Tuesday, 30 October 2012

How much do we care about where our food comes from?


Knowing where our food comes from has been a bit of A Thing for a while now. TV chefs are keen for us to know where our food comes from. Hugh wants everything grown with his own blood sweat and tears, Jamie won't eat a meal out in public until he's written a petition and pestered the Prime Minister about it and Gordon insists that his kids name their Christmas turkey before he kills it, which doesn't sound at all festive.

We get it. We should care where our food comes from.


These days you can't go to a gastropub without reading a dossier-like menu telling you the source of every single ingredient and all have our own priorities when it comes to food. Caleigh has to be very careful about her ingredients and double check each one to ensure they're gluten free. Elizabeth isn't vegetarian but she tends to avoid beef because her boyfriend is Hindu but while Sara might be fine with bacon on someone else's plate (and in her biscuits), she'd rather it wasn't on her own thank you very much. And Hazel is all for foraging and sourcing her own food. As for the rest of us, we want the tastiest ingredients we can afford. No matter how our lifestyles change, that's always true.


But it's not always realistic to forage (it rains, for a start). It's not always financially viable to buy the fanciest chicken in Waitrose. It's not always convenient to go to the local farmers' market and buy ingredients to make your own quince jelly. Sometimes, you're going to have a massive craving for Birdseye Chicken Dippers, and no amount of homecooked food will quash that.


Just because we should care what we're putting on our plates, doesn't necessarily mean that we do. It doesn't mean that we have the time to. Sure, we can argue that it's just as easy to whip up a stir fry as it is to go and buy a takeaway, but we don't always want to. And sometimes, buying a frozen pizza from a supermarket is the only option. It may be packed full of rubbish, but we've been working late and we're tired and Eastenders is starting soon.


Perhaps most of us are conscientiousness about their dinner as long as it's convenient. Hands up who's bought chicken that isn't free range when pay day is miles off? Do we always ask about ingredients when we're in a restaurant? It's easy to buy free range eggs and forget about the rest, we've done our bit without really having to think about it. And while we know that people want to be more ethical and aware about their food choices, price does come into it. Ethical, locally produced food is usually more expensive. If our lifestyle doesn't allow us to make those choices, then we're conflicted.


So how do we reach a happy medium? Should supermarkets make it easier (and more affordable) for us to think about what we're eating? Is it down to us as consumers to seek out more information? What part does food journalism play? Sometimes it all gets a little 'middle class shopper in Whole Foods' and it's clear to us that a much larger demographic care about what's on the end of their forks.

So if we do care where are food comes from, what challenges are we facing and what do we about it?

50 comments:

  1. We should care. I do care, the majority of the time. But we're human and life is complicated and sometimes a ready meal or even a McDonald's (shock!!!) is the convenient option. We beat ourselves up all the time for not being the perfect mother or partner. I think every now and then, give yourself a break and don't feel guilty. Life is too bloody short!

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    1. But I do sometimes feel that if I buy free range eggs then I don't have to think about much else and I know I'm not the only one. I do think that's something that should change.

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  2. Ooh good questions. For me, it tends to be that we eat meat only one or twice a week and then buy the most ethical we can afford (this varies from free range to organic free range to bells and whistles local and free range and all that). That is all we tend to manage but if we could afford more we might. Its hard though as convenience foods are, well, convenient.

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  3. Interesting question. Unfortunately it is always going to cost more to rear an animal free-range - they are allowed to live longer, take up more space, and (hopefully) are allowed some opportunities to express their natural chicken/cow/pig-like tendencies while alive.

    It would be hard (if not impossible) for most people to ‘tick’ all the ethical boxes in terms of eating locally, eating organic, eating fair trade, eating cruelty-free, avoiding big chain supermarkets, avoiding excessive packaging, etc, etc. Like you said, for people who are time-poor/on a budget this generally isn’t feasible. Personally though, I think it’s good to pick a one or two of these you feel most strongly about rather than getting overwhelmed by it all (along the lines of – oh well, I’ll never be able to have a truly ethical shopping basket so what’s the point of trying). For me this means eating fish just a few times a week (even ethically sourced tinned mackerel is cheap, and great for fishcakes!) and eating meat rarely (seeing it more as a ‘treat’ when at a friend’s for dinner, or out at a restaurant).

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    1. I eat far too much red meat, but I honestly think I'd cut down for dietary reasons rather than anything else.

