Chewing it over

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 39, Summer 1999.

Vegetarianism has long been associated with feminism in the view of those who seek to caricature both positions as loony left, as well as in the view of many political activists. But is the connection merely one of lifestyle, or is there a real relationship between these two political positions? Is it simply the coincidence of unrelated issues, a matter of ethics rather than politics, or does vegetarianism have anything to do with gender? Dianne Butterworth, Debbie Cameron, Liz Kelly and Joan Scanlon get their teeth into some of these questions.

Debbie: Why did we decide to have a discussion about vegetarianism?

Joan: Because it’s an issue that’s associated with feminism, although some of you feel that it shouldn’t be.

Debbie: The first time I was ever really involved in a feminist community, which was in Oxford, it was centred on a vegetarian whole food shop, Uhuru, and the connection with vegetarianism was absolutely taken for granted. All the feminists I hung out with were vegetarian and they regarded that as an integral part of their feminism, not just their politics in general. And the whole food shop was this really important feminist landmark run by a women’s collective in Oxford, and the women’s centre was really connected to that. But later I did start to feel that no-one had ever made it clear to me why that would be so. I mean, was it just a general lifestyle connection that people were political in all sorts of different ways that came together — or was it really an aspect of feminist politics? I should say that I’m not a vegetarian. I guess I never really took the possibility to heart at the time. Whereas you became vegetarian fairly recently, didn’t you, Dianne?

Dianne: Yes, about five or six years ago.

Debbie: So it hasn’t been part of your life for hundreds of millions of years. So why did you? Why did you make that decision?

Dianne: Well, it definitely was after I became a radical feminist — certainly not before. I don’t know whether there is a significant population of vegetarians in Canada or not. I suspect not. But it had never really entered my mind as a possibility before. Essentially I suppose mine is a vegetarianism of principle, but almost a principle of convenience. I knew there were all sorts of arguments why I shouldn’t be eating meat and it just eventually came to a point where it wasn’t going to be difficult for me to give up meat. I wasn’t going to have to make radical changes in my lifestyle; all I would have to do is not eat meat. I couldn’t sustain my meat-eating, let’s put it that way. In a way, I suppose, my understanding of it as being connected to feminism has developed since then.

The sexual politics of meat

Debbie: So what were the arguments in the first place that were really influencing you to think you shouldn’t eat meat?

Dianne: Well it was primarily about the resources that meat-eating uses — the water, the grain — as well as the waste products from the industry — there’s no treatment of all the animal excrement; it’s just dumped into the environment. Also the production-line, factory treatment of animals bothers me. Unlike some feminist vegetarians, it’s not so much the killing of animals that is the issue for me. The way in which we treat the animals to feed this industry has started to remind me of the way women are chewed up in the sex industry, but I don’t think that link is particularly obvious. I suppose what struck me as a feminist about being vegetarian is this notion of thingifying: that we take an animal and we turn it into an object and process it as if it were a car or anything else that you manufacture on a production line. For me that’s the connection, very hazily in my mind, between the way in which animals and women are treated.

Debbie: And you think that what’s wrong with that is that animals are living beings?

Dianne: Yes, the notion that you can do anything to them because they’ve been turned into things — they’re living in three square inches of space or they’re forcibly inseminated at every opportunity. I think it’s about the objectification. It’s that which makes me think that there is a connection to the way women are perceived in our society.

Debbie: I remember someone, maybe you Joan, reading Meat is Murder.

Joan: It was The Sexual Politics of Meat.

Debbie: Because that makes an explicit argument that there’s a gender issue there, doesn’t it?

