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No turkey at Christmas is the least of our poultry problems

UK agriculture updates

It must be confusing to work in the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In August, people were furious that you killed a single alpaca (suspected of carrying bovine TB). In September, they are furious that you’re not making it easy enough to kill millions of pigs, chickens and turkeys (suspected only of being delicious).

A lack of farm workers, truck drivers and carbon dioxide is playing havoc with Britain’s meat supply chain. Ten of thousands of healthy pigs may be culled on farms. What intrigued me most was the statement made by one of Britain’s largest poultry producers that, due to backlogs in slaughtering turkeys, “Christmas will be cancelled”. The company gave no such warning in 2018 when some of its factories were found guilty of hygiene breaches, so this sounds serious.

Turkeys have been central to an aspirational Christmas since Victorian times. Part of their appeal was once their impressive feathers but their enduring status is a mystery. Must we mark our biggest holiday with meat that tastes like a floor cloth wrapped in a crisp packet? However much gravy you pour on your turkey, you’re guaranteed one mouthful that is drier than a hosepipe ban in Death Valley. There’s a reason that the Spanish, who once brought turkey back from North America, mainly spend Christmas eating fish.

The point goes beyond turkey. In the next few months, we’ll see adverts suggesting a certain meat/gravy/chocolate ice cream is essential to Christmas. But unlike the foods of Passover (or Thanksgiving turkey), none of them have much historical claim.

Anyway, is there a link between the deliciousness of the food and the harmoniousness of the meal? If anything, the amount of effort that goes into the cooking seems directly correlated with the amount of arguing that follows. A tasty roast might reconcile you to your family, or it might make you hate them a little more for ruining the taste. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love food. Unlike some Brexit supporters, I can also see advantages in having trained people available to process it. But it strikes me that, the more social an occasion is, the more food becomes a means, not an end. Giving up meat changed my Christmases much less than the arrival of BBC iPlayer did.

Having a fixed expectation of what food we should eat is historically and environmentally illiterate. Historically illiterate, because our appetites have constantly changed through the ages. Chicken barely existed as a major meat a century ago; now it’s the most eaten form of meat in Britain and the US. Cranberry sauce only caught on in the UK in the 1970s.

Environmentally illiterate, because we simply can’t keep feeding ourselves like this. Although poultry is quite efficient compared to other meat, each kilo produces 10 times as much greenhouse gas as a kilo of peas does. For each gramme of protein produced, chicken requires twice as much land as peas.

And poultry has only become relatively efficient thanks to intensive breeding. Most turkeys are conceived by artificial insemination because males have been bred so big — they reach 13kg in a couple of months — that they can’t have sex with females without seriously injuring them. We don’t eat the same turkey as the Victorians because farming is now so different. Tradition is a poor pretence for eating how we do.

Last year, many of us couldn’t see our families; people’s Christmases really were cancelled. This year, as long as there is something on our plates, we’ll get by. I’m not expecting meat-eaters to go, erm, cold turkey. And the looming poultry shortage is for the worst possible reasons. But one day, I hope there will be one for the right reasons. And it certainly won’t cancel Christmas.

henry.mance@ft.com

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