ME EAT NO MEAT – How going vegan once a week forever is beneficial to heart and Earth

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Eat like a primate!’’ is a new campaign launched by the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park in conjunction with the Health, Environment and Education Departments, to sensitise foodies to sustainable farming against deforestation of the South-American rainforest, natural habitat to the cotton-top tamarin, which is virtually extinct in the wild, and is being gradually reintroduced there thanks to the efforts of worldwide conservation parks, Gibraltar’s included.

Tamarins, like many other primates, are omnivores, and they opportunistically foray birds’ nests for eggs and chicks, and don’t disdain insects, but their staple food is fruit and seeds. Similarly, humans have evolved into being omnivores, with preference for grain and vegetables, hence the Twenty-First Century Homo sapiens sapiens aren’t being forbidden a juicy steak or a greasy fry-up once in a while, but one is also advised to distance oneself from the post-industrial mentality that it ain’t a proper meal if meat isn’t on the table.

Meat our Challenge: Cut meat, not trees’ is the slogan that raises awareness about the sacrifice of forests to not-so-greener pastures and the worrying disproportion between vegetables and dairy production per acre of land – one unit can produce up to 40,000 lbs of tomatoes, or 53,000 lbs of potatoes versus just 137 lbs of beef, according to VeganStreet.com. These statistics have prompted the United Nations’ call for western countries to discourage the animal protein rich lifestyle and promote the return to a more natural human diet.

“An estimated 70% of deforestation in the Amazon basin can be attributed to cattle ranching” says the ‘Meat Our Challenge’ team at the zoo. “Livestock rearing consumes many times more water than growing vegetables. The UN has recently called for a global effort to reduce meat and dairy consumption. Meat eaters in developed countries will have cut consumption by 50% to avoid the worst consequences of future climate change. There are so many aspects to this issue: climate, conservation, health, animal welfare etc. For this reason, we are teaming up with many different entities to promote the campaign. Protein can be obtained from many sources other than meat, despite the average Westerner currently eating five times more than advisable. Too much protein has been found to promote ageing and increase the risk of certain types of cancer.”

In fact, according to surveys, a worrying number of people consume some kind of meat at each main meal, that is thrice a day and, if that wasn’t enough, dairy or more meat for snack: who isn’t guilty of having had at least once in their life sausage for breakfast (topped by milk and cereal perhaps), ham sandwich for a ‘light’ lunch, and poultry for low-fat dinner, dotted with yogurt for elevenses and beef jerky for tea?

“Personally, I don’t disdain steak every now and then,” park manager Jessica Leaper says, “but I’ve educated my children to an almost vegan diet, also free from processed food and sweets, and they have ended up craving pumpkin seeds, peanut butter and marmite instead of cake and hamburgers as treats. In our previous open days at the park, we catered hot dogs for snacking, but at the last Halloween’s ‘Boo at the Zoo’ we offered pumpkin soup, and that was well received.”

Her initiative is not asking anyone to strictly monitor their calorie intake or become vegan for life, as it is understood that this can be a demanding commitment, just to eat more variedly and naturally. Until Gibraltar has sufficient accessible whole foods at competitive prices, it can also prove a more expensive diet. It is hoped that with this initiative, demand for vegan foods will increase and demand will be met. The population is just cordially invited to ditch the animal protein once or twice a week, or more if possible, for the entire day, whether it is ‘meatless Monday’,  ‘Veggie Wednesday’ or ‘Fruity Friday’.

If this happened regularly, it would be like one, two or three sevenths of the world population became vegans all year round (adding to those who already are) without threatening them with the glum vision of a not-so-distant future when animal protein derives from insects only – as Jessica says: “I tried fried crickets once: like many oriental dishes, the flavour is all in the sauce, yet the crunch and the texture are not for everyone.” It is also hoped that with time, exposure to tasty vegan foods will begin to change people’s food habits, forever.

One may object that Christians already abstain from meat every Friday and all week except Sundays during certain times of the year like Lent, but the Conservation Park is asking you to take it a bit further, banning all animal products from your table, and that includes fish, eggs and milk, which usually are the backdoor of religious prohibitions. And here, you are advised to do so not just to save your soul, but to save your planet and all the souls that roam it.

