Root cause

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Three and a half million people in the UK don't eat meat. In National Vegetarian Week, Victoria Neumark asks why some prefer a blood orange to a bloody steak.

On September 30, 1847, a group of 140 evangelical Christians and medical practitioners held a meeting at Northwood Villa hospital in Ramsgate, Kent. Out of that meeting came the Vegetarian Society. The name referred not to the eating of vegetables, but to the Latin vegetus, meaning whole, fresh, sound or lively.

Mr and Mrs Horsell, who ran Northwood Villa, did not eat or serve any flesh foods, nor did any of those present, including figures such as Joseph Brotherton, MP for Salford and husband to Martha who had published the first non-flesh food cookery book in 1821. In turn, the Brothertons had been influenced by the Reverend William Cowherd. In 1809, Mr Cowherd had urged his congregation at the Bible Christian Church in Salford to refrain from eating meat. "Live and let live" was the motto he proposed; in his case, it went hand in hand with making and distributing free vegetable soup to the poor in the industrialised towns of the north of England.

The tenor of discussion at the meeting was virtuous, spiritual and "advanced": to this day, vegetarians are to be found at the forefront of many moral crusades. Of course, Adolf Hitler was also a vegetarian - but this is an imperfect world.

Disciples of Cowherd who went to America spread the word. Such converts as Sylvester Graham, who advocated raw foods and invented a kind of flatbread, the Graham cracker, and Bronson Alcott, father of children's author Louisa May Alcott, founded the American Vegetarian Society in 1850. Health benefits and cost benefits and a newly emerging consensus that cruelty to animals was wrong (the RSPCA was founded in London in 1840) linked intellectuals and social reformers across the Atlantic.

Both societies grew quickly. Much food was adulterated, meat was expensive, moral crusades were the order of the day. In the 18th century intellectuals such as poets Alexander Pope and Percy Bysshe Shelley, writers Voltaire and William Paley, political philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and religious reformers John Wesley and John Howard had all publicly proclaimed their abhorrence of killing to eat, as well as the health benefits of a meat-free diet. They had been largely mocked.

Now, with the invention of a name, the growing movement drew people together. In 1848 The Vegetarian Messenger was published. Isaac Pitman, inventor of Pitman's shorthand, spoke at a meeting and announced he had been a vegetarian for 11 years; Dr Allinson (whose name is now attached to a flour company) founded a London branch; radicals flocked to the plain but wholesome table. Luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi (joined in 1889), George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, founder of the Theosophical Society, which was immensely popular in the late 19th century, and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy made vegetarianism not just virtuous but admirable.

Today, three and a half million out of the 60 million people in this country are vegetarians. National Vegetarian Week, started as a day in 1991, is endorsed by celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Tony Banks MP, author Ruth Rendell and philosopher Peter Singer. Veggies can tickle their palates with ready meals based on fungus-based meat substitutes or create their own haute cuisine based on an enormous range of grains, pulses, nuts and vegetables. A far cry from the inaugural banquet of the Manchester Vegetarian Society in 1847, where the menu featured macaroni omelette, onion and sage fritters, savoury pie, plum pudding, and moulded rice.

People had felt distaste for eating meat, however, long before George Bernard Shaw lashed out, "While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?" The Pythagoreans in ancient Greece, for instance, believed in metempsychosis (the passing of the soul into some other body after death) and thought eating meat would hinder spiritual progress. They also refrained from eating beans, since the shape of the bean seemed to them to prefigure the germ of life in each soul. Some religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism - impose various degrees of taboo on eating meat, varying from prohibition on eating cattle for secular Hindus to certain religious orders of Jains who wear masks to stop themselves inhaling insects and sweep the ground before them lest they step on ants. Theirs is a more extreme version of Shaw's comment that "Animals are my friends - and I don't eat my friends."

Arguments in favour of eating meat are easy to find for some. There are the die-hard "I eat red meat because I need to feel aggressive" cowboys. There are traditional peoples whose culture is founded on hunting, such as the Inuit, whose diet historically has been largely freshly-killed seal and fish. There are those who point to the arrangement of our teeth, which are divided between grinders for vegetable matter and tearers for meat, and those who point to our need for vitamin B12, only available naturally from milk and milk products, eggs, meat, and poultry. Vitamin B12, also called cobalamin, helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells, and is also needed to make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Deficiency can cause weakness, neurological impairment and is linked to pernicious anaemia, a life-threatening condition. Vitamin B12 is bound to the protein in food (it is now also to be found in fortified breakfast cereals, dairy products and vitamin supplements).

There are also animal-lovers who say that without farming there would be no domesticated animals, as without fox-hunting there would be no foxes.

Eating meat thus ensures the lives of animals. And the "it tastes good" argument is probably the most powerful of all.

On the other side, there are a pile of answers, from "I never eat anything with a face" to passionate endorsements of the sacredness of life. Although many scholars accept that the ancient Aryans in India probably did eat meat, including beef, the introduction of Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century BC dissuaded people from eating animal food. The Buddha, though his own last meal is said to have been pork, propagated the gospel of ahimsa, or non-violence. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, preached reverence for all life, rendering farming almost impossible. As these religions attracted more people, their rulers increasingly adopted a vegetarian way of life .

