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Getting to the meat of the vegetarian debate

After several false starts, I gave up eating meat just over eight years ago and I have never regretted it.

Anyone considering it will first have to fight through the barrage of propaganda in favour of meat blasted out by the Ministry of Agriculture, Education and even Health up at Stormont.

The good news is that vegetarian food tastes good, it's generally cheaper than meat, there is plenty of variety, it's better for the environment and it's healthier.

Beyond that, I have no trouble looking a lentil or a cauliflower in the eye and, although animal infections can cross to humans, it is unlikely I will catch mad quorn disease.

It was partly a health choice. I am overweight and have type two diabetes through years of over-indulgence. A vegetarian, or largely vegetarian, diet guards against these and many other conditions. The latest research comes from a study sponsored by Cancer UK in Oxford University.

It found vegetarians are 45% less likely to develop cancer of the blood than meat eaters and are 12% less likely to develop cancer overall, confirming earlier findings of an observable link between the consumption of meat and cancer, just like heart disease and hypertension. Two years ago the World Cancer Fund found "there's plenty of evidence showing that clearly meat is linked to cancer". One of the report's authors added that there is no recommended safe level of meat consumption and alarm bells start ringing at quite low levels - 100g-per-day.

Many people feel uneasy about meat consumption at some point in their lives, but suppress the feeling and carry on.

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There is a natural 'yuk' factor about consuming, say, dead lambs, and many youngsters have to be reassured it is all right to do so.

So it's no wonder that our Livestock and Marketing Commission, which promotes lamb and beef consumption, have a special unit aimed at promoting a diet rich in red meat to the young.

It is called Food4Life and it has a website which is tied into the Northern Ireland GCSE syllabus. If you look up 'slaughter' on its search engine you get no results. Schoolchildren are not offered trips to abattoirs, much less the cramped Dutch veal sheds where many of our grass-fed calves end their lives.

They learn that animals are transported in clean wagons but a veil is drawn over what happens at the end of their final 'stress-free' journey.

Instead, children are told that a healthy, balanced diet requires meat. A section on vegetarianism warns: "Vegetarians are at risk of not getting the right balance of nutrients if they do not plan their meals carefully. The nutrients that would be readily provided by animal products need to be replaced in a vegetarian diet. Sometimes, this is not possible and consequently, vegetarians tend to have lower intakes of iron, vitamin B12, zinc."

If that is what kids hear through the education system, surely the Health department will be sounding a cautionary note? Not that you'd notice.

Each year the health and education ministries at Stormont join together to do their bit for the meat industry by promoting the joys of the Ulster fry at a breakfast with no healthy alternative on offer. Yet the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey must know fried and processed meat is just plain bad for you - it isn't part of a healthy diet even in moderation. The more you take of it, the more it tends to shorten your life.

Environmentally, meat consumption is the elephant in the room. Farm animals are responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gases, far more than the 13.5% contributed by all the world's transport systems put together.

Meat consumption was environmentally sustainable when the earth's population was lower and most people couldn't afford to eat it too often. Nowadays, Americans eat 260lbs of meat a year, and aren't much of an advertisement for it. Yet whole areas of the world like Russia, China and India now aspire to live the American dream, including a burger bar on every corner.

Something has to give. Last month, an animal-feed producers' conference in Holland announced that the world meat market will grow by 40% in the next two decades because once third world consumers earn more than £1.40-a-day they are worth selling to. No one mentioned that feeding people animal protein takes far more energy and water than if they stick to vegetables.

Already nearly half the world's water supply and four-fifths of agricultural land is devoted to growing feed for farm animals. The conference was told that 340 million more acres of land must be found by 2030 and most of this will come from clearing the 'cerrados', Brazil's tropical savanna. The argument for reduced meat consumption is unanswerable, but there is no point in being fanatical about it as a lifestyle choice.

When invited out, I usually tell people I don't eat meat, but if they forget I may eat whatever is prepared. I was once advised to remember that 'the roast is dead but the hostess still has some feelings'. Most people turning away from a meat diet today take a common sense approach aimed at reducing consumption as close to zero as possible. Like giving up smoking or any other bad habit, it feels surprisingly natural once you get used to it. It's National Vegetarian Week this week. Why not do yourself - and the world - a favour by giving it a try?

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