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    2. Which is a fair point - personally I'm all for everyone cutting down on the meat they eat a little bit, and if you're main concern isn't animal welfare, then there are also health concerns to think about, and environmental factors (cows and pigs are the big hitters in terms of impact on the planet, apparently), and also the human factor - I seem to be reading more and more about land that once grew crops for human consumption, like rice, being used instead for growing soya (the majority of which goes into animal feed, not veggie meat substitutes). The idea of people in developing countries struggling to meet rising food costs, so that westerners can maintain a high meat diet, seems more than a bit wrong. Personally I feel the gap between eating lots of meat and eating a little meat is much bigger/more impactful than between eating a little meat and eating no meat at all, if that makes sense!

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  4. I tend to think "well, I'm veggie, so I don't need to worry about anything else". But I buy a lot of food that I know wasn't grown locally, and that bothers me. It just seems such a palaver to tick all the ethical boxes every time, like Jess says, so you can end up feeling a failure even if you're doing your best.

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  5. I can't buy non free-range chicken. I just look at it and see a chicken that has spent its whole short life rolling around in it's own faeces. Really not appetising, don't know how people eat that.

    I think the answer to make people eat ethically is to put images like that in people's minds. For example I try to buy sustainably sourced fish now since I read a book about how empty the seas are getting and it frightened me.

    Other things like not buying stuff that's been flown half way round the world I find harder. Because while I think it's important, I don't associate a clear mental image with the damage done by buying beans from New Zealand or whatever.

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    1. I worry in a way that some much emphasis is on our chicken, rather than everything else. It's easy for us to buy free range chooks and think that's enough (it all helps, of course).

      You're right about stuff flown around the world as well. I pick up the stuff that I like in a supermarket and that's not necessarily the local stuff. We try to make our recipes seasonal, but I still shop at the Oriental supermarket down the road and I know that half of the veg was flown from the other side of the world. I can argue the reasoning behind that, but it doesn't make it right.

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  6. My goodness, just hearing all the issues raised here has put my head into a spin. I agree it's so hard to try and consume and eat in the most ethical way. But I guess the key is to try at least.

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  7. I buy free range roosters from a guy called Paul every Sunday. On the Saturday he sells them for £10 each, on Sunday he has a stall at the car boot sale selling any remaining for just £4. I also buy my weekly veg from 2 ladies who grow their own and sell it for a fraction of the price of the supermarket.

    Eating responsibly and caring about where your food comes from doesn't have to cost lots of money. I am out foraging ingredients all the time, not because it's trendy but because it's free and abundant . I eat lots of game because it is plentiful, cheap, nutritious and delicious (and the ultimate free range food).

    I include sourcing information on my menus because using local suppliers not only supports the community but informs diners that all this wonderful food is right there on their doorstep. I want the local community to feel part of my menus and encourage people to bring in their excess allotment veg/hunted game/windfall apples. I want my diners to know that even if they don't care about where their food comes from that I, as their chef, do.

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    1. I'd love to forage my own food but I don't have a clue where to find the best stuff and I'm not convinced that I wouldn't pick something poisonous!

      You should run classes, Hazel!

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  8. There's lots of different layers to 'caring about where your food comes from' - it can be really difficult to 'buy local' for everything, especially when on a budget.
    I work for the Fairtrade Foundation, so am a lot more knowledgable about the products we get from developing countries. Without wanting to be preachy, it really is amazing how much of a difference you can make switching from your normal brand to a Fairtrade certified one.

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    1. I do sometimes worry about Fairtrade and how much people rely on it (although I'm absolutely not doubting the work that they do). My old housemate wouldn't buy Twinings tea because it wasn't Fairtrade, despite their Ethical Tea Partnership:

      http://www.twiningsfs.co.uk/etp/index.php

      I wonder sometimes if Fairtrade is seen like the only ethical option by some. Great for that brand, but perhaps limiting.

      Like I say, I don't doubt the good work that Fairtrade do, but I do worry about the monopoly they have in supermarkets.

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    2. I agree that all the work companies are doing should be celebrated - but Fairtrade is an independent certification body, which allows you to know that there has (at the least) been a fair price paid and a premium invested in local projects. For me, it's the basic I expect - there's a load of companies like Divine chocolate doing really great work that doesn't come under Fairtrade certification.

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    3. I think Fairtrade just makes it easier for people when having to make a quick decision in a supermarket. I do see what you mean, but it's an easily recognizable way of knowing, at point of purchase, that the product is ethically sound. It would take a lot of time and effort to look into every brand you like to see if they have ethically sound principles, so standards like Fairtrade, the Soil Association and the MSC take the need to do that away and make it easier for everyone.

