature. Fishing requires an understanding of what is going on in the environment. You have to watch the flies that are buzzing around the water, the areas where the fish are feeding, you have to be quiet and still. Like any effort to get close to an animal is an opportunity to meditate and tune-in to nature.

But I was aware that not everyone has the luxury of learning how to shoot or fish or even buy game. I wanted to investigate where the one billion farmed animals we eat every year in the UK come from. Even if I did not kill those animals myself, I wanted to know where they came from: To get as close as possible as I could to sourcing my own bacon butty.

The meat we eat the most in this country is chicken, 2.2 million a day. Where are they all? We certainly don’t see them scratching around in the countryside. I discovered that 95 per cent of the chicken we eat is raised in barns. These can house up to 40,000 chickens at a time. One source described checking the barn for mortalities. ‘Oh you can’t walk through the chickens, there are too many, you have to shuffle,’ he said. The chickens are bred to grow massive breasts, which mean that sometimes they can topple over, unable to take their own weight, known as ‘going off their legs’.

In comparison beef cattle in Britain are nearly always free-range. The average herd size in the UK is between 28 and 50 and the cows are usually part of a mixed farm. I was surprised to find McDonald’s manage to source all their beef from British or Irish beef and dairy cattle. The reason they keep it so cheap is because we eat an extraordinary three million burgers a day. McDonald’s was not so open however about how their cattle are processed.

I followed cattle all the way from the farm to the fork, including the moment of death in the abattoir. The first time I bottled it and only managed to see a cow killed once. Although I learnt a lot about the technology used to make the ‘process’ more humane, it is always a horrifying sight.

Even watching farmed fish processed was difficult to witness. I am careful to point out that wild fish is problematic, since more than two thirds of the oceans are over-exploited. Farmed fish like salmon offers a partial solution but only if it is done in a sustainable manner.

In the UK farmed salmon has become our biggest export. The caged salmon, like most animals kept in close confinement, are more susceptible to disease. Sea lice, that live on the salmon, escape onto wild fish feeding around the cages. Many believe that the collapse in the numbers of sea trout is because of fish farming.

The processing of the animals is better than commercial boats, where fish are often left to die in the hold. But watching the salmon pumped into a factory in Mallaig, north west Scotland, where they are funnelled through steel pipes and stunned by compressed air, before being cut behind the gills and bled was still a shocking sight.

It was difficult not to give up. Every question led me to hard truths. It was only towards the end of the book that I decided to tackle that most tricky of questions: the bacon butty.

The Brits remain passionately attached to pork, after chicken of course, but most is imported, principally from Denmark. I decided to track our most popular cut, bacon. Throughout the book it was tough to get into slaughterhouses or even talk to the companies involved so when I emailed Danish Crown, Europe’s biggest producer of pork, I did not expect an immediate reply. However, within seconds a PR person had emailed me back offering me a tour of the farms and the factory. I double-checked if I could see the slaughter process. ‘Oh yes, we hide nothing,’ came the answer.

Danish Crown are rightly proud of their transparency. After all, they have spent £200 million on ‘a slaughterhouse with glass walls’. It was the farmers that suggested the innovative design. In typical Scandinavian style, they were confident that the public could handle the truth. They were right. Since opening a few years ago the new-style abattoir has been inundated with visitors from around the world. People are fascinated to see how their meat is processed.

I applaud Danish Crown for making an effort to communicate with people but to truly understand where your bacon butty comes from, I think you have to go closer.

The contrast was a home slaughter on a farm in Scotland. I did not mean to do something so graphic. I was aware that is how people have explored the issue in the past. In 2011 Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, only ate animals he killed himself. It is understood he slaughtered animals on a farm with a well-known Californian chef. I had always thought it would be too much but in November 2015, a friend invited me to his farm. I trusted him completely and we spent an extraordinary day killing and butchering the pigs. It was as my young friend Angus said truly ‘intense’. It made me think of the past or other countries, where communities still butcher a pig as part of annual traditions.

After butchering the animals, I had a sense of the art and skill it takes to ‘break down’ the animal and make it into something new. I could now tell the reader where our bacon comes from, from every perspective. But I had one more story to tell, our life beyond bacon.

