Organic, Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Sustainable, Free Range — there are as many food labels today as there are ways to skin a cat.
And yet, can we be sure that as we wipe the plate after seared scallops we are not wiping the ocean floor of its plants and corals? What sleight of hand really distinguishes humane from cruel? And how much deforested land does it take to make a steak?
These are some of the questions that Louise Gray set out to answer in her 2016 book “The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat.” A former environment correspondent for the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, Gray writes that she was “only too aware of the impact factory farming was having on the planet and the need to cut down on meat.”
To get as close as possible to the action, she writes, “the only logical thing to do seemed to be to only eat animals I had killed myself.”
Over a course of two years adhering to her inconvenient diet, she dispatched, among others, 12 mussels, six American signal crayfish, 12 mackerel, a pollock, three pheasants, three rabbits, a sheep, a squirrel, and a red deer.
At risk of being branded an atavistic and unnecessary exploration of how we as humans gather our food in the modern age, Gray’s travels took her across the U.K. to dissect the ethical and environmental quandaries of factory-farmed meat. She also sought an understanding of those still in search of wild quarry.
Along the way, she discovered the hunting organizations in pursuit of conservation; she ate roadkill; and she broke the lesser-known secret about Sir Peter Scott, founding father of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whose passion for protecting the environment was born out of a love of shooting wildfowl.
Mongabay recently talked with Gray about her unusual year, the paradox of being a hunter who cares about animal welfare, and her new adventures in service to the humble vegetable.
Mongabay: Where did the idea for “The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat” come from?
Louise Gray: I was working as the environment correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, and I was writing about climate change every day. I knew what a serious situation we’re in — it’s pretty scary — so I wanted to do my bit and reduce my footprint.
I knew the easiest thing I could do is to stop eating meat. But then, I often come to the countryside and meet people who raise animals. I thought that was ethical meat, and I didn’t have a problem with it. So I thought, well, if I only want to eat that kind of meat I really have to understand where it’s com[ing] from.
So, I’m only going to eat animals I kill myself.
I understand that you grew up on a farm. What was your relationship to meat-eating at a young age?
I didn’t really think about it, to be honest, because it was just a part of our life and our culture. We ate meat. I was always really interested in animal welfare, and was a RSPCA [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] Junior member. I understood meat as being eaten by humans, and I took it for granted as a child. It was only really when I became an adult that I started to question that.
This is one of the interesting points, almost dilemmas, at the heart of the book: you’re somebody who cares for animal welfare, cares for the planet. But there will be environmentalists who might see your decision to kill animals yourself as, perhaps, unnecessary.
Yes. That’s where the book started from — if I were an environmentalist I ought not to eat any meat. I say all throughout the book that, if you want to have a light footprint, the easiest thing you can do is be vegan. But my job as a journalist is to fully investigate things.
[Veganism] didn’t answer my questions about how the landscape of Britain is managed, about marginal areas where nothing else can be grown. I suppose it was also a philosophical question, because I didn’t think that people who ate meat were necessarily bad people.
In the book, there’s this chap Steve who teaches you to hunt your first rabbit. He’s a seasoned gamekeeper; he’s been doing this his whole life. To somebody standing on the sidelines they might think, “Well, this guy must just not really care about animals.” But you go looking for a lost rabbit you shot, and when you bring it to him later at the pub, he starts to cry.
To say he doesn’t care, I’d find that preposterous about someone like Steve who spends all day outside managing animals. For someone sitting in an office, who can afford to go and eat vegan protein every day, to criticize someone like Steve — I just don’t see that as a good reflection of reality. I think that Steve is really connected with wildlife; he’s just doing it in a different way.
We’re interacting [with nature] all the time. If you think you have a perfect relationship with it, where you don’t have any impact, well you’re only having a lighter one — you’re still a human on this Earth.
At one point in the book you write of the U.K.: “If anyone can save the salmon, it’s the anglers.” What brings you to this conclusion?
There’s a [U.K.] charity called the Angling Trust, which does an enormous amount of work. Like if there’s pollution in the river, they will chase the Environment Agency and make sure that people are fined. The fishermen are watching the river and understanding it.
Salmon fishermen don’t take meat anymore — they haven’t for a long time. They’re really there to enjoy it and preserve the rivers. I think it’s a very clear example of the hunter protecting the hunted.
There’s quite a tradition in England of gamekeeping. You mention certain reports in the book — one was “The Value of Shooting,” and the other “The Code of Good Shooting Practice” — and you talk about how they bring money into conservation and also encourage the reporting of poorly managed estates. How does this compare to angling?
You know what, I would say that, unlike angling, pheasant shooting is manufactured. People put the birds down [import them for release on an estate]. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation and others do try to make sure that the sport doesn’t have a big impact [on] the landscape. But, actually, since I’ve written the book it’s becoming clear that a lot of estates and farms aren’t keeping to [guidelines].
It is a problem in the U.K. A big problem. There are too many pheasants, and it’s not good for wildlife. I always knew that [gamekeeping] was a difficult thing to bring into the book. I wanted to investigate it because I find it quite interesting socially and culturally. But I do see it as problematic for conservation.
One day you go wildfowling — there’s a film about it by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. In the film you talk about Sir Peter Scott, who was the founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the founding father of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and was vice president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. He was a wildfowling enthusiast. What does his legacy mean to conservation
Obviously, he’s done a huge amount — he set up the WWF. But not a lot of people know about the WWT, and that organization does a huge amount as well not only in the U.K., where it looks after lands where wading birds live, but also in countries like China where they’re helping to bring wetlands back to life. He set up two very powerful charities, which continue to do a lot [for conservation] today. He inspired a lot of people — he was a huge inspiration for David Attenborough.
His own past as a keen wildfowler … I think he loved being out in that environment, and perhaps as a young man he loved the shooting. But ultimately he loved the environment most, and he stopped the wildfowling in his later life because he realized that there wasn’t enough [wildfowl] for him to continue doing it.
I do think what’s really interesting about it for conservation nowadays is how Sir Peter Scott isn’t celebrated, or it’s not mentioned, concerning his link with wildfowling. There’s quite an absolute line between conservation organizations and organizations where people are hunting and shooting and fishing.
A lot of [hunters] are really involved in the landscape, and not just in England, but all around the world. There are developing countries where people still live off the land, and meat is how they interact with animals as a part of their life, and a part of conservation. I think it’s really important to talk about it. A lot of people living in cities have this lovely idea of nature [but forget] we’re a part of nature. We’re in it. And we have to admit that when we’re thinking about how we can better protect it.
In a film with the BASC, Louise Gray gets her first taste of wildfowling — an activity for which WWF founder Sir Peter Scott was also “keen.”
If it’s not eating meat where you draw an environmental line in the sand, where then is that line?
I’m afraid the line isn’t that clear cut. I would say buy high welfare meat, and don’t eat a lot of meat, but I can’t say there is a certain label on food that can guarantee all your meat comes from an animal that has a pleasant, happy life. There are risks involved in eating meat, and I think you have to face up to that.
I think that knowledge is where I draw the line. You have to have knowledge about what you’re eating. It makes people eat a lot less meat naturally — and it lasts.
I’ve read you are working on a new book about the ethics of fruit and vegetable cultivation. Are you only eating things you harvest yourself?
Nice idea, but I would starve! I am growing my own vegetables in an allotment as part of my exploration of the ethics of fruits and vegetables. But I am an amateur gardener, so it is merely to feed into the story and to learn about horticulture. The focus of my exploration is again going to be where the fruit and veg comes from that we buy in the supermarket, as I feel that is most important.