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The best books on Eating Meat

recommended by Louise Gray

What does it mean to be an ethical meat-eater? Author and journalist Louise Gray chooses five books that examine the impact of our omnivorous lifestyle, and explains why she spent a year only eating the animals she had killed herself.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

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You’ve just published a book called The Ethical Carnivore. What does it mean to be an ‘unethical carnivore?’

Well, to me, being an unethical carnivore means just stuffing your face with meat without caring where it comes from. Being an ethical carnivore means trying only to eat meat that you understand comes from a good source. I tried to define it in my book by saying that ethics is the effort to live a good life. My question was how can we ensure the meat we eat does not harm the environment and comes from animals that have lived a good life?

I know to some people that can sound a little wishy-washy, but I was aiming the book at the majority of people in this country. I accept that people eat meat; I myself was a carnivore. Those who are vegetarian have already made their choice, so I wanted to talk to the carnivores about how they could be more ethical. And I wanted to make it realistic, so you have to leave room for trying your best and not always being perfect—the occasional drunken kebab. I believe that is the way to make a difference, by giving people an opportunity to try their best.

In the book, you spend some time discussing the capacity of different animals, with molluscs at one end of the spectrum, to feel pain. Is this the main moral or ethical issue that we need to consider?

No, I think it’s a lot more complex. For a start, how do we judge the pain of other animals? You mentioned molluscs—there is still ongoing research into whether these particular animals can even feel pain. I think you have to always consider that, but also look at the wider impacts, such as upon the environment.

In the book, for example, I write about scallop dredging on the west coast of Scotland. This is not just affecting the molluscs but the wider marine ecosystem as all the coral and other life on the seabed is ploughed up just for the scallops. So, I would argue in this case the question of the environmental impact is worth considering as well as the ability of the animal to feel pain.

“Between an animal’s birth and it getting to your plate, there are many ethical questions to consider”

The other question to ask is how does the processing of that animal affect the humans around them. For example, you might choose free-range organic chickens because the animals are better cared for, but if they’re being processed in a factory where people are being treated appallingly, then isn’t there a moral question about the labour that was used to get that meat to your table? Between the animal being born, or hatching, and getting to your plate, there are so many questions to consider in terms of ethics.

It can halt you in your tracks and make you think ‘I won’t bother’. But I think asking questions and trying to understand is a good start. There are a lot of grey areas, I don’t see how you can have black and white answers when it comes to something so complex.

Would a simpler answer be instead of us tearing our hair out over the ethics of meat-eating, to not eat any meat at all?

Yep, that’s the easiest answer. I have enormous respect for people who choose to be vegan. They are undeniably having a lighter impact on the planet because it generally takes less energy, and therefore fewer greenhouse gas emissions, to produce plant-based foods than meat. There are also fewer concerns about welfare, the wider environment and labour. I would say that one of the big discoveries from the book is people often expect vegans to be very extreme and to lecture everyone else, but actually I’ve had some really nice responses to the book from people who choose to eat no animal products. They want to encourage more people to think about what they eat and welcome any effort in that direction. They understand that a clear message in the book is that if you are desperately worried about the environment, then one of the simplest things you can do is eat less meat.

You mentioned one non-environmental impact as being to do with labour and the first book that you’ve chosen, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)—a novel that portrays the working conditions of those in the meat-packing industry at the turn of the twentieth century—deals with this labour question. It touches on immigration, and class, and many issues beyond that of eating meat. Why have you chosen to start here?

One interesting thing with this book is that while there are lots of animals in it—and they’re being tortured horribly, literally being skinned alive in the background of many, many scenes in the novel—it’s what’s happening to the humans that is so terrible, and that’s what you’re left with, especially reading it now. When it first came out, people were really shocked by what went into their meat, and I think people would read it now and think things are a bit better, and they probably are… but when you think about it we had the horsemeat scandal a few years ago, a lot of what happens in meat factories is still unknown to us.

I think sometimes when we discuss meat-eating, we talk about the suffering of the animals, we even talk about the environment, but we often forget to talk about the people and I think that’s really important: the people who do it on your behalf are worth considering.

When you were writing The Ethical Carnivore, you went into slaughterhouses and onto fishing boats and spent a lot of time with people who are at the coalface of producing meat, often on industrial scales. How do you think that affects the people who do it, and do you think they have to become blind to some of these issues to be able to work in that industry?

I think they have to process those issues, but they shouldn’t be blind to them. All of the places I went to were in the UK which meant they were really highly regulated. Also, I would say they were probably quite good abattoirs because they were allowing a journalist in—I wasn’t undercover, I was being quite open about what I was doing. So those people weren’t blind to the issues because they had to be very good at what they did in order to keep their job.

