Veganuary is over, leaving only the remains of a seitan burger and some cashew cheese in the back of the fridge. Perhaps you feel lighter and healthier; you will certainly feel more virtuous. But do you also feel like a steak? It is OK – you can admit it. The campaign group behind this annual event estimates that only half of the participants plan to remain meat-free beyond the end of the month. However, it says that most of those will at least reduce the amount of animal products they eat for the rest of the year.
Whether you call youself flexitarian, vegan-ish or whatever, it is possible to care about the planet while occasionally eating meat or dairy, as long as it comes from ethical sources. Even Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Eating Animals, a book advocatIng veganism, has admitted to eating a small amount of animal produce after 6pm.
So, if you are hungry for something other than plants, what should you buy? Here are some high-welfare, low-carbon options for post-Veganuary.
Cows, or “carbon-releasing machines” as George Monbiot calls them, are the worst offenders when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases. Cow burps (not farts, as is commonly believed) release methane into the atmosphere, which traps more heat than carbon dioxide in the short term. Also, beef takes a lot more energy to produce than, say, tofu.
However, much of the information you read about the planet-wrecking capability of cows is based on the most extreme scenario. Yes, grazing cattle on pasture that used to be rainforest releases a lot of carbon dioxide. Yes, cattle kept on feedlots in the US midwest use a lot of water. But there is an easy way to avoid this – buy British.
In Britain, beef cattle tend to be kept outdoors on pasture, simply because we have so much wet grassland that is good for little other than grazing animals. Although feedlots are not unheard of, the average herd size is 28 to 50, as part of a mixed farm. If the cattle are pasture-fed, there is even an argument that they are less damaging to the environment, as permanent pasture stores carbon dioxide. Pasture-fed cattle also tend to have more omega-3 fatty acids.
In terms of welfare, cattle are a fairly safe bet – again, if they are British. British beef tends to be from animals kept outdoors in a social herd for one to two years (a much longer lifespan than chickens).
Why British as opposed to, say, Irish or continental European? Although the EU has comparable standards to Britain, transport is stressful for animals, so it is always better to eat meat that was produced closer to home. Look out for country of origin labelling: this is a legal requirement for EU countries and shows where the animal was born and slaughtered.
Of course, eating any meat involves the slaughter of animals. In Britain, the Food Standards Agency employs vets in all abattoirs to ensure minimum standards of animal welfare. Animals must be kept calm in holding pens, moved through the system without excessive force and stunned before slaughter, unless it is religious slaughter.
If you want to know higher standards have been met, look out for RSPCA Assured, which is run by the animal welfare charity. This labelling scheme ensures that the transportation of live animals is kept to a minimum, that animals are kept in better conditions before slaughter and that they are killed as quickly as possible. Organic schemes include standards for the humane care and slaughter of animals; they also prohibit the use of most pesticides, genetically modified feed and growth hormones. Organic cattle are not given antibiotics routinely.
Almost all veal is a product of the dairy industry. Cows are put in to calf so they produce milk, then the calf is removed within 24 hours so that the milk can be taken for human consumption. In general, female calves are kept and male calves are slaughtered. There is an argument that using the meat from male calves avoids waste, but ensure it is British and meets a certain standard. In much of Europe, calves are kept in cramped conditions, sometimes without light, so the meat is pale. The RSPCA and other welfare charities have successfully campaigned against this in the UK and advise against buying imported veal.
British veal is a different matter. Most of it is “ruby” or “rose” (so called because the meat is darker), from calves kept for up to a year. Even the RSPCA has approved veal from older calves that are kept free range during their lives.
Sheep – or “woolly maggots”, as Monbiot would have it – are another animal blamed for environmental destruction because they were grazed on areas that were once ancient forest. As subsidies wind down and rewilding takes off, many of these areas are being allowed to return to scrub or forest.
Many of the farms in these remote upland areas are part of our heritage. The Lake District was awarded Unesco world heritage status in 2017, largely – and controversially – because of the “cultural value” of sheep farming.