Joan: Yes. Although I share the views that Dianne is expressing, I also think it’s very easy in this culture to dissociate from the issue of how animals become meat. It was primarily the connection with feminism and the arguments there about masculinity and meat culture that were a turning point for me in becoming vegetarian. But I think even those aspects of vegetarianism that are not linked with feminism offer very compelling reasons for not eating meat. I don’t think, for example, that because the whole dimension of animals’ capacity for suffering is not specifically related to feminism it is any less valid an issue. The turning point for me was definitely to do with the arguments in The Sexual Politics of Meat about how the language that’s used about animals and about women is closely related — what the meat trades journals and pornography have in common — as well as the brutalisation of the people involved in the production of meat, i.e. the rearing of animals for slaughter. We’re talking about millions — it’s something like 750 million animals — that go to slaughterhouses every year in the UK alone. There was a television programme, which I think was made in 1990, and called something like Pandora’s Lunchbox, which was filmed in abattoirs and in battery farms and places like that. I think a lot more people would give up eating meat if they knew the facts about how it was produced. I find the idea obscene that in a culture where we don’t need to eat meat we put 750 million animals to death for the purpose of food production. Unlike Dianne I do find the idea of killing animals for food obscene, unless it’s about survival, which it clearly isn’t in this country. And I do find that culture of brutalisation is profoundly linked with patriarchy; the meat trade is strongly associated with masculinity. It’s not accidental that the decor in places like steakhouses is like that of a brothel: the red plush velvet, the imagery, the language of consumption, together with everything Dianne’s already said about objectification.

Dianne: When I was 17 I worked in a butcher’s shop for a very short time, and it was extraordinary how masculine the environment was. It was a small family shop. The two butchers would try to out-macho each other, and say: ‘I cut this finger off in 1972’, and the other would say: ‘Oh well I sliced my ear off on the bandsaw’. There was this complete culture — like being on a sports field or in a boxing ring. And the fun thing for them, with me being a woman and being new in the shop, was this sort of competition between the two butchers to see which one could make me throw up. They would get a shipment of sides of pork or whatever, and they would cut the head off and throw it on the counter in front of me with all the brains spilling out and wait to see what my reaction would be. And it reminded me of playground stuff like boys chewing their food and showing it to you and you’re supposed to go: ‘Ew, gross’. It was very much like that — a horrible masculine environment that I was an intruder into because I was female. I was allowed to pack the meat, but it was clearly a man’s job to do all the meat cutting.

Debbie: And a woman’s job to cook it, presumably, once the customer has bought it.

Dianne: Well, I think in that particular culture, in the Canadian environment, yes.

Joan: I think that’s another reason why it is gendered. It’s predominantly women who are involved in the production and preparation of food, but where meat is a privileged food, it is predominantly men who kill and eat it.

Debbie: But in those cases, normally what feminists’ response is that all the meat shouldn’t go to men, that women should get equal shares, not that everybody needs to give it up.

Joan: Yes, but it’s not just about access to male privilege. I think you can extend the argument by looking at why it’s seen as privileged food, for instance the way it’s associated with masculinity. There’s a kind of machismo involved in eating it.

Liz: But you could make exactly the same argument about alcohol. Traditionally alcohol has been more the preserve of men and a male privilege. And some feminists have argued that we should be abolitionists in relation to alcohol but actually most contemporary feminists don’t.

Joan: But the argument about alcohol doesn’t have any of the issues around animal killing or the treatment of animals linked with it. I can see the point that you’re making but if alcohol was produced at the expense of animals in the way that meat is, then I think I would have the same view about that — but it doesn’t (fortunately). One of the things I object to most strongly in the arguments against vegetarianism, and the way that vegetarianism is ridiculed, is that there is this argument that we are somehow privileging animals or giving animals the status of human beings or attributing to them…

Debbie: Anthropomorphising them…

Joan: Yes, anthropomorphising them by giving them human rights. It seems to me that people who put that argument anthropomorphise animals where it suits them; they are prepared to recognise that animals have commonalities with humans if it’s do to with, for example, medical research. The reason that animals are used in medical research is because of what they’re seen to have in common with humans, biologically. Yet when it comes to killing them for food, it is difference that counts suddenly. The argument about what animals have in common with humans seems to have turned more around whether animals are capable of reasoning than whether they are capable of suffering or experiencing feelings that are similar to humans. I also really dislike the idea that because other animals are different from humans, they’re necessarily seen as sub-human, because that argument has been used about different categories of human being — i.e. they don’t feel as much, or they don’t have the same capacity for thinking and therefore its OK to treat them inhumanely.

Liz: But I think if you use that argument you have to be more than vegetarian because actually how do you know what it’s like having milk taken from you. Why do we wear leather shoes?

Joan: Sure. But the fact that there’s always a logical extension of every position doesn’t invalidate the fact that, as Dianne said, there are certain things one can do without effort — which actually cost one nothing. It’s actually more difficult, I think, in terms of diet and various other choices, for people to take that to its logical conclusion. It does become more complicated the further down that road you go, but it’s not difficult not to eat meat in this culture. It’s very easy, given the alternatives that are available.

