On vegetarianism in the Arab world

I was alerted to Joseph Mayton's latest piece on vegetarianism in the Arab world — Vegetarianism is not contrary to Arab culture — by Brian Whitaker, who comments further about on the issue in his blog.

Both Joey and Brian are vegetarians, and in fact I think Joey is even vegan and certainly very evangelical about his food ethics. I've discussed this issue with both of them in the last — only a couple of months ago with Brian in Beirut, as I devoured keba nayeh (spiced raw meat, one of my favorite Lebanese dishes) and he vegetable kebabs. I am obviously not a vegetarian, but am certainly sympathetic to some of the arguments against eating industrially-produced meat, and have been of the opinion that, in many parts of the world, those who can afford to often eat an excessive amount of meat. I am guilty of that myself at times, but generally — as the main cook in our household — keep a fairly reasonably balanced diet and often cook pure vegetarian meals. That being said, I love meat and see no reason to abandon it, although that is because I can afford to shop carefully for it and pay a premium for the best quality stuff (especially since I don't consume that much of it.) I'll happily forego factory chicken every day if I can have a delicious baladi bird (the equivalent of free-range) once a week. 

For a while, Joey has been campaigning on Twitter and in his writings for vegetarianism as a solution to economic problems in Egypt, and presumably elsewhere. The context of this is a steep rise in the price of meat since the beginning of the year, as well as scandals over rotten imported meat and a more general drop in purchasing power for a good part of Egypt's population in the last few years due to high inflation and still-unexplained rises in the price of certain foods.

His argument for vegetarianism — which is ethical at its core — is deployed around economic arguments in Egypt:

In other words, even if you are not convinced of the moral case for vegetarianism, if you care about the future of our planet it makes sense to stop eating animals – both in environmental and economic terms.

In Egypt, for example, we see that hundreds of thousands of cattle are imported into the country for slaughter; lentils, wheat and other staples of the Egyptian diet are also imported. That all costs money.

If Egypt were to promote and incorporate vegetarianism into its economic policy, the millions of Egyptians who struggle and complain about the rising costs of meat could be fed. It takes around 16kg of animal feed to produce one kilo of meat for consumption. That's a lot of money and food that could serve the hungry population.

According to Hossam Gamal, a researcher at the Egyptian agriculture ministry, "the exact amount of money that could be saved by reducing meat production is unknown, but I have estimated it to be in the billions [of dollars]".

Elsewhere across the region, Gamal continues, "we could increase the health and living situation for millions of people if we didn't have to spend so much on maintaining the desire to eat meat".

I can support ecological reasons to reduce meat consumption, and campaigns to get people to eat less of it. But there are two problems associated with this. First, the question of tact in a country where many people cannot eat meat more than a couple of times a month. Secondly, you have to think hard about the available alternatives: there has also been a rapid increase in the prices of legumes — nutritious vegetables like carrots or spinach — as food prices generally increased in recent years. The fact is that, among the poorest, it is not only less meat that is being consumed, but also less green vegetables. What has increased, and quite dramatically so as we saw during the 2008 world food crisis that resulted in bread riots, is the consumption of bread and other carbs. The poorest, increasingly, are eating bread, onions, beans and cheese. The occasional bit of meat might be (along with certain feculents) an important source of iron and protein.

As for cultural resistance to vegetarianism, I think yes and no. Open any Middle Eastern cookbook and you'll find plenty of vegetarian dishes, perhaps more than, say, in a French cookbook. But there are those occasions that are specifically associated with meat, such as Eid al-Adha, as well as an association between meat and affluence that exists the world over. It would be much more fruitful, therefore, to argue for a low-meat diet than a purely vegetarian one (or — the horror! — a vegan one). This is a place where the state can enact policies to reduce the economic and ecological impact of large-scale meat production and encourage better nutrition, as well as inform consumers about the kind of meat they buy. Just don't be in a rush: there are surely more important priorities out there than the veggie jihad.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.