The Western world is hooked on cheap meat. It has become completely normal in our culture to eat so much of it that an average person wouldn't think twice about eating a bacon butty for breakfast, picking up a ham sandwich for lunch and having chicken for dinner.
The chicken and the egg
The sheer amount of meat that we consume today is only made possible by factory farming. Demand drives the industry to produce more and more. In turn, the industry is driving our consumption ever higher, through clever marketing and abundance. Supermarket shelves are always piled high with cheap meat, so surely, this must be normal, right? But which came first: our appetite, or the dollar signs lighting up in industry boss' eyes? It's a chicken and egg dilemma.
Alarmingly, this model is making its way into the developing world, taking the place of rural economies and destroying communities and livelihoods as it does so. Not only that, but it is bad for our health, animal welfare and the environment. The evidence is everywhere: many people in the Western world are overweight, whilst others in under-developed countries don't have enough to eat; the environment is being destroyed, and wildlife is declining 1000 times faster than ever before. Meanwhile, farm animals suffer behind closed doors, in barren conditions that are inhumane, unhygienic and avoidable.
A wake-up call
It came as a welcome surprise when I discovered that Public Health England, a government body, recently released the framework thinking behind the Eatwell Guide, a visual guide to what the government recommends we, as a nation, should be eating. The changes in diet that are recommended include:
• 85% reduction in cheese
• 75% reduction in red meat and processed meat
• 54% increase in fruit and vegetables
• 85% increase in beans and pulses
These recent guidelines prove what we have known for a long time: we need to seriously cut down on the animal products in our diet.
Thankfully, the movement to eat less meat is gaining momentum, with or without government recommendations. 2017 is being hailed as the 'year of the flexitarian'. With fun challenges such as Veganuary and a wealth of resources available online, it has never been easier to consider eating less meat.
Turning over a new leaf
Last week, I was thrilled to talk at the Oxford Real Farming Conference alongside my good friend - and agricultural adviser to The Archers - Graham Harvey. The conference is a gathering of minds who all agree on one thing: our food and farming system needs to change, and sustainability is the key to its future. Our session looked at how the only way to truly touch people's hearts and minds is by telling a story, not bombarding them with facts.
So let me tell you a story now. It's about a world in which the wildlife we cherish has been wiped clean from the earth. Our children and future generations live in a barren environment that was once a rich and varied landscape. They struggle to produce food for themselves, as the ecosystems they depended on for centuries have been permanently altered. Antibiotics no longer work, leaving them defenceless towards life-threatening infections. This is no dystopian post-apocalyptic fantasy. It is a very real glimpse into our future if we continue on our current path.
Choose your food based on your vision of the future
There is another version of the story. Humanity broke free from the vicious cycle of factory farming. We stood up to industries treating animals and people alike as money-making machines. Free-range, mixed farming systems thrived and animals were returned to their ecological niche - where they can find food for themselves from pasture and foraging. As farm animals came back to the land, the health of the countryside regenerated. Many species were saved from the brink of extinction.
Everyone has the power to change the world - three times a day, in fact: at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It starts with eating less, but better meat, from systems which are kinder to animals and the environment.
Which tale will you choose?