Saturday, 12 April 2008

What are reindeer for?

The Arctic trip posed a bit of a moral dilemma for me. No, not whether we were justified in flying to the Arctic to learn about climate change - I known we'll invite some flak for that, but that's a separate issue. I started thinking quite seriously on the trip about my views on fishing and hunting, 'though I wouldn't go so far as to say I questioned my stance - I'm not pro either. (One of the problems with allowing comments on blogs is that you get paranoid about whether people are going to - deliberately or otherwise - misinterpret what you're saying, so you end up having to clarify and restate and justify ad nauseam. So - I'm still very much a vegan, for ethical, health and environmental reasons as well as a general squeamishness about things being killed or factory farmed).

Anyway, I was lucky in that of the six MPs on the trip to Norway, one was a vegetarian who doesn't eat meat or fish, and another was allergic to nuts, so I wasn't the only one being a bit of a pain on the dietary requirements front. The food was great in fact, although one of the Norwegian embassy staff confessed afterwards that when she'd been texting and phoning during our meetings, it had usually been trying to explain to our hosts exactly what a vegan was.

Our very first briefing took place on a deep sea fishing trip, and we were all given fishing lines. Not wanting to offend our hosts by objecting, I took a line, hoping I wouldn't catch anything. None of us did, and we got a double-page spread in the local newspaper the next day, which basically was along the lines of 'English MPs are crap at fishing'. To which I can only say - you should have seen us skiing!

The next day, in Svalbard, we were taken to dinner in a traditional hut, which meant sitting on seal skins and being served reindeer stew. Jamie (the vegetarian) and I were given something involving sun-dried tomatoes, which isn't what you'd expect to find in the Arctic. The owner of the restaurant, who was also in the dog-sledding business, has lived in the Arctic for 35 years. He came over to lobby me on how ecologically sound his reindeer meat was, as the animals had been treated well and lived a fairly idyllic life. He said he'd had a visitor from the World Wildlife Fund recently, who was a committed vegetarian but had been persuaded by his arguments and tucked into the reindeer stew. He didn't convince me, but it did start me wondering - what is more ethical? People in Svalbard hunting reindeer and seals for food, clothing and furnishing, or importing things like sun-dried tomatoes and mass produced clothing/ bedding from elsewhere?

On mainland Norway, in the High North, there are also environmental issues: on the one hand, it's the traditional Sami way of life to herd reindeer; on the other, the numbers are getting out of hand and destroying vegetation. And what about fishing, which is Norway's second largest industry after oil/gas? The oil supply won't last forever, but the fish will, if conservation policies are followed. If they don't fish or herd reinder, what's the alternative?

I suppose my get-out clause is that the chances of people stopping fishing, hunting, and eating meat and fish are so remote that it's not a dilemma that needs to be resolved, either now or in the foreseeable future. I can just continue putting the case for better animal welfare standards, pointing out the sometimes barbaric practices involved in industrial food production, and making the environmental arguments for reducing meat consumption. I can't see them eating Quorn in the Arctic just yet!*

*And yes, I know Quorn isn't vegan. There's a Facebook group about it, 'though I knew already. See what I mean about justifying things?

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