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    4. Like I say, I don't think Fairtrade is bad, but those quick decisions aren't always a good thing. We put no more thought into what we're buying, we just look for a label without thinking about what Fairtrade really means.

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    5. Sorry, I feel like I am being all argumentative...but I think most people have a pretty good idea what Fairtrade means, it's an independent standard. And in this day and age, when everyone is so busy, making a quick decision and choosing Fairtrade over something that's not is surely a good thing? Even if it only helps someone a bit? Thorny subject!

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    6. I think argumentative is a good thing, don't apologise! I know on the face of it you're absolutely right. I do. But that quick choice means that I think no more about what I'm buying, I'm totally detached from it. I just know it's 'better'. Our willingness to detach from stuff like this is a much bigger issue.

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    7. I completely agree about our willingness to detach from things. I sometimes worry that by buying Fairtrade, and free range etc, I feel I'm doing enough. I'm doing my bit, so I don't need to think about the bigger picture. It is, to an extent, a way of making ourselves feel better about our lifestyles, as well as about genuinely wanting things to be fair for other people. And that does make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

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    8. Yes, I agree that there is a danger in relying on one label, because providing their marketing is good enough we could all be buying one label even though it doesn't truly meet our values! (This really doesn't include Fair Trade who I think are wonderful!).

      What I hate is the lack of cohesion with labeling....I've been presented with too many 'outdoor reared', 'outdoor bred' 'freedom foods' and "Oh but it's British" meals, and unless you spend a lot of time reading up on them it's hard to see the good from the not so good. Luckily for me, I find the subject important enough to me to do all that research, but I can see why someone who's less of a foody would find it too much trouble. Which is why there should be stricter rules on labeling in my opinion!

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  9. I put a lot of my trust in this man:

    http://www.domesticsluttery.com/2010/01/marky-market.html

    I trust where my meat comes from, but he goes to Smithfield to get it for me. It's the freshest I could ever get, and it's delivered to my office without me having to think about it. And the meat Mark delivers is the tastiest I've eaten.

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  10. Interesting post. I personally think that it's important that everyone does the best they can afford to do, and doesn't feel guilty about what they can't afford.

    I also think, though, that people are too dependent on meat. You get all the nutrients you need for a veggie diet, but meat's yummy, so why not have meat/fish only once or twice a week and then eat a varied vegetarian diet the rest of the week? Then really good quality free range/outdoor reared/sustainably fished meat is a more affordable option. It is an approach that makes sense for the planet and your overall health as well as the animals/fish.

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    1. Are you vegetarian anon? I agree that I am too dependent on meat, but I don't think that's the be all and end all of ethical food.

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    2. Ex-veggie, fully paid up meat eater now. I totally agree that ethical meat isn't the be all and end all, but the whole concept of ethical food gets v complicated v quickly, and at least ethical meat is something relatively simple that most people can do to help. I get in a pickle when I start to think about imported veg, for example. Yes, local and seasonal is best, but if green beans are being imported from Zimbabwe, that means people in Zimbabwe are dependent on us eating those beans for their livelihoods... I don't know what the answer is, to be honest! Maybe everyone should just pick a couple of things they feel strongly about and try to do their best? I didn't mean to be anon, but the way!

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    3. Yeah, I think that's the best way. There's a sort of reverse snobbery about locally-sourced food sometimes. Like people think it's stupid and unrealistic to spend so much money on fruit and veg in a greengrocers when Sainsbury's is down the road.

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    4. I do think that's a good point! The meat bit is my thing because it's animal welfare that's most important to me, but I still try pretty hard with fair trade etc. (and buying politically to an extent!). I think it's a really good point though....just because I disagree with the government in a certain country doesn't mean I should make the people who live there suffer by not buying their produce! Tricky!

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  11. I only eat meat and food if its ot free range and it is not organic and prefferably from batteries. This way its cheap and has the same nutrituional content and Tthe source of the food lwill never effect me unless im a neuortic freak who wants to spend more time crying about a chicken not having its arse wiped properly. - its food,

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    1. What if a free range chicken was the same price as a standard chicken?

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    2. So I'm sure this is just a troll comment, but it's gotten my hackles up anyway! Presumably you wouldn't be opposed to us stuffing you in a tiny cage for the rest of your life then until your hair falls out and your limbs drop off?!

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    3. "Don't feed the trolls."

      In this case, don't feed the trolls anything tasty, ethical or free range.

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  12. This felt very true for me 'It may be packed full of rubbish, but we've been working late and we're tired and Eastenders is starting soon....'

