TV review: Feast to Save the Planet

Feast to Save the Planet. BBC-2, 4/1/2021, 59 minutes.

This one-off programme invited five guests to a restaurant, who were then scored on the environmental impact of each dish they selected. The resulting concoction was a slightly odd mix of various cookery shows with a dash of serious concern about climate change. Most of the so-called ‘celebrity guests’ were unknown to me but I’m vaguely aware of the co-presenter Gregg Wallace, whose main (and very unpleasant) attribute seems to be that he likes shouting, while he relied on the mathematician Hannah Fry to supply the essential facts and figures.

The five guests were Amol Rajan, Nikki Fox, Desiree Burch, Matthew Fort and the comedian and TV presenter Sara Pascoe. The latter was the only vegan, and her choices were limited to the single vegan option within each course. For the starter she had to select fresh asparagus, and this was obviously included as a trick to mislead the contestants. It worked as none of them knew that out of season fresh asparagus is flown in from places like Peru, which was calculated to have a significantly higher carbon footprint than the non-vegan alternative – Scottish farmed salmon.

The main course included steak and chips, and it was obvious that this was going to be the worst possible choice (the accompanying graph showed just how bad). The vegan tofu dish was deemed to be the best but Sara Pascoe was concerned about the impact of soya bean production on rain forest destruction. She was surprised when it was pointed out that “90% of all soya beans are used as animal feed”. In fairness to her all the guests were equally clueless, but this I suppose was the heavy-handed point of the programme.

With the dessert menu it was no surprise to find that the selection of cheeses was the worst option. The vegan dessert was a brownie, which had a pleasingly low carbon footprint. Afterwards, all the scores were added up, and one of the main conclusions was that “any food derived from an animal is going to have a high environmental impact”. Finally, another course was wheeled in showing all the leftovers on the contestants’ plates, including a big chunk of steak and a lot of cheese. The point being made here was that all food waste (especially meat, fish and dairy produce) is very wasteful. All the guests expressed contrition, but any good intentions probably evaporated as soon as they left the restaurant. 

Paul Freestone

Nutritional supplements for vegans

(During lockdown, London Vegans have organized a series of online talks via Zoom.  The 27 January 2021 meeting featured a talk by Stephen Walsh [SW], a long-serving trustee of the Vegan Society and author of Plant Based Nutrition and Health.  This post is based on his talk, a recording of which can be found on the VeganLondon YouTube channel here.)

Dietary supplements are no substitute for a healthy diet.  The dietary recommendations used for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 (see the Table in this paper) included the avoidance of excess salt and processed meat, and the daily consumption of at least 125 g of whole grains, 250 g of fruit (3 portions), 20 g of nuts and seeds, 400 g of vegetables (5 portions, including one of legumes), and 250 mg (milligrams) of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).  Failure to meet these recommendations is estimated to account for about 90% of diet-related health impacts both globally and in the UK.  It can be seen that these recommendations are readily met on a vegan diet, with the possible exception of that relating to an adequate intake long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, of which more below.

Nevertheless, there are some nutrients that present a problem for vegans, and SW recommends that vegans supplement their diet with the following:

  • Vitamin B12 (10 microgram daily supplement or 2000 micrograms once per week)
  • Vitamin D (20 micrograms vegan vitamin D3 a day all year round unless confident of adequate sun exposure)
  • Iodine (75 to 150 micrograms a day)
  • Selenium (30 to 60 micrograms a day)
  • Long chain omega-3 fatty acids (250 mg a day of a mixture of EPA and DHA or a good balance of plant omega-3 and omega-6)
  • Calcium (enough to ensure 500 mg a day from supplements and rich bioavailable food sources combined).

The first four vitamins and minerals listed above are conveniently and inexpensively provided by a daily tablet of the VEG-1 nutritional supplement available from the Vegan Society (SW helped formulate the supplement).  The Vegan Society recommend that vegans either supplement their diet with vitamin B12 or get at least 3 micrograms per day from fortified foods such as some plant milks and breakfast cereals, yeast extracts and nutritional yeast flakes.  The main source of vitamin D is the action of sunlight on skin, with marked seasonal variation in blood levels.  In the UK the sun is too low in the sky to be an adequate source between October and February, so Public Health England recommend taking 10 micrograms a day in autumn and winter, whilst noting that some people will need more than this.  Vegan vitamin D3 may be better absorbed than the fungal-derived vitamin D2.  Iodine and selenium are found in some plant foods (especially kelp and Brazil nuts, respectively) but the content is variable, so obtaining these nutrients from a supplement is a good insurance policy.

