Leading Article: A flavour of smugness

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'IT SEEMS to me, looking at myself, that I am a remarkably superior person when you compare me with other writers, journalists and dramatists, and I am perfectly content to put this down to my abstinence from meat.' So said George Bernard Shaw with that infuriatingly smug self-righteousness which so often seems to infect those who refuse to eat meat.

The Vegetarian Society is this week sending to every secondary school in the country copies of an educational resource pack that aims, so the society says, 'to get school kids to question the way we treat animals and the planet'. This is hardly a value-free formulation. There can be few 'school kids', carnivorous or otherwise inclined, who are in favour of maltreating animals, and even less who would actively promote the destruction of this island Earth.

It is easy, though perhaps unfair, to make fun of the questions raised in the resource pack for discussion. For example, the topics include such theological gems as 'Do animals have 'souls'?' and 'Was Jesus a vegetarian?'. The pack also raises the problem of whether Shechita (the Jewish ritual method of killing animals for food) is 'a humane method of slaughter'. This is a question that could reasonably cause some twitching at the headquarters of the Jewish Board of Deputies, which spends considerable time fending off unsympathetic questions of this nature. And how should the multicultural 'school kids' respond when asked 'Do British meat eaters have the right to get upset by other nationalities eating dogs?'

What is beyond all dispute is that the number of vegetarians in this country has risen sharply over the past five years, having grown slowly for the previous half century. It is estimated that they now stand at around four million. A further 4.6 million people do not eat red meat but may eat poultry or fish. At least 7 per cent of children will not eat meat or fish. The number of abstainers rises to 14 per cent among those in their late teens.

According to the Vegetarian Society, nine out of ten vegetarians give the treatment of farm animals and the methods employed in their slaughter as the reason they became vegetarian. Dietary research points in a similar direction. A generation ago children were told to eat up their roast beef (and don't think you can leave the fat) or their cheese sandwiches and to drink their virtuous full- cream milk. Now they are told to set aside cheeseburgers in favour of baked potatoes or pasta accompanied by bottled water.

One does not have to become a vegetarian in order to register revulsion about factory farming and about the conditions under which animals are too often transported and killed, or to eat healthily. There is a significant market for organic produce, for free- range eggs, for meat that has not been factory farmed and which has been humanely slaughtered. People are prepared to pay premium rates for healthy and morally superior products. This demand will stimulate output.

The vegetarian lobby has a strong ethical case, which is enhanced by the popular awareness of healthy eating. But it is exasperating when its members demonstrate, to schoolchildren or others, that sanctimonious and counterproductive sense of superiority that came naturally to Shaw and his fellow herbivores.