    That is totally what life can come down to some days, sometimes I am really busy - for the most part my meals are cooked fresh with good ingredients but sometimes you have to go down the frozen pizza / fish finger sandwich / Burger King route if the day ends up like that.

    I do feel guilty for it which I shouldn't do because most of the time I eat a mostly meat free diet and the meat I do buy is free range.

    Also I love fish finger sandwiches (ketchup not brown sauce).

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    1. You really can't beat a fishfinger sandwich! Ketchup, mayo, lettuce and white bread for me :)

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    2. I put hashbrowns in mine (two triangles fit perfectly) and then it's tartare sauce and rocket. White bread, obviously.

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    3. If there are chips knocking about in the freezer they go in too....

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    4. Mine are freefrom fish fingers in gf toast with mayo. Could go that right now...

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  13. The subject of sustainability is something that is pertinent and thought-provoking, and also something crucial for consumers and businesses to stay on top of. The heart of the problem is that locally sourced, cruelty-free, and fair-trade meats/produce are hard to find. In addition, everyone keeps busy schedules, which doesn’t make finding sustainable food in markets or restaurants particularly easy. Having a clear-cut way of figuring out which restaurants have locally sourced food, good food waste practices, and more is one of the key initiatives places like the Sustainable Restaurant Association are trying to put forward. Diners can tap into a directory that will tell them which restaurants have high sustainability ratings – making eating sustainably something that can be attained quite easily. And it is up to the food purveyors and restaurants to take part in these initiatives.

    The more integrated and involved businesses are, the better it is for everyone all around. Let’s hope things keep improving in terms of food sustainability!

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  14. For raw meat I try alot, We bulk buy the tastiest beef very cheaply and I buy and portion chickens from our farmers market which means 2 5kg which might cost £30 in total tend to make ~20ish meals for 2 people so that works out quite well

    I do less well for veg which we get from the supermarket, we try not to buy airfreigted if possible but don't always succeed, we also buy frozen fish and lots of biscuits etc which aren't necessarily great in terms of ethics etc

    And as far as non food goods it is even worse so we wont go there

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  15. I posted this on facebook but thought I'd add it here too:

    After spending two weeks living and working with cocoa farmers in rural Dominican Republic last year, I find it very hard 'not' to care where our food comes from. And more importantly, how much work it takes to produce the food we eat. We are spoilt by the convenience of supermarkets, take-aways and junk food. But if food is so unbelievably cheap then someone else, somewhere else will be paying the price for your cheap food. Even on our own doorsteps we are driving British dairy farmers out of business because the supermarkets pressure them into producing milk for a loss. What other industry would be expected to work for a loss? I think we have become so disconnected from the food we eat that we forget how hard it is for the people who produce it for us.

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  16. Welll... I saw the title of this post and almost skipped it, so that shows how much I care! Like you say, I know that I should, but I don't. :/

    I am more of a 'live in the moment' kind of gal I guess, and eat what I enjoy.

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  17. Maybe it's my Scottish Presbyterian guilt talking, but I always feel like there's more I could do. I try to buy local/Fairtrade/organic/sustainable foods where possible (and where I can afford to) but it can be difficult. Freefrom foods, for example, don't tend to tell you where they come from, although there are a few good organic and gluten free brands out there.

    My grandmother grew up on a farm and we would holiday on what you would probably describe as her, rather large, smallholding so I learned very early on the value of local, seasonal food and meat that has lived a good life before landing on my plate. I want to shop with a conscience because I feel like I owe it to all the farmers who put their heart and soul into producing my food.

    The vegetables in my veg box come from Devon whereas I live in Kent, I feel a guilty pang whenever I think about it!

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    1. Caleigh, do you think it's easier or harder for you because you have to actively look at the ingredients anyway?

      Like on one hand, most processed foods will have gluten in but on the other, just ticking that box would feel like enough for some!

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    2. It's easier in that I'm more aware of what's actually in my food because I read every single ingredient on everything I buy, especially since even the 'gluten free' label doesn't mean that it won't upset my Crohn's or my ileostomy in some way!

      All that label reading sometimes means that I don't always check whether my apples are Kentish or my lamb is British and not intensively farmed, etc, if I did my shopping trips would last hours! In that respect I'm glad for the Fairtrade, MSC, freedom foods, and other logos, it makes those choices a little bit speedier!

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  18. We buy (almost) all our meat and produce from the farmers market (I love pineapple, which is unfortunately not native to the east coast of Canada). Not only does it ensure our meat is antibiotic-free and free-range and our produce is organic, but it also makes sure we eat in season. And I don't have to think about what I'm buying because I know it's all good.

