Week 8: I will appreciate where our meals come from.
Updated: May 9, 2020
The biggest thing I have learned this week, is that it is often how we do something, rather than what we do, that is important.
This week's planned change, was based around moving our diets towards a greater amount of plant-based foods. This is a hot topic right now, and I accepted from what we have read and heard, that this could be our single most important change so far.
However, in the end - it has been the hardest to write about, and also created the most conversation, with almost anyone you talk to having a useful opinion.
The start point was to understand a bit more about the vegan philosophy. This philosophy, is grounded in a rejection of the idea of animals as a commodity.
The buzz around plant-based diets, is a similar philosophy and something of a rebrand of veganism, that also connects the commoditisation of animals to the wellbeing of our planet.
I cannot argue with either of these viewpoints, and as an increasing concerned human and father, I cannot ignore the benefits to the planet of decreasing the commoditisation of meat.
This year, feels like the moment that plant-based diets has gained momentum, in the media and with a reaction in the supermarkets. We are being encouraged to eat more plants, and are reminded of the carbon footprint of meat. Along with single use plastic, plane travel of sports stars or rock stars, and fossil fuels, it is on the list now of divisive topics at parties and social gatherings, and is trending on social media.
I am a meat eater. It has always been in my diet. I enjoy meat, I enjoy in all its forms, and until recently I have not paid much attention to the provenance of meat. I grew up on the 'meat and two veg' philosophy - in that meat was your first priority when choosing or cooking a meal, and then vegetables were chosen in their appropriateness to the meat of choice. And that at least one of those two vegetable options should be potatoes.
We also now live in the middle of some of the country's most active farmland, and are exposed to meat production and land cultivation in other ways. We have become more aware of seasons. We see the year evolve through the lens of the various fixtures and fittings that pass through the village, hitched to the back of tractors. Blue for New Holland, green for John Deere. Enormous, hulking, steel bladed ploughing equipment. Open trailers brimming with potatoes. Closed trailers carrying animals to market. Headlights in the fields in the late Summer, from early morning until well into the night.
This makes you more thoughtful of the process of how our meat and our food generally is produced. When you visit a farm to see lambs being born live in the barn, and then later pass through the shop that sells the lamb, it makes you pause and think about life and the power that we wield as humans over animals.
However, in terms of making the step to change my diet to plant-based products only, I have lots of questions.
I have these questions as an individual, and a committed meat eater. I also have these questions as a family, trying to make good choices - for our health and for the planet. It feels like we are being faced with an ultimatum, and challenged on our eating habits in a way that may change the direction of land cultivations in ways that are not easy to reverse - with whatever popular path we choose as a collective race. A ultimatum that may set the example for farming, land use, food production and ultimately the planet for the foreseeable future.
For example, I absolutely agree that a chicken should not cost £3 or currency equivalent at the supermarket. I agree that you should not be able to buy a burger or a snack made from another living creature for so little money that you do not spare a thought or appreciate the life that it lived. I agree that we should not argue over the price of a litre of milk, and then not even blink when we pay twice that price for a can of processed fizzy drink.
But I am also not yet convinced that switching our diets to plant-based products alone is the simple answer. I am not convinced for example, that simply purchasing plant-based products as an exclusive choice, is better for our planet than eating good cuts of meat, and local organic dairy. I am not convinced that a plant based meal, that might include plant ingredients that have been farmed intensively, shipped thousands of miles, sealed in plastic, is a better choice than visiting a farm shop, and buying a good steak, from a revered animal that grew up in the field next to the shop, with land to roam.
This is perhaps also at the heart of what we are trying to do this year, to learn and re-learn habits that we have spent a lifetime accumulating. To question everything, despite how it might create debates, because this ultimately uncovers facts and truth, and allows us to make our own choices and respect the choices of others.
This week, we are starting this journey by making a little change, to appreciate plant-based meals, and introduce at least one exclusively plant-based day per week.
The planning was surprisingly easy. We made hummus, which only has six ingredients, requires no cooking, and is something fun we can do together as a family. We then planned a beetroot salad for tea, with ambitions of a Mediterranean style feast that was not only healthy and colourful, but progressive for the planet. For snacks, we nominated fruit and also went off to the supermarket to find plant based snacks, as our belief was that our cupboards do not really contain these items. We made bread the night before, and replaced our normal butter with olive oil based spread, and it turned out really well, perhaps even better than using our traditional dairy butter.
However, scratch below the surface, and there are some other facts and discussions we had, that made this choice and this change more complicated.
For the hummous for example - the chick peas came from Italy, and the tahini paste from Greece. The salt we brought back with us from Ibiza. The olive oil spread has over ten ingredients, some of which I don't even recognise but they appear to have scientific names that suggest they are not entirely natural. In essence, we were trying to do good in one way, but were replacing local produce with plant based produce, from our continent but not from our country and therefore not particularly local. And we were also replacing dairy spread with a product that was vegan, but sounded like that is simply because it was made in a laboratory rather than because it was kind for the planet.
