Aaron McLean confronts the uncomfortable dinner-table philosophy of veganism.
The difficult question
I thought it was amazing that philosophy was a compulsory subject in my son’s first year of high school; thinking philosophically certainly wasn’t encouraged when I went to school in Central Otago some decades ago. I hadn’t realised the impact that this class would have on our daily life when he was asked to ponder the question, ‘Is there a moral justification for eating meat?’ As he researched farming and abattoir practices, environmental externalities, dietary alternatives, nutritional requirements and food cultures beyond his own, we literally chewed on the topic each evening around the dinner table, over a balanced diet of vegetable and meat dishes that he’d always enjoyed. He soon reached his conclusion: no. There may be cultural reasons, but he could see no moral justifications for killing animals to eat, especially when it is proven we can survive perfectly well without.
The difficult answer: scenario 1
So, four years ago he became vegetarian, then very quickly decided that even that was a hypocrisy he couldn’t live with. His stated reason? The practice of perpetually lactating mothers whose babies were taken away from them and disposed of as waste so we could have their milk on tap. His brother converted, and soon we – as a family who takes our children’s nutrition seriously, values time spent around the table together and lacks the time to cook two meals – became (mostly) vegan. Meaning that almost all of our meals were constructed in the absence of meat, seafood, dairy and honey, those cornerstones of the Western diet.
It’s not easy being vegan in a country dominated by an Anglo-Saxon food culture. It’s almost impossible to find more than a dish or two suited to you on a restaurant menu, and there are literally only a handful of restaurants around the country that specialise and survive. Not only do we seldom cater to vegans, we also give them a lot of stick: to many people vegans are considered opinionated, evangelical extremists, to be ridiculed and joked about. We were expecting my son to inhabit – in silence – a culture that shouts at him from the back of every billboard and bus, YouTube and Instagram advertisement. Literally everywhere we look, we’re confronted with imagery promoting the commodities produced by the meat and dairy industries. He also asked that we question how often we personally champion meat, joke about vegans, raise our eyebrows when confronted with accommodating them at the dinner table, wave that bacon under their nose and ask, ‘Are you sure you don’t want this instead of that rabbit food?’ He then asked that we question why. Veganism is an empathetic movement, not centered in the self, but dedicated to animal welfare and the environment – these are noble goals. Ultimately, vegans are asking us to look up from food as a commodity in a polystyrene packet and into the eyes of the cow.
The difficult answer: scenario 2
As an omnivore concerned about animal welfare and the environment, small-scale diverse farming is a system that I champion. I understand it still involves the slaughter of animals (which is unacceptable to most vegans whatever the animals’ treatment in life and death), but I don’t know of a functioning eco-system without animals in it. And as an experienced organic gardener who wants to see widespread adoption of agro-ecological farming practices that don’t rely on phosphates or fossil fuel-derived nitrogen fertiliser, I believe that we need animals in our landscape for the fertility provided by their manure and the multitude of other functions they perform in lieu of fossil fuel-powered machinery. This means it makes sense we will have some, if substantially less, on our plates.
This is the case I made, with roasted Bostock chicken on my plate and Tonzu sausages on my son’s, one evening early on in our vegan journey. It didn’t get me very far. “That’s not representative of farming as it actually exists, Dad! How much of the meat and dairy consumed in this country comes from farms like that? Where can you buy it? And guess what, your chicken may be organic but the butter and milk in our fridge are not, and they’re not from a small farm either!” Sheesh! Nobody likes to be proven a hypocrite, so I quickly brokered a deal: if I committed to visiting my local farmers’ market every Sunday to buy organic butter and Jersey Girl Organics milk, and to only buy meat produced by Mangarara Station at my local butcher, he would at least let me get through the occasional steak in relative peace. The catch? There is a lot of privilege at play here. These things are not available in many neighbourhoods and, once again, he was right: I was using an exception to justify what we like to envisage of the countryside when we barbecue a burger, and that isn’t representative of the meat in the majority of our patties.
Introducing climate change
It wasn’t long before the next eruption. We’d been through a spate of fires in the Amazon, California and Australia, kids were on the street protesting and climate breakdown was a hot topic at our table. My son quickly looked up from his black bean burger. “Dad, don’t even talk to me about the climate while you continue to eat meat. In case you haven’t noticed, nobody in power has done a thing about habitat and species loss or carbon emissions since science warned us about these issues almost half a century ago. Giving up meat, a proven major contributor to these issues, is about the only contribution we can make – as individuals living in a city in this society – towards having a chance at a habitable future.” Isn’t the central tenet of the concept of progress that each generation inhabits a better society? My teenage years were as fraught as most, but they didn’t include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning me about the collapse of civilisation, and it’s out of touch with the science to just bat these concerns away as irrational.