The sacred cow for many Hindus stands for the sacredness of all living things; for others its bounty makes it sacrosanct. Even though many Hindus are not vegetarian, vegetarianism is held up as an ideal.

Although Buddhists place humility (or the non-attachment to self) above refraining from eating meat, so that patting oneself on the back for not eating meat is more damaging to spiritual progress than eating it, abstention from killing is the religion's first precept. Meat eating, however, is not equated with killing in the Pali scriptures. On the other hand, the middle way says monks should not have any animal specifically killed for their nourishment. Many Buddhists are vegetarians, particularly those in the Mahayana (or "greater vehicle") communities where not eating meat is seen as a way of developing compassion for all sentient beings. The Dalai Lama has urged vegetarianism for this reason, even though Tibetans in his community do eat meat, one of the few food sources on the barren plateaux of central Asia.

For religions that believe in reincarnation, animals may be seen as unevolved or repentant souls. Their suffering should be felt like human suffering. Mahavira, founder of Jainism, felt that ahimsa or non-violence was so important that Jains should neither eat meat nor certain plants (onions, for instance) which were likely to have many life-forms .

Jainism is followed by four million people. Jains do eat dairy foods, however, unlike some Zen Buddhists in Japan. Zen cuisine was codified in the 13th century by Dogen, the founder of the Soto sect of Zen, as Shojin Ryori or Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Dogen established rules on dietary habits of a pure vegetarian life as a means of training the mind . Not so much compassion, more learning to abstain from passion.

Western religious traditions also offer space for vegetarianism. The Manichees, an heretical sect popular all over Asia and Europe in the Middle Ages who believed that purging the body of desire would free the world from the forces of darkness, were vegetarians. While the Catholic Church promoted non-meat eating days and fasts, feasting was also important.

Vegetarianism was frowned on by the medieval church.

However, more spiritual types have hankered for a vegetarian life, and today vegetarian Christians are quite numerous. Jews, too, in order not to eat treif or impure food which contravenes dietary laws, have often turned away from meat. And the ferment of Protestant dissenting sects which sprang up in England in the 18th century, threw up many anti-meat eaters. Many puritans felt denial of bodily urges was good.

In these religious contexts, the idea of renouncing gross desires is as important as not harming animals. For more secular people, animal welfare is the dominant consideration.

"The modern animal rights movement may be dated to the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation by Australian philosopher Peter Singer," declared Newsweek. With chapter headings such as "All animals are equal or why the ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too", Singer says that rather than looking at animals as not having a soul we should see them and us as part of the same continuum of living beings.

To minimise the pain in the world, we should refrain from practices that harm animals, such as factory farming, fur-wearing and meat-eating. Coining the word "speciesist", Singer extended commonly accepted views on how we ought to treat each other to animals. In the absence of religion, do we have any reason to exalt human beings above other species?

Singer distinguishes himself from people, such as Bernard Shaw perhaps, who see animals as our "furred and feathered friends". The RSPCA for instance, "promotes kindness and prevents cruelty to animals" but is not vegetarian although it backs a "freedom food" system which works to improve conditions for farm animals. The World Wildlife Fund's patron, Prince Philip, is both a carnivore and hunter - and proud of it.

Eating animals may be wrong, then, because animals have souls, as some religions say, or because it harms our souls, or because neither we nor they have souls, as Singer says. It may be wrong because it is unsuited to our evolutionary status: developing from ape-type primates, we consumed fruit, nuts, seeds and possibly insects in our early history. Despite the big calorie needs of our huge brains, meat-eating was prehistorically probably quite rare. Even today, hunter-gatherers are mostly gatherers: hunting takes a long time, much manpower and is risky.

Since hunting is so costly, early societies domesticated animals to get a reliable source of meat and milk. Our civilisations have been built upon the establishment of farming. Was it worth it? Ask vegetarians. Raising animals for food consumes vast amounts of plant life (a beef cow eats 14 times its weight in grain) and pollutes the environment with animal waste .

In 1971, Frances Moore Lappe's book Diet for a Small Planet pointed these facts out so trenchantly that she kick-started modern American vegetarianism. Eating animals creates the wrong future for our world, she said.

Morally wrong, wasteful of resources - is eating meat also unhealthy? Vegetarian food is high in fibre, good for the digestive system and the heart, rich in vitamins (apart from B12) and replete with minerals. Some medical authorities criticise a vegetarian diet for being low in protein and iron: they advise eating high-protein pulses. Vegetarians who eat animal-derived foods such as butter, cheese and eggs get loads of protein and, unless they overdo the dairy produce, vegetarians tend to eat less fat. So the claims to glossy-haired, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed health superiority seem to hold good: as its 19th-century proponents claimed, it is vegetus, sound, fresh and wholesome, to be a vegetarian.

"I am not a vegetarian because I love animals: I am a vegetarian because I hate plants," says A Whitney Brown, American stand-up comic. His flippancy points to our strong feelings about what we consume.

"You are what you eat," the saying goes. Is this the case for cannibalism or living on air? As writer Franz Kafka is reported to have said to the fishes in his aquarium, "Now I can look at you in peace; I don't eat you anymore." Later, of course, he killed himself.


Vegetarian Society

Vegetarian websites


Vegetarian Christians




Vitamin B12

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