How can it make sense to kill six million animals an hour? Darryl Grima

Veganism is a growing trend. But environmentalist, vegan and End The Slaughter campaigner DARRYL GRIMA argues that this may well be a reaction to the sheer ‘insanity’ of today’s global food industry

Handy with the spuds: Darryl Grima
Handy with the spuds: Darryl Grima

According to yesterday’s headlines: ‘Veganism on the rise in the EU’. That seems to be true of Malta [we met for this interview at a vegan restaurant, for instance]. Yet it was only a few years ago, that vegetarianism – let alone veganism – was more or less unheard of, locally. You were one of only a handful of pioneers (including the late Julian Manduca), back in the 1980s: and let’s face it, you were all widely regarded as ‘extremists’, at the time. Not so much today, however. So first of all: how do you account for this change?  

Let me start with this: I became a vegetarian when I was 18. At the time, I was a member of ‘Zaghzagh Ghall-Ambjent’: along with Julian Manduca – that treasured soul - and the rest of the ‘gang’. We weren’t all vegetarians: some of us switched; others – like myself – hadn’t taken the plunge, yet.

But we were all environmentalists; which basically meant we were all hunting abolitionists. As such, we used to have these regular conversations (or ‘discussions’, or ‘arguments’: call them what you will) with hunters…

And time and time again, I found myself confronted with the same old question: “If it’s OK for you to eat chicken… why can’t I eat quail (or turtle dove, etc.)?’ This went on, and on… and on, and on… until eventually, I said to myself: ‘Right! Now is the time to cut this argument out, once and for all. I already believe in it anyway; I don’t WANT to kill animals…’

So today, I actually feel the need – and I always say this – to thank the hunters, for giving me that last little push I needed, to finally go vegetarian.

But like you said, it was a different time, back then…

… and not exactly an easy one to be a Vegan, either: when most people’s idea of vegetarianism, was straight out of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (‘Don’t eat no meat? Ok, I make lamb!’)

[Laughing] It was impossible, quite frankly! I would go out to restaurants with friends: and the only thing available for me on the menu, was the side-salad. And that’s just when it came to food. At the time, you couldn’t ask for ‘plant-based milk’ at a café… and still less, would you find supermarket shelves stacked with different varieties of it.

No: to get Soy mince, back then, you had to first buy the soy chunks from the only place that provided them - ‘Good Earth’ - then leave them to soak overnight, and cook them the following morning. And it tasted really bad, too: nothing like the ready-made mince you can buy from any supermarket today…

So yes: it is a totally different situation, now. But as for what actually brought about all these changes: I’m not so certain, anymore.

At first, I used to think that, when Malta became more ‘European’ – and more Europeans started coming to Malta – that was what mainly drove the change. But I’m beginning to realise that there are also a lot of ‘silent Maltese’, out there, who have undergone that change for themselves. Or who are in the process of doing so, anyway.

Because just as in the rest of Europe, the data tells us that the number of ‘flexitarians’ here is also on the increase, big-time…


Flexitarians are those individuals who haven’t chosen to become vegetarian, or vegan… but have said: “I am going to reduce [my meat intake]’ So rather than cooking their Spaghetti Bolognese with the usual minced-meat, they will buy a packet of vegan, plant-based mince instead.

And when it comes to plant-based milk, alone: the data also shows - and this is why the dairy industry is so scared right now, in fact – that the major battle in supermarkets is no longer between ‘long-life’ and ‘fresh’ milk, as it was until recently… it’s now ‘plant-based’ versus ‘dairy’.

And it’s a direct confrontation: which I believe that plant-based will eventually win, in the end.   Already, plant-based milks are replacing long-life, on supermarket shelves; and in fact, the only reason why plant-based hasn’t already won the battle altogether, is…

I think I can guess: ‘price’, perhaps? After all, they are around three times more expensive, than regular cow’s milk…

Yes, the price-difference is undoubtedly what’s holding people back. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you look at the situation in the Netherlands, for instance – and I mention the Netherlands, because like most northern European countries, it has a strong local ‘dairy tradition’ – plant-based milk is now actually around one cent cheaper than cow’s milk. Why? Because the demand has grown so high, that they are actually positioning those products even cheaper…

But the demand has clearly grown here, too: so why isn’t the same thing happening locally?

Ah. That brings us to the big irony in all this. Apart from the fact that the supermarkets themselves claim a massive mark-up, on imported plant-based products… Benna [thanks to its market-strength] muscles a much lower mark-up. So if, for every one euro the consumer spends on milk, the supermarket will take 10-20c for Benna products… it will take 20-40c, for plant-based milk.

If, on the other hand, the mark-ups were the same: I can assure you that the price of plant-based milk would come down.  So that’s already one thing that’s unfair: not just on vegans, but on consumers in general. They all end up paying a lot more money, than they really should…

But on top of that: Benna also receives government subsidies, far in excess of other sectors of the food-market. And while some plant-based milks are subject to 18% VAT – if I’m not mistaken: the ‘unsweetened’ versions, too; not even, as one might expect, the ones ‘with added sugar’ - Benna products are VAT-exempt.

So it’s all nonsensical, if you ask me. Even looking at it from a purely health perspective: Malta is known to have high levels of cholesterol, for instance. You do not get cholesterol from drinking almond, or soy milk; but you can get it from drinking cow’s milk – or goat’s milk, or any other dairy product. What sense does it make, then, to subsidise the less healthy of those two options… while slapping extra charges, on the healthier one?

Even health-wise, then: we are simply not putting the right prices, on the right products…

But there’s more to it than health, isn’t there? You are also a member of the ‘End The Slaughter-Age’ Campaign, which argues that all animal-based food industries – meat, fish, dairy, eggs, etc. – have a devastating impact on the environment. How much of this recent veganism trend, would you say, is down to that sort of concern?