We need to talk about farming
These dinner-table debates taught me that you can’t talk about veganism without talking about meat, and you can’t talk about meat without talking about farming. New Zealand is undeniably a farming nation, producing many times more food than we consume, overwhelmingly meat and dairy. The Ministry for the Environment states that nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. The main source of agriculture emissions is methane from livestock digestive systems, and the issues of intensive farming and its effects on wastewater are well-trodden turf. I prefer to look at systems rather than to blame people, so although we have to properly consider the concerns raised by the vegan critique of farming, it’s important we understand these as problems emerging out of a farming system that individual farmers didn’t make, and are trying to stay afloat within. History, culture, councils, banks, co-ops, ministries and commodity prices have encouraged and enabled the simplification of the landscape and scale, which are the hallmarks of commodity farming. These are issues that not only our farmers but we as eaters need to confront. As American writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry says in his essay The Pleasures of Eating, “eating is an agricultural act”. What about the economy, you say? What about the future of this beautiful country? Well exactly, that’s what they are asking us to consider. There is no economy where the IPCC scientists warn us we are headed if we don’t make a few sacrifices.
Which parts of the vegan argument might we benefit from taking on board, so that we can sit around the table in greater harmony? It will be tenuous, as slaughter will always be a hurdle, but if my table taught me anything, it was that meat and dairy from small-scale farms whose practices we knew and trusted caused much less conflict. And eating much less meat literally took the discussion off the table.
Critically, we should all make an effort to cook more meals that revolve around vegetables. Vegetables, pulses, legumes and traditional soy proteins such as tempeh and tofu are cheap and delicious when you know how to cook them. That means you can afford to dedicate a higher premium to the meat you do eat, and that helps to enable the model I proposed to my son to be the rule rather than the exception.
We should aim for a de-simplification of our landscape with smaller, more diverse, locally focussed rural landscapes that enable better animal welfare, better food security and nutrition, more resilience to climate disruptions and better environmental outcomes. This will also require more hands on the land, so has the potential to revive our rural communities and provide more employment.
To facilitate this, first we need to acknowledge that there is a growing wave of farmers out there who already meet these standards. I mentioned Mangarara Station earlier, but there are also Slow Stream Farm, Grandad’s Beef, Pihi Farms, Provenance and I’m sure many others I am unaware of. Find producers you trust where you live; find home kill that hasn’t had to travel to the abattoir; frequent your local farmers’ market; eat wild meats.
I spoke to Nicola Harvey about farming at Slow Stream Farm with no synthetic fertiliser, (only seaweed products), careful calm cattle management, no winter cropping for feed, no tilling and no mass pesticide spray. But what about slaughter? Better environmental outcomes from regenerative practices and a local focus are desirable, but the trip to the slaughterhouse undoes that when it comes to animal welfare, doesn’t it? For Nicola the answer will be to work with a mobile abattoir that processes the animals on-farm without the stress of transporting them to a centralised processor. “Affordable food is, for us,” she says, “about providing premium products at Pak’nSave prices, and we can do this by managing the entire supply chain from farm through to plate.” I don’t personally believe we as consumers have the power to shift farming through our consumption; while most of the food we produce is shipped offshore we have little power. But by supporting these exceptions we support a lighter, more humane touch on the land.
A scepticism I share with many critics of veganism is towards the new frontier of industrial food – so-called fake meat. Not the type that Chinese Buddhists have been making with soy and mushrooms for about a thousand years, but those products that are emerging out of the lab. These products seem an oxymoron to me. Why, if vegans are fighting an industrial model of food production, would they choose to sit their rebellion at its table? In my anecdotal experience, the bleeding patties of the Impossible Burger are not on my son’s wish list; he’s mostly interested in a trip to Wise Boys for burgers made out of wholefoods, or a soy-based sausage with a few herbs as flavouring if he’s at his grandparents’ house.
Is it really vegans that these alt-meats are aimed at? Or are they products that make it easier for meat eaters to have meat-free days and ‘do their bit for the climate’; or for vegetarians who have grown up in a meat-and-three-veges culture and don’t have the knowledge to easily cook alternatives; or for parents in the same boat being confronted with the repercussions of philosophy class?
As we discussed earlier, we exist within a meat-centric society and not even vegans are immune to its cosmology, in which burgers and fries are the ubiquitous cuisine of popular culture. When pushed on the angle, my son simply says, “Why, because I choose not to eat dead animals, should I not be able to eat a hamburger if it can be perfectly delicious without a dead animal in it?”
David Zilber, Noma’s director of fermentation, recently created what is being touted as the world’s most delicious vegan burger, a product of fermentation mastery and traditional ingredients such as quinoa, tempeh and garum. Perhaps – hopefully – as more chefs embrace plant-based alternatives to moderate meat consumption, we might have more delicious substitutes such as these rather than the fake-meat products of the lab, and more establishments that offer these choices, hopefully at sub Noma prices.
A new normal?
We recently dropped our son in Wellington to be tortured by the vegan option in his uni halls. There is no longer a vegan at my table and we’re free to eat what we like. My wife raced to the supermarket and filled the fridge with clams, organic beef and chicken and goat’s cheese. But writing this article has me feeling very nervous about this trajectory. To be honest, I’m keen to keep the balance we had while catering to him. I’ve never felt healthier, I’ve lost a lot of weight, vegetables taste great and meat is a treat. I’m keeping the clams and a bit of goat’s cheese for my pasta. I’m really looking forward to the oyster season, too, and I’ll be keeping chickens and raising a little flock of sheep on the small farm to which we’re about to move.