Nuts to you

This last year has been an experiment. In January I made a decision to significantly reduce the amount of animal protein in my diet. The reasons were primarily ones of sustainability. I’d come to realise that the amounts of meat, fish, eggs and dairy I was used to eating was harmful not only to my physical health but also, more importantly, the environment.

How did I arrive at this understanding? Initially it was through reading people like George Monbiot, journalist and activist, someone whose voice in the mainstream carried notes of an urgency I hadn’t before properly registered. Suddenly I had these doubts in my head. I started to question myself, what I was doing, what I could do. Monbiot’s words scared me; not only to the extent by which human activity, especially in agriculture and fishing, was causing so much damage to the natural world but, more resonatingly, in terms of the psychological shift I personally would have to make and the dietary habits I would have to break.

Veganism and vegetarianism are to some dirty words. They are tags which carry a social stigma. There is a tendency in the western world at least to view people who eschew animal products as compensating for this absence with higher levels of self-righteousness. How much this is as a result of the accusers’ suppressed guilt at their own culpability and/or ignorance is impossible to define. However, what this situation demonstrates is that at least one problem which arises from polarised states of mind is conflict.

The arguments for eating meat derive mainly from personal health concerns. Meat is rich in protein, amino acids and several micronutrients. We ‘need’ it, we say. It is ‘good for us.’ If this is the case, then how much do we need? Surely not the amounts currently ingested across the world. Overconsumption is a consequence of a misplaced mindset. Western diets, full of processed meats, are partly to blame for this, as is globalisation. Countries get wealthier, with the unhappy trend of those poor diets spreading. There is also what I’ll call the ‘meat-and-two-veg’ mentality, people being brought up – with all good intentions of a balanced diet – to understand their meals as always having to contain some kind of animal protein. And meat tastes good, useless to deny it. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has written eloquently about his own complex and very human attitudes to meat-eating, especially his experiences of craving meat even as a long-time vegetarian.

But meat production has devastating consequences for the environment. Even aside from the animal welfare argument, there is enough evidence to show that a serious reduction in our meat consumption can only have beneficial effects for the world we live in and share with all manner of other species. What small health gains are produced by meat-eating are completely overshadowed by the negative effects:

  • Biodiversity Loss. 80% of the world’s arable and pasture land is taken up by growth of animal feed. These regions in many cases were once diverse ecosystems, for instance soybean plantations in Brazil have replaced the tropical forests there.
  • Inefficiency. Ruminants, especially sheep and cattle, are poor at converting the plants they eat into nutritious food for us. For instance seven kilos of grain are needed to produce a single kilogram of beef. All that land used to grow the feed is therefore largely wasted; we’d be better off eating the soybeans ourselves.
  • Carbon Footprint. Meat consumption produces greenhouse gas emissions in three ways. Deforestation for the benefit of agriculture releases the carbon trapped in the trees and underlying soil into the atmosphere. Ruminant animals produce methane and also from their manure when it decays.
  • Water Footprint. Beef requires four times as much water to produce as protein-rich pulses, like lentils. Pork requires twice as much. Water is wasted in meat production due to irrigation of the land described above. Manure also contaminates water sources.
  • Soil Conservation. Degradation comes from intensive grazing, meaning bare, exposed soil. Unhealthy soil means nothing will grow, rendering land useless for agricultural purposes.

(data taken from

Eating meat is ‘good for us.’ This strikes me as a particularly anthropocentric view of the world, one in which human wellbeing is of more importance than anything else. Putting ourselves before the rest of the natural world places us in a position of supreme seflishness.

I believe it is right to say that when we are born we come out of the world, not into it. Our aim should be to ensure not that the human race propagates but, simply, to appreciate what we have right now. We have a duty to respect the world in which we are living but as consumers we have decimated global resources for our own gain. Humans have a better chance of perpetuating as a consequence of correct environmental action action but it shouldn’t be the overarching motivation for change. After all, it is our self-interest that has caused the problems we face today, why then turn back to it as the stimulus for improvement?

But I haven’t given up meat completely, or fish, or dairy. Why not, when the case put forward above is so compelling? Well the experiment this year has been to find a balance between sticking to a sustainable diet and continuing to enjoy what I cook and eat. Nourishing all senses, feeling good about what I’m eating in mind, body and soul. I think that by and large I’ve come to a satisfactory compromise and it’s been interesting getting there.

There is a word for the diet I basically follow. Flexitarian. I dislike labels in general but this one is as good as any. Essentially it’s a plant-based diet with occasional and minimal injections of meat and fish. The EAT-Lancet Commission is a comprehensive scientific review of how to eat healthily from a sustainable food system; this is basically what I follow although the amounts of meat and fish I consume are even less. Their dietary suggestions in terms of amounts are slightly unrealistic I think – we need more than that a day – although we can bulk up on fruit and veg. If people criticise me for what they might term as sitting on the fence then so be it; I’ve already explained why living to extremes in my mind is unproductive.

