There were only three times in my decade and a half fronting BBC World’s Middle East Business Report that I felt threatened. One was in Egypt post-revolution; another filming in Yemen.
But the one that comes to mind when I think of today’s topic is the time when crowds of proud Jordanians gathered around me to set the record straight – that there was still milk and honey to be had by all. And meat.
I had gone to the kingdom to find out how people were coping with the escalating cost of living there and was at the fruit and vegetable market in downtown Amman to discuss food bills. A woman had just been telling me that her family ate meat maybe once a month, if they were lucky.
Being able to afford meat is a status symbol in many cultures. The woman I was interviewing was being honest, where others – who were obviously weighing up each vegetable before deciding to purchase – decided it wasn’t worth any potential hassle to tell it as it is. Unfortunately for her, an Egyptian migrant, a group of proud Jordanian men closed in on us and were very unhappy with what she was saying – the image of the country was being tarnished globally, they decided, and they wouldn’t let that happen. I wondered how much meat was in their diet.
I bring this up because this month is Veganuary. What an apt idea after the season of gluttony. The organisers of Veganuary, now in its third year, predict that about 50,000 people will take part in the month-long challenge, half of whom will stay vegan – choosing to say no to meat, fish and dairy as a lifestyle.
An interesting element in the discussion around this is how expensive vegan food is. I beg your pardon? Let’s think: lentil soup, a baked potato with all manner of toppings, quinoa with hummus, coriander, tomato. Vegan food is not expensive. Buying processed and pre-packed food of any sort is. So is meat. Today I’d like to look into what it means to eat meat. For our pockets and our lives.
Gérard Al Fil, a senior correspondent for the Chinese news agency Xinhua’s Dubai branch, chose to forgo meat more than a decade ago after several scandals.
First it was BSE. Remember that? Did you swear you’d never want for another burger again? Then there was bird flu. He decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
This is what he said: “First I said no to beef, then I avoided chicken. Finally, I noticed that skipping steaks and burgers had a positive side effect for my grocery budget.”
A simple comparison from Mr Al Fil: a Big Mac in the UAE costs Dh13, while for the veggie burger you pay Dh7. If you are a pescatarian (no meat, but fish) you also pay just Dh7 for the Filet-O-Fish Burger. If you opt for a posh dinner in a Lebanese restaurant, the falafel plate is more than 50 per cent cheaper than the chicken or beef plate, not to talk about lamb.
And there you have it – in hard numbers. Meat is expensive. And I believe it should cost even more. Maybe then people will think before they have their potential three portions a day, consumed in a rush without much thought.
I’m sure you know what is involved in producing more meat so that it costs less, but you do not want to think about it. Would you want to walk around a chicken farm? Three words say it all: faeces, bacteria and toxins.
Unfortunately, discussion about what we eat can degenerate and become accusatory.
The bottom line is that there is no sensible way to produce the amount of meat that we consume. My interest is not what food group anyone should eat, but the quality of what we consume, and how it comes to be.
To start a healthier, wealthier way of being, why don’t you join Veganuary in your own way, whether it means being vegan for a month or just highlighting every non-vegan purchase you make and adding it all up at the end so you can work out what proportion of your budget goes to it?
If you choose this second option, why don’t you make healthier non-vegan choices and be better to your body – and those of animals? Personally, I choose free range over organic because I don’t want animals cooped up or their stress hormones in my body.
People tend to gang up when they believe in something – whether it’s the animal rights group Peta or the Jordanians wanting to protect the image of their nation. Why don’t you gang up with your future self and look out for your well-being – that of your health and your pocket?
Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website cashy.me. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and find her on Twitter at @nimaabuwardeh.
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