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About Organic Meat, or How I Changed My Tune!

I eat meat.

That was a big statement. Many of my friends and colleagues will be completely shocked, as will some members of my family. But I’ll say it again, because it is the truth. I eat meat. Organic meat, about once a fortnight. I have been vegetarian or vegan for the best part of twenty years. I was a vegan throughout the period when I traveled extensively around the world. Despite the extreme difficulties of finding anything at all to eat that wasn’t beef in Columbia, I remained a vegan. Even though I would have loved to have tried authentic Japanese sushi whilst living in Tokyo, I stayed true to my beliefs and refrained from all fish.

So you can see why it’s such a big deal to now come out in print as a meat eater. I’m coming out today because I am not the only one. I know lots of people that were strict vegetarians throughout the eighties and most of the nineties, but who are indulging in organic meat in the 21st century. I originally stopped eating meat for a combination of reasons. I basically could not rationalise killing animals to make my dinner, and I was also concerned about the healthiness of eating red meat. As time went on, I learned more facts which confirmed my belief that vegetarianism is the way. Facts about food production in relation to world hunger. The figures that dictate that if we all became vegetarian and grew grains and beans on the land reserved for meat production, that we could easily feed more people than the amount now living on the planet. It was information such as this combined with my original emotional response to the idea of killing animals that maintained my vegetarian stance for such a long time.

I went further and became vegan as more facts came my way. The realisation that the milk industry works hand in hand with the meat industry. The truth about leather not just being a waste product from the beef industry, but being an important economic factor which supports the meat market. And the fact that I was simply feeling so much better for my vegetarianism, and enjoying trying out all those new recipes.

But as time has marched on, my response to these truths has changed. My objection to intensively reared meat does not seem to follow through to organically reared meat. Which may seem like a contradiction, but does make some sense to me. During my years as a vegan or vegetarian, I did not always balance my diet as well as I should. Every smart vegetarian knows that you need to consciously cook in order to obtain a balanced quotient of quality proteins. It’s simply no good just to cut out the meat without replacing the lost nutrients. As well-intentioned as I was, by the end of the nineties I was beginning to feel a bit undernourished. I wasn’t too thin, and I wasn’t particularly anaemic, but I began to listen to my body when I started to salivate at the thought of a nice piece of chicken or some freshly fried fish.

I don’t want to eat non-organic meat. It is poisonous, because it contains the residues of a daily dose of antibiotics and growth hormones fed to distressed animals living in barbaric conditions. I don’t want to eat non-organic dairy products, because the toxic residues from intensively farmed dairy cows are stored in fats, particularly cream. I will always be disgusted about the uncivilised and inhumane way in which battery farmed poultry are mistreated throughout their artificially short and horrible lives. But I have grown to feel comfortable with the thought of truly free-range chickens eating appropriate food in a suitable farmyard with the grim reality of ending up as my dinner. I still have trouble reconciling the thought of drinking the milk of a much larger beast than myself with more than one stomach and hooves. Especially as I am over the age of toddling by a long shot. But I somehow can’t resist some expertly crafted cheeses, and blissfully gobble them up whilst trying not to think of where they came from.

My friend Annabel Kapp has started to eat organic chicken again over the last year. Annabel is a busy artist based in Greenwich, London, and she is expecting her first child. Annabel was vegetarian for about 18 years. She eats chicken about once every fortnight now, but will only eat organic poultry. Annabel’s current diet change began for the same reason as my return to eating meat. She was feeling weak and tired, and intuitively knew that eating animal protein would be good for her. However, Annabel’s thoughts were confirmed by reading a pamphlet by Dr Alex Forbes called The British Diet. In his controversial book, Dr Forbes recounts his past experiences in Greece. He was a strict vegan for many years before travelling to Greece for a holiday. He decided to eat some of the free-range and non-certified but organic meat during his stay, and also enjoyed his holiday by swimming. On his return to the UK, Alex resumed his vegan diet, but continued swimming regularly. He discovered that he was much weaker, and had lost the strength and stamina that he had enjoyed whilst eating meat in Greece. Dr Forbes concluded that people who grow up in Western societies with a standard diet do not process vegetable protein as effectively as those who are raised with a vegetarian diet.