In the final chapter of the book, I address a time ‘beyond meat’ when we are eating more alternatives such as protein from plants, insects and even in vitro meat grown in labs.
Already in the developing world people eat insects as a source of protein. There are 40 tonnes of insects per person in the world. They require less water, land or feed to grow and can be fed on vegetable waste. What’s not to like? The UN is pushing insect eating and it is already taking off. Maggot farms are opening up in South Africa, largely to feed to pigs. In the UK the first cricket farm is due to open in Cumbria. The insects can be sold as snacks, in a nice chilli and lime sauce, or made into flour and added as a supplement to energy bars or even breakfast cereals.

In vitro meat is another solution that is being considered globally. The idea of growing animals in a petri dish was put forward by Winston Churchill in the 1950s. It has taken longer than he predicted but we are now growing meat from stem cells. The first ‘frankenburger’ was fed to food critics in Holland in 2013. It cost £250,000, but so called shmeat is predicted to become more affordable in future. Personally I hate the idea of growing a pink gooey mass and making it into burgers, but many vegans are in favour of the method as it would reduce the need for farmed animals.

The last alternative is plant protein. We have moved some way from dry veggie sausages. Some of the best brains in Silicon Valley are working on alternatives to beef burgers and eggs, including the founders of Google and Twitter. Already there are chicken strips that taste uncannily like the real thing. I predict there will be far more ‘meat alternatives’ available in future as people seek ways to feed their families with less meat.

These solutions are making it far easier for people to choose a meat-free future. Meat consumption has fallen 12 per cent in the UK and 13 per cent in the US in the last few years. It is predicted to carry on falling. This may come as a surprise to some, but as far back as the Ancient Greeks, people were predicting a time when mankind would rely less on animals.

It felt like my investigation had come full circle. Modern farming techniques have enabled us to produce cheap meat on a vast scale. But we are increasingly uncomfortable with how the animals are produced. So much so, even as it goes down in price, we are eating less. We have plenty of alternatives. The question is why are we eating meat like cheap bacon at all?

The answer might be in our reaction to a report that came out during the writing of the book. The World Health Organisation warned that eating more than 50g of processed meat (meat that is salted or processed – like bacon) increases your risk of getting cancer by 18 per cent. It is recommended that people limit eating red or processed meat to 500g a week (one small portion every day of the week.) You would have thought they were suggesting invasion. The Sun newspaper ran a campaign to Save our Bacon Butty and the study was largely dismissed by columnists claiming it would fail to put people off their bacon. Someone once described the reaction of omnivores, when you suggest they eat less meat as ‘like taking a dog’s bowl away from a dog, the way he’ll growl at you.’ The Sun was growling like a British bulldog deprived of its processed sausage.

So the question is, how do we persuade the British bulldog to eat less meat?

I would argue my book offers one way. Despite going into abattoirs and seeing factory farming first hand, I did not become a vegan. It was largely because of the friends l made. I grew to respect the people who source their own meat in the countryside and found learning their skills brought me closer to nature. I also had great respect for farmers raising high welfare livestock, often in challenging circumstances. Even killing and butchering animals myself did not put me off, but rather gave me a great satisfaction in producing meat from scratch and sharing it with my friends.

So, what do I do now? I do eat meat, occasionally. When I can, I still kill and butcher it myself. I never wanted to do this as a one-off but to carry on building up the skills needed to source meat for myself. I also occasionally buy meat, if I can from a butcher or even directly from a farmer. But mostly I am vegetarian. I believe it is possible to be a part-time carnivore. Indeed, that is part of being an ethical carnivore.

It is this honesty that I feel the debate is missing. Once you know all the facts, you want to eat less meat naturally. I admire the moral clarity of vegans. But for most of us, being an ethical carnivore is a more sustainable position. We don’t all need to pick up a gun or visit a salmon processing plant, that would be silly. But I do think that having knowledge of where our food comes from would encourage us to eat less meat. Simply through education the British bulldog would eat less meat. Even less bacon.

Let’s face it, the love of eating meat is not going to end any time soon. But perhaps if we took the faults of the system into account, rather than ignoring them, we might eat less. Like any healthy relationship, honesty can only make us stronger.

Lead Image by Angus Blackburn. Words & other pictures by Louise Gray

  • This is an edited version of Louise’s essay which appears in the Seed issue of Locavore. Subscribe or purchase a single issue to read the full-length article along with a wide range of features, reviews and columns not available online.
  • The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99 (ISBN 978-1472938398).
  • In the next issue, Louise joins Locavore as a columnist writing about her current project, The Ethical Herbivore. She tweets @loubgray.