Should we eat meat and can meat be sustainable?

Up until recently I’ve been trying to make one of the hardest decisions of my career: should I be vegetarian and would that affect my restaurant and if so how?

I’m determined to create a fair global system. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that I practice business and cooking in the most ethical way possible. This means I am always analysing what we should be doing better in the restaurant, putting in place extra systems to improve our sustainability to help reduce our waste or ensure the traceability of a product to a good environmental source.

But London’s restaurant scene is incredibly competitive, you’ve got to be at the top of your game just to survive and even then you are lucky to maintain a profit. With these pressures, it’s hard to keep up your game and to maintain an ethical standpoint, but when ethical practice is your aim and you stop allowing exceptions things become easier.

Recently meat has been receiving a lot of bad press and has been named as one of the largest contributors to global warming, producing around 14-18% of all greenhouse emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. The main reason animal agriculture is contributing to global warming is through deforestation, where land has been cleared for feed crops and pastureland. Other causes are the methane and nitrous oxide – livestock and their manure produce – and by the chemicals used to fertilise the feed crops.

With all the negative publicity that meat has received, I’m finding it hard to decide if meat can be sustainable and whether I should be cooking and serving it at all. The truth is meat sells, although some demographics are eating less meat in their homes, when they go out they are looking for a treat. Our meat dishes at Poco are always the biggest sellers. But with the pressures of everyday business I’m racking my brain thinking ‘Should we eat meat’? ‘Can meat be sustainable’? And… ‘How on earth am I going to keep meat on the menu’!?

When I was 14, I worked on a pig farm in a small village called Winsham. The Somerset countryside was idyllic and beautiful. I’d cycle out of the village and up a hill to the farm. It was a conventional farm housing a thousand or so weaners in concrete pens. Other than feeding the pigs sacks of unidentifiable pellets, my main job was mucking them out. I’d go into each pen and squidgy the slops into the gutter, all for £1.50 an hour.

I worked on the farm for two years, the irony is, the majority of the time I was vegetarian. The farmer and my own favourite day on the farm was whenever the new pigs arrived. A transporter would turn up in the morning and open its doors releasing hundreds of piglets that would run free, literally skipping and jumping around the yard for half an hour whilst we penned them up.

I remember hinting to the farmer that free range might be a good way to go, but of course he mumbled something about cost. Being vegetarian at the time was a conscious decision but working on the farm wasn’t really a problem as I didn’t think of the pigs as food, and disconnected myself from the idea that they were part of the food chain. Although I didn’t enjoy the time I spent on the farm, in retrospect it was a brilliant education in hard work and warning against conventional farming – even if it was on a small rural scale.

Fast forward ten years and I’m standing at the stove at River Cottage HQ preparing ‘brawn’ for Ray Smith – the head butcher and Hugh Whittingstall’s main assistant on the River Cottage Meat book. Brawn is a type of terrine made with pig’s head set in it’s own jellied stock. At 8am on a Monday morning my first job would be to saw the pig’s head in half straight down the snout, carefully preserving the brain. I’d then singe off any hair and wash the cranium removing any bone dust and blood. The head would then be gently simmered for five hours, never boiling more than a tremble. I’ll be honest; it was a pretty gruesome job, but I’d still eat the brawn with gusto once it had set by the end of the day, sliced onto a thick piece of bread with whole grain mustard and homemade pickles. A notable change from my previous response of vegetarianism when working so closely with the origin of my food on the farm.

At River Cottage, we practiced Nose to Tail eating and spent much time and energy making delicacies from the offal and extremities from the beasts we’d butcher – these parts of the animal are often thrown away or used further down the food chain in animal feed.

Whilst working at River Cottage our boss Hugh would drill us on knowing the origin of each beast we’d cook. On demand we’d be able to recite the breed, hang time, farm and abattoir. If we were unable to produce any detail we’d be scolded and for good reason. Our message was clear and strong, teaching customers about the provenance of their food.

These are just two of many experiences that have led me to care deeply about the food I eat and cook. The recent press and pressure put on meat have made me reconsider whether eating meat can be sustainable. However, I believe meat is an important part of a natural sustainable farming system. The issues I have described above are all symptoms of an industrial farming process and sadly our main conventional farming system. The terrifying thing is that the majority food in the UK is produced using these methods, in worse conditions and on a much bigger scale than my farm in Winsham. Thankfully though, good, pasture reared, organic meat is widely available. And if on a budget, although organic meat is more costly the cheaper cuts can be price-matched to the more popular cuts of conventional meat like sirloin or rump.

If we are going to reduce our impact on the climate then we cannot continue to support conventional farming methods, we have to eat less meat and move towards more agro-ecological farming methods farming in harmony with nature. Meat that has been purchased from a good source that we know and trust and that has been reared outside, on natural feed or pasture can be environmentally positive when it is eaten in small amounts without waste. Those animals reared in stock rotation will help lock Co2 into the soil and will fertilise the ground ready for the next crops without the need for chemical fertilisers.

If you want to go a step further and eat meat that has a positive effect on the environment three good examples of truly sustainable meat and animal protein are; jamon Iberico from the south of Spain – look for jamon ‘bellota’ which means it has been completely outdoor reared on acorns; oysters and mussels which are abundant and act as filters that clean the sea; and some game like rabbits, pigeon and venison, that over breed due to a lack of predators.

Although I strongly advocate good meat eating and serve meat in my restaurants I have decided to try out vegetarianism for myself once again, for reasons I will have to explain another day.


Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt

Tom Hunt is an eco-chef, director of Poco restaurant in Bristol and author of The Natural Cook.