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Time to show some tolerance when it comes to what we choose to eat

PUBLISHED: 18:57 28 August 2019 | UPDATED: 18:57 28 August 2019

Penny Franiel, founder and chairwoman of Norwich vegans

Penny Franiel, founder and chairwoman of Norwich vegans

Whether your a meat lover or a vegan, Andy Newman says the most important thing about food is having a choice

Perhaps it's because of the whole Brexit thing, or maybe it's that everybody now has a platform on social media on which to shout and feel self-important, but regrettably we seem to be rapidly losing our admirable national trait of tolerating other people's views, even when we don't share them.

Many people believe it was Winston Churchill who said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Ironically, and probably annoyingly to the little Englanders who would happily isolate us from the rest of the world, it was in fact a Frenchman - Voltaire - who came up with that quote; but nevertheless it has for a long time summed up our ability to respect each other's opinions.

Somehow we have morphed into a nation of extremists who seem to believe that our own point of view is the only one which anyone should hold - and that if someone disagrees, their opinion should be suppressed. We see this on both sides of the Brexit debate, and we are increasingly seeing similar militant attitudes in the world of food and drink.

The most recent example was last week, when the founder of an organisation called Norwich Vegans expressed the view that because she has decided she didn't want to eat meat, no-one should be able to. She actually called for butchers to be outlawed.

Now, I'm not suggesting that minority views shouldn't be reported (and despite the impression given by extremist vegan campaigners, veganism remains a minority; The Vegan Society itself estimates about one per cent of adults in the UK are vegan).

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People should be free to make their own choices about what they eat, and also to try and persuade the rest of us to follow their example. That is called free speech. But for one small section of the population to call for the choices that everybody else makes to be illegal crosses the line into intolerance.

Such shrill posturing might gain column inches and make the campaigner feel important, but ironically it also does great deal of damage to the cause for which they are ostensibly campaigning.

There are some very sound environmental and health arguments as to why we should be eating less meat, even if they are not quite as simplistic and clear-cut as they are often made out to be.

But while it's tempting to follow the Boris Johnson school of campaigning (ignore the facts, lie, and just shout loudly), in the long term this won't work. If you want to change people's mindsets, calm, well-formulated and persuasive arguments might work, but self-important dogmatic brow-beating will simply drive most reasonable people to dig their heels in - particularly in a county where many people are reliant on livestock farming for their livelihoods.

You have to ask: if the case against meat-eating is so strong, why do so many vegan campaigners feel the need to resort to mud-slinging and worse, rather than putting forward reasoned arguments?

It is a mistake, too, to falsely accuse those who work with livestock of cruelty. Not only do we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world (in large part due to EU regulation, but let's not go there), but to suggest that everyone working in the meat production industry is a cruel, animal-hating monster is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

Many meat-eaters - myself included - have sympathy with the arguments that we should be eating less meat, both for environmental and health reasons. But try and take away our free choice, and we will kick back against you. If you are someone who would like to see a world in which we only eat plants, the way to get there is through persuasion, not shouting.

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