The Ethical Carnivore: My Year Killing to Eat by Louise Gray
(Bloomsbury, hardback, 320 pages. Out now and available here in the Caught by the River shop.)
Review by Malachy Tallack
In the summer of 2013, Kate Middleton was lying in hospital in central London with a baby on the way. At the same time, the Daily Telegraph’s environment correspondent, Louise Gray, was touring a slaughterhouse near Pontefract with Prince Charles. Her editors had sent her to the plant in case the prince happened to mention anything about his imminent grandchild. He didn’t, of course. But Louise did think she could see a story.
What was happening there in the abattoir fascinated her. It was a part of modern Britain that few people ever got to see, or even to hear about, and she wanted to correct that. But her editors were not convinced. ‘“It’s the birth of the future King or Queen of England”’, they told her. When it comes to the animals we eat, ‘“no one fucking cares”’.
Three years later, Louise Gray is hoping to prove her former bosses wrong. Her book, The Ethical Carnivore, published this month, is a thorough, engaging, sometimes shocking account of where our meat comes from. It is also, most importantly, a book about caring.
The premise is simple: Gray commits to eating only meat she has killed herself for a full year (and more), and along the way she learns about the industries that produce our food, and the conditions in which those creatures destined for our plates are kept and slaughtered.
The book is written in a chatty, informal style that somehow makes the facts of the modern human diet all the more terrifying. She writes, for instance, that ‘one per cent of the global population’ eats at McDonald’s every day, which struck me as incredible. As did the fact that 15 million chickens a week are eaten in this country alone.
Throughout the book she tells a series of fascinating stories – the history of the RSPCA, which began as a livestock welfare organisation; the rise of salmon farming; the growth in halal slaughter; the changes in our agricultural landscape. Gray’s interests are wide-ranging, and though her opinions are never hidden, she is always careful to offer both sides of each tale. She recounts the facts; she gives representatives of the industries space to defend themselves, where necessary; she asks questions.
The book is not polemical. Gray repeatedly and rightly emphasises the environmental damage caused by livestock farming and fishing, and her central message is that we should all eat less meat. But her purpose, I think, is not to change opinions, exactly, but rather to encourage readers to have opinions. She recognises that ours is a culture of avoidance: most meat eaters avoid thinking about the source of their food; they avoid thinking about the fact that, to produce it, something had to be killed. This is not just morally irresponsible, it is unsustainable – the planet cannot afford for us to live this way. The key to changing our diets then, Gray hopes, is for us to start thinking, to open our eyes and to be informed: ‘you don’t have to kill animals yourself’, she says, ‘but you should go to the effort to find out where they come from’. The right choices will surely follow.
The danger with a book like this, then, is that it will be read only by middle class foodies who already agree with its basic premise, and who can afford to be choosy about the meat they buy. The industrialisation of animal agriculture in the post-war years was a way of bringing affordable protein to every table, and while Gray is absolutely correct to point out that there are cheaper, tastier and more efficient ways of consuming protein than turbo-grown hens, there are still tricky questions to be answered by proponents of the meat-as-luxury movement. At one point in the book she speaks to a young volunteer at Edinburgh’s Gorgie City Farm, where pigs live happy lives before being turned into food. Gray asks the volunteer if she eats the meat from the farm herself. No, she replies. ‘“I buy bacon from Aldi, cos it’s all I can afford.”’.
One of the highlights of this book, for me, is Gray’s willingness to explore the complicated tangle of emotions that surround the actual killing of animals. She is not above exposing her sentimentality, particularly when it comes to mammals. The prologue describes her first attempt to shoot a rabbit, when she is plagued by memories of watching Watership Down. She feels guilty for her actions, for causing the death of a beautiful creature.
But then there is the other side of it, the almost spiritual feeling one can experience when eating an animal. ‘Wholeness’ is the word used by one of her interviewees, Jade Barlett, to describe how she felt eating home-killed meat for the first time, after 15 years as a vegetarian. And Gray herself describes the intense ‘hunter’s pride’ she feels – not at the moment of a kill, but when she shares her food with friends. ‘It’s hunter’s pride from providing for others,’ she writes; ‘this tastes real, smells real, is real.’
These deeply complicated feelings are, for me at least, utterly fascinating. They go to the heart of our confusion about what it is to be a human being in the modern world. Our instincts, our empathy and our logic all crash up against each other in this primal act of killing another creature. It can be a hugely disorientating experience. More than once, Gray feels the desire for some kind of secular prayer in that moment – a common response, familiar to many who hunt, fish or farm.
Louise Gray is very far from a meat evangelist. The most valuable part of writing this book, she claims, was learning how to enjoy a diet that is almost entirely vegan. ‘I now see meat as a treat to be eaten with the reverence and respect it deserves’, she says. Towards the end of the book she spends time discussing various meat alternatives, including eating insects, ‘plant-based meat protein’ and ‘biofabrication’. But ultimately she cannot escape from ‘all the messy, complex reasons I would rather be an ethical carnivore than a vegan’.
This book is never going to convince anyone who believes that ‘all meat is murder’ to follow her lead. Such beliefs are a matter of faith, not of facts, and there is little to be gained in trying to preach to the unconvertible. Ultimately, the ethical choices we make about food are personal, they are individual. But Gray’s argument is that they must be choices, not just blind acceptance of the status quo. The central lesson of this book is that, today, caring can be a radical act.
Malachy Tallack is a writer and singer-songwriter from Shetland, now living in Glasgow. His first book, Sixty Degrees North, was published last year. His second, The Un-Discovered Islands, is due in October 2016.