What really constitutes an ethical diet?

PHOTO: Willie Urquhart/WHFP

“I’m a vegetarian myself,” said the wizened old worthie.

Politeness only permitted the quizzical rise of an eyebrow. This was someone of similar background and — dare I say — proportions to myself. “I just wait for the grass to turn to meat.”

A dismissive joke, perhaps, but symbolic of a debate of increasing importance as to what constitutes an ethical diet.

As you might have assumed, I’m a bit of a traditional Hebridean when it comes to food on the plate. But, undeniably, more and more of us are opting for a vegetarian or even a vegan diet – and it might be on some people’s New Year’s list of resolutions.

It seems there are three main reasons for this: people who think it’s wrong to kill animals for food; the premise that meat production is bad for the planet; and that a vegetarian diet is simply more healthy.

No-one should ever seek to deny anyone the right to choose how to live their life, but some of the wrong-headed moralising over this really needs to be challenged.

Firstly, if you rely on shops or supermarkets to source your vegetables— and I’d say that’s 99.9 per cent of us— then it has been farmed on a commercial and industrial basis, which means the vegetables are responsible for the destruction of countless creatures.

It’s nigh on impossible to produce a large-scale arable crop at the price demanded by the supermarket — even the humble tattie — without resorting to spraying vast amounts of pesticides.

The bugs that threaten the viability of the crop have to be routinely slaughtered for that produce to make it to market in good order, for the carrot to make it to your plate, if you will.

So, is a bug happily minding its own business any less deserving of being kept alive than an animal reared specifically for meat – or is it simply the case that, however unpalatable it may be for modern sensitivities, it’s simply impossible to feed the human race without resorting to killing animals of some sort?

But, what of organic? It’s certainly true that organic farms do not routinely use pesticides, so they’re certainly more ethical. But they only represent 2.7 per cent of all farms in the UK, so inconsequential in terms of our general consumption. Also, there’s a very good reason why organic produce is so much more expensive.

Secondly, there is the perception that meat production is bad for the planet. This, while repeated ad nauseam by certain sections of the media, is the most vacuous reason of all. The oft stated justification is the destruction of the Amazon to make way for cattle ranching, but from an ethical-eating point of view the answer to that is quite simple: don’t buy Brazilian beef. I certainly never have.

While industrial scale farming here in this country has had, quite rightly, its environmental credentials questioned, there is a growing realisation that properly managed grassland — neither under or over grazed — acts as a valuable carbon sink, in much the same way as trees do.

Granted there is concern over the methane emissions from cattle, but even so the carbon footprint from arable production — with their behemoth combine harvesters, gas-guzzling tractors the size of a house and, as mentioned before, almost complete reliance on chemical inputs — is far greater than that from traditional livestock systems.

So, if you really want to follow a diet that saves the planet, eat more meat from quality assured producers and ditch the destructive carrot.

Thirdly, there is the reason that a vegetarian or vegan diet is more healthy. Actually, I have no problem with this whatsoever, although I would question in the case of vegans, and admittedly within my very limited scope of expertise, how they consume enough protein to stay healthy.

Without doubt, some of us — and me as much as anybody — could do with reducing our red meat intake, particularly now the metabolism is not what it was during the indestructible years of youth.

But just as with the production of livestock itself, much better to focus on quality rather than quantity.

None of this is meant to be in any way disparaging of vegetarians or vegans –freedom of choice is everything.

But every single one of us has an individual responsibility to properly understand where our food comes from and how it’s produced (just as we once did) and not jump aboard the latest fad or fall for the moralising of self-interest groups.

Sometimes it’s about a lot more than what it says on the tin.

A WEE nod of appreciation to a son of Skye who has just been awarded an influential post in UK agriculture.

Robert MacDonald, whose family owned Orbost farm in north Skye before the estate was sold to Highlands and Islands Enterprise in 1998 to create new housing, now farms in Grantown-on-Spey where he has a 140-cow suckler herd and around 600 sheep.

He is currently NFU Scotland’s less favoured areas committee chair and has proved himself an able ambassador, constantly drumming home the importance of livestock production in the marginal areas to support the wider stratification of the industry.

As if all that wasn’t enough — and it certainly should be for even the most energetic of us – he has now been handed the vice-presidency of the UK North Country Cheviot Sheep Society.

Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the history of the Highlands, will know that the cheviot sheep has a dark association with the clearances. It was the breed of choice for landlords who wanted to rid the land of people to make way for more profitable sheep farming.

But that’s hardly the fault of the animal and the white-faced ewe is now ubiquitous across the crofting counties on account of her versatility and ability to thrive on rough pasture.

So all the best to Robert and it’s gratifying that someone with an intimate knowledge of this part of the world is able to make his presence felt at the highest of levels. Mind you, he might not have too much opportunity there to practise his Skye Gaelic.