The trouble with being vegetarian in New Zealand

by Sharon Stephenson / 12 August, 2017

Sharon Stephenson on being a mung-bean muncher – and national traitor.

The summer I decided to give up meat was the hottest in years. Barbecues blazed in backyards, sending the aroma of beautifully browned sausages, perfectly grilled steaks and tender, juicy ribs floating across the neighbourhood. Everywhere I went, I had to negotiate an orgy of scorched grease and cooked flesh.

Lest my resolve softened in the face all of that meaty deliciousness, I shut the doors and stayed inside, munching lentil dahl and trying to find interesting things to do with aubergines. I wanted to prove to myself that I had the chops to remove dead animal from my diet.

That was more than a decade ago, but I still find myself justifying my decision. I’m not some knit-your-own-yoghurt crusty, but in kill-happy New Zealand, where fathers encourage their eight-year-old daughters to eat the heart of a young deer they’ve just shot, saying you’ll pass on the pork is like admitting you’ve got a crush on Bashar al-Assad.

New Zealand, I’ve been reminded ad nauseam, is a hunting nation. A Swanndri-clad bloke, no stranger to the family-sized meat pack, once told me, “Our forebears hunted, so we should keep the tradition alive by doing the same.” When I pointed out that our ancestors were, in all likelihood, also racists and misogynists and we don’t celebrate that, he looked at me as though I was something stuck to the bottom of his Red Bands.

To be fair, I was never a big red-meat eater; chicken was my poison. But then I saw a documentary on battery farming, and realised how unconscionably arrogant it is to take a life just to fill my belly – to participate in a repugnant system that submits animals to overcrowding, casual cruelty and artificially accelerated growth. Ethically, I could no longer square my love for animals with a desire for protein.

A few years ago, I interviewed a retired farmer about an export award he’d received and, at the end of the interview, his wife produced a plate of bacon sarnies. I did the same verbal foxtrot I’ve done everywhere from my mother’s dining table to coming clean to acquaintances unaware of my dietary requirements: thanks, but I don’t eat meat. It was like flicking a switch. This chap who I’d spent the past two hours believing was kind and intelligent told me I was a traitor and should hand back my New Zealand passport.

I wanted to yell at him that being a meat dodger isn’t just about being pro-animal and it isn’t necessarily anti-trade, but has implications for our health and wellbeing, the environment and the future of our planet. I should have told him about the link between vegetarianism and weight loss, reduced cancer risk and depression, as well as increased life expectancy.

I wish I’d said that animal agriculture is the number-one contributor to global warming, that people could do more for the parlous state of our environment by cutting meat than by giving up their car and plane journeys. That meat production is a highly inefficient way of feeding the world and, as the UN predicts, if people in emerging economies start eating as much meat as New Zealand does (we’re the fourth-largest consumer of meat per capita in the world), then we’ll simply run out of room on which to raise it.

But I didn’t say any of these things. I was in work mode, so a shouting match wasn’t appropriate. But I also held my tongue because I’m not out to convert anyone. It wasn’t easy giving up meat – the lure of a fat sausage roll lolling in tomato sauce at a work morning tea almost proved my undoing – but what you put in your mouth is a personal decision and I’m happy with mine.

I’m fortunate I have access to a wide range of food and don’t need meat to stay alive (contrary to popular opinion, omnivores eat around 60 per cent more protein than the body actually needs so, to put it bluntly, they’re pissing the rest away). I also like dialling the smug factor up to 11 when I look a cow in the eye and say, “You have nothing to fear from me.”

But if you want to fill your ever-larger abdomen with rotting flesh and contribute to the ruination of our planet, then feel free. Just please don’t offer me any. 

 

 

This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.


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