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Try going demitarian for Lent

22 February 2013

Eating less meat and giving up busyness would be good for the soul, says Paul Vallely

I WAS too busy to get a proper meal before the football the other night; so I had a burger on the way into the ground, and then a steak pie at half-time. I know, I know: it all illustrates how far I am away from becoming a demitarian.

The word "demitarian" has been coined by Pro­fessor Mark Sutton, who is the lead author of a UN Environment Pro­gramme (UNEP) study,Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution, which was published on Monday. The Professor's motivation is environmental. Modern farming practices are destroying the natural world, and the most destructive of these involve diverting vast quantities of grain into consumption by the animals that we kill for meat or farm for dairy products.

A call for everyone to give up eating meat is likely to fall on deaf ears, the Professor has de­­cided; so he is suggesting that we should all eat half as much meat as previously - thus becom­ing become demitarians.

I like the idea of this. Since 80 per cent of the nitrogen and phosphorus used in farming goes on meat production, a demi-diet will lessen the demand for the amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, which UNEP says are causing "a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health", creating dead zones in the seas, killing fish, threatening bees, and releasing more harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It will also be better for our individual health.

My problem is that whenever I am presented with a vegetarian meal, I look at the imaginatively prepared fare on my plate, and think: "Where's the meat?" So the idea of there being meat, but less of it, may be the answer. At a recent UN dinner, the chef used two-thirds less meat, but used more vegetables to make up for it, and only ten per cent of the guests complained.

The modern lust for cheap meat is what has landed us in the present horse-beef meat scandal, in which horse from a Romanian abattoir went via a Cypriot trader to a French meat company, and then a French food-processing company, before landing on British supermarket shelves. Since then, the hyper-regulated Germans have also been drawn in. And now the world's biggest food company, Nestlé, is withdrawing pasta meals in Italy, Spain, and France.

Chicken and pork apparently cause less en­­vironmental damage because chicken, in particu­lar, grows quickly, and its manure is more easily recycled. But there are welfare questions with both chicken and pork. Although fish is healthier, there is the problem of over-fishing and excess nutrients in fish-farming. So lentils and chickpeas beckon. The trouble with these is that they take longer to prepare, and life always seems so busy.

Perhaps the answer lies outside the food itself, and in our hectic lifestyle. The campaign to "give up busyness for Lent" (www.notbusy.co.uk; News, 15 February) suggests that we modern Westerners are addicted to doing one thing after another, with as little down time as possible. This distorts our perception, makes us feel self-important, gives us a specious excuse for being impatient and rude, and, most perversely of all, burns us out with unnecessarily frenetic activity. The campaign acknowledges that we all have pressures, demands, and deadlines. But it says that we should not let them eat into our souls.

Its main alternative is that we should set aside specific time each day in which to do nothing other than let time pass in the wilderness, where we lose ourselves and get found by God. Those of us who do not like the idea of doing nothing could perhaps use the time to chop veg­etables and put them on with the lentils for a long slow stew.

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