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Try going demitarian for Lent

2013 February 22
by Paul Vallely

I was too busy to get a proper meal before the football the other night so I had a burger on the way into the ground and then I had a steak pie at half-time. I know, I know. It all illustrates how far I am away from becoming a demi-tarian.

The word demitarian has been coined by Professor Mark Sutton, who is lead author of a UN Environment Programme study Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution which was published on Monday. The professor’s motivation here is environmental. Modern farming practices are destroying the natural world and the most destructive of these involve diverting vast quantities of grain into consumption by the animals we kill for meat or farm for dairy products.

A call for everyone to give up eating meat is likely to fall on deaf ears, the good professor has decided, so he is suggesting that we should all eat half as much meat as previously – thus becoming become demi-tarians.

I like the idea of this. Since 80 per cent of the nitrogen and phosphorus used in farming goes on meat production a demi-diet will lessen the demand for the amounts of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which Unep says are causing “a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health” – creating dead zones in the seas, killing fish, threatening bees and releasing more  harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But it will also be better for our individual health.

My problem is that whenever I go to a vegetarian restaurant I look at the imaginatively-prepared veggie fare before me on my plate and think: “Where’s the meat?” So the idea of there being meat, but less, maybe the answer. At a recent UN dinner the chef used two-thirds less meat but with more vegetables to make up for it and only 10 per cent of the guests complained. Our parents and grandparents ate a lot less meat than we do anyway.

The modern lust for cheap meat is what has landed us in the present horse-beef meat scandal with its mislabelled ready meals and undocumented livestock food chains in which horse from a Romanian abattoir went via a Cypriot trader to a French meat company then a French food processing company before landing on British supermarket shelves. Since then the hyper-regulated Germans have been drawn in. And now the world’s biggest food company, Nestlé, is withdrawing pasta meals in Italy, Spain and France.

Chicken and pork apparently cause less environmental damage because chicken in particularly grows very quickly and its manure is more easily recycled. But there are welfare issues with both chicken and pork. And though fish is healthier there is the problem of over-fishing and excess nutrients in fish-farming. So lentils and chickpeas beckon. The trouble with those is that they take longer to prepare and life always seems so busy.

Perhaps the answer lies outside the food itself and in our hectic lifestyle. The Give Up Busyness for Lent campaign suggests that we modern Westerners are addicted to doing one thing after another with as little down-time as possible. That distorts our perception, makes us feel self-important, gives us a specious excuse for being impatient and rude and, most perversely of all, burns us out with unnecessarily frenetic activity. The campaign acknowledges we all have pressures, demands and deadlines. But it says we mustn’t let them rule our life or eat into our souls.

Its central alternative is that we should set aside specific time each day in which to do nothing other than let time pass in the wilderness where we lose ourselves and get found by God. And those of us who don’t like the idea of doing absolutely nothing could perhaps use the time to chop a few vegetables and put them on with the lentils for a long slow stew.

The Church Times

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