Let me start this by saying something: I eat both fish and meat. I do not have a problem with this. I have personally bought into the idea that it is OK to kill and eat animals for no other reason than that they are tasty.
Animal suffering? I’m broadly against it. If you give me a choice between two equally tasty steaks, one of which has been factory farmed in horrible conditions and the other of which has been lovingly reared in wide grassy fields, with regular massages and a fulfilling spiritual life before it died peacefully, but this steak costs twice as much, I’d definitely go for the pricier steak. If it cost 10 times as much I might ask if you had somewhere something in between where maybe it was pretty OK with its life, but it wasn’t really fulfilled, ya know? And maybe it had a bit of a headache when it finally got turned into burger. So call it a more than mild preference but not an overarching moral commandment. I feel like I buy into worse things than animal suffering on a daily basis just by being part of the modern world, and that once I’ve agreed that it’s OK to kill them it’s a bit hypocritical to go “As long as you do it without any suffering!”. Other people might set the mark there differently, and that’s fine. This is a personal preference.
So I’m OK with eating meat.
But not, you know, a lot of it.
I think, culturally, our relationship with meat is very dysfunctional. We eat far too much of it – I believe more than we have at any point in history (that may not be true right at this minute – I believe it’s gone down a bit, especially since the recession, but this is certainly true if you count the last 50 years or so). Meat used to be a luxury item, and now it’s a staple.
That being said, we do a lot of things differently than we did historically. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I state this merely as evidence that we don’t necessarily need to be eating this much meat.
So why do I care?
The main reasons I care are ecological ones: Meat production is polluting and energetically expensive. It’s by no means our worst crime of this sort, but it’s a pretty significant one. Fish is even worse. We are literally driving the fish supply to extinction by our fish addiction (I haven’t formed a very coherent opinion on farmed fish. I’m broadly pro it, but think it is usually ecologically worse than farmed meat. This may not be true. I haven’t done the research as well as I should)
Additionally, I think our current expectations around meat are the source of a lot of the worst excesses of the meat industry: We expect a lot of it and we expect it cheaply. What did we think farmers were going to do achieve this? Plant more cow-trees? When you’re dealing with something where the overwhelming majority of the costs are from living creatures, the obvious way to cost-cut is to treat those living creatures worse. This is true with animals, and it’s also true with humans. Why do you think sweatshops exist?
How do I propose to fix this?
Well. Were I in charge, I would probably fix this by increasing taxes on meat production and using the proceeds to subsidise suitable vegetarian alternatives. It’s a blunt tool, but an effective one. Sadly, my plans to become supreme world leader have been delayed slightly, so in the mean time I’m limited to following my personal plan (and trying to convince you to do so as well).
It’s a pretty radical proposition, which you probably wouldn’t have thought of as a solution to the “People eat too much meat” problem.
Are you ready for it?
Eat less meat.
This is, of course, completely fucking useless advice.
The problem with advice like this is that it’s not quantifiable. How much is less meat? It’s easy to slip, and to let boundaries shift. I should know: I tried to live by this nebulous advice for a year or two after stopping being vegetarian. One day I woke up and realised something: I was eating a hell of a lot of meat.
Which is why I imposed my current set of rules. I have meat quotas. My rules are as follows:
- Eat meat no more than once a week (exception: If I cooked it myself, I’m allowed to eat leftovers)
- Eat fish no more than once a month
- Given the option, prefer ethically sourced meat
- Given the option, prefer less energetically intensive meat (in practice this means “If there’s a tasty chicken based option, take the tasty chicken based option. Otherwise don’t worry about it”)
These are stricter quotas than I expect most people to follow. I was vegetarian for 5 years and pescatarian for another 5 after that, so I know well how to live without meat and fish. It forms the core idea of how I think this should work though: Hard and fast numbers, flexibility about how you implement them.
If you are currently a meat eater but agree that you should be eating less meat, this is the strategy I would propose following:
- Think about how often you eat meat (or whatever you’re trying to adjust your intake of) in a given week. Take the median, or maybe a value slightly above median but well below the maximum
- Impose that as your starting quota
- Once a month (say on the first Monday of a month), consider how hard your meat quota has been to stick to. If the answer is “easy”, adjust it down slightly
- Stop tinkering when you hit a point you are ethically and practically comfortable with
You start off at more or less your usual habits, and gradually adjust downwards. The quotas give you a specific, measurable, goal and makes you generally aware of how much meat you’re eating. You do have to adjust your lifestyle but, well, that’s the point, and you have a real sense of progress whilst doing so.
As an aside, this is quite distinct from approaches like Meatless Monday, which anecdotally seems not to help. I’ve seen a few people do it, and all that happens is that they eat more meat on the surrounding days. Additionally, the lack of flexibility makes them really resent it because often they’ll get invited out on that day.
The nice thing about the quotas is that they are strict but flexible – you impose hard limits about how much you can eat, but allow flexibility in terms of when you do it. It’s worked very well for me, and I think with some experimentation to find boundaries it should work very well for everyone.