Recently a section of the M1 was closed for twelve nights as contractors chopped down a number of trees in order to turn the hard shoulder into a fourth lane. The process involved blocking the motorway with machinery in order to protect endangered dormice who hibernate with their tails wrapped around their heads. It so happens that a small colony of this endangered species lives in the vegetation close to the trees. Snapped out of hibernation before spring by trees crashing down all around them would result in a lot of dead dormice unable to cope with the cold and lack of seasonal food. In consequence, the trees were cut very gently and lowered equally gently by crane on to the waiting lorries – blocking said highway for twelve nights.
It’s a heartwarming story, which illustrates the contradictions surrounding out attitude to animals. We build giant wind farms which shred and dice birds; we factory-farm chickens and worse (unless you're a chicken) we battery farm calves because of our dependence on milk and dairy.
A cow only produces milk when pregnant, so, from 15 months it is artificially inseminated again, and again, and again; and each time the calf is removed within 36 hours so we can consume their milk from plastic bottles with green tops. Whilst the cow may bellow for days at the loss of her calf, the calf will, if it is female, follow the same path as its mother, and if male, disposed of or merchandised as veal.
This makes me sound like a militant vegan, but I’m not. I love dairy and meat and like many, compartmentalise what I love from the reality of how it’s produced. It’s yucky morality, but then so are the alternatives.
Those who urge upon us the merits of cutting out meat except for very special occasions (if they’re super tolerant) have a fair point if their argument is solely animal welfare or indeed human health. Arguments linking the issue to climate change are less defensible. Increased quinoa production are making some Peruvians rich but devastating the soil. Avocado production is devastating forests, and Almond production in California consume 8% of the state’s water supply – or Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. Vegan foods are high in airmiles, and in the case of Soya is largely GM. I’ve heard the argument that meat provides only 18% of the calories in the human diet and yet accounts for 85% of farmland. But anyone can play that game. Calorie for calorie, lettuce consumes much more land than pig production.
The elephant in the room is population growth, which is inimical to democracy and planetary health. It’s not something popular opinion likes to face squarely. It’s easy to see why. We could wait for God, War, Gaia or bird flu to cull us. We could embark upon the process ourselves, but then again, what moral dwarf would undertake that?
I'm afraid until the big event, we must bear the lectures from those who exhort us to eat only lovingly reared animals that they can afford but others can’t, the ominous preaching of Bono and the Davos crowd who warn us of climate change as they flit to and from on gas guzzling jets, or else trouser huge subsidies on green energy.
The sad thing is, the rich will always eat meat. Witness the Middle Ages when barons feasted on hogs, swans, capons, venison, beef, pike and farmed rabbits, whilst the peasant made do with beans and a sliver of bacon. Those lower down in the food chain, whether animal or human eat what they can, the poor in a future world perhaps learning to like tofu or insects. I’m sure some enterprising souls will rummage around for hibernating dormice.