Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Is flexitarianism the answer or a just cop out?

So you are going to eat me because I taste good?... or not because I have gas? 
I am struggling with a decision.  That is quite an admission from me the most decisive person in the world… most of the time.   I am wondering about becoming a vegetarian?

There are many reasons that go back a long way, but I’ll start with my trip to Bath over the bank holiday.  I had a crazy few days teaching a course, getting my three young children ready to go to their grandmothers for the weekend and then getting the house ready to leave.  You know leaving for a long weekend is as much work as leaving for a month, but my husband and I haven’t had a weekend away or even a day away together for over two years .. so a romantic break was so very welcome. 

I initially thought my backache was just an over doing it thing and tried to ignore it.  We were heading along south on the motorway making good time to Somerset when suddenly the pain ramped up.  I made my husband to stop and the service station and with in minutes I was lying on the service station floor quite literally out of my mind in terror and the most murderous pain imaginable. 

I’m not sure how long the ambulance took to come, but I was beside myself.  I spent the next 6 or so hours in Swindon A & E. There is some black humour in pain and terror. I can laugh about it now, but I was literally screaming in agony,  and my language was blue … although I did manage to tell the paramedic that he was the best looking ambulance driver I’d ever seen.  Gas and air and co-codamol were my only pain relief.  I passed out with the sheer pain several times. I wanted to die. 

Then in the early hours almost as suddenly as it started, it stopped.  It turns out that I had a kidney stone.  I might add here that firstly it would have been nice to know that I wasn’t going to die a few hours earlier and I am certain that the staff had a good idea what was wrong because they were pretty laid back and relaxed about my utter and absolute agony.  I also feel very angry that as junior doctor discharged me he shrugged his shoulders and wondered out loud why I hadn’t been given anything more for the pain. Now I want to know why for hours I was not alleviated. It seems unbelievable that people could listen to my pleas and despair and ignore me.  Is there any point is even asking when most hospitals are don’t seem to be held accountable for  wicked neglect and outright cruelty of the elderly and weak in recent news?   

I digress.

We left the hospital about 4am went straight to the nearest a travel lodge.  We decided the next morning to go on with our romantic weekend away.  We were both physically and emotionally shattered, but we had reservations at the Ethicurean.  I looked up kidney stones along the way and one of the main recommendations was to drink lots more water and to reduce meat, fish and salt.  Oh and chocolate.

We had a delicious and relaxed lunch at The Ethicurean, which I am going to save to write another post about because it was lovely, but I chatted with my meat-loving husband during lunch about the possibly becoming vegetarian.  The pain still fresh in my mind the idea of having more kidney stones was (and still is) terrifying, but my husband was not keen on the idea of vegetarianism  …  at all. In fact he was really very plain speaking and it was not a romantic answer!

Despite my carnivorous husbands point of view, it is not just about health. It is also that as a Buddhist I have been struggling with the morality of eating meat.  Yet this is not straightforward either as there are opposing views within Buddhism as to whether vegetarianism is actually a requirement. Some schools of Buddhism reject such a requirement outright. The first precept in Buddhism is usually translated as "I undertake the precept to refrain from taking life". Some Buddhists see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat meat, whereas others argue that this is not the case. Some Buddhists strongly oppose meat eating on the basis of scriptural injunctions against flesh-eating in Mahayana sutras.

However it seems from what I have read that Buddha accepted any food offered with respect as alms, including meat yet there is no reference of him eating meat during his seven years as an ascetic. Nowadays various writings have been interpreted as allowing the consumption of meat as long as it is not specifically slaughtered for the recipient. It is the one area I struggle with, and although I  have pretty much given up alcohol, a burger or a bacon sandwich is a real temptation for me.  

My ten-year-old daughter was vegetarian for six months and gave up at my insistence when she became listless and grey, despite my being very careful to make sure she was getting enough nutrients and protein.  She hates the idea of eating animals and gets really upset at eating creatures that have feelings and personalities and I can’t say I feel much differently …. until right at that moment when I am presented with a delicious meal.  The carnivore in me argues that the animal is already dead, and it would be disrespectful to the animal that has been sacrificed to waste the food.  

 I believe really strongly in supporting our British farmers 

One of my strongest principles, especially being brought up on a farm, is believing with all my heart in supporting our British farmers and ensuring the welfare of animals.

On the other hand I am an environmentalist and lover of Fairtrade food so it doesn’t take much research to find out that livestock farming is responsible for almost 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and that nitrous oxide is almost 300 times as damaging to the climate as carbon dioxide and 65% of the total quantity produced by human activity comes from livestock, mostly their manure, and thats before we look at methane which has 25 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide and a single cow can produce 500 litres of methane a day.  Globally cows and sheep are responsible for 37% of the total methane generated by human activity.  Oh and carbon dioxide is emitted when forests are cleared for grazing or for growing grain to feed animals. Fossil fuels are then used to transport animals and to power the production of their feed further polluting our air. 