Over the year my meat cravings have reduced to the point where I no longer consider it when doing the grocery shopping. I have it occasionally, maybe once a month, because I can feel my body calling for it. Fish is a slightly different kettle of, er, fish. When I was in the UK I ate mackerel, simply because I knew where it had come from. In China the vast majority of fish comes from farms; these can be sustainably run, as I’ll explain in another post another time, but at the moment I prefer to avoid any seafood altogether. I can’t remember the last time I ate eggs. Forms of dairy I’ve also relinquished; I drink nut milks, don’t use butter in cooking (except very occasionally when making a roux or similar), I substitute regular yoghurt for a coconut variety.

Cheese however I will and cannot compromise on. I can happily find alternatives for meat but to my mind nothing replaces cheese in terms of flavours and consistency. So there.



Life in plastic

I had a hankering for a vegetarian curry in the evening and some spiced apple sauce to stir into my breakfast porridge. I got off at the last-but-one subway stop to my apartment so I could buy the supplies I required: a couple of apples; a bunch of coriander; a sweet potato and cauliflower.

The picture below shows the amount of plastic used to wrap all the produce. Especially unnecessary are those styrofoam nets around the apples. I know, I know, keeping things in plastic keeps them fresh for longer. And plastic producing companies argue that it lightens the load for transit purposes, thereby enabling more products on fewer journeys, saving the world in that way. And the irony is that plastic is a good product. Cheap, durable and versatile, it has myriad uses, from the dashboards of millions of cars to the containers we use for our lunch boxes.

We’ve seen it too as a massive moving carpet of filth across the Pacific Ocean, choking up the water and the life within. We’ve read about tiny particles of the stuff that contaminate our drinking water supplies meaning serious health risks. Plastic, we can confidently say now, is bad news.

We can make lifestyle choices. We can carry around our own shopping bags and re-usable water flasks, we can try to shop in places which don’t offer plastic bags or drink without using a plastic straw. We can compartmentalise our waste so that plastics are deposited into the appropriate boxes where available. This is all good. We feel better about it all. We feel less guilty.

What? Wait, guilty? Where did that come from? After all, it’s not our fault that a very large percent of products are made of some form of plastic. The stuff is everywhere. As consumers, ourselves a product of the times, we are trapped into buying it. Life in plastic. It’s fantastic.

Because we are beings blessed – or cursed – with a conscience, we feel it being pricked with every news article, shocking docu-reveal and plastered image. That conscience leads us to question our own activities, we secretly blame ourselves for the predicament. And so either we forget about it all – someone will work something out won’t they – or we start to change the way we live our lives.

And the plastics industry helps fuel this sense of individual responsibility. Plastic is petroleum-based and an essential by-product of the fossil fuels industries. In response to the growing environmental crisis, a by-product of mass disposable consumerism, littering initiatives were funded by this industry who, having shifted the onus onto the individual to do something about it, did not cease the production of the damaging materials.

Nowadays, gratifyingly, it is more than just individuals who are taking action. Bill McKibben writes recently about the divestment of funds from carbon-intensive companies, signifying a huge realisation from a vast variety of former investors including, amazingly, the Rockefeller family.

Like the Pacific trash vortex, however, the real issues lie even further underneath the surface. It is, as William Catton points out in his groundbreaking work, Overshoot:

‘…easy to succumb to the temptation to vilify particular human groups and individuals …”if only those_____ weren’t up to their nefarious business…then history could resume its march of millennial progress…'”

The journalist and activist George Monbiot, while directing a lot of his ire towards those ___________ in power, is even more concerned with the insidious all-pervading nature of consumerism.  Whatever we consume, he says, is already too much. The planet cannot give us any more than it has. Richard Feinberg, of the Post-Carbon Institute, echoes this by saying we need to become ‘conservers, rather than consumers.’  We use too much of everything. A simple life, with dependence on localised resources, seems to be one of the solutions.

It is with this in mind I have made at least one serious resolution. That is to cut down by at least 75% my weekly intake of animal protein: meat, fish, eggs, dairy. This means that during the course of seven days I am allowed a maximum of five meals including some or all of these ingredients. Monbiot calls for total global veganism, his principal beef with animal grazing, however I am not yet convinced such an extreme is necessary. A collective cutting-down will itself have positive effects, as outlined comprehensively here. All food for thought.

With this new dietary regime in place, I will endeavour to be a bit more regular with my posts as I am forced into further experimentation very much out of my comfort zone. Experimentation also involves what to do with food waste, stuff I’d normally discard. To this end I have already started using sweet potato skins and apple peel, crisping them up in the oven with oil and cinnamon, for moreish snacks. I am also trialling the utilisation of rotten satsumas as compost for my window-ledge plants.