The politics of food production

Debbie: I don’t know. I think that is actually questionable, depending on what place you’re coming from. I’m sort of in a difficult position here, because I do advocate giving up things, things that you might like or might feel comfortable with, on the grounds of your political principles. But I don’t think it is that easy to be a vegetarian. I have the concerns that Dianne started with about food production and the politics of food production, but I really don’t think they only apply to meat. What bothers me is that they apply to everything. I think a lot of the products that people start buying when they become vegetarians really don’t bear scrutiny in terms of the politics and economics of it and the exploited labour that is involved and the fact that we import large varieties of vegetables which are being grown as cash crops by people who were previously doing subsistence farming. I think there is such as thing as a sustainable lifestyle sustainable food production that does involve meat as well as non-meat, but it would have to be done in a very different way. I make certain choices about food products, like buying a lot of organically produced stuff, both meat and vegetables, so I do think there are very good arguments about the politics of food, but I think it’s problematic to think that you’re addressing that by being vegetarian. I really think the thing about meat turns on whether you think it’s OK to kill animals or not.

Dianne: I disagree, obviously. I think there should be a difference between how we react to the two types of exploitation. I suspect that the cotton in my shirt has been grown on land that previously was for sustainable farming, it’s been pesticided to death, it’s been harvested by exploited people. There’s all sorts of arguments about production methods which can be made about all sorts of other products. But the difference I see is that it’s going to take a different kind of campaigning to sort out those issues — we can start looking at globalisation and we can look at issues about labour and work. We’re essentially compromised in most of the choices we make but it isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. The way you combat having Zimbabwean mange-tout where a single supermarket has essentially turfed out every small farmer, or whatever the production nightmare might be, is not necessarily to dig into the product’s background and decide: ‘I’m going to boycott this kind of mange-tout but not that kind of mange-tout’; it’s about looking again at the whole idea of globalisation and the power of supernationals and so on…

Debbie: It’s not just abroad actually is it. I think about hydroponic watercress. The sister of a friend of mine married into this family that does a lot of vegetable production in Norfolk or somewhere and everything I know about that is quite horrific. Apart from the killing it is comparable to the abattoir. I really think that whether you decide to start with meat or start somewhere else like only buying organic if you can possibly afford to do so it is a question of how you feel about the destruction of living things for the needless, if you like, gratification of human beings.

Dianne: Well let’s just say I don’t feel the same about a cabbage as I do about a cow.

Debbie: No, but you would feel the same about an exploited agricultural worker as about an abattoir worker. But there wouldn’t be the same metaphorical association with masculinity, would there? Many more of the workers I’m talking about are, in fact, women.

Dianne: It certainly is an area even in this country where a lot of immigrant labour is used, under the counter, poor wages…

Debbie: People being shipped off in vans. Food production is a very nasty business all round. I suppose the other concern I have is about feminism being seen always as a politics of giving up things, giving up every part of what was your culture and what might have been your pleasures. I think many things you come to see as not a pleasure any more and many other things you maybe never saw as a pleasure, like it really cost me nothing to think: ‘Oh I’ll never have a white wedding’, or even: ‘I’ll never go to a white wedding had by anybody else’. I rejoice in that; that really isn’t costly for me but let me ask you, did you find it that easy to give up meat?

Dianne: I love meat. I still have cravings for big steaks or bacon.

Debbie: So it was hard.

Dianne: Well, it’s not as bad as giving up smoking.

Liz: I’ve given up neither. Well, that’s not true, I was a vegetarian. But it was precisely that thing about thinking that this was costing me in other ways that I ceased to want to do it. And I was a much more strict vegetarian; I used to look at packets of biscuits to see if there was meat fat in them, because I had a child who would examine them when I came back to see if I’d made a mistake in the supermarket shopping. And it was an enormous amount of work trying to make sure that what we ate was a good enough diet and I got really tired and fed up with it. Having said that I don’t eat a huge amount of meat I probably eat it once or twice a week.

Joan: I’m amazed at the argument about work though because I live in a house with two children who are vegetarian, passionately vegetarian, and it doesn’t involve us in any extra work.