Lamb, like beef and pork, is a meat you can buy directly from the farmer, thereby supporting some of these farms. Buying mutton rather than lamb means that the sheep lived longer; such meat tends to be from smaller-scale farmers.
Unlike chicken or pork, sheep are not generally reared intensively indoors. Although ewes are brought inside for lambing and some flocks are fed indoors during harsh winters, most spend their lives in fields.
Pasture for Life is a new certification scheme that labels lamb, beef and dairy raised only on pasture. This means they are not fed any grain or manufactured feed and are kept outside throughout their lives. The farmers who set it up claim that grazing animals not only contributes to welfare and produces a healthier meat, but can also help wildlife such as lapwings. Most Pasture for Life farmers follow the same standards as RSPCA Assured or organic to make sure sheep have been slaughtered humanely.
In Britain, about half of all sheep are slaughtered for halal meat, meaning the animal is killed according to Islamic teaching. About 80% of these are stunned, as with conventional slaughter. British Muslims are increasingly looking to develop their own labelling schemes so that welfare standards can be guaranteed.
Visit a British farm and you will see that pigs, with their curly tails wagging, enjoy living outdoors. But much of Britain’s pork is imported from factory farms, where those curly tails are docked and the animals spend their whole lives indoors on slatted floors without straw. The biggest sources are Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, especially for bacon. The EU has comparable minimum standards to the UK, but British producers are beginning to meet much higher standards as consumer awareness increases. To eat high-welfare pork and support the farmers going the extra mile, look out for British pork and read the label carefully.
“Outdoor bred” means the animals are born outdoors, but brought inside for the rest of their lives; “outdoor reared” means they spend roughly half their lives outdoors; and “free range” means they spend all their lives outdoors. Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) say all the systems can be humane – even indoor farming can be high-welfare if the animals are kept on plenty of straw.
A good way to ensure pork is high-welfare is to look out for rare breeds such as the tamworth. Rare breeds tend to live longer and be kept outdoors, since, unlike more modern breeds, they are not bred for intensive systems. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust encourages the eating of rare breeds, because it is the best way of ensuring these animals continue to be farmed. Farmers’ markets are a great place to find rare-breed meats and to meet some of the farmers keeping interesting specimens. Alternatively, try to visit farms open to the public on Open Farm Sunday on 7 June.
Intensive chicken and pork have been cited by UN reports as lower-carbon meats because the animals can be reared quickly using relatively little energy. But this raises questions about welfare.
Most of the chicken eaten in Britain is from barn-reared birds. This can mean tens of thousands of birds in one barn, each with barely as much floor space as an A4 piece of paper. The most basic assurance scheme, the Red Tractor label, has recently improved its standards so that sheds must at least have windows. RSPCA Assured chicken will be slightly more expensive, but will have had more room, as well as toys and straw. These chickens live longer and are less likely to suffer from health problems resulting from growing too fast.
Free-range birds must have access to the outdoors for at least some of their lives, but the label has come in for criticism because not all the birds in huge barns will go outside.
Organic chickens will have access to more space and, since they are kept in smaller flocks, it is argued that they are more likely to go outdoors. They will also not have been fed genetically modified soya, imported from South America and routinely fed to intensive chicken (and pork). They are considerably more expensive – but if you learned to use less meat in Veganuary, this may be less of a problem.
Tripe and other offal
If we are going to eat meat, we should eat the whole animal. Thowing away less popular cuts is disrespectful as well as wasteful. They can also be very nutritious. Most butchers will sell liver, sweetbreads, kidney and black pudding. For more unusual cuts, go to specialist butchers or restaurants such as St John in London that advocate “nose to tail” eating.
The Marine Conservation Society has a Good Fish Guide app that will tell you if a species is under threat, vulnerable or sustainable. The simple guide uses a traffic light system of red (avoid), amber (eat occasionally) or green (eat without second thoughts). When you are buying fish in the supermarket, look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) badge that is given to fisheries with a sufficiently high population to take a regular catch. Many less fashionable fish are also more sustainable. Rather than cod or haddock, why not try coley or herring?