VEG-1 does not contain calcium, but calcium supplements are readily available; for example, a tablet of Holland & Barrett Calcium & Magnesium provides 500 mg of calcium (and 250 mg magnesium).  Otherwise, good dietary sources of calcium for vegans include kale or spring greens (150 mg per 100 g), broccoli or cabbage (50 mg per 100 g), oranges (40 mg) and fortified plant milks (usually 120 mg per 100 ml, so half of a litre carton provides 600 mg), and calcium-set tofu.  However, it should be noted that the recommended intake for calcium is 700 mg per day in the UK, and higher still in the USA and some other countries, so it might be wise to take calcium supplements as well as ensuring a calcium-rich diet.

Long chain omega-3 fatty acids present more of a problem for vegans (and to a lesser extent vegetarians) because the most readily available dietary sources are oily fish.  Therefore, vegans must either take a supplement (SW mentioned Vegetology Opti-3) or rely on the conversion of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in the body to the long chain forms EPA and DHA.  This option can be as simple as replacing oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (such as sunflower and soya oil) with rapeseed or hempseed oils and favouring nuts such as cashews, almonds, walnuts and hazel nuts over seeds such as sunflower and sesame (tahini) in order to achieve an overall ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids of around 4:1.  Flaxseed oil is 55% ALA, but it requires refrigeration and is not recommended for use in cooking.

Paul Appleby (with thanks to Stephen Walsh)

Book review – Understanding Animals: Philosophy for Dog and Cat Lovers

Understanding Animals: Philosophy for Dog and Cat Lovers by Lars Svendsen. Reaktion Books, 2019, 200 pp, 1 illustration; hardback, £14-99

How do animals perceive the world? What does it really feel like to be a cat, or a dog?

In Understanding Animals: Philosophy for Dog and Cat Lovers, Lars Svendsen investigates how humans can attempt to understand the lives of other animals. The book explores topics including animal communication, intelligence, self-awareness, loneliness and grief, morals, and how animals and humans can live together and build friendships.

Although the main focus of the book is on cats and dogs, the author provides examples from other species, including chimpanzees and octopuses. He uses philosophical analysis and scientific discoveries to argue that an ‘owner’s’ relationship with their pet is equally as valid and insightful as the scientific study of human-animal relations. Drawing upon Western philosophy, including Wittgenstein’s hypothesis that “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”, and Descartes’ suggestion that animals are automatons, he weaves together historical musings and contemporary thinking to address fundamental questions that are likely to have puzzled most animal-lovers.

The book provides an entertaining read for anyone who has wondered what animals think of us, how they perceive the world around them, or what it is like to be another animal. It examines questions such as ‘Can animals be understood?’. For example, many people would argue that there is a form of communication between humans and animals, particularly domesticated animals such as cats, despite the fact that we do not understand much of what cats say and they do not understand much of what we say. This form of communication goes beyond normal linguistic boundaries to create a deep understanding.

According to Svendsen: “The book is a defence of the amateur’s view of the animal”, asserting that “the amateur’s relationship with animals is just as valid and insightful as the scientific view.” Nevertheless, he believes that a lot can be learned from scientific material and so he draws upon biology, zoology, and cognitive science, in addition to philosophy and literature. The author argues that the book is primarily about humans, rather than animals; it is about the possibilities there are for humans to understand non-human animals and is designed to provoke self-reflection. It will certainly prompt renewed consideration of our relationship with animals and our position in a shared world.

Anne Orgée

(The introduction to Understanding Animals is available on the Reaktion Books website.)

Book review – Saffron: A Global History

Saffron: A Global History by Ramin Ganeshram. Reaktion Books, 2020, 144 pp, 58 illustrations, 54 in colour; hardback, £10-99

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice; it has often been literally worth its weight in gold, holding its own when the price of gold has fluctuated. The spice has long been highly prized for its various uses, not only in cooking but also in art, cosmetics, medicine and religion, as well as its suitability to multiple cuisines. It has been the catalyst for trade wars and smuggling schemes and continues to be a valued ingredient in the modern day. 