Liz: Well it depends on what the children eat, doesn’t it? It depends if you’ve got a child who eats all the stuff that they’re going to get protein from — if they eat salad, then that’s fine, it’s not a problem. But if you’ve got a child who doesn’t eat that then it is a huge amount of work.

Joan: But I thought it was the child who didn’t want to eat meat?

Debbie: But they might want to live on, I don’t know, biscuits or crisps.

Joan: So when did you go back to eating meat? Was it after your daughter was grown up?

Liz: It coincided with her deciding for other complicated reasons that she wasn’t going to be a vegetarian any more.

Joan: So are you saying in a way that it wasn’t ever a decision of your own, it was never something you held political views about yourself?

Dianne: Or was it like Debbie, that’s what you did because you were involved in feminist politics?

Liz: I think it was a combination of both. The women’s centre in the town where I lived was also in the back room of a health food shop for a while and it was very much a culture about that. Also partly to do with issues about food production, but now I think in a more complicated way, that this stuff is not just about meat and…

Joan: The fact that things are more complicated isn’t a reason for not doing anything or not taking any action. You could say that about almost every aspect of feminist politics.

Debbie: Yeah. So you have your priorities or your boundaries.

Joan: You could see sexuality as being another such issue.

Lifestyle or politics?

Debbie: And some people do say: ‘I disagree with that’ — and they argue that the question of who we go to bed with and how is about lifestyle choice rather than being about politics.

Joan: It’s a complicated issue as well, in that you don’t resolve questions of power simply by having relationships with women.

Debbie: Yes, you’re not changing the world by becoming a lesbian yourself. Yet that doesn’t stop me from doing it and thinking it’s important. I don’t have kids and during this period it was a cultural thing, wasn’t it? For all the time I lived in Oxford I pretty much effectively was a vegetarian without having the conviction about it. I wouldn’t have held up my hands in horror if I’d found out that I’d accidentally eaten a meat ingredient, whereas a lot of the people I went around with would have. But to all intents and purposes I was a vegetarian because everyone I ever ate with was. But on the other hand there were issues about things like the fact that the women in the refuge we helped to run, and women on the whole from working class communities, had no experience with vegetarianism. They’d grown up as did I in a Britain that had a completely horrendous choice of vegetarian food. They didn’t know what to do with it, how to prepare it, they were just not interested in that at all. That caused certain conflicts which I would see as basically cultural conflict and which I think you have to be a bit flexible about it, there being other things that those women are contending with and that you’re trying to contend with in supporting them, that might be more politically important from a feminist point of view.

Joan: Sure. But the fact that you might be vegetarian doesn’t mean that you have to require all the women in the refuge to be vegetarian.

Debbie: No, but what if you want to eat with them? What if that was a thing that happened? The other time I find this, and this is a thing that’s more relevant to my lifestyle now, is that I it’s difficult if you travel. Some places quite close to us find vegetarianism an absolutely extraordinary idea. You won’t find too many vegetarians in Spain or Portugal. It’s not that an enormous amount of meat is eaten. In no peasant-type culture is there huge amounts of it in the diet but in the Iberian peninsula certainly you’d find a lot of fish and seafood eaten. You wouldn’t find people basing meals on vegetables. And so for me there’s a whole issue around hospitality and how that gets compromised if there are ordinary things — very large numbers of ordinary things — that you refuse to eat. And even worse, if you do take it to the stage of being vegan.

Joan: Don’t you think that’s different from actually going out and buying and cooking it yourself, though?

Debbie: I think that’s rather hypocritical, isn’t it? Why should I be more willing to have animals slaughtered if other people cook them than if I do?

Joan: Well I don’t think it’s hypocritical if your main concern there is of recognising cultural differences and hospitality. It depends on what your priorities are.

Liz: But we didn’t do that in the 80s though. I can’t tell you how many Women’s Aid conferences I went to where all the food that was available was vegetarian and it was fine for a lot of the women who were workers or part of the support group but the idea was to bring women from the refuge there and their kids and many of them hated the food. And part of what that meant was they then didn’t take part in the conference; they’d gone off to the chip shop or somewhere to get something to eat. So I think there are ways in which we made it a requirement of being involved in feminist politics which actually was very unhelpful in terms of asking other women to come into the organisation. Now that’s not an argument to justify my choice.

