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05 February 2008

Respecting Animals

There was a brisk and lively exchange of letters in this newspaper round about Xmas last.
Gerry Boland, of Animals in Crisis, wrote to the editor to point out that “the hypocrisy of our relationship with animals is deeply embedded. We are capable of being fond of our pet dog while at the same time we tacitly support the inhumane treatment of farm animals in a daily act of condonement: we eat them”.
Whatever one thinks of Mr Boland’s conclusion, he forcefully pointed out one of the central pillars of our food culture. When we kill the animals we eat, “It is all out of sight. We do not know: we do not want to know”.
The writer Michael Pollan has called our consumption of industrially produced meat “an almost heroic act of not knowing”. It seems that it takes the actions of a pair of celebrity chefs before we begin to wonder just what is going on in the chicken coop. We eat lots of animal protein yet, if we had to dispatch the animals ourselves, then I believe we would become vegetarians overnight. Killing an animal requires a huge steeling of the human will. I have dispatched my own chickens – and then eaten them – and it is not a simple task.
But not everyone was going to agree with Gerry Boland, and the responses were characterised by intense emotions. The very next day, pointing to research that shows that “plants can feel pain”, Michael O Braoin described Mr Boland’s arguments as “pernicious nonsense” and suggested that “If Mr Boland and his fellow travellers in the animal liberation movement are serious, perhaps they will give up eating fruit and vegetables as well”.
But Dermot Donnelly of Balbriggan wasn’t about to let Mr O Braoin away with that, and wrote to point out that even if plants do feel pain, then animals feel more pain. And, besides, the energy efficiency of producing animals for food “means that those who eat meat are responsible for the indirect destruction of 10 times more plants than vegetarians”. Mr Donnelly concluded that: “It appears to me that Mr Ó Braoin is just looking for a feeble excuse to go on eating meat”. Ouch!
Canon B. Lougheed wrote to point out that Jesus partook of Passover lamb, but Carmel Courtney of Dublin 16 wrote to warn the Canon that “it is difficult to believe that those who partook of the meat of baby lambs could be described as gentle or compassionate. It might therefore be wiser for Canon Lougheed to cease to emphasise that aspect of the life of Jesus lest church attendances shrink even further”
So, that seems to be the turf on which the argument over meat eating continues to be fought out, complete with insults – “feeble excuses”; “fellow travellers”; – and seemingly little or no common ground.
Whether or not “plants can also feel pain” is surely beside the point when it comes to a decision about eating animals, and Mr Boland and Ms Courtney’s protests are as much about the poor quality of life that animals have endured as it is about the act of eating them.
On one side, meat is murder. On the other, it’s what we are born to eat.
The schism between omnivores and vegetarians is centuries deep, and difficult, if not impossible, to traverse. But I want to have a go at bridging the gap, in order to improve our health, and to thereby argue the case for red meat. White meat – pork and chicken – is an argument for another day.
Meat eating shouldn’t be all about creating an argument, and shouting about who is right and who is wrong. Meat eating should be about health, and aesthetics.
I think we should eat less meat, and I think we should only eat meat that has been compassionately reared and slaughtered. We should, in other words, eat less of better quality meat, and we should show it more respect.
The key to our red meat consumption should begin with the recognition that pasture-fed beef and lamb are health foods, and that we have the circumstances to produce – and in fact we do produce – some of the finest quality red meat produced anywhere in the world.
The flesh of animals that graze on grass has high levels of omega-3s, vital for our health and in particular the growth of brain cells. Importantly, the balance between the omega-3s and the omega-6s in grass fed beef is also extremely good. The flesh of grass–fed animals has lots of Vitamin E, and it gives us a source of CLA – conjugated linoleic acid – which research suggests is a powerful weapon against cancer.
This stuff is good for us.
And where the animals are properly reared and dispatched, they suffer less stress, thus producing better quality meat. As food lovers, who want to enjoy the best food, we should insist that this compassion to animals is adhered to at every juncture of the food chain.
There are farmers at work today in Ireland who are waking up to these questions. Joe Condon, who farms on the Tipperary-Waterford border, rears Galloway cattle to organic standards, has the meat processed by luminary butcher Michael McGrath in Lismore, and sells the meat as Omega Beef. It’s cracking stuff, but Mr Condon isn’t alone.
Maurice Kettyle in Fermanagh rears and produces the most superb Angus beef, and other farmer-producers are turning away from the commodity system towards specialised breeds and specialized selling. Just last week I had a call from a friend in Westmeath who is working with a bunch of beef producers. “They just don’t want to be sending superb animals off to the factory anymore”, he told me.
In tandem with this appreciation of the special quality and the healthful benefit of our red meat, we need to look to the great cuisines of the world, which all use meat sparingly, and in special ways. We talk of “meat and two veg”, but we should really talk of “two veg, and meat”. Hand in hand with showing a lack or respect for the superb red meat we produce, we are often indifferent to the allure of vegetables. The steak on your plate should be the grace note, not the diva.
We will have reached the desired state of grace when we can go into our local butcher and ask for “Two Irish, upland, Dexter, organic, omega-balanced, humanely dispatched, 21-days-hung, sirloin steaks, please”.
That’s quite a mouthful say. And it will be quite a mouthful to eat.