Saffron: A Global History charts the dramatic history of this expensive spice, from 50,000 year-old Mesopotamian cave art, to cultivation across the world in the 21st century. Saffron traces can be found in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies; it was used by the ancient Romans to cleanse their streets from bad smells, and was thought to be a cure for the bubonic plague. It is associated with the saffron-coloured robes worn by Buddhist monks and lent its name to the English town of Saffron Walden which produced saffron prolifically in the 1500s.

Saffron – the stigma of the autumn crocus (Crocus sativus) – has a delicate flavour, unique aroma, and distinctive red/orange colour. It requires laborious handpicking in the right climactic conditions in a narrow picking window in the autumn; it takes around 150,000 flowers to produce a kilogram of saffron, making it a coveted crop that has spawned black market trade and the production of fakes.

Not everything that is sold as saffron is authentic, a fact that is highlighted by this book and which was also discussed by Kate Quilton in a recent episode of Channel 4 TV’s Food Unwrapped. Fortunately, Saffron: A Global History includes a guide on how to buy saffron, which is graded according to aroma, colour and taste, and how to avoid counterfeits.

Many of the recipes at the end of the book are not vegetarian or vegan but most could be adapted. They are drawn from many cultures and include starters, main courses and desserts such as Arancini, Risotto Milanese, Pennsylvania Dutch Crumb Cake, and Persian Saffron Rice Pudding. For those who are interested in growing their own saffron, there is a very brief section on saffron growing.

The book, like others in the Edible series, is beautifully presented and is best suited to those with an interest in culinary history. It is full of interesting anecdotes and references to saffron in art and literature.

Anne Orgée

Crowned off

Owing to the current pandemic restrictions, there is less demand for bigger turkeys this Christmas. Instead, the ‘turkey crown’ is being promoted as “the perfect way to feed fewer guests”. But what exactly is a turkey crown? Basically, it’s a turkey with the legs and wings removed. However, in typical meat industry fashion the price of a crown is more than that of a whole turkey (a right Royal rip off). On Channel 4 TV’s festive edition of Food Unwrapped (14/12/2020) a turkey farmer explained that he had to charge extra for the reduced amount of meat because he still had to produce the whole bird, and he was quite indignant about talk of “all that wasted meat”. It is claimed that about 60% of the discarded legs and wings are processed into pet food while the rest is “thrown away”. The solution is obvious, and it would be a crowning achievement – the jewel in the crown. As genetically modified featherless chickens have already been created, why not ingeniously adapted legless and wingless turkeys?

Paul Freestone

BBOWT’s position on invasive species

Last September I completed the Oxfordshire Wildlife Survey 2020, a short questionnaire distributed door-to-door on behalf of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), one of 46 wildlife trusts across the UK, adding a letter explaining that “I am not more supportive of wildlife trusts is because I believe that some, if not all, of them consider it acceptable to conserve one species by persecuting another”, citing examples such as “the grey squirrel, killed in their hundreds in order to reintroduce the red squirrel to some parts of the country, and mink, locally trapped and killed … to help protect the water vole population.”  I ended my letter by asking what BBOWT’s attitude was towards so-called ‘invasive’ or non-native species, stating my belief that “now that they are established … they have as much right to exist as ‘indigenous’ species such as the red squirrel and otter.”

Shortly afterwards, I was pleased to receive an email from BBOWT’s Community Wildlife Officer for Oxfordshire, who explained that “BBOWT has no blanket position on ‘invasive species’ [although] there are certain situations … where localized control of certain species, such as mink, may be a regrettable requirement”:

“BBOWT aims to manage the wildlife interest of its nature reserves in ways that do not involve the control of vertebrates.  However, control will be considered when it is shown to be necessary and when preventative methods have failed or are likely to fail.  Control will only be considered if it can be carried out legally and humanely.”

The Officer went on to state that “the most likely cases [requiring the control of vertebrates] at BBOWT reserves could involve foxes, mink, rats or carrion crows which might be affecting the breeding numbers and performance of ground-nesting birds, e.g. waders and waterfowl, and mammals such as water voles.”

Although the Officer’s reply was fairly reassuring, and more or less what I’d expected, the email made no mention of the grey squirrel, so I went on to ask whether BBOWT has a position on culling these much-maligned animals.  In reply, I was told that:

“The ecological situation in our three counties does not lend itself to the reintroduction of red squirrels and therefore they are not a priority species for BBOWT.  As such, grey squirrels would not be likely to meet the criteria for control I outlined in my previous email.”