Joan: I do think the arguments around sexuality are very similar though. Because a lot of women are alienated by women-only space and completely misconstrue the whole notion that doesn’t mean that you therefore open those things up to men in order to get more heterosexual women involved.

Debbie: I agree, but that’s where my point about priorities comes in. That is hugely important, particularly in the context of working with women who have experienced domestic violence, whereas the food thing I think is just so much less important in terms of my gender politics that I do think it’s unhelpful to make a big issue of it.

Joan: I think the food thing is less important in terms of gender politics, but I do think that unless that information or clarity of political principle is actually there in the point you argue then it’s not even something that becomes an idea that’s disseminated as part of feminist debate and discussion. And I don’t actually think of it as a choice I don’t think it is either/or. I don’t think it’s the case that you make vegetarianism a part of your feminist politics at the expense of other aspects of your politics. I really don’t see that it has to be like that.

Debbie: No, but if you’re organising a conference…

Joan: If you’re organising a conference, of course you have to take into account the constituency of women who are going to be there. But the fact that you are inviting a whole load of women who are likely to be vegetarian — it doesn’t impinge on them (some, of course, that you would have known in your Oxford days would think that it did) that there is meat available for other women in the way that if you invite men to such an event then it does impinge on lesbians (and women in general) that they’re there. I don’t think that being a vegetarian means you assume some moral high ground that is completely ignorant in terms of culture and class and all the other issues you’ve been raising. I simply don’t think it has to be a choice between vegetarianism and other issues at all.

Debbie: Not at the level of individuals it doesn’t. Individuals will make choices and ought to be able to. The cultural issues are complicated. The refuge that I worked with women in was basically working class white, but if it had had a lot of Asian women there would have been those issues in the kitchen of the refuge itself. Cultures are very different. In the Indian subcontinent you would have no problem because it would be more unusual for people to eat meat than not to eat it. I think I agree with Liz’s point; I think we did make it a kind of hegemony and I think my failure to be a vegetarian might be a sort of reaction against that in a kind of class chip-on-the-shoulder kind of way. But also there is the fact that I do like meat, and I don’t want feminism to seem completely like a politics of having to give up everything you like.

Joan: I think that’s the least strong argument of the lot.

Debbie: I know, it’s a crap argument.

Dianne: I find it so unconvincing, because what you’re saying is simply ‘I don’t want to give it up’.

Debbie: Well if I don’t want to give it up why should I imagine that anybody else does?

Liz: In a way all we can talk about is the decisions we have made. And the political grounds or not on which they’re based. So in a way that’s all we can speak from. I suspect that some of my reneging on it is precisely linked to some of those things.

Debbie: It’s not as if the food I ate in my childhood was a gourmet dream by any means.

Liz: Absolutely.

Debbie: And it’s not as if I cook those things now.

Joan: But you’re talking about reneging at a point when the culture isn’t like that. I can completely sympathise with and respect the idea of reacting against a lifestyle politics and refusing to conform because there’s a completely unargued assumption which becomes a kind of unquestioned moral principle as well… But I think where there’s a principled politics you make a decision whether you agree with that or not, and if you do, then refusing to follow the logic of that it seems to me a different thing from refusing a hegemony that’s about lifestyle.

Dianne: Well, possibly. Before I actually stopped eating meat, I actually accepted a lot of the arguments in a kind of back-of-the-brain sort of way. And for a number of months before I stopped eating meat, I would say to a friend of mine: ‘One of these days I know I’m going to have to stop eating meat’. So obviously somewhere I had accepted that these were valid points but it didn’t quite translate into action for some time, and it might not have translated into action ever.

Joan: The reason why I think Debbie’s argument about ‘I like it, and I don’t want to stop’, has absolutely no substance at all is that the same argument could apply to so many other issues as well. For example, very few women who are lesbian would actually feel that they had given up sleeping with men.

Debbie: Exactly. But that’s all the difference in the world.

