Rebecca Lowe Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I see the posters everywhere. The first was in the tube, with the heading, “Defenceless and innocent. Yet we eat her”, above a girl in a virginal white dress. Holding a pig. The latest, on a bus stop, showed a wonky-eared lamb, captioned, “She has one precious life. Will your dinner take it?” (Nice to learn that your dinner can exonerate your responsibility.) Meat-eating hasn’t been so overtly politicised* since Jeremy Corbyn revealed the reason behind his well-known vegetarianism to be the emotional attachment he’d felt towards his charges while working on a pig farm. (What is it about pigs?)
The posters form part of the Go Vegan World (GVW) London campaign – run by the Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary, which was set up “in memory of Matilda” (a hen, this time). The sanctuary’s leader, Sandra Higgins, made a promise “the night [Matilda] was dying” to “dedicate the rest of my life to vegan education”. And the sanctuary’s current “residents” are profiled on its website, where Higgins explains how they “taught me about the personhood of other animals and the atrocity we have perpetrated on them by our use of them”. This, she claims, is “surely the greatest tragedy this world has ever witnessed”. (I’m assuming the residents agreed to their photos being published.)
The GVW campaign pages explain that its aim is “not for people to cause less harm”, but ‘to stop harming others”; it demands “not better treatment of the other animals we use”, but “that we stop breeding them for our use at all”; and “not for people to go vegan in their own time”, but for them “to go vegan now”. Nothing too tricky, then. The site also includes useful food-replacement pointers (2 tbsp arrowroot + 3 tbsp water = 1 egg, apparently).
Ignoring occasional Parliament Square billboards, and the recent whining over tallow-containing fivers, this campaign feels atypically public. Haven’t we moved on from the fur-wrecked-by-paint days? Isn’t giving up meat a bit of a dead dog? Not that we don’t care; it’s more that the debate often seems – as with much in the environmental sphere – left hanging in the hands of big-time extremists, with the populace thankfully yet unthinkingly unperturbed by the idea of allowing each other to make up their own minds (or just about). Vegan weight-loss diets may equate to click-bait copy, but artisan meat (burgered, pulled, whatevered) has never been more popular. And the campaigners occupying the issue – hardliners like Higgins – do so sufficiently distractingly for mainstream politicians to manage mostly to ignore it.
What if they didn’t ignore it? What might we expect? We all know of Corbyn’s vegetarianism (and, correspondingly, presumed it wasn’t just that everyone else had already resigned when he appointed a vegan as shadow Defra secretary, last year). But we know of Hitler’s, too. And it’s sometimes contended that Konrad Adenauer invented the vegetarian sausage. Nonetheless, I’d imagine our joint assumption is still that Conservatives tend to steak, and lefties to lentils.
A quick Google shows that, although there’s plenty of data available about eating trends, the political dimension has been somewhat neglected. A 2016 Ipsos poll for the Vegan Society established that just over three per cent of British adults “never eat meat”, and around one per cent “never eat meat or animal products”. This is broken down further to reveal that women are slightly more likely to be vegetarians than men, that across the social grades it’s very balanced, and that those in urban areas – and generally in the South and London – are slightly more likely to eschew meat than those elsewhere.
It also shows that the youngest are most likely to be vegetarians; similarly, in a 2013 YouGov poll of British teenagers, seven per cent said they were, too. But aside from correlation conjecture, the best attempt at political description seems to be a 2012 Gallup poll that found that, among Americans, liberals are less likely to eat meat than conservatives and moderates (seven per cent, as opposed to five per cent each). A different, not-quite-representative study did claim, however, that 52 per cent of American vegetarians were liberals, in comparison with the 14 per cent who classed themselves as conservatives. And YouGov Profiles suggests that Corbyn fans’ favourite dishes are all vegetarian.
Most tellingly for Britain, perhaps, is that the Ipsos-Vegan Society poll discloses that, when asked about “lifestyle choices other than food or diet”, 51 per cent said they “personally [tried] to avoid using any items derived from animals or that involve animal”’. That’s a lot of people, and this feels political – not least because it brings us to the wider realms of animal rights. And it’s unsurprising there’s a big middle ground: you can easily both eat meat and also want decent standards of animal welfare, and that’s probably where most of us stand. Even if we don’t apply this particularly strongly: when I’m buying eggs and chicken I ensure they’re free range, but I’m a sucker for great foie gras.
And, of course, insisting on high welfare standards doesn’t mean that eating meat is therefore unquestionably ok. Sure, there are great arguments for why we shouldn’t stop – most obviously that many animals depend existentially on being bred to be eaten. When Higgins calls for an end to “each and every individual one of them [being] slaughtered at a fraction of their natural lifespan”, would she rather that lifespan were nothing? We’ve no time to go into nuances, but read this TLS review for a nice overview, and Peter Singer here with a utilitarian case for eating one cow per year, over lots of chickens (shame that chicken is the most commonly-eaten meat amongst ex-vegetarians/wannabe reconverts).
That said, it’s possible to accept all the arguments suggesting that it’s sensible for us to eat meat, and those suggesting it’s better on the whole (for us and the animals) that we do – and still feel morally queasy. Even if you agree that other creatures aren’t self-aware in the way we are – and you don’t think the food industry is guilty of the ‘greatest tragedy this world has ever witnessed’ – can you unreservedly square killing a living sentient thing in order to eat it, if you don’t need to?
As we leave the EU and pounce back in control of certain animal-welfare decisions, I’d agree with Higgins that we should think about this stuff more – except that I’m not convinced that that’s what she’d like. Rather, as with Corbyn’s tendency, GVW probably just wants us to defer to them. Unquestioning ideology obscures complex questions, and makes it harder for us to address them sensibly.
* Apart from Veganuary. Apparently.