Paul Vallely: I can't stomach these sanctimonious vegetarians

You can't wear silk because of the worms bred to spin it, or eat digestive biscuits because of the gelatine
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The Independent Online

Really I ought to be a vegetarian. I'm a cyclist. I've got a beard. I lean towards leftist communitarianism. I sometimes wear sandals, and have been known to do so wearing socks (which is probably a confession too far). But my problem is that I really like eating meat.

Really I ought to be a vegetarian. I'm a cyclist. I've got a beard. I lean towards leftist communitarianism. I sometimes wear sandals, and have been known to do so wearing socks (which is probably a confession too far). But my problem is that I really like eating meat.

The other day I went to Green's, a rather good vegetarian restaurant here in Manchester. There were all manner of enticing combinations of crêpes, tortillas, pasta, pumpkin, mushrooms, beans and salsa verde. It was skilfully cooked, but seemed to be something missing. Meat, my unfulfilled dining companion – as they say in restaurant reviews – helpfully and succinctly concluded.

Which is why I wasn't surprised to hear on Woman's Hour yesterday that around a fifth of the nation's 3 million vegetarians have gone back to eating meat in the past two years. And of these 600,000 apostates the majority are women, headed by celebrities such as Madonna, Lulu, Julia Sawalha and Anthea Turner, who was apparently lured off the veggie straight and narrow by the bacon sarnies she had to provide when she had the builders in.

They had a woman from the Vegetarian Society who was desperately fighting a rearguard action. It all depends why they became veggies in the first place, she argued. For many people the motivation was the health scares surrounding BSE and foot-and-mouth. Now those threats have receded, vegetarianism has reverted to pre-BSE levels, but the pattern of gradual and steady rejection of meat over the past 25 years continues.

Up to a point, Lord Tofu. Part of the problem is pinning down exactly what you mean by vegetarian. Here motive and definition become confused. At the easy end of the spectrum you have the "Meat is Murder" people who seem to think that it is wrong to kill things because they are, well, alive.

Then you have the "it isn't the idea of eating flesh that really bothers me – it's the meat industry's treatment of animals" argument. No doubt most factory-farming remains as gruesome as it ever was, but there are far more free-range and organic options now, which must have tempted some meat-cravers away from the moral high ground of pure veggery.

There is also the argument that carnivorousness is part of the oppression that rich folk perpetrate on the world's starving. Meat-eaters use 3.25 acres of land to feed themselves each year, while vegetarians use only 0.15 acres on a planet where there is enough food to go around, but some are overweight while others die from malnutrition. That ought to be compelling, but then so ought the facts about tyrannical Third World debts, exploitative trade regimes or even the simple fact that children work in sweatshops to provide our most fashionable footwear. Such arguments most of us conveniently forget as we go about our daily business.

If you need evidence of that look to the Chicken Loophole. The Vegetarian Society embraces those who eat "no meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea". Vegetarians, it adds, also avoid by-products of slaughter such as gelatine or animal rennet in cheese. The society only approves products with eggs that are free-range.

What, then, of those who tell their dinner-party hosts: "I'm a vegetarian, though of course I do eat fish, and white meat." It's as if the hapless hen were somehow not so meaty as real red meat. Or perhaps it's because, even when it's free-range, it doesn't require the deforestation of vast tracts of land in the Amazonian basin that the red meat-machine requires.

Not that the puritans don't have these half-veggies in their sites, too. The moral minority – around 5.4 per cent of the population is vegetarian – were out the other day in Princes Street, in Edinburgh, parading a six-foot fish. They carried placards proclaiming "For Cod's Sake Go Vegetarian". Fish, the animal rightists shouted to passing shoppers, suffered "pain and agonising death" on their way to the chippie.

This is what constitutes the other unattractive element about vegetarianism. It carries the moral righteousness of religious zealotry. In part it is to do with preposterous statements. Brutal criminals, a leading US veggo-activist has explained, are "born to mothers with impacted intestines". See where the Big Mac leads us.

But it is mainly to do with a tone of sanctimonious political correctness. For it is not just a question of eschewing the unchewable. Once you've forsworn burgers, the chicken becomes unambiguous and the fish impermissible. Then you can't wear silk because of the worms bred to spin it. Or eat digestive biscuits because of the gelatine. And you can't wear leather, drink milk or eat wine gums as everything a bit morally superior is jumbled in with the sprouting grain and the wheatgrass. Perhaps it is this rather than endless nut-roasts that the lapsed vegetarians cannot stomach.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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