    I don't think as often about fair trade, and I wish I did. And when faced with two options where one is more expensive free trade, I typically don't go with that one. I've been thinking more often about the ethics of food (now that I've got the organic/free-range issue sorted out) so maybe that's a step I can look at in the future (although likely not in a universe where I have a screaming baby dangling out of the shopping cart begging to go home.)

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  19. To me, respecting where my food comes from is top of the list. I would rather go without meat or eggs than use some that don't meet my values. I've been eating free-range only for five years now, and despite not earning very much at all I have managed to stick to it without fainting or going into debt. I find it really arrogant that some people don't even consider where their food comes from....it horrifies me when you see those clips of kids guessing where a turkey twizzler comes from....and whilst I really can appreciate that sometimes it's a lot of bother and expense, it's too important to me to give up on because of a craving or laziness. I spend a lot of time shopping and researching for what I eat, which is a pain of course, but knowing that I'm not inflicting any cruelty based on my choices is worth it. I get REALLY angry when we people say 'oh yes, I agree with the way you eat', only to tuck into their wholly unethical burger, and I get more angry still with retailers who trick people with phrases like 'Freedom Foods'.....if it was Free Range then they'd say so!

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    1. I can't deny I like a Chicken Dippers. I know, I know. While I know where my food comes from (and indeed where it should do), some habits I just can't shake. And it is a habit, isn't it? You have to actively decide to change your eating and shopping habits and that's not easy. I guess opting to change one thing at a time is the way to go. That said I do boycott certain brands (Nestle and American fast food chains), so in some instances it might just be able picking your battles.

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    2. Yes, I definitely think it's a case of picking your battles, much like anything else. I'm not too proud to admit that the thing I miss most since giving up anything other than free range is a KFC. If they went free range (ha!) I swear I'd eat there three times a day for the next six months at least.
      I think I just got such a shock and was so moved by that round of TV shows a few years ago that I stopped eating meat altogether for a while and couldn't bear to eat anything like what I'd seen ever again. If I'd not seen those documentaries though I probably would still be eating much more freely. I'm an advertiser's dream.

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  20. There is a short answer to your query: Ethics above anything else, always.
    Ethics above tradition. Ethics above convenience. Ethics above habit. Ethics above taste.
    You don’t need to feel conflicted. Feeling conflicted sucks!
    There are other people in the comments section encouraging you not to feel guilty about it, but I think it’s important that you do. No I don’t want you to feel bad(!) but it’s guilt that encourages us to make the right choice. What stops you from buying a product from a company which supports child labour? Guilt. Guilt is good when you don’t ignore it. It’s a by-product of empathy.
    When I first heard where my food comes from as a child I definitely felt uneasy. Then, when I first realised and learnt about the processes of how it was produced, I was horrified- especially when I saw it with my own eyes. I researched about it more and more until my eyes were completely open to the facts. I was devastated. But the sadness and guilt I felt was good; it led me to lead the more compassionate lifestyle I do today. I am more or less a vegan now (the only time I’d eat non-vegan is when it wouldn’t make a difference to my cause either way e.g. if someone had some chicken soup that they’re about to throw down the sink and would go to waste otherwise). I’m about the happiest I’ve ever been now. I’m not saying veganism is the solution to everything but I do think it’s a necessary step as it’s the demand of people buying animal products which keep these industries, which I believe exploit animals terribly, alive. Becoming vegan is much easier when you remember what you’re doing it for- and if it gets hard remember it’s harder for the one on the other side of the hamburger. Just research research research! There are some really good speeches and videos on YouTube which helped me get there.
    You seem like a really decent person, Siany. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable by telling you what I think you must do- even though I am kind of doing that!- but I really hope you make the right decision. Peace.

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  21. Hello. I like your blog, but I have to point something out.

    I've noticed a lot of writers using the word "her" excessively. The correct form of your earlier sentence is: "Sara might be fine with bacon on someone else's plate (and in their biscuits)". This avoids the ambiguity of the Subject. I read it as Sara was fine having bacon in her biscuits, because that's what you wrote. You hadn't introduced another female character to refer to as "her", which is why you should use "their" in this kind of generic scenario.

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    1. "I read it as Sara was fine having bacon in her biscuits, because that's what you wrote." Yes, that's exactly what I meant.

      The link in the sentence you've pointed out is actually to a recipe that Sara wrote. A biscuit recipe with bacon in. She's quite an odd vegetarian.

      What a shame you didn't wish to get involved in any of the other (arguably more important) points raised in the article or the earlier comments.

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