Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series about the global climate crisis and strategies to deal with it. Click, to read part one.
By John Keeble
I used to know some thoroughly loathsome people who bought tiny lambs in the spring of the English countryside. They gave them names, treated them as pets and watched them grow. Their friends did the same.
When the lambs were big enough, they swapped them with their friends, took the exchanged lambs to a butcher and had them killed with a knife and a scream. Then they took home the butchered carcasses and, over time, ate them.
Could you do that?
A new British reality show, Meat the Family, is capitalising on that kind of idea. Dedicated meat-eaters take a “food animal” and keep it as a pet for three weeks. When it is “ready”, they have to decide whether to have it killed or sent to an animal sanctuary. If it is killed, they have to cook it and eat it. The dreadful penalty, if they fail the test of their brutality, is … they have to become vegetarians.
In a twist that fits with the incredibly complicated issues of ethical eating, the show is being commission by the UK’s Channel 4 TV channel which, at the same time, is investing heavily in the vegan food industry.
The much acclaimed production company Spun Gold TV is making the series and hopes it will sell widely, including in the US. Its managing director, Daniela Neumann, explained: “We [will] confront some really timely themes of ethical eating in a unique and entertaining fashion.
“Why do we find it acceptable to eat a lamb but we wouldn’t eat our pet dog? Could you go back to meat once you’ve put a name and face to a meal? This is a series that will combine amazing research about animal intelligence with some heart-warming moments.”
[Actually, as a citizen of a number of countries, you might be happy to beat your dog to death and eat her. This emerged as I investigated the Thailand dog meat trade and fronted a TV documentary about it, Shadow Trade, which you can watch on Amazon Prime]
As a lifelong vegetarian and vegan, I’m not sure how many four-letter words I can find to describe Meat the Family and everyone associated with it. However the words the filmmakers conjure up are: good, kind … oh, ****, I need more letters for their views of the programme … clever… humane… enlightened…
The history and histrionics of reality shows probably indicate that the people involved in Meat the Family are not any of those things per se.
But the outcome of the ghastly business probably will be good – except for the poor animals – in getting viewers to feel rather than just know the moral price of their meat.
It will engage the emotions and hopefully make the millions of viewers consider what they are doing when they pick up a lump of dead flesh in the supermarket.
Many people have already caught up with the appalling cruelty of animal food production, with about three billion animals and fish slaughtered every day, and the damage it does to our planet and every living creature on it.
For others, personally evolving from loving cuddly animals to deciding not to eat them is a jump too far at the moment.
Over recent years, there has been a tidal wave of evidence about the cruelty and damage of the meat, dairy and fish industries – you would have to be a human ostrich to miss it.
How are people coping with the tension of understanding what is involved in animal industries, knowing it is morally wrong, and yet still consuming animals?
Livekindly, which specialises in circulating information about animal-friendly ways of living, said: “Supporting something we know to be inherently violent and patently unhealthy necessitates the numbing of our compassion and the hardening of our hearts. We have to look away, live in ignorance, and defy our own conscience in order to partake in something that goes against some of our most intrinsic values.”
One of my meat-eating friend told me: “I saw a video about the animals. It was not just their deaths that were terrible – it was their lives too.”
However, confronting the brutal truths does not necessarily lead to a more evolved reaction. Another friend loves alpacas. They are pretty, soft and friendly to touch… and, he says, tasty on his plate.
A third said: “If you stop us eating farmed meat, we’ll just go out and shoot our own.”
Where do you stand on these issues?
Telling scientific evidence has linked meat-eating with cancers in humans, and meat production with gas emissions exceeding the total for all transportation.
The tension between moral and health beliefs on one side, and taste and habit on the other, may account for the rapidly rising number of flexitarians, the dietary middle ground between vegans and hardcore meat-eaters.
Flexitarians reduce their tensions by eating some meat and fish but mostly choosing a plant-based diet. Thus beliefs and actions can co-exist, both in the home and in restaurants.
Those moving onto vegan or vegetarian diets are adapting their actions to their beliefs. The dedicated meat-eaters support their actions by hardening their beliefs that they have the right to kill to live.
How are you living with this moral dilemma?
John Keeble is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He “retired” after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 14 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues.