Thursday, 30 October 2008

Towards a diet of only ocassional meat!

As a bit of a foodie (or food snob as certain of my colleagues at work would have it, apparently due to the fact that I express opinions about food) I tend to get drawn in to watching cookery shows on television. The fact that most TV chefs are quite annoying tends to act as a countervailing tendency, ensuring I pick and choose rather than watching them all.

A recent new show on BBC 2 is a case in point. 'What to eat now' is a series about eating seasonally – an environmentally important direction we need to go in, and something which I personally try and do. Not that the environment gets mentioned in the programme. The presenter, an infeasibly posh man by the name of Valentine, just tells us eating seasonally is the tastiest way to do it. Well, that's OK, we don't need to be banged over the head with our carbon footprint the whole time, and I'll watch to find out what seasonal stuff I can cook.

So off Val goes to shoot deer on the Isle of Arran, since it is of course the season for venison, and then cooks up a delicious venison pie. Which I'm sure is as scrummy as his audible gasps of delight suggest, but which rather begs the question of how practical this show is for most people.

Like most cookery programmes, of course, 'What to eat now' is more an aspirational show than a practical guide to making better meals. Modern consumer capitalism has ensured that most people don't have either the time or the ability to cook properly, destroying as it does what is an important cultural activity. Cookery shows mollify us instead, providing a spectacle of food preparation in place of the real thing. And for those of us who can and do still cook, they offer up a tantalising prospect of aspirational fulfilment through culinary advancement.

Which is one reason why so much meat is on the menu. Trouble is, we need a lot less meat on our menus. The latest report from the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), 'Cooking up a storm' recommends a significant reduction in the amount of meat we eat, and dairy products too. These are by far the most carbon intensive parts of our diet, and in the rich world we tend to eat much more than we need. The chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has also made the rather more gimmicky call for everyone to have one meat-free day a week.

For me, that would be a significant increase in meat consumption, but not so for the majority of people in the UK I suspect. That's why we need a change in food culture. I'm not someone who advocates world veganism as a solution to climate change – its not feasible or necessary. The figure that some vegans quote in this regard, that livestock account for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, though it comes from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation is perhaps a little misleading. It includes, for instance, the emissions from clearing the Brazilian rainforest to graze beef cattle, which while a massive problem, could be stopped without really changing how the world eats.

The FCRN estimates the UK figure is more like 8% of our greenhouse gas emissions. While the difference is partly because our emissions from other sectors are so massive this is somewhat lower than 18%. Its still something we have to deal with though, which brings me back to the celebrity chefs. It may be but a small part of the solution, but we (as in the nation, rather than the people reading this blog) need to start to see a meal made entirely from vegetables, grains and pulses as normal and acceptable.

That means, for instance, that Nigel Slater's seasonal vegetable stew doesn't need to include pancetta – he may hold up his hands in horror, but it really doesn't. I'm not arguing for vegetarian cookery shows, as they will only appeal to existing vegetarians, but for mainstream cookery shows (and tie-in books) to start cutting out a big chunk of their meat and some dairy too. Certain celebrity chefs have discovered a zeal for campaigning recently, and mostly that's welcome. Now its time for all of them to step up and help us towards a diet of only occasional meat-eating.

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