If even Alex Proud, a half-German meat lover, thinks it's time to embrace vegetarianism, perhaps we all should.
I am thinking of becoming a vegetarian and I blame Professor Stephen Hawking.
A bit of a leap, I know, but bear with me. Last week, it was announced that the Russian technology billionaire Yuri Milner was stumping up $100m to search for extraterrestrial life and that Professor Hawking was on board. Go, science. However, Professor Hawking has long had grave concerns about actually finding intelligent life. The gist of his thinking is that aliens who are much more advanced than us might see us as “no more valuable than we see bacteria.”
For what very little it’s worth, I disagree slightly with Prof Hawking here. With a touch of anthropocentric pride or hubris, I imagine that our new galactic overlords might view us as we view farm animals. Pigs if they were feeling generous, chickens if they weren’t.
'I have described vegetarianism as an eating disorder' (Photo: Alamy)
The trouble is, this thought won’t go away, not least because exobiology is pretty hot at the moment. In our own solar system we’ve discovered oceans beneath the ice of Europa and Enceladus (and possibly on Pluto and Ceres) where life could exist. There is now a very good chance that alien life will be found in the next decade or so; nowadays the bookies will only give you odds of 100-1 of ET being discovered in any given year whereas 10 years ago, you’d have got 1000-1 or better.
To be fair, the denizens of these nearby worlds are likely to be fishy and should have more to fear from us than we do from them. But it’s the billions of other potentially habitable worlds in the Milky Way that I’m concerned about. Worlds like current planet of the month Kepler-452b (AKA Earth 2.0) which has a 1.5 billion year head start on us. I mean, can you imagine what we could do in 1.5 billion years? We’d probably have an app that was like Uber for faster than light travel.
Anyway, this constant bombardment of alien life teasers means it’s hard to get the idea of a shimmering green alien stepping out of its spaceship to size me up (like a butcher might a cow) out of my head. And the natural corollary to this is: Christ, we treat farm animals badly. So perhaps when our galactic overlords rock up, they’ll look at the way we treat pigs and think, pfft, savages, before chucking us all in a slow oven to make a delicious dish of pulled person.
All of this has forced me to take a long hard look at my own meaty diet – and, slowly, I am coming round to the idea that the enormous piles of beautifully browned sausages, the perfectly grilled steaks, the crisp, delicious bacon and rest of the mixed grill that comprises at least 50 per cent of my diet, may be just be a little bit wrong. This has not been an easy journey for me to make. I am half German. I used to play rugby. I am 6’2”. I am designed to run on heavy fuel. And yet, I can’t shake this thought. It’s like I have a little winged pig on my shoulder whispering, “If you eat a variety of pulses, you need never turn another of my friends into a sausage.”
Going vegetarian is one of the very best things you can do for the earth' (Photo: Alamy)
So, over the last year I’ve been looking at meat. Reading about meat. Watching meat documentaries and lurking in online meat forums. I can’t say it’s made me feel any better.
I keep stumbling across books ranging from Donald Griffin’s The Question of Animal Awareness (1976) to Carl Sarfina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (2015). It seems abundantly clear to me that animals feel as we do and suffer as we do. Crows use tools, whales have culture, pigs can learn and cows interact socially. Moreover, the difference between us and the animals is one of degree, not type. Christianity teaches us we are apart from the animals, but these days only the most deluded zealot could believe we are anything other than very clever monkeys.
Once you take this on board factory farming becomes pretty much unconscionable. It’s disgusting for the animals – from the mutilation and the crowding to the lazy cruelty and artificially accelerated growth. And its disgusting for the environment: 10,000 slurry ponds can’t be wrong. It’s even disgusting for human health because life’s going to get a lot more interesting when antibiotics stop working. Indeed, the only way you can eat factory-farmed meat is to not to think about it – or not to care.
So, you wonder, could organic, high-welfare farming be our get-out-of-jail-free card? Well, it’s better, sort of. But even so, you’re still keeping thinking, feeling beings in some sort of captivity in order to turn them into nuggets and burgers. Besides, organic food is expensive and, while I can afford it, I’m loathe to advocate Farrow & Ball solutions to people on Dulux budgets.
'The idea of a vegetarian diet fills me with dread' (Photo: AP)
In the end, though, free range is no real solution. By some environmental metrics free range is actually worse than factory farming. And while I get the argument that many upland areas of the UK are suitable only for grazing, so they either produce meat or nothing at all, were we to make everything free range, there wouldn’t be enough land in the world. Add this to the fact that half the world’s wild animals have disappeared in the last 40 years and you start to see why middle-class herds of organic cows roaming free in fields from Boden catalogues just can’t work for everyone.
What does work for everyone though is not eating meat. It’s basic maths. Estimates vary, but it takes around 7 kilos of grain to make one kilo of beef. Pigs are about 4:1 and relatively thifty chickens are around 2:1. Then there’s the vast water consumption (15,415 litres for a kilo of beef, some of which goes into growing the feed) and the CO2 emissions (27kg for a kilo of beef). If, however, humans were to eat the kilo of grain themselves, that would be that. A kilo of lentils creates only 0.9 kg of CO2. Along with not flying and driving, going vegetarian is one of the very best things you can do for the earth.
Anyway, I know all this. You probably know all this. The little voice still won’t go away (although I’ll allow that the little voice may actually be my vegetarian wife whispering “meat is murder” as I sleep). But even so, deep down, I know she’s right. The trouble is, down, I also love Beef Wellington and foie gras and veal. I am a loud, booming alpha male. I have described vegetarianism as an eating disorder – and worse. Spending the next 40 years on mung beans strikes me as both off-brand and off-putting.
So what am I going to do? I’ve already done the easy middle-class thing. I buy organic meat from cows called Rachel who spent their time on farms in the right part of the Cotswolds. The next thing is a bit harder. I run three restaurants so I’m going to move to organic, low-impact meat as much as possible. I’m going to offer several veggie options – and promote them and make sure they’re genuine, excellent alternatives rather than miserable afterthoughts at the bottom of the menu.
I’m also going to eat a lot less meat. The average Brit eats 80 kilos a year. I suspect at the moment I’m more like the average American (125kg) but I’m going to try and be like the average Thai (28kg). But ultimately, I think even that’s a bit of a cop-out. The inescapable conclusion is that I have to become more like the average Indian – that is, a vegetarian. Frankly, the prospect fills me with dread. It puts butterflies in my burger-filled stomach and causes beads of sweat that taste curiously like gravy to pop out on my forehead. It makes me hate Professor Hawking.
Still, if I manage it, I’ll feel a lot better about myself. The planet will feel a lot better about me. Animals will feel better about me. And, if advanced aliens from Kepler 452b ever pitch up on our doorstep, I’ll be able to say, “Look, I saw the error of my ways – and quit 15 years ago. And no, I didn’t eat any of those of delicious fish fingers from Europa either.”