I did consider becoming a pescatairian but that doesn’t seem to be the answer either with 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises killed every year as ‘by-catch’ of the fishing industries and 19% of major commercial marine fish stocks monitored by the FAO overexploited, 8% are depleted and 1% ranked as recovering from depletion it is not an environmentally safe option either. 

The over-fishing, by-catch, climate change, invasive species and coastal development have resulted in a decline in the number of marine species, such as sharks, seabirds and turtles too.  So back as square one as an environmentalist I came to the conclusion that becoming vegetarian is the answer until I read another report in The Telegraph that suggests that here is strong evidence that a major increase in vegetarianism could threaten British farming causing meat production to move overseas where there may be less legal protection of forests and uncultivated land. According to a study by Cranfield University, commissioned by WWF, the environmental group.  They found that a substantial number of meat substitutes – such as chickpeas, soy, and lentils are actually more harmful to the environment overall because they were imported into Britain from overseas. The study says "A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK."  I’ve been reading in another article that this showed that the amount of foreign land required producing the substitute products – and the potential destruction of forests to make way for farmland – outweighed the negatives of rearing beef and lamb in the UK.

I have come  to the conclusion that the solution must lie somewhere in between the two.  Flexitarianism is a semi vegetarian diet. Perhaps just eating the occasional local well cared for meat from my local butcher and seasonal sustainable fish is the answer?

But I am wondering is flexitarianism really the answer or a just cop out?  


  1. first I am glad you are feeling better,
    I had a kidney stone when I was 20 and I was vegetarian, I had eaten no meat or fish for four years at the time, so I'm not convinced it's the answer.
    I would say I'm Demi-vegetarian now. If I can I prefer not to eat meat, but my husband and family all love it so I only buy British, organic meat, and I buy fresh free range meat for the dog, I can't bear to think what poor creatures end up in processed dog food.
    I do eat fish, but try to buy local again, easier here in Brittany where we buy from the inshore fishermen.
    It is a dilemma, and like you I would be anxious about a young child opting fully for a vegetarian diet, it is hard and I think a vegan diet really does need a great deal of concentration to be successful.
    Do keep us posted on what you decide, and again I'm so glad you are feeling better😀
    Jude x

  2. it's a tricky one.

    And something I ponder A LOT.

    Between the ages of 16 and 26 I was veggie. Many reasons for it. Eventually, it wasn't the lure of a bacon sandwich, but roast chicken that brought me back to eating meat.

    At Christmas I am always riddled with guilt, over the amount of turkey's that give up their life to end up on a plate (we always have chicken!). The same at Easter, when Lamb is the meat of choice (we have chicken!).

    Last weekend we went to Jimmy's Farm - one of my favourite places to visit - and saw the tiny piglets and baby goats, and yet again I was riddled with guilt. I felt slightly better knowing they would have a good life, but a life that would end up on a plate nonetheless.

    It is tough. I get round it by having several veggie days a week, but it is a cop out. Ideally, I'd be meat free, but there is something that makes me not quite ready to go back to that again.
    I'm also aware that any food choices I make will affect my little girl. She copies me in so many things, so if I were to refuse meat she'd do the same. And that's something I want her to decide for herself when she's older. When she was a baby, and weaning started, it took me ages to give her meat. Part of me didn't want to at all, but part of me thought I should. In the end I did. But if she decides in the future she doesn't want to,that would be fine by me. A meat free diet isn't a boring one. Back in my day it was, menus were limited, that is not the case now, and I still look at veggie options first when we eat out.

    Clearly, I have no sensible advice, but I understand absolutely how you feel!

  3. Kidney stones, apparently the only pain to rival childbirth (though I must say, I'd rather birth again than have another bout of pericoronitis). This is a minefield isn't it. As a family we tend to eat vegetarian around 4 nights a week (food that is, not actual vegetarians!) but we do enjoy beef and bacon and chorizo... I don't know how the kids would fare without any meat at all and I'm not brave enough to find out. From an environmental point of view, is there perhaps another measure you could take to support your admirable 'half-way' step in your diet? Lose a car? Something like that?

    1. Yes the pain was excruciating!

      I agree about giving up a car.. but I am so rural, and it's not practical, but we did move house and build offices so my husband can work from home, and we also moved the children's school so that they can walk to school now. I rarely drive unless it's Friday and i go to my local town to buy from my local independents or I go to the train station to go to London.

