Food Dogma

Factionalism in food politics has resurfaced in contemporary dinner table discussion.

Meat-eaters, with the MLA gleefully breathing down their necks, proudly turn sausages over the barbeque, beer in hand and Australian flag  embedded into their upper arm. Pescatarians, on the other hand, guiltily swallow fish with furtive bites in dark corners and left-wing human rights advocates endorse the benefits of vegetarianism in making the average consumer more aware of the ethical origins of food.

Health nuts find that vegetarianism encourages the planning of meals and creates a consistent mindfulness of what is being put in our bodies. Yet, even hardcore greenies are somewhat disconcerted by extremist fruitarians…

Veganism is seen as an indulgence, denied to starving street hawkers in the third world. In the Western world, however, university students remain armchair philosophers. Twirling foamy moustaches over complicated cups of coffee, they contemplate abstract questions of economic downturn, lipstick feminism or Al Gore’s shock propaganda. Still, after a long night of drunken escapades, they guzzle Coca-Colas and munch heartily into heavily processed double Quarter Pounders, but no images of factory farms and Amazon rainforests plague their conscience.

Frankly, for most of us, the more expensive free-range option in the supermarket aisle is a luxury for deeper pockets. Thus, in the modern food chain, militant vegetarians, card-carrying members of an elite group of ethical eating, are now the scum of polite dinner etiquette. To limit your palette is to commit sacrilege.

The coming out process is like an episode of The Bold and the Beautiful. “Mum, dad, I’m a vegetarian,” is met with gasps, rolled eyes and occasionally, the hushed whisper, “I’d be happier if she said she was a lesbian.” Dizzying antics of PETA, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior and the trial of grocery shopping for herbivores, all roll in split-screen flashes before a mother’s eye as she clutches her wallet.

The dinner table goes quiet. The lovingly prepared roast chicken is an accusation. It is as if the Vegetarian had advocated the Bear Grylls approach of squeezing elephant dung for its water content as opposed to merely suggesting an alternative dietary life choice.

She’d been talking about it for months. Cramming 50,000 unnaturally deformed, anemic, waddling chickens into huge sheds for a short six-week life span; the Indonesian abattoirs that plunge hoses into the anus and mouth of cows to make the meat heavier; highly intelligent sows forced to suffer close confinement, enduring a perpetual cycle of suffering and sleep deprivation, continually pregnant.

They choose to willfully ignore it. Calmly, they label it a phase and the conversation resumes.

It is undeniable that there is a huge cultural dissonance between food consumption and animal welfare. To bridge the impasse, Jeremy Bentham informs us not to ask “Can they reason?” or “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” Animals are simply not a part of humanity’s personal narrative, devoid of the capacity to provide consent or protect their own dignity.

In this context, food factionalism is a product of the blame game. I hope to see a future where meat-eaters and vegetarians can sit across from each other and recognise that to be pro-animal is not to be anti-human, that vegetarians are not an imposition and that food politics can be an opportunity to celebrate the rich diversity in Australian culture.