How can you tell if someone is vegetarian? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.
It’s a joke you’ve probably heard before. Probably even more times than you’ve heard someone tell you they’re vegetarian. At least, without being questioned about it first.
But since it’s National Vegetarian Week shortly (15-21 May) I will be that proverbial veggie. I told my parents aged six, on realising what – or rather, who – the ham in my sandwiches and dubious filling in my chick sticks and fishfingers had formerly been. It confused me. Why would anyone kill other living beings to eat them, I wondered. At my first job in a café the other staff would offer me bacon rolls – “go on, no one’s looking” – as if I might be vegetarian because some omnipotent Morrissey figure were watching my every move, incessantly nipping me and singing Meat is Murder in my ear until I stopped looking tempted by the whiff of frying bacon. I didn’t tell them that I found the idea repulsive.
It’s testament to my polite discretion as a vegetarian, I think, that my dad, after listening to a Radio 4 programme about roadkill recently, excitedly rang to tell me about a “meat you could eat!” I finally explained that the idea of putting dead flesh in my mouth grosses me out so the option of dead flesh that had recently been scraped up off a rural B-road was hardly going to make it more palatable.
Some carnivores seem desperate to convert me though. “But if people didn’t eat meat, there would be no sheep in the fields” – good. “Humans have eaten meat for thousands of years” – see also genocide, incest and really bad haircuts: repetition doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. And perhaps most confusingly; “There are people starving in the world so you should eat meat.”
This last from someone whose parents had clearly drummed into her the importance of clearing her plate at meal times, but didn’t realise that global meat production is linked to famine in developing countries. The UN has said that we could end world hunger by 2030 if we adopt a mostly plant-based diet. Quite apart from my personal feelings about animals, this ecological impact is the main reason I wonder if I should now be more vocal about my diet.
More than half of global greenhouse emissions are caused by animal agriculture. Animals destined to be eaten use a third of all available fresh water and 70 per cent of arable land is given over to crops to feed them. The science is unanimous: we should really cut out the middle-cow and just eat the plants ourselves for the good of humankind (I doubt the animals would argue, either). It’s difficult for governments though; the global meat and seafood market was valued at $741 billion (£578 million) in 2013.
But we have the facts. And as with most things these days, the change looks like it will come from Silicon Valley. The Bill Gates-backed Impossible Burger, advertised as a “delicious burger made entirely from plants for people who love meat”, recently enjoyed a successful launch, with convincing, sustainable versions of other meat and dairy products in the pipeline. Soon there might be no more excuses available for insisting on food made using animals.
And we’ll all no doubt look back and laugh at that joke.