We need to update the seven deadly sins. Take out gluttony — what’s wrong with the odd bit of gorging? — and replace it with ethical eating. Noble foodies, who refuse to pollute their bodies with what they view as ‘evil’ grub, are far greater irritants than compulsive cake-eaters.
Ethical eaters are everywhere. There’s the veggie army, those bunny-pitying meat-dodgers, which seems to grow every year. Vegans are on the march, too. In 2006, 150,000 Brits were engaged in the daily self–flagellation that is a plant-based diet; today, 542,000 are.
Trend analysts believe that social media — filtered photos on Instagram of a bowl of lentils looking deceptively delicious or Gwyneth Paltrow positively glowing after downing a test-tube of pureed spinach — plays a major role in coaxing naturally carnivorous humans to switch to leaves and nuts. I love how ethical eaters fancy themselves as brave resisters of the consumer culture that tells us all to scoff dead animals and yet they can be tempted into a lifetime of salad-only self-denial by the flutter of a celeb’s eyelashes.
Then there’s locavores, who only eat foodstuffs harvested in a 100-mile radius of where they live. Didn’t we used to call this protectionism? If ethical eaters think it’s good to prop up local industries by shunning the juicy, sun-dappled fare of dirt-poor African or Latin American farmers, then they and I have different takes on the word ‘ethical’. There’s the Fairtrade and organic lobbies, who want their every bite of chocolate and sip of coffee to come with the warm glow of knowing that the Africans who produced this stuff didn’t use pesticide or big machinery and instead put their bloody backs into it. And let’s not forget freegans, who only eat food that has been thrown away. As a protest against capitalism or something. They scavenge, basically, even though they’re mostly middle-class grungies.
There are now restaurants that promise ‘guilt-free dining’. Like The Grain Store in London, which offers diners an organic, carbon-neutral eating experience. So the grub doesn’t only nourish your body — it massages your ego; it flatters your moral pretensions. This is what I find so grating about ethical eating: it’s so self-regarding. It isn’t about changing the world. Hordes of caring teens opting for -beanburgers at Leon rather than Big Macs at McDonald’s are not going to overthrow The System, or even make much of a dent in the number of cows killed for meat. No, it’s about keeping oneself morally clean, unpolluted by the junk that other people eat.
It’s part of what the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu called ‘distinction’, where one bigs up one’s moral status by contrasting it with the antics of the less switched-on. In this sense, vegans and freegans and locavores need McDonald’s to keep frying meat, and nasty corporations to continue flying fruit from Kenya to Tesco, because without all that wicked behaviour they’d have nothing to distinguish themselves from.
In fact, if ethical eating has any tangible impact on the world, it tends to be a bad one. Reports show that some African farmers stick with organic, natural -methods — i.e. hard bloody work — because they know there’s a market in Europe for that kind of thing. They’re servants to the needy moralism of guilt–ridden twits in Hampstead. And experts have pointed out that fruit air-freighted from African countries often has a smaller eco-impact than the same fruit produced in Britain, because to produce such stuff in our unsunny nation you need a lot of technology and electricity and so on. So locavores could be harming Mother Nature more than the ‘eco-unaware’ mum who gets her fruit from Kenya via Aldi. D’oh!
Ethical eating, if you’ll forgive me for getting a bit sociological, ultimately speaks to the shrinking of public life. Feeling they can no longer reshape the world itself, people turn inwards and become obsessed with their own bodies, with keeping their tiny selves morally pristine. And so the body really does come to be seen as a temple; a thing we worship at; a thing we sustain with good, fair, decent sacrifices. It conforms brilliantly to another of the seven deadly sins: pride, where we care more about puffing ourselves up than about either simply enjoying life or thinking about how life might really be made better.