This conclusion shifted Annabel’s thinking on the physical impact to her body of vegetarianism. She decided to go with her feelings and started to eat organic meat again. Another friend who is interested in organic issues is Pauline Morphett. Pauline is a multimedia artist and website designer based in Dalston, London. She is an organic vegetarian, and she does not want to eat organic meat. I asked her to discuss the background to and philosophy of her diet:

I have been a vegetarian since I arrived in London (from New Zealand) 8 years ago. I was strictly vegetarian for the first four years, and lived in a house where cooking any meat or fish was banned. I had flirted with vegetarianism when I was a teenager and because I come from a working class meat and three veg family, I had early aversion therapy. In High School I attended a lecture about the abuse of antibiotics in industry and medicine. The feeding of hormonal waste to chickens was cited. Althought the lecture was about the depletion of antibiotics and the development of superbacteria, it succeeded in making chicken for me a ‘no go’ meat.

I started eating organic vegetables when I began working at Spitalfields market about four years ago. This was for convenience as much as anything else as I could do my shopping after work. Then my partner decided that he wanted to start eating meat, and I started buying meat from the organic butcher in Spitalfields. I was very aware of the intensive farming methods here in the UK, and the heavy use of hormones, steroids and chemicals. This was really my main concern: that I didn’t have control over the chemicals entering my body. The factory farming methods are also rank; what is the effect of putting flesh in your body that has had such a poor life? I don’t have a problem per se with animals being killed to eat.

The increased animal welfare associated with organic animal rearing does make it more desirable to consume the flesh, although I still don’t eat red meat or chicken. This is not a hard and fast rule, and if an occasion arose where I was offered some organic meat and I wanted to eat it, I would. I have no problem cooking meat, although this doesn’t really happen that much. It is more like: the option to eat meat isn’t an issue.

I think I have a fairly balanced diet. I eat fish, and have done so for about the last three years. I eat lots of bean curd products. I believe that humans aren’t really designed to consume meat on a very regular basis, and that a high protein diet is unnecessary. My rule is everything in moderation.

Bob Kennard from Graig Farm would agree with many of Pauline’s ideas. Graig Farm Organics is an award-winning organic meat delivery service. Bob lived in the bush in Africa with his family for 10 years before returning home to Britain. He and his wife were so appalled by the lack of flavour in British intensively farmed meat that they were inspired to start up their own organic meat farm.

Whilst in ‘the bush’, although the meat was often tough, at least it had flavour. British meat, in contrast, generally lacked any flavour, and often you only knew which meat it was by the sauce which accompanied it on the plate. Furthermore, methods of UK farming (particularly of white meat) had intensified to the point where I felt that there was a moral issue, as well as concerns about the use of drugs and other additives used in meat production. As a result, our family had become virtually vegetarian when we started Graig Farm Organics in 1988.

According to Bob, people in the UK share his concerns about the blandness of intensively farmed meats.

Flavour is becoming more important in consumers minds when buying meat. For some 15 years, an annual survey has been asking people why they don’t eat meat. In 1999, for the first time, the most popular answer was that the flavour in meat had become so poor.

Bob has found that many of his customers were vegetarian until they discovered Graig Farm Organics. And he doe not see any reason to feel sorry for the animals who provide the organic meat which he sells.

It’s quite common that our customers were vegetarian. Organic gives the consumer confidence about the way the animals are reared, and if treated properly, should produce a more tasty meal. Much of the livestock on our farms are only here because we ultimately eat them. In the organic system, animal welfare is of supreme importance. This includes both the growing and the slaughtering process. There must be respect for the animal throughout its life. Therefore, if the animals have been given a dignified life, and dispatched efficiently, with minimal suffering, then I do not feel sorry for them.

Samantha Calvert is head of Public Affairs at the Vegetarian Society, and she begs to differ. Sam has been a strict vegetarian for 15 years, since she was 17 years old.