In one abattoir, the slaughter-men who were doing the killing had trained for seven years on all the floors, and so I don’t think they’re blind to it. They have to be trained in all of the welfare stuff and they have to care for the animals because they’re being filmed. They have CCTV in most abattoirs in the UK and there’s a big campaign to get CCTV in all abattoirs—I don’t know why the government will not legislate on this as it protects the abattoirs as well. If they are doing a good job it should not be a threat to them.

“They had to control their emotions, otherwise they couldn’t do the job”

When I interviewed slaughtermen and -women they were aware of what they were doing, that they were killing a beautiful animal. They admitted that they had to control their emotions, otherwise they couldn’t do the job, but also said they were keenly aware of ensuring the animal had a quick death. They were proud of doing a job well. I think it also becomes part of your lifestyle, often there are whole families working in these industries. It is normalised in the sense it is part of your life and that’s just how things are.

One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Temple Grandin, an animal behaviourist. She’s audited a lot of abattoirs, and she said that the majority really care about their jobs and do it well but yes, like anything, there are a few bad apples. She admits it and is trying to redesign the industry, so that those kind of people are weeded out.

Publication of The Jungle caused public outrage, and as a result new legislation was brought in in the United States, the Meat Inspection Act. Do you think that the public want to know about what happens in their slaughterhouses?

I guess a few people don’t because I’ve had quite violent reactions to my book by people who often eat meat and really don’t want to know. It’s almost like they feel it’s a personal affront, that they’re being attacked when I start telling them where meat comes from. I try to be delicate because I can sort of understand that it is quite upsetting for people. But the majority of people absolutely do want to know because they want to know it is being done right.

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I think [most] people do want to know, but you have to contextualise it. The first time I went to an abattoir to write about it, I was traumatised. It is a death factory, there is no way of getting around that. But you have to put it in context if you really want to understand, so I think people should know about the whole picture—another reason I wrote the book. You need quite a lot of education because you have to think about how the animals are bred and how they’re treated as well as how they are killed. I think that should probably be part of school education. We should know where our food comes from, otherwise we’re susceptible to the kinds of things that happened in The Jungle, or the horsemeat scandal, because people are getting away with stuff where no one’s wanting to look.

Your second book, Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines (1964), revealed the indignities and the suffering of animals in industrialised agriculture. What impact did the book have?

It was like Upton Sinclair’s but in the UK. It led to the UK government changing the law—the 1968 Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act and also the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes. Ultimately it led to the ‘five freedoms’, which vets had been working on, being brought into law. These summarised animal welfare as freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury or disease, from fear and distress and, most controversially, the freedom to express most normal behaviours.

What I liked about Ruth Harrison was that she was really ordinary—a bit like me, she was not an animal rights activist, she just was an ordinary person who wanted to know where her food came from so she went to farms and she had a look, and that sounds quite radical, even now. In the 1960s it was especially important because that’s when things were changing. Farm animals were being bred in bigger numbers and meanwhile the population was moving to the cities, away from farms, so they did not know about it. Harrison came along at the very moment when people began to be disconnected from animals and asked people to look again, and she still has a huge influence today.

So many books about eating meat, particularly the ethics of meat-eating, are written by vegetarians. Do you think that’s strange?

No. I suppose it’s to be expected because people have to live the message of their book and most books about meat are questioning the killing of animals. Something I’ve found is that it’s very hard to talk about these issues without being a paragon of virtue yourself. I was aware right from the start that I’d expose myself to accusations of hypocrisy just for daring to write about meat whilst failing to be a vegan. But I also thought that is why I should write it. Perhaps in the past people were frightened about writing about meat because they felt they had to be vegan or vegetarian but I argue that you can question where it comes from, you can try to make better choices, you can be an ethical carnivore.

“It’s very hard to talk about these issues without being a paragon of virtue yourself”

Also, I would point out that authors often change their minds after writing a book. Upton Sinclair was a vegetarian for a time, but I don’t think he kept it up. Writers try to reflect what they’re feeling when they write a book, but it might change in the future.

I don’t think it’s surprising that most people who write these books are vegetarians and vegans, but I think it’s necessary that people who aren’t write them as well, because if they’re all advocating vegetarianism and that doesn’t work then you’re left with a huge number of people in the middle who aren’t listening because they don’t want to hear the vegetarian message. Those people are the majority and by persuading them to question where their meat comes from, you can make a huge difference.

Animal Machines had a huge impact, in making people see the industrialisation of farming in a negative light. In your experience of going to larger-scale commercial meat or egg producing places, how did you react?

