Gareth Hughes

Food is politics: the implications of what we eat

by Gareth Hughes

This is my latest article for Auckland University’s student magazine, Craccum.

It was tense and difficult but when I was 18 I came out to my parents. I was now a vegetarian. For my small town, conservative, lifestyle-block farming family it was a surprisingly strange thing for their provincial boy to do, soon after moving to The Big City for study.

I’m not alone. There are approximately 86,000 of us herbivores (as my dinosaur-mad son calls us), mung bean munchers and tofu tasters in New Zealand. There are four vegetarians in Parliament with a big representation from my party (three of the four are from the Greens). I’ve been a vegetarian for ten years now, and I’ve come to the realisation that what you put in your mouth is political. Food is politics.

Growing up in Gisborne I had a pretty limited appreciation of food. At school I ate pie-sandwiches, lasagne-topper sandwiches and steak sandwiches. I loved my meat and I didn’t spare a thought for where it came from, how it was raised or its quality. At university I started questioning the environmental, ethical and health implications of my diet and came to the conclusion I didn’t want to support the way we currently farm or fish.

Turning vegetarian I felt great and learnt all about interesting new foods – like lentils, cheeses and falafel. However, every Christmas my lunch consisted of salad and potatoes while the others feasted on turkey, ham and chicken. My family still ‘accidentally’ served me meat and urged me to ‘push it to the side’ and threatened to sneak meat into my wedding, since we wouldn’t take up their offer of a pig on a spit. I don’t think meat eaters are bad, and I could re-join their carnivorous ranks one day, but I’ve decided that if I ever eat it again I’ll raise or catch it myself (but the only time I have tried, fishing on Waiheke Island, all I caught was sunstroke).

I think one of the reasons the Vege Munch Bunch are a minority is that most people think a plant-based diet is unhealthy and lacking in essentials. Of course it can be if you do it like I did early on, surviving just on hot chips one summer. People often query where do you get all the protein, omega 3s and awesome-manly-power from if you don’t eat meat? You don’t need pills or iron supplements to be a healthy vegetarian: all that is required is a balanced and broad diet. In fact the reverse is true: many meat eaters are unhealthy and suffer from heart disease, obesity, strokes and hypertension – conditions which in some cases can be directly related to their high-meat diet. On average you can chew through a few animals in your lifetime. The normal meat-eater is personally responsible for the slaughter of 5 cows, 20 pigs, 30 sheep, 760 chickens, 46 turkeys, 15 ducks, 7 rabbits, 1 1/2 geese and 1/2 tonne of fish.

It wasn’t primarily ethical or health reasons that made me forsake the fish in fish and chips or the ham in a hamburger. Why I turned vege and still am one is for environmental reasons. As the Vegetarian Society points out, there are some 800 million people in the world with barely enough to eat, yet 80% of the world’s agricultural land is used for feeding animals and only 20% for feeding humans directly. When I was young I was told not to waste food because they were starving in Ethiopia. I wasn’t aware though, that during their huge famine while millions starved the nation still exported crops for feeding European livestock. Meat is inefficient and uses more energy, oil, water than grains or beans. If we want to feed the world we can’t do it on the average Kiwis’ meaty diet.

It’s not what we’re farming – it’s how we’re farming. The way that most of our egg and pork products are produced is a travesty. It would be considered torture if we subjected humans or companion animals like cats and dogs to cruel sow crates or battery cages. Farming is also a major contributor to climate change, responsible for half of our emissions in New Zealand and nearly a fifth globally. To put that in perspective, that’s more than all the cars, boats and planes globally according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

There used to be plenty of fish in the sea but world-wide fisheries are collapsing at an alarming rate. Where did all the fish go? We ate them. New Zealand’s quota system only provides information on about 20% of the 628 fishery stocks, and worryingly one third of these are over-fished, depleted or collapsed. As the ocean’s top predator, humans are wiping out fisheries, fishing down the oceanic food chain, now catching previously throw-away species like Hoki. At the rate we’re going we’ll all be eating jellyfish and chips. And how we are fishing is affecting the ocean’s food chain in other ways too: marine biologist Steve O’Shea has pointed out that an increasing number of starved whales are beaching themselves on the New Zealand coastline.

The way your food is caught, raised and killed is largely up to you. What you eat is political. Even if you don’t want to go vege you can still make a difference to the world by cutting back on your meat consumption and buying organic, local and free range whenever possible. The best advice I’ve heard about eating is: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’, from Michael Pollan’s excellent book In Defence of Food. I would recommend this to anyone interested in thinking more about their diet, how it affects our health, and our planet.

If you’re interested in some animal-free goodness, email me  for my kick-ass vegan chocolate self-saucing pudding I developed when I was sailing on the Rainbow Warrior. Always pleases!

Published in Health & Wellbeing by Gareth Hughes on Tue, October 12th, 2010   

Tags: ,

More posts by | more about Gareth Hughes