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Is meat about to get the chop?

As the world's population grows, our levels of meat consumption must be reduced (Getty)

If, like me, you have millennial granddaughters, you will have encountered vegetarianism. What several years ago was regarded as an eccentricity has become a commonplace. And, more than widespread: it appears to carry moral overtones. It is no longer a simple preference; it approaches an obligation. Fortunately my obvious senility excuses me.

Of course I understand the sentiment that cares about the cruelty of killing animals. But I wonder how solidly this is based. Several decades ago I happened, for good reason, to inspect the work in a slaughterhouse. I saw no cruelty there: the animals were instantaneously and completely stunned by the use of a captive bolt pistol. There are variations on this according to species, but the law protecting animals appears comprehensive – though I am less happy about the religious (Jewish and Muslim) exceptions. But my granddaughters remain unimpressed by the thought that, if we eschewed meat, the animals would not have been allowed to be born in the first place.

It was very different in my youth, when meat was strictly rationed. We lived in the country so I was required, with the help of a 12-bore shotgun, to provide rabbits for the table. And chickens were killed by methods I care not to describe. I recall my father coming home with the side of a pig. He was so proud of his success that we were obliged to eat it even when the smell from the larder (no refrigerator, of course) suggested it was past its best. My least pleasant memory was the incompetent slaughter of a pig on a neighbouring farm. That will remain with me.

But the future is going to be different. The majority scientific belief is that serious and damaging climate warming is well on the way. One estimate is that in about 140 years we will reach carbon levels not experienced for 56 million years. While it is hard to differentiate between the natural long-term cycles of temperature and the man-made contribution of carbon dioxide, it is only the latter over which we may have a degree of control. Meat production requires considerable energy and is responsible for 15 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas. So, as the world population grows, our current level of meat consumption will need to be reduced. It would seem that the granddaughters will win.

A key body in this matter is the European Union-funded Protein2Food. This is not an ideological vegetarian force but it is charged with guiding us towards vegetable species which can provide the protein we need and currently gain from meat. And perhaps I should add here that even today many well-meant vegetarian diets require supplements to achieve our full corporal needs.

Protein2Food aims to “produce plant-based protein food which is sustainable and so attractive that the consumers will prefer those to animal-based alternatives”. Much of their work is concerned with the Andes. This range in western South America moves through such a range of climates that it is not surprising that there are some 30,000 species of endemic plants. I fear that I know only a few of their names. The target is high protein plants which can be used to make dairy substitutes, cold drinks, appetisers, salads, main dishes, breads and pastries. One plant involved – quinoa – has sufficient varieties to enable such a range.

Complementary to this ingenuity, work is being done to enable these plants to prosper in our more temperate climate. And further research is being pursued with ancient European crops, such as buckwheat and lentil. The potential result is versions of pasta, vegetable beverages, protein bars, healthy breakfast cereals and infant food. I will temper my enthusiasm until I am offered these dishes; I am not sceptical, but I am wary until I have tasted the outcome. Protein2Food will be finishing its work this year and we are promised a full display of its results next January.

And there is another substantial benefit. A recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder has established that cooking a Sunday roast and vegetables exposes us to dangerous airborne particles at a level 20 times higher than the World Health Organisation limit, and several times higher than central London on a congested day. These particles (PB2.5) are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs and are related to some 29,000 premature deaths annually in the UK. Frying food has a similar propensity. The kitchen particles can remain at a dangerous level for eight hours.

There is an irony in the possibility that the grand cooking of the great Christmas dinner to celebrate the gift of life is lethal. At least keep the fan on, and the windows open…

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