A plant-sized dilemma.
It is often how we do something, rather than what we do, that is important.
We have been trying to move our diets towards a greater amount of plant-based foods. This is a hot topic right now, but yet in the end — it has been the hardest to write about, created the most conversation, and been the most confusing.
The start point was to understand a bit more about the vegan philosophy, and the buzz around plant-based diets, which is a similar philosophy and something of a rebrand of veganism. Both reject the commoditisation of animals, and connect this also to the wellbeing of the planet.
The last few years especially, feels like the moment that plant-based diets has gained momentum, in the media and with a reaction in the supermarkets. I cannot argue with it, and as an increasing concerned human and father, I cannot ignore the benefits to the planet of decreasing the commoditisation of meat.
Yet I am a meat eater. It has always been in my diet. I enjoy meat, I enjoy in all its forms.
We 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 see the year evolve through the lens of the various fixtures and fittings that pass through the village, hitched to the back of tractors. 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 in our meat consumption universally, that may set the example for farming, land use, food production and ultimately the planet for the foreseeable future.
Lots I agree with. I agree that a chicken should not cost £3 or currency equivalent at the supermarket, even and especially as a marketing tactic. 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 I am trying to do by journaling my attempts at change. 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.
We are taking part. We are have introduced at least one exclusively plant-based day per week. We know this is not as hard as it might feel.
We make hummus, which only has six ingredients, requires no cooking, and is something fun we can do together as a family. We love salads, huge rainbow feasts that are not only healthy and colourful, but progressive for the planet.
We hunt out plant based snacks at the supermarket. We make bread and substitute our normal butter with olive oil based spread.
However, scratch below the surface, and there are some other facts and discussions we had, which is why this choice and is change more complicated to embrace.
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. We were also replacing dairy spread with a product that was vegan, simply because it was made in a laboratory rather than because it was kind for the planet.
At the supermarket, it is 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.
At the same time, we were so obsessed with making new choices and buying new stuff that we forgot that actually in the fridge and in the cupboards, we had all the elements that we needed for planet based eating, without specifically seeking plant-based branding. Great big junk salads of beetroot, vegetables, and pulses, are right in front of us the whole time.
What began with the principle of ‘plant-based’ being an active choice that we needed to prepare for, has ended in finding balance over hype.
It feels that reducing our meat intake is absolutely a good thing.
But 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. We 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.
Our conclusion is that by accepting that others will produce the food that we eat — then 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.
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. We’d also likely reduce our meat intake in the process.
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 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.
For an extended version of this post, please check out the Planetwise Pod!