At the close of National Vegetarian Week, biologist Colin Tudge argues the case for meat. Vegetarians and vegans say we should not eat meat. The agricultural industry, meanwhile, strives to produce as much as possible. The former claims that livestock farming is cruel and unsustainable. The industrialists say that by supplying more and more meat they are satisfying demand. The truth lies in between - but where?
Biological and historical evidence reveals us not as frustrated carnivores but as opportunist omnivores. We like meat, yet, as with other primates, a little goes a long way. But since World War II, meat has been marketed with all possible vigour. The real purpose of this was not to meet demand but remove the market ceiling on cereals. It is all too easy with industrial methods to produce a glut, and waste must be built into the system to keep prices up. Factory-raised livestock consumes 50 per cent of the world's cereal output and more than 90 per cent of soya output, and does the job perfectly. The same principle is applied to diamonds. Demand is not a measure of desire but of how much can be sold.
So where do we strike the balance between vegan austerity and industrial excess? Here we find huge serendipities. For if we kept just enough animals to clear up surpluses and made reasonable use of land that cannot easily be cultivated, we'd produce quite a few animals, though far fewer than now.
By farming sustainably, we would produce 'plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety' which is what nutritionists say we should eat. This nine-word adage, 'plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety' summarises the basic structure of the great cuisines: Indian, Chinese, Persian, Lebanese, Italian, Provencale, or indeed Polish or traditional American. All consist of huge piles of staples (rice, bread, potatoes, beans) with vegetables and meat used primarily for garnish and stock - and just the occasional feast, like the Christmas turkey.