So, it seems that grey squirrels, if not all “foxes, mink, rats or carrion crows” are safe on BBOWT nature reserves.  However, it does annoy me how many people regard red squirrels as ‘cute’ whereas greys are a ‘nuisance’.  According to the popular nature writer and forester Peter Wohlleben, when eulogising red squirrels “we avoid thinking about their favourite food: baby birds” (The Inner Life of Animals, page 8), so I wonder what effect the reintroduction of red squirrels on Anglesey (after the extermination of the island’s grey squirrels) will have on the local bird population.  ‘Managing’ nature can have some unforeseen consequences.

Paul Appleby

Vaxing lyrical

Like the old joke about buses, three Covid-19 vaccines suddenly appeared one after the other. The mainstream media greeted all this with sycophantic fawning – it was “the news that the whole world has been waiting for.” However, to achieve this success required an unprecedented amount of money, resources and international cooperation. Globally, there are about 200 new vaccines being developed and (at the end of November 2020) 40 had progressed into human trials with 12 of these in the final phase-3 clinical trials. With this level of concentrated effort and no shortage of funding, it was hardly surprising that positive results were announced so quickly. The World Health Organisation (WHO) denied that it was a race, but the clamour to be ‘first past the post’ was obvious. Apart from the prestige, any successful vaccine that was safe and effective would be hugely profitable. Previously, Big Pharma wasn’t very interested in developing vaccines because, like new antibiotics, they didn’t generate much income. Most human vaccines required funding by governments and charitable foundations.  

The common cold is caused by a coronavirus, but there has never been a vaccine to deal with any form of human coronavirus before, although there are vaccines for animal coronaviruses. SARS-1 and MERS were both coronaviruses but they didn’t create a global pandemic. Consequently, the motivation to develop a vaccine rapidly dissipated, along with all the essential funding. Despite this failure, data gathered on SARS-1 and MERS revealed the similarity between their spiked proteins (which penetrate human cells) and those of the Covid-19 virus. Several versions of the Covid-19 vaccine might be needed to ensure that all age groups are protected, and some will need to be more easily stored, but do we really need up to 200 new vaccines, especially when many labs that switched to finding a vaccine curtailed their other work?

TV news presenters along with science and medical journalists couldn’t contain their glee as they read out press releases (with interim phase-3 trial results) from the relevant pharmaceutical companies. Nonetheless, there are numerous caveats including the vaccines’ long-term efficacy (will booster vaccinations be required), and the unseemly rush by rich nations to block buy each and every new vaccine as soon as it’s available (known as vaccine nationalism). Thus, money is the overwhelming driver to end the pandemic, and the main priority is the rapid recovery of all the world’s major economies. Global stock markets surged after the new vaccines were announced. Compare all this to the Ebola epidemic of 2013-2016. The most widespread outbreak of the Ebola virus was almost totally restricted to Western Africa. It had a high mortality rate of about 40%, and caused major economic disruption within the affected areas, but there wasn’t any frantic rush to find a vaccine. Ebola was seen as a problem for a few very poor countries, and the Ebola vaccine only gained approval in 2019, having taken five years to develop.

As with any mass immunisation programme, the required ‘herd immunity’ can only occur if a high enough percentage of the population (typically 60-70%) are immunised. Owing to the spread of conspiracy theories via the internet and social media, the anti-vax movement has undermined the value and safety of vaccines. Historically, there’s nothing new about this. When Edward Jenner introduced the first smallpox vaccination in 1796 there were many that opposed it. Some perceived it as unnatural and against the will of God, others disliked the idea of being forced to have it, and some genuinely believed that it would transform you into a cow because it was derived from a cowpox blister. The smallpox mortality rate was 30%, and killed between 300-500 million people in the 20th century alone. In 1980 the WHO certified that smallpox had been eradicated, and it’s the only infectious disease to achieve this distinction. This only occurred thanks to an intensive vaccination campaign within the affected regions, and Edward Jenner is directly responsible for saving millions of lives. It is quite extraordinary what humans can achieve when the money and the motivation are in place.

With the UK vaccination programme underway before Christmas, the UK government and most of the media have already concluded that the virus will be vanquished in double quick time, humans having demonstrated their commanding superiority over the invisible enemy. Unfortunately, there’s a huge problem with this scenario. This pandemic originated as a zoonotic disease, and virtually nothing is being done to prevent future highly contagious and devastating animal-to-human infections. Moreover, the established economic model of constant growth and greater prosperity is no longer viable because it depends on the escalating exploitation and destruction of the natural world, the primary driver behind Covid-19. It should be obvious that allowing future pandemics to occur and dealing with each one via a new vaccine is cripplingly expensive and unsustainable. The infection and mortality rate of Covid-19 is relatively low, but it has still caused havoc within global health services and economic systems. Humanity is congratulating itself over this hollow victory while ignoring the fact that the next deadly virus is just around the corner.