At the supermarket, there were also challenges. It was hard to find vegan products, and most of the products that were pushed forwards on promotional slots looked like highly processed imitations of meat, rather than enticing new tastes. The vegan 'feta style' cheese, was so calorific that we picked it out of the meal half way through. The snacks are really good - especially the Hippeas brand, although this did make us think that we were basing our entire day around different versions of the chick pea.
This means that in the end, we didn't come back from the supermarket with many different products than we usually have in the house, and that we pretty much made up the meal as we went along. We thought that we would be hungry due to the lack of ingredients we were happy with from the supermarket - but in the end, we realised that in the fridge and in the cupboards, we had all the elements that we needed, without specifically seeking plant-based branding. By making a great big junk salad of beetroot, vegetables, and pulses, we have enough leftovers for lunch. We began with the principle of 'plant-based' being an active choice that we needed to prepare for, but in reality it was a choice that we could make from the products we all use everyday anyhow, just in a creative combination.
We also reflected on the perception of plant based eating. It feels that reducing our meat intake is absolutely a good thing. For me as a meat eater, I need to accept that some of the habits that we have are not good for the planet, and are not planetwise choices. But similarly, we shouldn't simply switch to eating rice, avocados, or any number of other plant-based foods, without understanding where they come from and how they are produced. If we do this, was are in danger of replacing or replicating a meat or dairy meal in a way that reduces meat intake, but increases the harm to the planet in other ways. We even talked about swapping our 'plant days' for a points-based system where meat and other products have a score, based on their impact to the planet, and that we were not allowed more than a certain number of points per day. We could then allow ourselves a varied diet, but also naturally cut out highly commoditised products of any kind.
Our conclusion is that by accepting that others will produce the food that we eat - then beyond what it is, how we produce it should be the common ground when making a choice. Bees shouldn't be shipped around to pollinate plants, bones shouldn't be jet-washed, rivers shouldn't be diverted to irrigate crops, animals shouldn't live in tiny cages. No matter if it is a meat, a fish, a plant, the production should not upset the balance of nature in an unsustainable fashion.
If this is the common ground, then we can all agree that the commoditisation of our food in general is the right focus. Substituting as much food as we can with similar, more local produce. Having a varied diet, to take the pressure off demand for some of the 'trending' ingredients. Being more imaginative to waste less, and appreciate how long and how much care goes into growing things - whether that be a plant or a creature. Accepting that this is not possible immediately, and respecting each other and learning from each other about how we can be better.
If we all tried to have at least one or two conscious days a week where we not simply tried to eat only plant-based food, but also only seasonal foods, or only local foods - then no matter what the food, we are contributing to reducing commoditisation and increasing good sustainable practices. If we then inspired a few of our friends to do this - it would be the equivalent of one or more people making a wholesale and permanent change. It feels this may be a more achievable option than create a divide, and by creating trench warfare between the carnivores and the vegans - each digging in more and more, and throwing more and more negativity at each other.
We are all connected. Our little changes have an impact directly, they have an impact attitudinally, and ideologically. We can see how quickly this can happen, and how our attitudes create new movements, conversation and increase the availability of products or awareness of sources for products.
Imagine that, instead of categorising supermarkets according to 'what' is available, supermarkets could be arranged by their kindness to the planet, or their carbon footprint. We have seen how quickly an Easter aisle can change to a BBQ aisle, or how quickly a store can be transformed for Christmas. If our major stores dedicated part of their store to products that had local provenance, or had a carbon footprint below a certain level, or were seasonal to the country, and ignored whether they were plant, meat, processed or natural, then we remove the divisive categorisation and introduce common ground and choice. You could shop in the section that includes foods with less than a certain carbon footprint, or you could visit the 'Spring' aisle to see what's new.
This change would also impact suppliers, and independent stores. We believe that we cannot find independent stores or brands, but a lot of the time that is because the economics of the model do not work either for passionate independent producers or for larger stores. But if we demanded it, the stores, town centres, markets, could flourish again. We just have to make it viable, and choose the planet over the processed or the convenient.
Take this further, and packaging can also play a part here. Brands such as Oatly (https://www.oatly.com/) have started to put the climate footprint of products on the label. This progressive move, is a great idea for an industry standard. We saw how quickly nutritional 'traffic light' labelling became normal, and a move like this would give us more information to make more planetwise choices.
It all starts with the individual, and so from this week – we will try to have at least one plant-based day per week, but we will also work hard to appreciate our food more and make planetwise choices for all types of food.
We accept that we should switch to eating more plants, to replace the lazy, mid-week fast food meal, or the oven-cooked processed meats on the nights when we feel too tired to prepare something fresh. We accept that whipping up a salad, or being creative with the fridge and the freezer, is a good habit that is worth investing a few moments of our time to, at the expense of a Netflix show. But we will also accept that buying our chocolate in our local chocolate shop, where some are made on-site, and the others are sourced with love and care, is also a good choice. We will learn about the provenance of our meat, and accept that we might pay a little more for good meat, and then use it in imaginative ways to make it go further, last longer, and be good value.
Our plant-based days are conscious, but without knowing more, they cannot fully replace the meat or the dairy that we enjoy consciously, and that we know is raised, cared for, or produced in a respectful way.