Leading Article: Is the future meatless?

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LAST year there was a Vegetarian Day. Now we are into Vegetarian Week. Before long the vegetarians will want a year. They claim to be leading a trend, and quote surveys indicating a steady rise in the number of vegetarians from about 100,000 in 1945 to 1.2 million in 1984 and 3.1 million (6 per cent of the population) in 1991. The Meat and Livestock Commission, however, quotes other surveys estimating vegetarians at about 3 per cent of the population. It says national consumption of meat has remained broadly constant for 20 years at 64kg (141lb) per person a year.

The two views can be brought a little closer together by assuming that meat eaters now consume more meat because it has become slightly cheaper relative to other foods. This would compensate for some increase in vegetarianism. Casual observation certainly confirms that vegetarianism has emerged from cranks' corner into the mainstream. More supermarket products carry vegetarian labels, more restaurants offer vegetarian dishes, and fewer apologies are offered by vegetarian guests. Young people in particular have become more sensitive to the sufferings of animals bred for slaughter, and many people will pay a premium for free-range eggs and meat that is not from factory farms. Dietary research has been pushing opinion in the same direction. As a result, significant money can now be made from 'natural' products as well as from those that earn the vegetarian label.

The trend is part of a broader shift in attitudes to the environment. If the Earth should not be recklessly exploited, neither should animals. Human beings are no longer seen as masters of nature with a right to its products, but as part of a complex and sensitive system that demands respect. The vegetarian movement clearly gains from this trend, but is more specific in its response. It is, however, a broad and quarrelsome church in which attitudes range from cautious realism (eggs and milk but no meat) to various degrees of fundamentalism that rule out any use of animal products on the grounds that they involve exploitation. A vegetarian lecturer has been shouted down for wearing leather shoes.

Whether vegetarianism is the wave of the future is still far from clear. Tolstoy called it 'the first step to perfection', but few people have the ambition to scale such moral heights. Yet one does not have to be a vegetarian to be appalled by factory farming and inhumane methods of slaughter. It seems probable, therefore, that moral and environmental pressures will gradually reinforce dietary advice to reduce meat consumption without necessarily pushing the population all the way to principled vegetarianism. Science may also come to the rescue of oppressed animals. If a cow can turn grass into meat, surely scientists can crack the secret.