Paul Freestone

Bone fracture risk in vegetarians and vegans

A major new paper from EPIC-Oxford, a long-term study focussing on the health of vegetarians and vegans conducted by the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, was published in late November 2020.  Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study, was published in the open access journal BMC Medicine (readers may download a copy from the link above).

The first two paragraphs from the press release issued by the journal summarised the findings:

Compared with people who ate meat, vegans … had a 43% higher risk of fractures anywhere in the body (total fractures), as well as higher risks of site-specific fractures of the hips, legs and vertebrae … Vegetarians and people who ate fish but not meat had a higher risk of hip fractures, compared to people who ate meat. However, the risk of fractures was partly reduced once body mass index (BMI), dietary calcium and dietary protein intake were taken into account.

Dr Tammy Tong, Nutritional Epidemiologist at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, and the lead author said: “This is the first comprehensive study on the risks of both total and site-specific fractures in people of different diet groups. We found that vegans had a higher risk of total fractures which resulted in close to 20 more cases per 1000 people over a 10-year period compared to people who ate meat. The biggest differences were for hip fractures, where the risk in vegans was 2.3 times higher than in people who ate meat, equivalent to 15 more cases per 1000 people over 10 years.”

Unsurprisingly, the paper’s findings caused some concern in vegetarian and especially vegan circles.  However, quoting Dr Tong, the press release went on to point out that:

“Previous studies have shown that low BMI [body mass index, a measure of obesity] is associated with a higher risk of hip fractures, and low intakes of calcium and protein have both been linked to poorer bone health. This study showed that vegans, who on average had lower BMI as well as lower intakes of calcium and protein than meat eaters, had higher risks of fractures at several sites. Well-balanced and predominantly plant-based diets can result in improved nutrient levels and have been linked to lower risks of diseases including heart disease and diabetes. Individuals should take into account the benefits and risks of their diet, and ensure that they have adequate levels of calcium and protein and also maintain a healthy BMI, that is, neither under nor overweight.”

In other words, vegetarians and especially vegans should ensure that their diet contains adequate amounts of calcium and protein, and that they are neither too thin or too fat.  In the UK, the reference nutrient intake for calcium (the quantity considered sufficient for 97.5% of the population) is 700 milligrams (mg) per day, although in the US and Canada the recommended daily allowance is 1000 mg per day in adults, or 1200 mg per day in women aged over 50 and men over 70.  These quantities are considerably higher than the estimated average calcium intake of vegans in the study.  The Vegan Society lists calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified milk and yoghurt alternatives and soya and linseed bread fortified with extra calcium as particularly good sources of calcium (with more detailed information in a linked PDF file), whilst pointing out that bone health depends on several nutrients including vitamins D and K and protein, as well as calcium.  Brenda Davis, Registered Dietitian and co-author of the excellent Becoming Vegan, also has a short video illustrating some vegan sources of calcium on her website.

Paul Appleby

Book review – Berries

Berries by Victoria Dickenson. Reaktion Books, 2020, 208pp, 98 illustrations, 72 in colour; hardback, £16

Reaktion Books do like their series.  Berries by Victoria Dickenson is a new addition to their Botanical series, which already extends to more than twenty titles and aims to provide “a broader account of the cultural and social impact of trees, plants and flowers.”  However, the book arrives only two years after Heather Arndt Anderson’s Berries: A Global History in Reaktion’s Edible series, so how does this new title stack up?