It’s really interesting because it’s a little bit like your question on the meat-eating: it’s not simple. You can’t just put a line down between large-scale and small-scale, and say that large-scale is always bad, especially when you are considering affordability. I’m not saying that as an excuse—when you go and talk to the people who are producing food and the people who are eating food, price is a huge issue and I’d like to know how food is produced affordably.

So a good example would be intensive chickens raised to RSPCA Assured standards. Unlike slightly cheaper intensive chickens, they have daylight, they are dry, they’re not too squashed in. I went to see them and to me they looked content. Chickens are jungle birds, so they like being in the warm and the dry in a flock. But when I went to see intensive pigs indoors, they did seem unnaturally bored. They’re so puppy-ish and so intelligent, it’s hard to see how they can have the freedom to express ‘normal behaviour’ in that environment. It’s quite a contrast to when you see pigs rooting around outdoors. In fact I’d say you’re better off to go and see a pig outdoors if you really want to be inspired to buy free range because the animals are so obviously happy.

“You’re better off to go and see a pig outdoors if you really want to be inspired to buy free range”

But again, it’s complex. If you live in Scotland, how many pigs can be kept outdoors? So then you’re talking about how the intensive units can have straw inside them and perhaps more space for the pigs. Ultimately I’m afraid the consumer has to educate herself or himself.

Your next choice, I’m really intrigued by: My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. It’s a novel about a documentary-maker working on a Japanese TV show that is essentially a shameless promotion of US beef from a particular beef company. What made you choose this book?

It’s brilliant. It’s a really amazing book, and it’s very feminine. It’s really how women experience meat as often the cook for the family, but also perhaps as the daughters and wives who are given meat, and it’s about what meat means to different cultures and how we try to sell one culture to the other. The central character is a Japanese-American woman making a documentary for the Japanese market about American meat. In Japan they haven’t got a history of eating a lot of red meat but the Americans were trying to sell it to them, so trying to change their culture.

It makes you think about why we eat meat: a lot of it is because of cultural reasons. Think of the Sunday roast. We think we are more cosmopolitan now but even in Britain today, meat is for men, and in many places for a man to become vegetarian is seen as maybe a little bit effete. Isn’t that ridiculous? The book is also a fairly damning exploration of intensive meat. If you go back to Upton Sinclair, it’s about what’s happening in meat factories in America still to this day.

Every episode of this fictional Japanese TV show ends with some interesting way of eating meat—like beef fudge, or a Coca-Cola roast. The idea of meat being the heart of a meal, the idea of a roast bringing people together, that’s certainly very important in British and American cultures. How common is that, worldwide?

Ozeki talks about Japanese culture and what really stays in your mind are these delicate vegetarian Japanese meals which are served and seem to be a much more accurate reflection of their culture than the American roasts being plonked on the table. So I don’t think a culture necessarily does have to have that big heft of red meat at the centre. Also cultures can evolve and change. I think we are at that moment now. In the past in the west we all subscribed to the American model of a good meal as having a big hunk of red meat in it, and to be healthy you eat a lot of red meat, and that’s a sign of success, and maleness, etc. But frankly we are running out of resources and beginning to think, ‘are there different ways to eat?’ Actually, we are not always putting meat at the centre of a meal any more and I’m interested in tracking the evolution of our culture as we move to a more mixed model.

“Actually we are not always putting meat the centre of a meal any more”

A lot of people have said to me that the western ideal of red meat is spreading to other parts of the world, but I think that’s a little simplistic and patronising. Yes, in some parts of the world people will want more meat as they grow richer. But in others, such as Japan, their own culture is stronger. Also, it works both ways, maybe we are taking on their cultural ideas of food. India is a really good example: they’ve had access to our culture for a long time but they still, because of Hinduism, have a very vegetarian diet, and meanwhile over here, we’re eating a lot of vegetarian curry, so it goes both ways. The idea of meat bringing a family together does still work, and I’m a social anthropologist by training so I sort of celebrate those cultural norms and see them as quite interesting—but I don’t think they need to stay the same forever when we can’t afford to produce that much red meat for all of us to eat all of the time.

Of course in Japan they eat a huge amount of fish, and there are myriad environmental questions over fish.

And whale.

And whale, very controversially. Would it be any good for us to switch, as a globe, to a Japanese-style diet, or would that cause at least as much environmental impact as eating meat?