Let me put it this way: everything I just said about the price of milk-products in Malta, applies just as much to how Europe approaches the same issues.

Right now, for instance, Europe is consistently talking about the need to ‘Go Green’: ‘Green Energy’… the ‘Green Deal’… ‘Green everything’, basically. And yet, the greenest thing there is, is a plant-based diet. There is nothing greener than that. Because we know that the meat industry, for example – and cows, in particular – generates more than 15% of greenhouse gases, globally.

So what we are saying, with the ‘End the Slaughter Age’, is that there are two options that we can take. We can either go along with a situation whereby Europe remains utterly dominated by these strong lobbies – the meat lobby; the dairy lobby; the fisheries lobby, etc. – that are basically contributing to (and profiteering from) the global environmental problem…

Or else, we can explore other, greener options…

Such as what, though? Leaving aside that any individual always has the option to ‘go vegetarian’ – as you did, when you were 18 - the reality is that most of Europe will remain, to some degree, ‘meat-eating’: at least, for the foreseeable future. What are you actually proposing, then?

Well, a little more fairness in the distribution of public funds would be a good start. If I’m not mistaken, last year’s budget for the Common Agricultural Policy was around E55 billion. How much of that ended up funding the meat, fish and dairy industries? How much of it was invested in more environmentally-friendly technologies, that do not involve the killing of any animals?

That’s precisely what I mean, though: if you remove ‘killing animals’ from the equation altogether, the only remaining solution is for everyone to simply ‘stop eating meat’. I know that’s your ultimate goal, as a Vegan, but… how realistic is that, in practice?

No, there are other options.  In Israel, for example, there are already shops selling ‘chicken’, made out of lab-meat. No chickens need to be killed in the process: it involves simply ‘growing’ the meat, in a controlled environment, from a few cells. And no antibiotics or steroids are needed, either.

As for the end product itself: it is identical to chicken-tissue. It’s basically the same meat, produced in a more environmentally-friendly way. And the same technology is already being used to make burgers, sausages, and so on, in America, and other parts of the world.

Another technology we could be talking about more, is hydroponics. In a very small, very hot island like ours: wouldn’t that be a practical solution to our food-supply problems? A closed hydroponics system, that is designed to waste as little water as possible?

There are even supermarkets, elsewhere, that have started hydroponically growing their own vegetables, and selling them at the same site: removing the need for any form of transportation whatsoever…  

Now: if you take all that as an example of what we COULD be doing – not just for the sake of ‘not killing animals’; but also for the sake of the environment, as a whole – and compare it to what we actually ARE doing… it’s insane, quite frankly.

Let me put it to you in another way. According to official data, we, as human beings, kill around six million animals… an hour. In the EU alone, nearly 360 million pigs, sheep, goats and cattle - as well as several billion poultry - are killed in slaughterhouses, every year.

And that’s excluding fish, by the way. Because if we also include fish, it becomes almost impossible to even quantify. The official measurement used is ‘tonnage’; and according to some equations – because it’s very difficult to equate, precisely – we could be killing as many as 2 trillion fish, annually…

And that’s just… absurd. It’s not just ‘wrong’, or ‘bad’: it’s totally illogical. Totally insane. We are depleting our natural environment, on such an industrial scale, that… just to give one example: our own Mediterranean Sea is now so severely over-fished, that European fisheries are extending their operations to the Pacific (having already depleted the Atlantic, in between…)

If I’m understanding correctly: you seem to be implying that this same environmental degradation, has now grown so alarmingly visible – and yes: so ‘totally insane’, as you put it – that people are beginning to change their own eating habits, as a way of protesting against it? 

Perhaps, in a sense. But it’s not just about eating habits. I believe there are a number of pillars behind veganism. It’s more than just ‘the food you eat’… or even the ‘clothes you wear’, or the ‘cosmetics you use’, and so on. It’s a complete lifestyle.  

In fact, there was even a legal case, in the UK, because someone wanted to grant veganism the status of a ‘religion’. Now: I don’t agree with that, myself. Certainly, I don’t believe in any God shaped like a ‘Brussels Sprout in the Sky’…

… but I would say that it does have the same sort of holistic vision. One ‘leg of the chair’, so to speak, is Animal Rights; and justice for animals in general. Another is ‘environmental justice’; the next one is ‘health’ – in other words, justice for humans – and finally, there is ‘social justice’.

This is why I find it difficult to accept that there are so many different labels, to describe the same thing. ‘Veganism’ is one label; ‘Fair Trade’ is another… but me, there is no difference between those two, whatsoever. If I feel bad about buying clothes, when I know that they were produced using child-labour in some factory, God-knows-where… it’s because there’s a social justice perspective to veganism, too.

For the same reason: as a Vegan, I feel that the food that I eat, should not just conform to the same principle of ‘respect for animals’… it should also be sourced locally, as much as possible. Because there’s an environmental perspective to that as well. Apart from the cost, in terms of carbon-footprint, of food transportation… at a time of food shortages, should I not support local farmers? Of course, I should! 100%...

Because they’re all interconnected: environmentalism, animal welfare, health, social justice… if you help one, you help them all; and if you help them all, you help everything.

If, for instance, we take care of the local farmers; the local farmers will take care of the environment. But what is happening instead? The moment agricultural land falls into disuse, because it’s been neglected: you know how it goes. Some developer from Gozo comes along, and turns it into a block of flats.  Or it gets requisitioned, to build a road-network… [shakes his head in despair]

But like I said, earlier: it doesn’t have to be this way. And I think that more and more people are beginning to see, for themselves, that… it SHOULDN’T have to be this way, either.