Berries is a visual feast.  From the stunning front cover to the many colour illustrations the book is a joy to behold, but what about the text?  Victoria Dickenson is described as “a devoted amateur botanist (who) spends summers in the berry-covered island of Newfoundland”, so she is well qualified to tackle the subject.  In six chapters she covers the taxonomy of berries, their cultural significance, cultivation, harvesting, preserving, global production, and popular garden varieties.  There is also a fascinating timeline, which for example tells us that the first gooseberry club was founded in Lancashire in 1740 and that the loganberry was accidentally created by ‘Judge Logan’ (the American judge and horticulturist James Harvey Logan) by crossing a raspberry and a blackberry in his garden in 1881.  Another American, the naturalist, philosopher and advocate of vegetarianism Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is quoted throughout the book, and the author clearly shares his love for the natural world and enthusiasm for gathering wild fruits.  She echoes Thoreau’s desire for a simpler life in recognising that “our desire for [berries] has propelled a global industry with what appears to be a very heavy reliance on plasticulture, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation and chiefly female migrant labour”, warning that “we may be called upon to rethink our insatiable desires if we want to maintain our innocent relationship with the ephemeral and intoxicating soft fruits of the earth.”  To put it another way, there are no berries as delicious and satisfying as those that we grow or collect ourselves.  This attractive and informative book helps us to appreciate them all the more.

Paul Appleby

The nutty professors

The title Professor is the top academic rank in higher education across the world. Anyone who achieves this accolade is usually a respected expert in their field, and by definition must be rated of above average intelligence and capable of insightful and critical thinking. Paradoxically, in popular culture Professors are frequently portrayed as socially inept bumbling idiots. In the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) the incomparable Cary Grant is a Professor of palaeontology, and he is bamboozled by a beautiful and totally bonkers woman (Katharine Hepburn). The film concludes with Hepburn accidentally destroying the Professor’s painstakingly restored skeleton of a Brontosaurus, but this is Hollywood so despite this catastrophe the mismatched pair declare undying love for each other.

In The Nutty Professor (1963) Jerry Lewis plays the title character as a buck-toothed accident prone nerd, but he develops a serum that can temporarily transform him into the creepy and suave Buddy Love. The story is actually a parody of the gothic novella Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886), and this established the idea of an individual with a dual good and evil personality. In the brilliant Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (1997-2003) the psychology lecturer Professor Walsh hides a dark secret. In a covert facility she has built a deadly half-human super robot. Unfortunately for the Professor, her creation skewers her to death within minutes of his awakening. With obvious echoes of Frankenstein, this isn’t the first time a mad Professor has had a violent confrontation with their very own slightly ungrateful monster. The original celluloid mad scientist (Rotwang) appeared in Fritz Lang’s celebrated silent sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927). Rotwang is a wild haired overtly dramatic character disturbingly like Boris Johnson, but his enduring influence is clearly seen in the erratic behaviour of the eponymous Dr Strangelove (1964) and the eccentric inventor Doc Brown in Back to the Future (1985). 

In real life I’m frequently gobsmacked at some of the idiotic comments that several Professors have made just prior to, and during the current pandemic. Back in February, Professors Hugh Pennington and John Oxford both dismissed the idea that the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, was anything to worry about. Both men have singled out bats as the primary source of the virus but, as far as I’m aware, neither has criticised the human interference which is the main cause of this zoonotic disease. John Oxford even boasted about eating a bat when he was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room (23/1/2020).

The rapid spread of Covid-19 within meat processing plants has been widely reported. The BBC World Service series The Food Chain broadcast on this issue on 13 August, including an interview with Professor James MacDonald at the University of Maryland (USA). He clearly explained why these vast factories are such a problem: “They are breeding grounds for a lot of respiratory illnesses because the buildings and atmosphere are full of microbes coming off the animals. (The plants are) heavily air conditioned which moves microbes around, and in this case coronavirus isn’t coming off the animals but if it’s introduced by an infected worker then they (the workers) are very close together. It’s extremely noisy so it requires loud talking which generates spray between people. Also, the workers mix together during breaks and frequently come to the plant in groups via the bus or a shared car.” The USA has some of the largest meat packing plants in the world, and Professor MacDonald described these as “unique for the number of workers standing in close proximity in cold conditions, and this creates risks”. However, he was then asked a pertinent question, “What about just eating less meat?”, to which he responded: “It’s a big ask for consumers to think seriously or be informed enough about production processes. That is to understand what goes on in the plant, or with the workers.” To her credit the interviewer persisted with this line of questioning, asking how often the Professor ate meat, to which he replied “four to five times a week”. He was then asked: “Do these outbreaks make you think differently about the meat you’re consuming?” (Don’t forget that Professor MacDonald is an expert in his field and knows from first-hand experience precisely what is happening at every stage of meat production. Therefore, his final comments were especially depressing.) “No, I wouldn’t say it has. I don’t really base my own personal consumption decisions on what I think may be happening further up the supply chain.” In other words, this highly intelligent Professor regards any moral issue with eating meat as irrelevant to him and everyone else.

Paul Freestone

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