I don’t know, I guess if you were going to be really simplistic and you said we were all going to eat a certain kind of diet that was going to help the environment it would help, but I think the great joy of life is diversity. A lot of what My Year of Meats is about is one culture trying to overtake and destroy another but I think there are probably benefits in both cultures. In our conversation so far we’ve very much talked about all of the damage that can be caused by the meat industry, but I think if your culture is northern German and you live in a forest where there are wild pigs, and indeed free-range pigs that are being farmed, then I would argue perhaps to celebrate your local culture, and to eat locally—in that case, there’s no harm in maintaining your pork industry, or your pork-eating habits. But do we want to be doing that everywhere in the world where there are perhaps better, different ways to eat? It’s one of the great joys of travel and life, to discover all of the different ways we eat around the world so I’d hate for it all to be the same.

Equally, coming back around to this idea of eating meat as not necessarily being an inherently negative thing, Simon Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance (2010), famously convinced George Monbiot to publicly state he would stop being vegan [although he reverted in 2013]. Clearly it’s a work of some import and is extremely persuasive. What have you brought away from reading the book?

It really explained to me the benefits of meat-eating, particularly in the UK as part of a mixed farm. The personal history of Simon Fairlie is quite interesting. He lived in these very progressive communes in Somerset and was milking the cows and slaughtering the pigs, but most of the people were vegetarian or vegan so instead of drinking the milk and eating the meat they were importing almond milk or soya margarine. He was frustrated that these homegrown products were being wasted while more energy was going into importing products. So that’s what motivated him to write the book.

He wanted to show the true impact of eating meat if you take local factors into account. He questions the statistics on how much emissions livestock produce. For instance it’s often said that cattle in particular can produce up to 50% of carbon emissions. But Fairlie points out that this is if you’re grazing cattle where there used to be Amazon rainforest. Similarly if you’re grazing cattle in California or Arizona where there’s no water, it’s going to require a lot of water. But if you’re grazing cattle in Somerset where all that grows is grass then that can be an environmentally good thing and it can even store carbon. I think it’s a really important voice to balance out the argument on the effect meat-eating has on the environment.

“I can’t think of many other issues that we discuss publicly where the first question is ‘what do you eat?”

Fairlie has a great word for animals raised without damaging the environment, he calls it ‘default livestock’. He argues that if meat is raised from animals that are being grazed on land that could be used for nothing else—or on waste, so pigs, or because you need the leather or, I guess, medical products or other things—then that is part of a process and that’s a good thing to do for the environment. It’s quite refreshing, isn’t it, to see that Fairlie influenced environmentalists, that the argument all doesn’t have to go towards veganism, and it’s really interesting to see people like George Monbiot go back and forth [on the issue]. I can’t think of many other issues that we discuss publicly where the first question is ‘what do you eat?’

Perhaps I like this book because it says something that people like me want to hear. To me it feels like a natural thing to eat meat, and so an argument which essentially backs up my own point of view, which is that we seem to be built to eat meat, is the one I grasp at because I want it to be true. Is that something that you find a lot?

Yeah. When I go to people with my book, saying ‘perhaps let’s eat less meat,’ some people ask ‘why do I have carnivorous teeth then?’ Others say ‘you weren’t hard enough—when you talk about jobs in the countryside or maintaining the landscape, it’s just an excuse for torturing animals.’ So everyone’s got a really strong view. I think it’s the most natural thing—food is so emotionally loaded—and, at the moment, our culture seems obsessed with food and how we eat. I guess it’s because we’ve got so much food, as well as the time to consider how we eat it. So perhaps our questioning of meat is a result of that [renewed interest], but I don’t think we can deny that it’s emotional, too. If you deny that it’s emotional, you just end up sneaking off and closing the door and stuffing yourself with something bad because you are ashamed.

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Veganism, although it’s a simple philosophy, can seem an almost impossible ideal. So many people, like me, don’t even try.

Yes. What’s so interesting about all these books, particularly Simon Fairlie’s, is he goes into the history and this is nothing new. [Percy Bysshe] Shelley was a vegetarian for a time because he believed in a better future where no one needed meat, or clothes, or marriage, or religion, and many of the Greek philosophers were vegetarian. But I think now with food and veganism in particular, because people feel so powerless, and because the state of the environment is so frightening, especially with climate change, it is a simple thing you can do to help minimise your impact on the planet. I wouldn’t take that away from people, but for me it’s simplistic: I would like to explore a more inclusive theory, a way of maybe bringing it into the mainstream. It’s happening already.

“In the past a rich person would have been a glutton, but now a rich person would probably be a vegan with a personal chef”

It’s not an extreme thing anymore to eat a certain proportion of vegan food—especially with all these chefs like Deliciously Ella, promoting plant based food. It’s aspirational. In the past a rich person would have been a glutton, but now a rich person would probably be a vegan with a personal chef.

