Amy Jenkins: Lost in the meat-eaters' moral maze

Alicia Silverstone has changed the way I think about the food industry
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"The way we produce and consume our food are unsustainable to the planet," said the environment secretary Hilary Benn when he launched the government's food strategy for the next 20 years at the Oxford Farming Conference this week. "We are at one of those moments in history where the future will be shaped by the choices we make now."

This is all timely stuff for me. My new year's resolution is to eat much less meat and dairy. We've all got to grips with the idea of turning off lights, not making unnecessary car journeys, lagging the attic – but the fact that consuming meat and dairy is an environmental issue in terms of emissions is an idea that hasn't had such a mainstream airing.

I didn't really catch on to it until I read a new book, funnily enough, by Alicia Silverstone – the actress from Clueless. She's an animal-lover (she once took home 11 dogs after one visit to a rescue home) and as a vegan is far from clueless when it comes to altruistic eating.

Silverstone has just published The Kind Diet in the US. I only read it because an author friend of mine was her collaborator – but it has really changed the way I think about the food industry. I had no idea, for example, that in 2006 the United Nations issued a report saying livestock production caused more damage to the environment than the whole of the transport industry.

I've always had my head in the sand about all this. I had a vague idea that if I really knew what went on in a slaughter house I wouldn't eat meat. Funny then that it's the emissions argument that has led me to confront my squeamishness. I think it's the fact that I can't really go around town scowling at people driving SUVs while blithely eating ham and cheese sandwiches. And scowling at people in SUVs is not something I'll give up lightly.

Nor will I give up meat and dairy completely. I don't like beans and tofu enough to be a complete vegan – but I forced myself to watch Jamie's Fowl Dinners, his programme about eggs and chickens (I avoided it in a cowardly way when it was aired) and found that I was all right with the way chickens are slaughtered.

I will only eat free-range, though, because the intensive farming of cheaper chickens seems cruel. But then that raises another dilemma because battery chickens have a lighter carbon footprint than their longer-living, wider-roaming, organic counterparts.

So it's one hell of moral maze, but one worth braving I think. I'm going to eat much less meat – but when I do eat meat I'm going to be happier about it because I've chosen it carefully and reconciled myself to the consequences. So it's really – dreadful expression – win win. Rather than feeling vaguely guilty, I'm going to feel vaguely virtuous.