Tuesday, 29 December 2015

A Meaty Problem

On Sunday I listened to the repeat of the Radio 4 documentary 'A Meaty Problem'. In it Henry Dimbleby said he was guilty about not being able to give up meat altogether. I think he was being a bit hard on himself though because he said he mostly eats meatless meals and has meat once a week or so.

Henry was talking to Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London's Centre for Food Policy. Henry said that he'd been talking to an intensive chicken farmer who had said to him that "to farm free range chicken is actually immoral" because intensively-reared chicken uses fewer resources.

That's wrong, for three reasons.

Firstly, although intensively-reared chicken is more efficient in terms of converting animal feed to meat than free-range chicken (or intensively-reared pork or beef), it will always be most efficient for people to eat the grain and pulses that go into animal feed. So, using the logic of this chicken farmer, if it's immoral to buy free-range chicken then it must be immoral to buy any kind of meat. The moral thing to do is to eat bread, pasta, cous cous, polenta, beans, peas and lentils.

Secondly, even intensively-reared chicken is not the most efficient animal protein. Fresh water fish (I'm not sure about farmed salmon) such as carp is better. So are crayfish. Because they are cold-blooded creatures they don't waste calories on keeping warm the way chickens or pigs do. Some have suggested growing and eating insects, but they're not necessary and it would be difficult to persuade people to eat them.

Thirdly, nobody is saying we can't have luxuries sometimes. We're not going to grub up the vineyards of France and Italy and plant potatoes. That might provide more food, but luxuries sometimes are good. We should regard meat as a luxury. Eat something that tastes nice, but not every day. Obviously we can't ever have 23 billion chickens raised free-range. That's just impossible. But if there were let's say 10 billion chickens instead of 23 billion then we could raise them much less intensively than now.

If I eat one free-range chicken per week, am I being less moral than someone who eats meat every day? Especially when that meat is more often pork or beef, which are less efficient converters of grain and soya? Why didn't this chicken farmer say that it is immoral to eat free-range chicken and any kind or pork or beef?

Morality has to be more than just feed conversion rates; chickens are clean animals that enjoy dust baths, if you keep them in a shed without ever cleaning the shed during their lifetimes (as happens with intensive rearing) they breath ammonia, they walk on their own faeces and their skin is burned with the acidity of what they have to lie in.

In the brutally unnatural surroundings of a factory farm, “broiler” chickens live the entire 45 days of their lives on urine- and manure-soaked wood shavings, unchanged through several flocks of 30,000 or more birds in a single shed. Excessive ammonia levels in the litter and air cause severe skin burns, ulcers, and painful respiratory problems, as well as pulmonary congestion, swelling, and hemorrhage. A Washington Post writer who visited a chicken shed wrote, “Dust, feathers and ammonia choke the air in the chicken house and fans turn it into airborne sandpaper, rubbing skin raw.” Excretory ammonia fumes often become so strong that chickens develop a blinding eye disease called ammonia burn, so painful that the birds try to rub their eyes with their wings, and cry out helplessly.
from this site.

Dr Annie Gray food historian said on the programme about chicken "today we regard it as really cheap protein". It isn't. Animal protein will always be more expensive than plant protein. Chicken and rice is a boring food. It looks bad, it smells bad and it tastes bad. Dal and rice however is wonderful. Dal (also spelled daal or dahl or dhal) is usually made with lentils but can be made with yellow split peas (which is the cheapest of the high-protein foods). If you like Indian food you'll like dal.

Cheap chicken is neither one thing nor another. It is neither cheap protein nor a luxury. I think people should get most of their protein from plants and have meat and cheese sometimes. Have something that you enjoy the taste of, even if it's a bit more expensive. That might sound a bit like Marie Antoinette saying 'let them eat cake' but in fact it's just the opposite. Neither is it being self-denying, just the opposite: people will enjoy their food more.

It saddens me that poor people munch their way through quite large quantities of cheap chicken, cheap pork sausages and cheap cheddar. They are wasting their money, usually quite large amounts of money. I'm sure this chicken farmer wants people to believe that he is providing cheap protein for poor people. Retailers and food manufacturers want us to believe that too. Governments want to support the British meat industry. But British people eat far more protein than they need, don't understand that you can get substantial amounts of protein even from low-protein foods (pasta is 11% protein), and as I've said before ANIMAL PROTEIN IS ALWAYS MORE EXPENSIVE THAN PLANT PROTEIN. So if you want cheap protein buy yellow (or green) split peas.