  4. I was a vegetarian for 6 years when I was around the age of 14-16. Back then there were no quorn or soy burgers and stuff like that so I just ate whatever my parents ate - minus the meat. Not a very good diet but I didn't want to eat animals -just like your daughter.
    I got ill, fainted all the time, turned grey, everything tasted sweet and I had no energy what so ever. After tests my doctor suggested I should start to eat red meat once a week - chopped up steak - and you know what... by eating meat only once a week, I got better. There was no explanation for my fainting (other than low blood pressure) and other symptoms.
    Last year we found out I have an autoimmune illness, I need more protein and iron than healthy people so we now have an explanation for what I was feeling as a child. Early stages of my illness, induced by starving myself protein-wise.
    I now eat meat, sourced from a farm that only sells to people who order their meat box to pick it up on meat day. They only have a few cows and pigs and rear them with care. I eat the meat without remorse but with great respect for the animal. And, only once a week or more if there are leftovers from that meal.
    I'm a flexitarian it seems. But most importantly I think we should eat everything with a healthy view, not too much meat, fish, alcohol... Plenty of local veg and fruit though. Always support local farmers!
    I think it's important people start thinking about what they are consuming. And I agree that being a vegetarian and eating lots of soy, quinoa, quorn and such is maybe almost equally as bad as our meat consumption.

  5. Sorry to hear about your pain and hope you have no reoccurence. As a small part-time farmer and omnivore I would ask you to think very carefully before becoming a vegetarian. I have full sympathy with the ethics of the Vegan, although it must be hard work to get all the nutrients you need. However, vegetarians eat the by products of meat production in dairy products and most also eat eggs.

    The countryside would be a very different place without livestock farming and not all areas are suitable for crop growing but will sustain livestock. As you have acknowledged, it is a complex area and I think your compromise solution sounds like a good one.

  6. So sorry to hear of your action packed, agony filled weekend away....but did smile as I read about your outbursts of swearing. Apparently I nearly floored the midwife with some appalling language during the birth of baby number 3 !

    I'm a flexitarian....like you, I care deeply about british farming, the provenance of food...adn I can't bear to eat meat I've met before.(How some of my friends eat their own chickens and lambs I don't know). I love veggie meals,but equally adore free range chicken. Left to my own devices I would probably just eat meat on a Saturday or Sunday..

  7. There is no right or wrong answer you just have to do the best you can. Most of my cooking is vegetarian because of my husband. He has never eaten meat or fish even as a child. My Sons eat chicken which I buy from my local butcher as the quality is so much better than the supermarket. I am now having to learn to cook meat as I have taken over cooking for my parents and they are old school, meat, potatoes and 2 veg. In the end it is a about getting a balance that works for your family.

    Glad you are on the mend.

  8. I hope the kidney stone problem was a one-off.

    If you have not read it already, you may find Simon Fairlie's "Meat: a benign extravagance" an interesting read for an in-depth analysis of the environmental implications of a diet with or without meat. Simon does not weigh into the ideological ethics of a meat or vegetarian diet but does provide a well-researched analysis of the energy, water and land use implications of a world with and without livestock for domestic consumption.

  9. Oh my, stones, very painful, we have had several bouts scattered through the family and yes it is compared to childbirth although one daughter-in-law said she would rather have had a baby! Water (or lack of it)seems to have been the common denominater in our circumstances, caused by a variety of stress and a lot of rushing about and generally over commitment to other things instead of ones self! Does that sound like you too?We have two veggies in our family but both eat fish and eggs, one who doesn't like to eat animals and has been brought up a vegetarian and one who just doesn't like the taste or enjoy eating meat. I think I could fall into the "flexi" category myself, moderation - love meat,fish,eggs and veggies and happy to eat whatever someone has been good enough to cook for me. That egg and bacon sandwich at the coffee shop on a Saturday morning would be very hard to give up! Does that sound flippant (its not meant to be) the politics of the environment argument is a minefield and the demise of an industry could have equally disasterous effects.
    Glad you are feeling better!

  10. I think you have to just do the best you can. We all face these difficult choices - and I live in a place where just breathing and existing is unsustainable! My daughter has been vegetarian since the age of about 6 and seems to have suffered no ill effects. She recently said she may eat meat again one day - however she gave up meat for ideology. She is actually less squeamish and more reasoned than my husband and other teen who eat meat. Anyway, really enjoyed reading this post (apart from the pain you went through as a catalyst for it!). Like many issues in life it's not cut and dried but I think we have an obligation to try to do the right thing rather than just accepting food industry propaganda blindly.

  11. Ouch that sounds painful! I'm a greenie and a bit of a hippy at heart.We're (me and my 3 kids) aren't veggies but we don't eat meat that often.We'll have red meat or chicken every couple of months and bacon twice a month (from a local butcher).It was a slow process as my youngest two were reluctant to try new things like lentils, tofu and relentless servings of beans.But after a year (they are fussy buggers) I managed to build up to not eating meat at all, or at least very rarely.I could quite happily avoid it but family members tend ignore all my ramblings about the health and wealth (it saves me £100 a month) side of not eating meat so often.It's vegetarian week next month why not just give a go?

  12. You have to do what works for you and your body. Being a flexitarian though can give you the best of both world. Eating less meat but when you eat meat eating good qulaity meat. Good for your health and the environment.


If you are reading my blog I must warn you that I am not impartial. I want to influence you. I want to make you stop for just a moment and consider the effect of a lifetime of seemingly insignificant decisions and how making small delicious choices can change the world.

I believe that we can change the world one bite at a time.

It's a delicious revolution.