I have always had a strong empathy with animals. I once spent three days of a seven-day holiday finding a home for a tiny kitten with a broken leg who was abandoned in a busy souk in Essaouira.
I boycott circuses and zoos where animals perform and am loathe to go on holidays in third world countries because I can’t bear to witness the abuse of donkeys and other working animals. I don’t eat battery chickens and try to buy meat with a known provenance, usually from a good butcher.
I love the taste of meat and fish, but somewhere buried deep inside, I have always toyed with the idea of one day becoming a vegetarian. That day has come. I have decided to give up meat.
The catalyst is the shocking footage released earlier this month from Animal Aid, who covertly filmed the Bowood Lamb abbatoir in North Yorkshire over three days in December. The footage showed animals being brutally tortured, and reading the evidence made me weep.
The horrific report has reopened the debate about whether all animals should be stunned before they are killed (at the moment there are exceptions to the rule for meat consumed by Muslims and Jews). There are growing demands that CCTV be made obligatory in all slaughterhouses.
I have been unable to watch the video of the men kicking the sheep in the face and head, standing on them and jumping up and down, hacking and sawing at the animals’ throats (in direct contravention of Islamic Law, which says they should be killed with one swipe of a sharp knife), lifting them by their ears or fleeces and hurling them into solid structures.
Kate Fowler, head of campaigns at Animal Aid, said, “This is the 10th slaughterhouse in which we have filmed undercover, and it is the ninth to be caught breaking animal welfare laws.”
Incredibly, this is despite there being government-appointed vets attached to the abattoirs in question.
It’s not only in non-stun abattoirs that mistreatment of animals goes on. Animal Aid found: “Even where no laws were broken, animals still suffered pain and fear. And ‘high welfare’ plants, such as those accredited by the Soil Association and Freedom Food, were no better than the standard ones, and were guilty of breaches of the welfare laws.”
Paul McCartney once said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls we would all be vegetarian. I have signed the petition to make CCTV cameras obligatory in abattoirs and on 4 February, Conservative MP Henry Smith launched the timely debate in the Commons for mandatory CCTV.
The Food Standards Agency is still considering whether to prosecute the men in Bowood abattoir. That’s hard to believe: how could they not? So far only one of the men has been sacked.
I realise that me becoming a vegetarian is not going to change the world, but perhaps the tide is turning. After the abattoir storm, there were many tweets from people pledging to become vegetarian.
I am comforted by the words of the American anthropologist Margaret Meade, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Eating vegetables is also better for the planet. Forty per cent of the world’s land surface is used for the purposes of keeping seven billion people fed. Of that land, about 30 per cent is used to raise the chickens, pigs and cattle that we eventually eat.
As part of the conclusion to one of the largest international assessments of animal agriculture ever undertaken, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations said: “The livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole.
“Globally it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.”
Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases thanthe transportation industry, and is a primary cause of rainforestdestruction, species extinction, habitat loss, top-soil erosion, oceandead zones and almost every other environmental problem.
My friend Claudia, who has been a vegetarian since she was six, thinks that even one less person eating meat is good for the world. She became a vegetarian then partly because her primary school was opposite a chicken slaughterhouse.
She says it is far easier and more acceptable to be a vegetarian now than it was in the seventies, when people thought she was being a difficult and odd child.
There are countless apps and cookbooks for vegetarians, including the hugely successful Deliciously Ella, a gluten-, meat- and dairy-free recipe book that recently sold more copies in its first week than any other cook book ever has.
Claudia has advised me to eat plenty of avocados, eat tofu to get protein, make egg omelettes mixed with herbs, and make my own almond milk (by soaking almonds in water overnight and blitzing them in the morning. She says it’s delicious, but I have my doubts).
The day I decided to become a vegetarian, I was unprepared and only had pea and ham soup in the house for supper. I wanted to start straightaway, so I ate it but left out the bits of ham. I know vegetarians would not even consider soup that has been made with bits of ham, but I am a beginner.
The following day I bought organic kale and ate it for lunch with some mackerel (confession: I’m ready to give up meat but I still want to eat fish). But that evening I couldn’t resist my son’s homemade free-range chicken gougons. Delicious. Not the best start.
However, as I’m writing this, I have just eaten some delicious beetroot and apple soup for lunch and I am about to read my new Hemsley + Hemsley cookbook, which contains several vegetarian recipes. I may try a courgette and aubergine curry for supper or a lentil and chermoula stew. I’m not sure what chermoula is, but it can’t be that hard to find.
I read that Joanna Lumley hasn’t eaten meat for 40 years and she says it can’t be a coincidence that she feels full of energy. I am inspired to really give it a go. I am quite determined to keep up this up, even though at the moment, it still feels like a new and exciting experiment rather than a way of life.