The reason I became a vegetarian was because I didn’t feel happy about animals being killed for food when it wasn’t necessary for my health or survival. I didn’t know anything about factory farming at that time, or about possible health benefits and environmental impact of meat production. These issues now add to my reasons for being and staying vegetarian.

I asked Sam if she would be tempted to eat organic meat.

No, I’ll never eat meat again, organic or otherwise. I personally believe that vegetarianism is better for human health, the environment and animal welfare. The main issue for me is still that animals should not be killed if it is not necessary for us to eat them — meat is not essential to our diets, and vegetarianism is still a more compassionate choice. A well balanced vegetarian diet provides all of the vitamins and minerals essential for good health. The British Dieticians Association accepts that a vegetarian diet is nutritionally acceptable, so why shouldn’t the average vegetarian?

John Barrow from the vegetarian Organic Delivery Company agrees with Sam, despite being the only vegetarian in his family.

My daughter very thoughtfully tried it because she didn’t want me to feel left out. My lovely wife thinks that I’m a smug celery-eating caffeine-free organic vegetarian, but I’m happy!! I do take supplements such as zinc and vitamin B12, and I find it very easy to stay vegetarian.

I had been considering vegetarianism for some time when an incident on holiday caused instant conversion. In the early 80′s I was lying on a beach in Crete, listening to the waves gently lapping on the seashore and watching the sunlight dance on the water, when I heard a terrible gut-wrenching scream. I realised that the noise was coming from what looked like a public loo on the other side of the bay. I then realised the loo was in fact an abattoir, and that a pig was being slaughtered. It sounded as if it was in terrible pain, and was clearly suffering in the hands of its killer. The thought that I might be eating that poor creature that evening made me feel sick.

It was at that point that I decided to go vegi. I could no longer see any reason to eat meat, organic or otherwise.

Sometimes, some of John’s regular customers at the Organic Delivery Company ask him to recommend a supplier of organic meat. He lets them know about Swaddles Green Farm, one of the first organic meat farms to be registered. It is run by Charlotte and Bill Reynolds, who both have a science background.

How much meat provides a balanced diet? It’s really very much a matter of taste — but — there is certainly no need to eat meat every day. Nor need it be a major part of any dish. So really, if you want meat, you can eat as much or as little of it as you want. But as part of a balanced organic agricultural system, it really is necessary to have some meat to provide healthy rotations, and to replenish soil fertility.

I find this last idea very important in terms of supporting organic food production. You simply cannot grow organic lettuces without using organic fertilisers made from blood products. And soil fertility is traditionally enriched with manure and animal waste. Wild herb seeds are distributed by farm animals, too, such as the clover maintained by grazing cows.

The guidelines for organic meat production are pretty sound as they are, although there is currently debate about the standards for poultry. They haven’t ever really been worked out fully. There is the beginnings of the desire to ease them downwards and not upwards, to make it easier for newly converting conventional farmers to produce bigger volumes. On the continent there are suggestions that animals from conventional farming systems can be brought onto organic farms for finishing and then be sold as fully organic. There are also calls to reduce the conversion period to only a year so that farms can move in and out of organic production very easily. So far, the Soil Association has vigorously opposed these changes. But I don’t really know how long they will be able to with the increasing demand for organic produce from those whose interest is purely commercial — the supermarkets.

Pressure from Sainsbury’s has already led to the allowance of sodium nitrate as a preservative in organic bacon. Despite intense mistrust by many of the UK’s longest standing organic farmers, the Soil Association permitted its use in 1998. Sainsbury’s simply would not accept bacon without this preservative, and they are a very powerful buyer. Although nitrates are relatively harmless, they decay into nitrites. Nitrites are highly toxic and extremely carcinogenic. The government’s Food Advisory Committee in 1978 strongly recommended that:

…every effort should continue to be made to eliminate the use of nitrates and reduce nitrite levels as soon as practicable.

This recommendation was made in reference to intensively farmed foods, let alone organic foods. Which makes me even surer that I will continue to support small suppliers and producers for all of my organic fresh produce, groceries, dairy and meats. And by using my consumer spending power in this way, I am voting for safer foods. Because whether you eat meat or go vegetarian, everybody should eat food that we can trust.

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