Joan: But there are women who, when they were heterosexual, did not necessarily find it completely repellent and alienating. And anyway, whether they did or they didn’t, I think the argument applies exactly the same. I would now find eating meat repulsive, but I didn’t at the time when I gave it up, actually. In fact the very morning that I decided to not to eat any more meat I had gone downstairs to buy bacon and eggs and the first edition of the Sunday Correspondent which happened to have in it the most distressing article about pig farming. It brought back all the arguments I had just read in Carol Adams’ book; it was just so completely and utterly about the brutalisation of those animals, and the way that it corresponded so strongly to the way women are treated in the sex industry, that I just thought: ‘OK, this is it’. And I think partly it’s something to do with pigs very specifically as well; it’s common knowledge that pigs are every bit as intelligent as most domestic pets, cats and dogs, and yet people who sentimentalise furry animals are perfectly happy to have pigs slaughtered for their breakfast. And I just think that’s foul hypocrisy.

Dianne: An interesting point where I think our arguments diverge is that my main objection, if I’m forced to articulate it, is about resources and so on. In some respects I find eating fish almost worse than eating cows because we are destroying the oceans. Because we have a surplus of cows, but we are gradually depleting the stocks of fish down to unsustainable levels. It is leading to a huge ecological disaster and some places have already been badly hit. I do find eating fish rather short-sighted.

Liz: Or the exemption of fish…

Dianne: The exemption of fish, particularly in the environment where we live, where most of our fish arrives on our tables as a result of great big fishing nets dragging behind huge ships the size of football fields and not some little local fisherman with his tiny little net that pulls in his daily catch. And that’s certainly one of the areas where I think I differ from you Joan. Because it’s not just about mammals or killing; it’s to do with resources.

Joan: I do agree with you, although it took me much longer to get a place of giving up fish than meat.

Dianne: Was that your rationale for eating fish — that you’re just harvesting them from their own environment — that they are happily going about their lives until they’re caught and killed?

Debbie: Actually a lot of the ones we eat are farmed, aren’t they?

Dianne: Certain species are.

Joan: The conditions under which fish are produced clearly differ from those of other animals, but I still think the argument around killing for the sake of food is very strong indeed.

Dianne: I’ve met people who call themselves vegetarian but who eat fish…

Joan: And there are those who say they’re vegetarian who eat chicken as well…

Dianne: It’s mad — as if fish are somehow a turnip. I should be vegan; there’s no question I should be vegan but it’s too hard.

Debbie: It’s only quite recently that even being vegetarian in this country has not consigned you to a life of tedious and boring food.

The importance of food

Dianne: Food’s never been that important to me. I’ve never been one to eat gourmet food. So if a vegetarian dish isn’t particularly inspiring I don’t really care. As long as it tastes OK and goes down and doesn’t come back up then I’m happy. If it were really important to you about the variety and flavour and excitement of food I think it would be difficult.

Debbie: I think that depends quite a bit on where you go to eat and what you can afford if you’re talking about food you don’t prepare yourself. I still think that vegetarians are not well-served by, say, the average works canteen or caf around the corner. And I suppose this is part of my class chip on the shoulder. If you believe a thing’s desirable you do look at how feasible it is for people who might not be in a privileged position.

Joan: But these are circular arguments to some extent because if there were more people who were vegetarian there would be better provision. Most fast-food places now have veggie burgers.

Debbie: I think it’s interesting to think about how things might go in the future because I’ve heard or read that a lot more young people are vegetarian, whether they keep that up for a long time but the children you live with are not alone, are they? There are huge numbers, so they have to cater for that at school.

Joan: They’ve been vegetarian for a long time.

Debbie: How much re-education of what people like to eat and can cook is really going on in school dinners? Do they use meat substitutes or do they try and turn children on to actual vegetables and grains?

Joan: It tends not to be meat substitutes but it involves a lot of dairy products.

Debbie: There is such a thing as a very unhealthy vegetarian diet.

Liz: Yes.

Joan: The idea about health is one that I find fairly peculiar, given what we know about how unhealthy meat is. I’m not just talking about things like BSE but, for example, the kind of research about how meat is associated with cancer. The notion that it’s healthy is just extraordinary.

Debbie: It’s partly to do with the bizarre proportions in which we eat them. Every globally known healthy diet involves a small amount of meat in the diet to large amounts of complex carbohydrates.

Dianne: This is the interesting thing about the class argument because I think it’s only in the comparatively rich West where we think nothing of eating meat three times a day. You have your bacon in the morning, you have your ham sandwich at lunch and you have a steak or pork chop at dinner. It’s absolutely extraordinary. Part of the production methods encouraged in this country, in most of the West, that has made the meat industry such a production line is the insistence on cheap meat and every government talks about cheap meat, as if this is the most worthwhile thing to work for. Whereas in any other part of the world, if you’re poor or working class, you have very little access to meat.