Do you think the push toward veganism is the result of a culture of excess? We have the time to worry about these questions, or the luxury to?

Yes, I guess there’s an element of that, but I wouldn’t want to patronise people who feel so strongly about eating animals that they would argue that if they had no choice, they wouldn’t do it. I think it’s dangerous to say that you have to be privileged to worry about these things. If you say that it’s just a middle-class worry, you shut down any conversation and the corporations peddling bad food get away with it. A lot of people who don’t have much money care about food and where it’s from and they shouldn’t be palmed off with ‘oh, it’s cheap, you don’t care about it’, when they do. A lot of nutritionists and chefs who are better versed than me, people like Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jack Monroe, would say you can cook on a budget using ethical products. And it’s not just meat that we’re concerned about—it’s all sorts of things, like clothes. I guess it’s a bit of a twenty-first century thing to be worrying about where all the stuff we consume comes from.

Finally, you’ve chosen Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (2009), which was a huge bestseller in the US, it’s all framed around Safran Foer deciding whether or not he would like his new-born child to eat meat. 

I read it before I started the book and it really influenced me. It’s a really powerful book and I know many people who it has made vegetarian. There’s a passage in it that says only eating animals you kill yourself is ridiculous [what Gray does for a year, in The Ethical Carnivore], that it’s a stupid argument. He’s actually got a line: ‘It’s a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember.’ But I was a fan of this book and it was quite interesting to feel like I had to move beyond someone else’s opinion to do it on my own terms. I wasn’t living in the city, like Safran Foer, at the time, with lots of vegan restaurants about the place. I was living in the countryside, in a place where I was being offered venison quite regularly from animals that were being harvested as part of reforestation. I didn’t have a problem with this meat and I wanted to to explore that. Later in the book Safran Foer goes to see farmers who raise animals in a particular way and says ‘I would eat meat if I could do this realistically’—I would argue we could do that.

“A lot of books about meat are lobbying but this isn’t a lobbying book, it’s just the author’s story”

The book was also a big influence stylistically. There are a lot of books that I considered to put on this list which are about the facts and figures of eating meat, and are really interesting, but I feel like this is such an interesting book because it’s looking at the facts and figures in an emotional way. It’s about his personal history and about the people he meets. Just like Upton Sinclair’s book, it’s about the people. I just thought it was very interesting to explore our emotions, and a way of having some influence on an environmental issue but through storytelling not lecturing. A lot of books about meat are lobbying but this isn’t a lobbying book, it’s just his story. It’s an example of a way of exploring issues through telling a story, which I would argue is the only way to explore it honestly.

To someone who would like to live a more moral or ethical life, and is considering whether or not they should become a vegetarian or continue to eat meat, what would you recommend?

I hesitate, when you ask that question, as I hate to to feel like I’m moralising. I would try not to be negative and say you can’t eat this or that. But I think there are so many positive messages in being an ethical carnivore. I feel like what you eat gives you control. Michael Pollan, a US author who writes a lot about food, says: ‘You vote with your fork three times a day.’ So I would say it is a good thing to discuss, because it gives people power and we don’t have much of that.

“You vote with your fork three times a day”

How you eat meat is especially powerful because of the environmental impact and climate change—it produces more emissions than all of the transport in the world put together, so reducing the amount we eat can make a difference. To understand where your meat comes from not only enables you to have an impact on the environment, but gives you a link to the land and the farmers and where the meat is from, and that’s empowering to you as an individual and to the small farmers getting your money.

So I think eating less meat and understanding where it’s from can be a great thing for people, as can exploring the alternatives. We have got ourselves into this situation where the environment is under threat but we can find new ways which would really help the environment—like by reintroducing oysters to help waterways, or enabling smaller farmers to have an income. You can have a positive affect through eating meat. Also, there is all this amazing vegetarian food, vegan food, meat alternatives, as well as the meat. You can engage with and enjoy all of it, so less and better—or different—can work for you on a lot of levels.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

March 6, 2017

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Louise Gray

Louise Gray

Louise Gray is an author and journalist based in Scotland. Formerly The Daily Telegraph's environment correspondent, she specialises in writing about food, farming and climate change. Her book, The Ethical Carnivore, charts a year spent eating only meat from animals she had killed herself, and her broader investigation into meat production in the UK.

Louise Gray

Louise Gray

Louise Gray is an author and journalist based in Scotland. Formerly The Daily Telegraph's environment correspondent, she specialises in writing about food, farming and climate change. Her book, The Ethical Carnivore, charts a year spent eating only meat from animals she had killed herself, and her broader investigation into meat production in the UK.