The vegan complex

I sometimes wish I’d never started thinking about food. There’s a glorious forgetfulness, a cast-aside-your-worries attitude to stuffing your face with cereal, or salad, or chips. Meals were my respite from overthinking, a bovine chewing and swallowing experience, and now I’ve gone and ruined it all.

My problem with food came to be this: I’d never once thought about the consequences of what I was putting in my mouth. In the past, I counted calories; in supermarkets, I would debate the merits of this spice over that herb. As for the wider consequences of my eating habits, however – it was never a consideration.

The more interested you are in food, though – and I really am a fan – the less you can help hearing about food miles, and pesticides, and crop failures. The words appear in the most inconvenient of places (‘try Norfolk fava beans instead of bulgur wheat for that air miles-free feeling!’; ‘use three happy eggs’). They have a slow consciousness-raising effect, a gentle proving process. After a while, something felt wrong about the pomegranate seeds in all my salads, or the huge slabs of fish I’d never finish.

I started to feel slightly more guilty about the wantonness with which I ate. Over a couple of years I started to take action. I began to check the labels of food. I swallowed leftovers. I stopped buying cheap eggs and meat; later, I stopped buying meat altogether. I rescued unwanted bread from the sales section. I bought vegetable boxes. I used broccoli stems and cauliflower leaves. I followed the advice of every Guardian columnist and scrimp n save food blogger I read.

I was a local-shopping, organic-eating, Fairtrade-buying, leftovers-using vegetarian. I had it covered. And then, AND THEN, I read an article about quinoa.

Keen-wa, that natty protein-filled pulse, was meant to be a great substitute for meat. Not so, this article trilled. You eco-eaters have got it wrong again. In buying quinoa, we are in fact depriving its Philippine farmers of food, having pushed up the price of their crop beyond locals’ ability to buy. Get back to the drawing board, hippies.

The problem with trying to Be Better with your food habits is the confusion about what exactly we should be fighting. Is it better to eat vegetarian or British food? Ah, but that depends on the British food: was it grown in an energy-guzzling conservatory that negates its lack of air miles? Which is worse, and for whom: Brazilian pineapples or British pork?

Then there is the matter of the places you buy from. Should we shop for good brands or good people? Supermarkets are killing off local farms and businesses, but they also offer the choice to buy Fairtrade products. Shopping at your local grocer may be better for the area, but there is no guarantee you will be buying well-sourced or sustainable food. A Nestle bar from your local newsstand is a chewy ethical problem, even if it does help sustain local business.

Is it helpful to forego meat? Yes, it creates greater sustainability of resources, but meat substitutes like soy have a chequered past, with their whispered health problems and chemical creation. And let’s not start on pescitarianism. Or ‘flexitarianism’.

Negotiate these minefields, and you remain uninformed about a large number of the things you buy. ‘Free range’ is a battle in itself, constructed on a confusing tiered system few know much about. You could be buying barn-bred hens: a small step up from caged. And as the recent news about the composition of ‘beef’ burgers suggests, we are not always fed the right information

It’s enough to make the do-gooding eater in all of us run wailing off into the night. But I remain (cautiously, very Britishly) optimistic: a little more attention, occasionally applied, to what we eat, goes a long way. It’s the consciousness-raising which is so important to get people reading articles, and thinking about issues, and forcing suppliers to be transparent about what they produce. As with all big issues, the change starts with better information, and a willingness to learn. So, for the record: no more horsemeat burgers for me please; I’m a transparentarian.

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