Debbie: But that doesn’t translate into wanting less access to it. In those circumstances it’s a food that’s privileged in that it’s a treat. There’s certainly over-production and over-eating and the health of the poor suffers probably more than the health of the rich. If you look at the general diet in Scotland it’s completely horrendous. But the fact is, I feel the arguments here are like the arguments on smoking, everybody knows it kills you — I’m sitting here doing it. But in lives that have little pleasure, people take their pleasure where they can and that becomes part of their cultural way of doing things. In the family I grew up in there was no-one that would have known how to prepare a meal without meat or fish in it. It doesn’t mean that I couldn’t make different choices.

Joan: That was true in my family; my father was in the meat trade and wouldn’t have considered it to be a proper meal without some meat. I don’t see that your background determines the choices that you make.

Debbie: No, but I think it does explain some of the choices that people don’t make even if they think that the moral or the health or the animal rights arguments are pretty strong. Maybe that shouldn’t serve as an excuse for me but I do think it’s explanatory on a larger scale. And I also think that if you wanted to have a politics around food it would have to involve making a kind of pleasurable and healthy diet and the preparation of that accessible to more people in the way that we teach people how to cook or what we make available at what prices.

Joan: It’s about priorities again, isn’t it? The fact that you may not choose to prioritise that as a campaigning issue doesn’t alter the fact that you can make that choice for yourself and that you can actually also find pleasure within the choices that you make. I really think that the constant association of this issue with things like smoking or alcohol is totally skewed because it constantly sidelines the core issues that we’re talking about. I have no interest in campaigning against smoking or alcohol. There are similar issues in terms of the arguments Dianne was putting, certainly about tobacco anyway. And of course there are arguments about food production as a whole, not just meat. But the single issue of whether or not it’s ethically tenable to condone acute suffering and slaughter on a vast scale is what takes this issue way outside the frame of reference of other types of industry.

Debbie: I don’t know about the suffering, because it think it would be possible to raise animals and indeed even kill them in different conditions.

Joan: But that’s not how it’s done though is it?

Debbie: No it isn’t, but I certainly do agree with the aims of an organisation like Compassion in World Farming, which isn’t against the raising of livestock, but is utterly against the way we do it now.

Dianne: The problem is that you can’t have it both ways. The only way you’re going to get compassion in farming is to stop eating so much meat. Because in order to provide the amount of meat that we, as a country, eat, the methods for farming by necessity are brutal.

Debbie: In theory you could legislate to change that and people would have to eat less meat.

Dianne: Yeah.

Debbie: So your order of events is not necessarily the only logical one stop eating meat and then we get more compassionate farming.

Dianne: I’m saying you can’t have compassion in farming with the same level of production and consumption. If meat were all produced in compassionate circumstances I might rethink my being vegetarian.

Debbie: All I was trying to say when we started this digression was that some people don’t feel like that — they feel that the issue is we can’t kill animals. And I suppose my position in this discussion is that I don’t agree with that. It’s not that I disrespect it or would want to argue anybody else out of their choices or their feelings on that but I do not see that that’s a gender issue.

Joan: No it’s not, but that doesn’t make it any less significant an issue — as with so many things. I don’t think that it is a gender issue in and of itself. I think that there are connections with gender issues which are basically to do with the fact that the vast majority of violence and slaughter is done by men whether it’s animals or women, or other men. Slaughtering animals for food is a form of violence; I don’t think you can deny that, can you?

Debbie: No.

Joan: And violence is a gendered issue, isn’t it?

Debbie: In a patriarchal culture, yes it is, in certain ways, but I don’t think violence would go away if we overthrew patriarchy.

Joan: But in a patriarchal society, violence is gendered and therefore the meat industry, which is inherently violent, is also gendered…

Debbie: For me a lot of the arguments for not eating meat are very good arguments but none of them are intrinsically feminist arguments to the degree that I would think: ‘I cannot call myself a feminist if I go on doing this’.

Dianne: That’s true.

Joan: Of course I accept that. I think you are completely consistent within your point of view; I just don’t agree with you.