Happy to say while this post was being composed I was also working on a rather delicious warm salad which fit my new profile.

The inspiration was a roasted chick-pea soup I had for lunch the other day in a cafe near work. Roasted chick-peas eh? I could see them being the main player in a kind of lightly-spiced melange. The one I have fashioned and devoured included these ingredients:

  • chick peas, two tins, drained
  • one carrot, diced and left raw,
  • one cucumber, ditto carrot
  • one tomato, ditto above
  • one head of sweetcorn
  • broccoli
  • mixed nuts and seeds (cashew, pumpkin, sunflower)
  • ras-el-hanout
  • smoked paprika
  • coriander, one bunch, chopped

I roasted the corn and the pulses at the same time, although the former I wrapped in foil with some thyme, garlic rub and oil. The chick-peas I laid out on the tray, glistening with salt and more olive oil. Temperature 200 degrees. It all took about twenty minutes and everything was ready together. As soon as the pulses came out of the oven I sprinkled them with the paprika. Meanwhile I blanched the broccoli until tender in boiling water, chopping it up into florets. After scraping the corn off the husk I mixed it all up, throwing in the nuts and seeds – lightly crushed and toasted in a pan – and the herb. The final addition was the ras-el-hanout mixed with a little oil. As is my wont, I have made enough for a couple of meals.

Day of the Soup

Almost the perfect day for making soup. Many of the ingredients necessary for this most Sunday of Sunday activities, along with a long laundry cycle and a second cup of tea, were present: indolence of a day with nothing particular to do; cold symptoms – the muzzy head like some good hangovers; the afternoon drear outside and perhaps chilly too, dissuading any plans for a long walk.

I had the first two but the day itself was wonderfully clear and filled with sunshine, the air clean and fresh, the route around the park beckoning. I had a walk, to get the items I needed, indeed, the ingredients I had woken up thinking about. As the shop which sells fresh thyme, generic Italian-style cured ham and any kind of cream is a fair trek away, 8860 steps round trip my doting mobile app informs me, I now no longer felt guilty spending the rest of the day indoors, involved largely in the preparing, cooking and consumption of soup.

So I shlepped about the apartment, making soup in stages. It was always going to be a squash or pumpkin-based affair, though still not sure of the difference. In the greengrocer I pointed to what looked like a huge squash, certainly not the classic pumpkin shape one recognises from the commercialised approximation of the ancient and mysterious celebrations at Winter’s Eve. My translation app had it down as that, however, rather than squash, and so, after some inter-linguistic kerfuffle, I got the man to slice off a large portion with his shiny cleaver.

I had in my fridge a nice dirt-bejewelled carrot which would give depth to the orange colour and the aforementioned ham would add the required saltiness. The soup would work equally well without any meat and indeed, for some months now, I have been conscious of the amount of meat I consume, after reading an article by George Monbiot. His take is that the amount of land given over to grazing is disproportionate to the amount of meat actually consumed, at least in the UK. It is a phenomenal waste of resources, he argues, a needless ruination of countryside areas which could be left to their natural wild states, thus encouraging micro-systems to thrive and endangered species to return.

Not to mention the ethical questions regarding meat production. It seems as though more questions are being asked of meat’s place on our tables, with many meat-eaters going through trials of abstention, including a friend of mine, here. I’m still playing around with the issues, wondering where I stand. Certainly I think for now an awarenesscan lead to a gradual reduction in meat consumption and I am pleasantly surprised that, so far on this blog, I have included no recipes which have meat as the main focus.

In the meantime I mooched. The squash was to be roasted with three cloves of garlic (added halfway through the cooking) and added to a pan-cooked conglomeration of carrot, rosemary, thyme and ham. What? Roasted? But how….It’s here I have to admit to leading you a little up the garden path. When I started this blog and decided on its name, describing the mean amenities to hand, I did not possess an oven. Now I do. It’s a portable affair, limited in its scope but more than handy. It sits on top of the fridge in place of the microwave which came with the apartment and which I used but once.

The squash took about an hour to soften and colour sufficiently. Mixed with the other cooked ingredients, the garlic squeezed sluggishly from its crackly skin, I poured in a Tupperware-tubful of chicken stock I had prepared some days previously and brought all to the boil then simmer with a lid for about twenty minutes.

When I felt things should be ready I had a taste and decided I was right. Last but one addition was about 25ml of cream to thicken and then I smoothed it all gently with the whirring of a hand blender. Chopped parsley and trickle of olive oil to finish and there it was. Immensely satisfying to both make and eat, it brought the day together, from concept to conclusion. I have enough for three large bowlfuls.