DAVID BANKS is currently visiting his son’s family in Accra, where he finds the controversial words of Labour’s vegan shadow Defra minister ring as true in Africa as they do in Britain
THE moment I looked at my menu I knew Corbyn’s shadow farming minister was right about dumping most meat from our diets.
‘Gizzard kebabs’ topped the table of specialities. ‘Cow’s leg soup’ was the recommended starter.
“Barbecued fresh bush meat!” yelled boys at roadside fast food stops, waving racquet-shaped grills containing the crucified remains of a barbecued jungle rodent.
Not Michelin-starred joints, I grant you. Hardly places where the Secret Diner might rock up, demanding fine foods from the regiment of cheffy superstars he first-name-drops as ‘Kenny’ or ‘Marco Pierre’. This is Ghana, a typical African state in the developing world world: asset rich/cash poor, with greater health problems and fewer resources with which to fight them than any European nation.
But with a world population nudging nine billion it is enough to persuade me that accepting the unsustainability of consuming cow rather than corn is a worldwide necessity, of far greater importance than a local political spat between a Lefty ‘crank’ and the blood ‘n’ guts might of the rural Right.
Admit it: Kerry McCarthy, the Vegan Queen of the parliamentary pantry, is bang on the money when she campaigns for unthinking carnivores to be treated the same way we deal with selfish cigarette smokers these days. Naturally, just hearing that Jeremy Corbyn had chosen a vegan as shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs was enough to get UKippers fuming and the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ brigade at the Countryside Alliance foaming at the mouth.
“Kerry McCarthy . . . would like Defra to be renamed the Department for Eradication of Farmers and Rural Areas!” boomed one headline-hunting UKIP spokesman. It certainly set my Borders beastie-farming buddies snapping and snarling at the Labour leader like hungry wolves come down on the fold.
“The toonies have finally taken over the asylum,” snorted the Byreman, whose hard-earned retirement fund was financed by the milking parlour.
“Corbyn’s a clown,” added Billy the Quid, who spends many a wintry night nursing wee lambs through freezing rain only to send them for slaughter at twenty weeks.
Their argument? A shadow minister for agriculture who won’t eat flesh, dairy or honey and chooses to dress in plastic and man-made fabric rather than farm-reared animal products is one thing; a future farming minister whose first (accurately) reported words included a call for meat-eaters to be cold-shouldered like smokers had the toothless old Byreman foaming at the mouth like a Mad Cow.
But the farming community confuses sustainability at home with ‘feeding the world’. The same argument they use to shy away from going organic (‘Healthy, yes, but without chemical help and genetics we’ll never feed the world!”) is trotted out whenever medical science charts a route to better health, most recently through less meat, fats and sugar in our diet. And what is good for Britain would be wonderful for the world. If it takes a field full of cereal or root crops or even valuable grassland to feed a handful of cattle to a point where it is profitable to slaughter them and feed their precious meat to a few hundred people, how great a food crop are we missing out on were we, instead, to grow crops on those acres that would feed thousands without first being fed to cattle?
Let’s not fool ourselves; defiance of Napoleon’s contempt at this ‘ nation of shopkeepers’ has not somehow transformed us into a nation of international wholesale foodstuff suppliers. We struggle to achieve anything approaching self-sufficiency so we should not kid ourselves that we can, or even should, feed the world.
But, as Ms McCarthy suggests, we can begin to fix things. First, at home by dealing with the dual threat of obesity and diabetes – lifestyle choices which are eating away at our grandchildren’s life expectancy – by reducing the meat, sugar and fats in our daily diet. Then through a more altruistic (my critics might call it patronisingly colonialist) international campaign to persuade the world’s richest and poorest eaters (I’d start with the USA) to eat and grow sustainably. And yes, genetically, if plant modification is what it takes.
From what I see in Ghana the mainstay of any family’s menu is meat first with the carbohydrate cassava root second and fresh vegetables pretty well nowhere. Amazingly I saw the same thing in Ethiopia just ten years after the drought and famine that plucked global heartstrings, picked willing pockets and created the phrase ‘feed the world’: the first to die in that dust bowl disaster were neither babies nor the old but the oxen used to plough dry fields which were slaughtered to fill empty bellies. After that, starvation was inevitable.
But back to Britain and the politics of vested interest; we might still be living in Hogarth’s Gin Alley if some politician had not dared to think the unthinkable and slapped a crippling tax on Mother’s Ruin. At a stroke neat, hard spirit ceased to be the everyday cure for misery, removed by price from the hands of people who drove themselves to death by drink. A remedy not unlike that required to deal with today’s obesity epidemic, perhaps.
So do we tax meat until it becomes a weekend special? Or do we ration it a la wartime, along with sugar and unnecessary fats, and risk the ire of the farmer, the food processing industry and the all-powerful retail lobby?
It’s time to think. Gizzard kebab, anyone?