Let’s be honest, the average South African like myself will not become vegan or even semi-vegetarian overnight. Eating meat is so ingrained in our upbringing and culture that any word starting with veg already sounds like something alien and green from the East.
The fact is meat eaters can make a radical difference to the way food is produced on the planet. We are the people who can take farm animals out of factories and put them back in the fields where they belong. We’re the ones who eat it, so we decide how meat is produced. And we do that quite simply (and indirectly of course) through the choices we make at the meat counter in the supermarket.
As a curious eater I’ve learned a few things while hunting for the next piece of moral meat. Here are my tips on how we will change food production forever. Yes, we can have farm animals living outdoors; they don’t have to be crammed into cages and warehouses as is the norm today.
· Buy free range. No, free range is not a clever scheme to steal our money. It is the only way to force commercial farmers to move away from factory farming. Keeping animals in factories is just plain wrong. Having some space to walk outside is probably the most basic need of any living thing. We have to show the industry we don’t want factory animals in the country by not buying factory farm products.
· Chickens and eggs. Chickens are the face of factory farming. These birds must be the animals on the planet that suffer the most from human abuse. In SA we eat 18 million chickens per week. Yes, per week! We keep on eating more per person, because factory meat is low-priced. In the last 20 years our per capita consumption of chicken has doubled. Almost all of these chickens are kept in factory conditions. We also have 25 million hens in battery cages to lay eggs for South Africa. Keeping laying hens in battery cages is illegal in the EU.
· Free range chicken. It’s still a fraction of the huge market, but chicken meat and eggs are both quite freely available as free range in our shops. Free range for chickens means they will have had some time outside to walk, run, scratch, dust bathe etc. Supermarket chicken and eggs not specifically labelled as ‘free range’ will definitely be from a factory farm. Look for the free range label and buy that one.
· Pigs. Pork is the one meat product that I’ve completely cut from my diet. Yes, I do miss bacon, but the SA pork industry refuses to take pigs out of cages. The industry agrees to phase out cramped sow stalls by 2020. Not soon enough! Most sows are still kept in these tiny stalls with not enough room to even turn around. Free range pork seems hard to find.
· Sheep. If you absolutely have to have meat today, lamb or mutton is generally the safer option; 80% of sheep in the country is kept free range. So even unlabelled it is probably free range.
· Cattle. With beef it’s more complex as only 20% of SA beef is completely free range. In other words, most of our beef comes from animals that spent some time in a feedlot to fatten up. Eat beef with care, and that goes for dairy products as well.
· Eat less meat. Most importantly, let’s not treat animals as a quick and easy fix when we’re looking for the next protein hit. We don’t have to cut meat completely from our diet, but we can have less of it. Good quality meat is expensive and so it should be; something was killed for us to eat. If it’s inexpensive, you can be sure the animal lived a life of abuse.
Come on fellow meat eaters, if we all show the industry we want farm animals in fields and not in factories, they will supply what we want. Buy free range.