Farmed fish such as salmon have a scheme similar to the MSC’s, run by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC); this is based on the impact on the wider environment of keeping fish in cages. It ensures that the fish do not escape into the wild and puts limits on numbers to prevent overcrowding. However, only a handful of fish farms in Britain meet these standards. The RSPCA Assured label can be given to salmon that were slaughtered humanely, but it doesn’t focus on environmental credentials.
Labels to look out for: MSC/ASC; fish labelled sustainable by the Good Fish Guide
Game birds such as pheasants and partridge are problematic, since they tend to be from managed shoots. The birds are released into the wild as chicks, only to be shot later in the season. It is difficult to know if shoots are well managed and there are questions over the impact that so many non-native birds have on the countryside.
Wild game meat such as rabbit, deer and even squirrel is more straightforward. All these species are shot as part of managing the landscape for conservation purposes, such as planting trees. They are truly free-range animals living in the wild. If you are lucky enough to live in the countryside, make friends with a gamekeeper, who will probably give you game meat for free.
Eating British venison is good for trees, since the animals are a problem in areas such as the Highlands, where they ravage new forest plantations. However, a substantial amount of venison sold in British shops is from deer farmed in New Zealand, because the meat is more consistent. Look out for UK venison or track down a reputable butcher or game dealer.
Where to buy: game dealers and independent butchers; Borough Market, London
You need to know what you are doing, but is there a more ethical meat than that of animals that have been killed anyway and will otherwise be wasted?
Technically, animals on a public highway are the property of the government, but that has not stopped advocates of “roadkill recycling” recommending eating pheasant, squirrel and even badger found on the road. Alison Brierly, an artist and roadkill recycler, offers safety tips on her website. She recommends carrying surgical gloves and a good knife and butchering smaller animals on the roadside – taking the breasts out of pheasants, for example, or the meaty legs from a rabbit or squirrel, and leaving the rest for the buzzards.
Unlike meat, milk is very difficult to trace back to the farm, as it tends to be mixed together at centralised bottling plants. The label “free range” guarantees that cows have been kept outside at least some of the time, but one of the easiest ways to make sure you are buying higher-welfare is to invest in organic. Studies at the University of Newcastle have suggested that organic milk could be better for you, since it contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Look out for dairies where calves are kept “at foot”, ie with their mothers.
Most of the fresh eggs sold in Britain are free range. This means that the hens have access to the outdoors – as long as there isn’t a bird flu outbreak, when all birds are kept indoors. If you want to be sure that birds have a bit more space and access to pasture, buy organic.
Eggs in a lot of processed food such as mayonnaise are likely to be from caged birds, so look out for products that state the use of free-range eggs on the label.
If you want to be really ethical, get your own hens and eat the eggs. Rescued battery chickens are increasingly popular.
Humans and honeybees have lived alongside one another for millennia. The Vegan Society says honey is not vegan because, among other things, it is fundamental to the wellbeing of a hive, but others consider supporting bee keepers key to maintaining traditions that benefit both species. Bee farming in the UK is very different from the industrial-scale operations found in the US, especially among local producers, where honey is taken only when it is plentiful and appropriate. There is a movement towards “natural” beekeeping that uses a “bee-centred” approach to hive farming.
Keeping bees is also good for the wider countryside, as it provides pollinators for flowers and food crops. But ethical honey doesn’t have to be British. Imported Fairtrade honeys support bee farmers all over the world and can be the best way to protect forests, by providing a livelihood for local people. Read the Ethical Consumer’s honey guide to find the best sources.
The Ethical Carnivore by Louise Gray is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £8.79 (RRP £9.99), go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK P&P over £15; online orders only. Phone orders minimum P&P of £1.99.
• This article was amended on 4 February 2020 to change “permanent pasture absorbs carbon dioxide” to “permanent pasture stores carbon dioxide”.