Have the animals we eat had lives worth living
Like many readers, I've just had a meat-filled festive season.
On Christmas Day, I feasted on turkey, followed by ham on St Stephen's Day. And since then, I've had cold meat sandwiches for lunch nearly every day. I'm not alone: meat is part of the staple diet of most Irish people.
Yet it doesn't have to be like this. Many of our eating habits happen because of habit and convenience. Our shops are full of meat, and to be vegetarian, you need to actively seek out alternatives which isn't always easy. It's a cultural issue. In Ireland, somewhere between two and 10% of people are vegetarian. Nobody knows the precise number, but it's probably between 80,000 and 400,000 individuals. In India, it's much easier to be vegetarian because over 30% of the population don't eat meat - that's over 350 million people. Shops, markets and restaurants in India are full of vegetarian options.
I've always been a meat eater, but as an animal lover, I worry more than ever before about the lives of the animals that I consume. In times past, it seemed straightforward. Animals were reared on local farms, in free range type environments. You could see for yourself that they lived enjoyable lives, being fed and housed well, in gleaming good health, and enjoying the normal behaviour of their species. Indeed, this is often still the case: when I go for walks in the Wicklow countryside, I come across cattle and sheep living idyllic lives, grazing on green grass while they meander through fields with their contemporaries. And when it comes to the end of their lives, if the system works as it's supposed to do, the animals are herded onto a lorry, taken to an abattoir and then slaughtered painlessly and without prior knowledge of what's about to happen to them.
Livestock farming in Ireland and the EU is tightly regulated, with animal welfare as a priority. When everything functions properly, farm animals are well cared for, and I find it difficult to see ethical issues with eating meat.
Yet as globalisation proceeds, it's becoming increasingly difficult to be sure of the provenance of the meat that we eat. Yes, it's easy when you buy meat from your local butcher, who may even personally know the farmer who reared the animals. And it has become much easier when you go to your supermarket: you may even see a photograph of the handsome farmer on the packaging. But what if you buy deep frozen burgers, or chicken nuggets, or one of the many other meat products. How can you be sure of the source of the product? Do you ever check the label? And if the meat came from another country, what sort of lives did those animals have?
The European Union has animal welfare regulations that are in place across the community, but what about imported meat from elsewhere?
And what about when you are eating out, in pubs or restaurants? Do you ever ask where that meat came from? It's expensive to take the extra steps needed to give animals lives worth living, and in other jurisdictions where there are fewer restrictions, it's possible to produce meat far more cheaply.
In recent years, there have been a number of exposes of factory farming scandals in the media. A recent bestselling book describes industrial farming as 'perhaps the worst crime in history'. Books have been written describing the suffering involved in intensive livestock production. Undercover investigators have produced secretly filmed videos which show serious abuse of animals. This type of filming has had such a serious effect on large scale food producers that in the US, the law has been changed to try to curb the activities. Activists over there are now called 'animal rights terrorists', despite the fact that they have never engaged in violence against humans. Battle lines have been drawn between those who care passionately about animal welfare and the commercial interests of big agribusiness with their powerful lobbying voice.
We are fortunate in Ireland that much of our livestock farming is still a relatively natural process. Cattle and sheep eat grass, grazing outside, rather than being fed concentrated food in sheds. It's easy to buy free range pigs, chicken and eggs, so these more intensive farming methods can still be avoided if you choose. But times are changing, and if consumers remain passive, it's going to become increasingly difficult to be sure about the origins of the meat that you're eating.
What should consumers do? It doesn't need to be much. If everyone started to ask about the origins of the meat that they're being offered, the people who supply that meat would be forced to give answers. And since nobody wants to admit that they imported the meat from somewhere thousands of miles away because it was cheaper, this would put a gradual pressure in favour of Irish suppliers of high quality meat from animals who have enjoyed better lives.
I'm going to be vegan for the month of January, as part of a campaign to encourage people to give it a go (www.veganuary.com). Vegetarianism or veganism may not be for everyone, but if you care about animal welfare, at least ask where your meat came from. If more people start to ask, retailers in turn will ask their suppliers, and it will gradually make a difference.