New Internationalist

Time for a rethink on food

horse grazing
Do we need to change the way we think about food? willg, 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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  1. #1 ludwig pesch 26 Feb 13

    Good points esp. when actual nutritional needs need to be taken into consideration (e.g. pregnancy): tribal and other ’ethnic’ customs rarely are a matter of choice until urbanization or migration provoke a sense of alienation: the homesickness felt anywhere in the world.
    The debate in the Netherlands where I live, and in Germany, where I grew up, must extend into ethical questions like excessive, hence wasteful and unhealthy consumption of just anything. Vegetarianism would probably solve some lifestyle related diseases if not all. But how many even know how to prepare a balanced, tasty vegetarian meal? Obviously this can be learned, and tastes can be acquired. The dizzying trails of ’processed’ meat, on the other hand, are not just mind boggling - don't they solicit and even reward fraud on such a scale? I am more amazed about fact that people choose to eat something so indistinguishable and unpalatable that only the list of ingredients - correct or fake, as in the horse meat scandal - plus chemical enhancements like the proverbial ’E-numbers would evoke faint memories of a ’meat dish’!

  2. #2 Paul 26 Feb 13

    I'm not sure if the Brits are ’gagging at the very thought of horsemeat in their mouths’ but angry that the meat has entered the food chain without their knowledge. If they buy a processed frozen beef-burger they would expect a cow in there somewhere, but not extracts of equine. Of course it's a cultural thing because horse is a perfectly good and tasty meat as the French will testify. There is no law against selling horsemeat as far as I know, provided it is clearly labeled. There just isn't a market for it. Yet the British are quite happy to eat venison, an animal very dear to their hearts if you'll pardon the pun.

    No the issue is that we don't know what is in the food chain anymore, and as horsemeat is cheap then unscrupulous producers are using it to garner further profits. They are also committing an offence under EU legislation by sneaking it in under the radar. It's a question of trust, or the lack of it, which is turning the consumer away from the supermarket processed meat counters and returning to their high street independent butchers. Which can only be a good thing. It's the poor who are dependent on the ’corrupted’ cheap frozen beef products, yet I'm sure if they became less reliant on them they could find reasonably priced economical cuts of fresh meat at the butcher - it's just a question of them knowing how to tenderise, marinate and cook it - something which families on low incomes in previous generations managed to do. Support your local butcher and he will support you!

  3. #3 johnny oommen 26 Feb 13

    Interesting viewpoint, Mari. We watch these major issues being debated and agitated over - horsemeat, gun control etc, and wonder why common sense is not the basis of decisions or public opinion.
    They ate it possibly for years. They enjoyed the taste as long as they didn't know. It was safe (as far as we know). It was not endangered animals or a crime to eat it. The only problem was in the labeling and false marketing.

    So call a horse a horse and get on with it. Name the crime of labeling, false advertising etc - punish that. They now have a new product to brand and sell ! Horgers or Mixed-Meat-Curry or whatever !

    On your issue of food wastage and the Right To Food-Choice, I agree.


  4. #4 Beulah Kaushik 26 Feb 13

    So right. In fact a gujju vegetarian friend mentioned just this....... What difference does it make of you have a horse in your plate, it is flesh, if you can eat a goat? And that made me think. But if it has entered the food chain without ones knowledge , one feels cheated.
    Now as consumers grow and so do shortages, good idea to look for alternatives. Seeing Ostrich farms in South Afica, I wondered how they could eat a bird who looked so friendly and happy to see you almost like a pet!

  5. #5 TMT 27 Feb 13

    very valid points - especially re the right to food, and the fact that many people don't have the luxury of being able to choose where their calories come from.

  6. #6 Elisabeth 28 Feb 13

    Meat is certainly meat, and all the points raised in the article and the comments are valid and thoughtful.
    I think the idea of eating dog, cat or horse is mainly difficult because these are warm blooded, furry, affectionate animals, and many of us have had a very loving and warm relationship with an animal like a dog or horse. We can look into their eyes, we can relate to their feelings, and we feel loved by them.
    Cows are also beautiful soft animals, as are sheep, I saw a lovely picture of one today, looking straight into the camera, at me.
    Can we eat our friends, relatives, loved ones? No.
    All of which proves how readily we compartmentalise our minds. For I do eat meat, and am want to become a vegetarian, but it's taking time. I am fully aware of my conflict! It's not good, I don't want to keep eating animals!

  7. #8 geetha varadan 28 Feb 13

    Dear Mari:

    Thank you for sending me your writing. I, myself, cannot imagine eating an animal UNLESS I lived in the desert (where no vegetables will grow), or on a rocky island, or while running/escaping for my life. Science is proving that PLANT (including nuts) protein is fabulous and in many ways better than animal protein. And, also, as you pointed out in your writing, to abstain from meat and dairy products will save the planet.

    I myself ate meat while I was a child, but realized (while still in school) that I cannot say that 'I love animals' and eat them at the same time. You see, I find that it is the 'politically correct' (and fashionable) thing to NOT be a SEXIST or a RACIST ... I ask: When will we humans stop being SPECIEISTS? Even the Bible speaks of the correct way, the RE-STORED (a coming back to what-was) way: None shall hurt or kill on My holy mountain ... right? Not the exact words, I know. The Lion and the lamb shall lie down next to each other ,,, (again, not the exact words)

    But I do no FIGHT ... you end your piece with the words, 'Now let the battle commence!’

    Only love can end hatred, and only light can extinguish darkness. So may the LIGHT of understanding and wisdom shine in my heart and mind so that I ALWAYS act correctly ... Krishnamurti speaks of choiceless awareness ... where you see so clearly, so wholistically, so selflessly and with such love that your every action is the correct action. Energy gets dissipated in anger, in 'righteous' indignation.

    Thank you for the time and energy you spend in trying to make the world a better place. God bless you. GV

  8. #9 Pete Howson 01 Mar 13

    People are upset because they've been duped. I also feel duped when I ask for a strawberry milkshake, but get a cup of non-dairy, hydrogenated vegetable starch and cochenille bugs. Despite actual milk from a cow being cheaper in WHSmiths than water! The issue of 'protein intake' in the UK is of no relevance here. Nor global poverty. It's about profit before anything else: before animal welfare, human health and treating each other as if we gave a rat's arse (or horse's arse - I have no idea).

  9. #10 chandrika nath 05 Mar 13

    Mari, I really think that if it is a question of feeding the starving masses, then all nutritious food should be used. Here in North America, Canadian Geese are a nuisance! They befoul parks and chase young children away from their nests and generally make enjoying the parks quite a challenge - not to say anything about making the golf courses a mess with their droppings and an added expense to use geese chasing dogs! However, when there was talk of using Canadian geese to feed the homeless in the shelters in Manhattan, there was such a hue and cry that the topic had to be dropped. Personally, I think that this would have been a great solution to their ever burgeoning numbers!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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