New Internationalist

Time for a rethink on food

horse grazing
Do we need to change the way we think about food? willg willg.photography, under a CC License

‘Horsing around’ and other jokes about the horsemeat scandal in Britain brought back some thoughts I had on a recent personal experience. We were on a holiday trip to Nagaland where dogmeat is a delicacy and specially placed on the menu for guests. We were excited about visiting a Naga family – college friends of my daughter. The prospect of experiencing Naga hospitality firsthand was inviting, and getting to know local people is of course hugely different from merely traipsing around the usual tourist route.

However, I declined to accompany the others to the house,  though I truly wanted to meet our Naga friends too. I just wasn’t sure I had the ability to be a gracious enough guest to sample the dogmeat delicacy which would have pride of place on the table. I’d argued in my head that logically, intellectually, if one were not vegetarian, what difference did it make which meat was on your plate?

I could understand Brits gagging at the very thought of horsemeat in their mouths. I probably would too. Then I read that some Swiss people eat dogs and cats too. This was news to me. It reiterated my feeling that one can’t impose one’s beliefs on others. Animal rights activists will scream in anger. Anyone would. Living with a forest in my backyard it was exciting to have a visiting leopard. It certainly pepped up the conversation on a long monsoon evening. But when the bloody leopard ate up our beloved dog Elsa, I could have shot it without compunction, in spite of the fact that all of us are conservationists at heart and totally sympathetic to wildlife, mostly!

And though, for over 25 years now, I’ve felt, intellectually, that vegetarians are more evolved, I found it hard to impose this point of view on anaemic adivasi women who were at risk of dying in childbirth because of lack of protein in their diet. Their only protein came mostly from fish and game. And depriving them of this often had dire results – dead mothers and babies.

So, coming from a country where many women’s lives could be saved if they could eat a mere handful of dals (lentils) and leafy greens, I could see something in German minister Hartwig Fischer’s statement that we should, in a time of recession and austerity, not throw away horsemeat-‘contaminated’ food, but give it away to the poor.

Rich, or once-rich, countries make a great deal of fuss about using the term ‘poor’ and about political correctness. But I think offering this equine flesh, meatballs, lasagnes, bolognese sauces and other food  to people who are not squeamish about it makes perfect sense.

In India too, in a country with Sub-Saharan maternal and infant mortality, the rich and middle classes throw away food as though there’s no-one starving on the planet. It never fails to astonish me. We have a new breed of spoilt-brat middle-class Indian kids who routinely eat half of what’s on their plates. Europeans and Brits who remember the war and post-war rationing years may still retain memories of the ‘eat every scrap of food on your plate years’. My grandparents came from those years when, trekking through the Burmese jungles, there was no food.

I understand the issues of trust, food chains, poisoning, chemicals present in the horsemeat. But as the Swiss farmer said, ‘meat is meat’. If someone’s not killing your pet dog or cat, perish the thought, do we have a right to stop them? I can see a storm of protests coming my way. I support vegetarianism to save the planet, and have considerably cut down on my own consumption of meat, though not completely. I think this one calls for a lot of debate.

But I shrink from food fascists too.

Now let the battle commence!

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