The consumerist sceptic on the other hand may argue that a 14% or 28% decrease in weekly meat and dairy consumption worldwide would be catastrophic for the ranching trade, but many governments are already taking steps to fund sustainable farming with better living conditions for cows, hens and sheep too often cramped in artificially-lit small enclosures to maximise the profits derived from mass production, and there is a steady trend to return to free-range livestock cottage industries that focus on the quality rather than the quantity of their meat cuts, eggs and cheeses.

In a bid to get us back in touch with our grassroots (excuse the pun), the move aims at benefitting the individual with alternative healthy eating guidelines towards tackling obesity and cardio-vascular disease, as well the ecology, in the etymological sense of the word, of our planet viewed as one entity made of interconnected living beings. This is not just another ‘animals-have-feelings-too-you-know? hippy fad’, like denigrators are sadly too fast to mock the hard-core vegan movement, but a larger-scaled project channelled to make the entire ecosystem more functional and fairer for all creatures in the food chain, flora and fauna, without drastically uprooting, actually restoring, anyone or anything’s natural eating habits.

Industrially processed food and fast food are our and the environment’s enemies too, she says, as she welcomes the local Department of Education support for Fruity Fridays in schools, when pupils are encouraged to have fruit for snacks, although peanuts and nuts are still frowned upon because of allergies looming. Besides its preservatives and additives content and the question of its dubious freshness or quality, the processed food readily available at supermarkets is enveloped in layers of cellophane, foil and carton, and wrappings also raise concern, because they produce unnecessary volume of refuse that strains recycle plants.

The ‘Meat the Challenge’ campaign is extending an invitation to local restaurants for the introduction of more meat-and-dairy-free and vegan dishes in their menus and go ‘commando’ at least once a week, preferably on Mondays, by commandeering their standard menu and substitute it with a full list of alternative vegan dishes from around the world, healthy and varied for all palates.

Restaurateurs may hesitate to adhere to this program, in fear that it alienates meat-loving patrons – and not just on Mondays – but on the plus side, they will be instantly inscribed in the good books of all vegans, locals and tourists, who have a hard time to put together a meal off meaty and cheesy menus, and hence shun wining and dining out altogether, or stick to the few outlets they have already tested as vegan-friendly.

But the think-tank behind ‘Cut it down, help it grow’ is confident that meatless Mondays will spread like wildfire here as they have already in Oslo, Norway, where the Government has ruled it compulsory for restaurants – and if it works in a cold climate where traditionally inhabitants are expected to be more carnivores since their fresh vegetables supply is limited, it should work even better in a Mediterranean context, whose cuisine historically exploits the orchard bounty!

Some may drag their feet claiming that vegan food is bland: nothing remoter from the truth, since the abundant use of spices and flavoursome vegetables add a tasty twist to any dish, as Moroccan, Middle Eastern and Indian gastronomy well demonstrate. Furthermore, it is all about acquired taste and one can quickly adapt and accept new flavours and veer in their direction to the point of silencing cravings for animal-sourced food. You just have to try it to believe it, and if you don’t like one dish, go for the next, because plant-based recipes permutations are virtually infinite, and your B-vitamin and protein intake can be effectively sourced from nuts, pulses, avocados, granary bread, soy, rice and mycoprotein, with no need for synthetic supplements.

It’s perfectly OK to enjoy your guilt-free Sunday roast dinner ritual, but for the rest of the week, start with small changes: order the vegetarian option for your fry-up breakfast (or go Andalusian with churros and chocolate), dash soy, coconut, hazelnut, almond, oat, rice or hemp milk in your coffee, soup and roll for lunch instead of sandwich, cheese-free margherita or ortolana instead of pepperoni pizza, tomato or pesto instead of bolognaise and carbonara sauces for your spaghetti, harira, falafel and veg curry for weekend takeaways and, most importantly, pastel de acelga and calentita any time you feel peckish the Yanito way. Speaking of which, the ingenious Meatless Mob may just have something very tasty for you up their sleeve for next summer’s Calentita Street Food Festival – watch this space.

words | Elena Scialtiel  tamarin photos | A. Baglietto