Down the food route

In his latest blog entry, Malachy Tallack charts the course of food from the field to the freezer

There are those who argue that anyone who is willing to eat meat should also be willing to kill it themselves, and I can certainly understand the logic of that statement. There is a huge degree of pretence in much of the food that is consumed today.

The supermarkets are filled with pre-prepared and packaged meat, to which everything possible has been done to try and disguise the fact that it originated from a living creature. But despite that, I’m quite sure that most carnivores, in the right situation, would kill rather than starve. They would just prefer not to. And I don’t blame them.

Killing an animal is not an enjoyable experience, and anyone who does enjoy it should probably not be allowed near animals in the first place. Nor is it something that should be taken lightly.

I suppose the closer an animal is, in biological terms, to humans, the more difficult it must become to harm it. Swatting a bluebottle or squashing an ant wouldn’t trouble too many people’s consciences; killing a fish to eat would also pose little difficulty for most. But as you climb the evolutionary ladder, it gets more complicated.

Croft lambs from Fair Isle are sent to mainland Shetland to be sold. From there, most will be shipped to Scotland and sent to abattoirs there. The hill lambs however, stay on the isle, and are killed and eaten by the crofters themselves.

To have a freezer full of meat that you can guarantee has had a good life, and that will also taste fantastic, is a huge privilege, and is one of the greatest benefits of crofting. Indeed, it is this self-sufficiency which is meant to be at the heart of the crofting lifestyle. It is unfortunate I suppose, that sheep don’t get themselves ready to be eaten, and that we have to intervene, but that’s just the way it is.

From the field to the freezer is a process of a few days for a lamb. Once dead, it is skinned, gutted and hung for about three days before being cut up, ready to eat or to freeze. The job of getting it ready becomes gradually less unpleasant from beginning to end.

Butchering is pretty easy. By that stage the lamb has become meat, and it is simply a case of learning how to turn a whole carcass into roasts, chops, steaks and stew. Skinning and gutting are not nice jobs. They are messy, time-consuming and not for the weak-stomached. But it is the first part – the killing – which is the difficult bit.

For those who do it as a job, or who have done it every year for many years, I suppose it must become automatic and unquestioned. For me it is neither. And though, in reality, the death itself is quick and painless for the animal, it is a moment that lingers.

In some cultures, taking an animal’s life is an act of great spiritual importance, and many rituals have grown up around it, each marking the event as something significant. In Christianity too, saying grace and giving thanks must serve, in part, as a reminder that this food, this meat, is not to be taken for granted.

For me there is no ritual to be performed, and I would not go so far as to say that it is a spiritual event. But I do recognise something significant in it. And that recognition seems to be enough to satisfy any concerns, and, most importantly, to allow me to enjoy the food that it brings.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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