Five years ago, after a long and pleasurable inning in meat-eating, I turned vegetarian. A year later, I went a step further and turned vegan. The dietary practice has been largely easy to follow, except in meat-loving Pakistan, where I spend a third of my time. I am still vegan at home, but outside, it’s simpler being vegetarian.
Like most big decisions in life, my decision to turn vegan was not driven by data, but by emotions. I was aware of the harm diets like mine caused to the planet. But for almost a decade, I couldn’t use these tragic statistics to change what I ate. Two reasons came in the way: my love for mutton and a good Japanese meal (for which I’m even willing to trade all my passwords). One morning though, I woke up and the data in my mind and the taste buds in my mouth were somehow in sync. I never ate meat again and have never missed it since.
I don’t begrudge or judge those who eat an animal – it’s their right to choose. I don’t mind being at the same table as people whose food choices are not the same as mine. I sometimes serve food I don’t eat, when I am a co-host at house parties. And, as a meat eater, I used to deeply dislike the vegetarians who would try to decide restaurant orders under the guise of sharing.
But if there’s something I don’t get, it is mock meat.
Mock meats are plant-based edible items, flavoured and textured to taste like meat. You can get mock bacon, mock sausages and all manners of not-meat meats at some restaurants and supermarkets in major Indian cities.
Can someone please help me understand: why would you want to eat meat-like food when you’ve given up meat? An important reason to give up meat is that it isn’t good for the planet and for the species that inhabit it. This means giving up not only the physical product, but equally, distancing oneself from the slaughter that brings it to our tables. Turning vegetarian is simultaneously an act of silent protest and refrain, an attempt at healing the body and the planet with personal actions. It seems logical that turning vegetarian happens as much in the mind as in the body. You give up meat for reasons that make intellectual sense. Even if a vegetarian occasionally craves a piece of tandoori chicken, she will experience the ethical problem with that gnawing feeling.
In a Google search recently, I landed on a webpage where People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was promoting mock meats for children. This was a surprise and a letdown. I was dismayed at the strategy of the non-profit that is known for pushing animal rights through vegetarianism (and celebrities). To me, it seemed an embrace of any means to reach the end.
It’s understandable that if activists are fighting a lifestyle, they must offer alternatives. But should an alternative be a product or a line of thinking? Instead of being handed a shortcut to go on enjoying their meat without the guilt of planetary or animal misery, potential converts should be wooed to take an ethical leap of faith and become part of a systemic solution.
There are several arguments against mock meat. Some say it is junk food. Others condemn how processed it is. One of its important components, soy, is leading to denuding of forests, and another, rice, is a water-guzzling crop. Still, let’s ignore that and stay focused on the driving idea for most vegetarians: eating animals hurts life.
In their offer, mock meats eclipse the moral premise of vegetarianism, because people don’t experience their little challenge: withdrawal from the flavours and textures of meat. That’s an unhappy proposition, because when the reason for any action is no longer visible, people tend to be less intimately linked with, or driven by, underlying values. How does a society then collectively make a systemic change – an effort that requires more zeal and collective action?
One of the cop-outs of environmental action today is the soothing, cooing panacea. Rather than striking at the root of the problem – typically, consumption – the middle class is wooed with green consumption. It is one of the highest forms of self-entitlement, and an utterly self-destructive one. As the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report offers us stark choices: we need a more resilient society, which is ready to do what it takes to shrink our resource base. If we offer ourselves shortcuts to confronting the dilemmas of our times, they will more likely draw us into the sticky traps that devour us.