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Jan 13 2017

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But why can’t we all just be vegetarians?

FoodThose who ask such a question simply have too little knowledge of the living conditions in countries such as the Faroe Islands. They have not understood the underlying reasons which make it possible for people to live in such remote places with a harsh, sub-Arctic and oceanic climate with very little arable land.

Less than 3 percent of the land in the mountainous, steep Faroese landscape can be grown. This prevents, to a large extent, the Faroese people from growing plants for food. They can, at the most, grow a little potatoes, beets, rhubarbs and some herbs. You can’t even grow fruits and vegetables in greenhouses in a sustainable way (it has been tried several times and it did not pay off), and certainly not in the quantities that would be required to keep almost 50,000 Faroese people alive.

In sub-Arctic and Arctic regions plant-growth is very limited. This means that people who live in these places, have to live off the animals that exist in their vicinity – either by eating the animals themselves or by selling the slaughtered animals / fish to other countries in order to afford importing fruits and vegetables. Nature and climate set these conditions. Unless the people comply with these conditions, no one can survive in the great Arctic and sub-Arctic regions on earth. Millions would have to flee to southern climes, where you can grow fruit and vegetables – to areas, which are already overcrowded.

The Faroe Islanders have to live by what they have at their disposal. Life on the islands requires – and has for more than a thousand years required – some very specific skills that the Faroese people have developed and perfected to survive this place. Besides the little dry land at their disposal, their “land” is the sea around the Faroe Islands, and it is from there, they draw far the most of what they feed on or live by. This includes fish, sheep, cattle, hares, birds and … yes, pilot whales.

You have to live by what is available
The fact that the Faroe Islanders live surrounded by the sea, obviously has great significance in terms of what kind of food people eat in the Faroe Islands, contrary to what people – let’s say – in Italy, Hungary, Mongolia, Sierra Leone or Australia eat, where they have a completely different climate and quite different food alternatives.

People all over the world obtain the food they are able to obtain where they live. You have no other choice but to live by what is available in your environment. This is what becomes your food culture and the basis for your economy in the long term. In the Faroe Islands it is a fact that fishing is the “agriculture” the Faroese first of all have to live by, because there is not much else to eat or earn money by. In order to survive the Faroese people simply do not have other choices but to harvest their marine resources.

The Faroe Islanders are, thus basically, a people which exist only by virtue of what nature in their habitat gives them. Specifically, Faroe Islanders live mostly of fish exports, which account for over 90 percent of their exports. They make a good living out of it. The Faroese people simply base their good standard of living on the ocean wealth.

No supermarkets without killing animals
Many foreigners obviously find it difficult to grasp or familiarize themselves with the natural living conditions in the Faroe Islands, because they themselves live under quite different conditions. They just see the good standard of living in the Faroe Islands, which is on par with the standard of living in other countries in the western world. And they see the many Faroese supermarkets and all the fruits and vegetables on the shelves in the supermarkets, and can’t understand why the Faroese people – just as they do themselves – don’t just buy more fruits and vegetables instead of killing animals.

They forget that without the killing of animals, there would be no fruits and no vegetables on the shelves. They forget that the reason why the standard of living in the Faroe Islands is as high as it is, is very much linked to killing of animals, which is the exact reason why there are any supermarkets at this place at all.

It is only because the Faroe Islanders have killed whales, sheep and fish for their own consumption, plus killed some more fish for export that they can afford to import all the fruits and vegetables you see in supermarkets in the Faroe Islands. Without the skills of the Faroese to be able to kill animals in an efficient and sustainable way (the Faroese, certainly, are not interested in cutting the branch off on which they are sitting), there would be no supermarkets that sell fruits and vegetables.

Killing of animals makes fruit and vegetables affordable
If the Faroese were forced to stop killing, let’s say pilot whales, for example, they would just have to kill more other animals to cover the loss. They would first have to kill many, many more fish in order to export more, so they can afford to import more food from abroad. In practice it would mean that many more fish in the sea around the Faroe Islands and many more foreign cows, pigs, chickens or other animals had to die and be slaughtered, in order for the Faroese to cover their food consumption as a replacement for the loss of whale meat, which represents around one fourth or fifth of the Faroese meat consumption.

Or if the Faroese – in accordance with many a vegan’s dream – suddenly all became vegans / vegetarians – or let’s say, if the entire world population was vegan / vegetarian, and the Faroese therefore couldn’t kill any fish, any sheep, any birds or any whales anymore – well, that would mean that there would be no food at all in the islands because the Faroese people would have nothing to export and make money off and therefore would have no money at all to pay for the import of fruits and vegetables.

It would be completely impossible to survive in the Faroe Islands. Therefore the Faroe Islanders still have to kill animals even today, quite simply to survive on the islands – even if they themselves were vegans / vegetarians all together.

Differences between urban people and people in the Faroes
I myself grew up in a family where most of the family members had typical Faroese occupations. They were fishermen, sailors and sheep farmers – people who lived in the middle of, and directly by nature. They would never survive if they couldn’t use the natural resources available in their immediate environment. In my childhood, I lived in the middle of their world. I learned the natural rhythm over the year, the seasons the Faroese have adapted their lives to, and all the traditions in the different seasons associated with sheep farming and fishing. Something that most globalized and high tech city residents know very little about and / or have been more or less alienated from.

Let me also tell you that I have lived much of my adult life, actually a quarter of a century, in a major city – namely in Copenhagen. I therefore know the mindset one often meets, especially among urban residents. You could say that I have a good basis for comparison. I have seen the Faroese and Danish (Copenhagen) culture both inside and outside. And they are very different.

I find that many urban residents live in an almost entirely man-made - not to say ‘artificial’ – world, which certainly feels very real to them, but is in fact very far from the harsh life in the North Atlantic where humans are much more subject to the whims of nature. Urban residents are not forced to, in the same degree, to be responsible for their own survival by living directly off of natural resources. Urban dwellers have the luxury that they can entrust their survival – i.e. provision of food – to the system and let others do the dirty job, which is to kill the animals they eat.

Urban people humanize animals
Therefore, most urban residents don’t really know what it means – or what it involves not having any other choice, if you want to survive, but to kill animals, as many people in the sub-Arctic and Arctic regions have to do to a larger extent. Therefore urban residents often perceive animals differently. Animals – especially mammals – are creatures that the urban residents mostly perceive as sweet, nice pets. The animals are humanized (in other words, anthropomorphized) – i.e. attributed human qualities and personified to such an extent that they now rank on par with humans or higher. The higher the “cuteness” factor, the more they will be offended by the fact that the animals are killed in order to end up as food for humans.

Therefore, killing of animals (especially those who are perceived as particularly sweet, such as whales for example) will be compared to the murdering of people. Some people even relate so closely to animals emotionally, that they set them higher than humans. They will defend the animals with their lives, and the world should therefore partout be forced to regard the animals in the same way. It’s this kind of people who join rabid animal welfare organizations like Sea Shepherd, for example.

The Faroese people are different in a way that even though they have been modernized and globalized in recent years and are, in many ways, similar to urban residents to confusion – and although many young people, especially in Torshavn, are very much influenced by the outside world and no longer have the same feel for what makes the wheels spin in the Faroe Islands, most people still feel , that they have a very close connection to the old way of living and surviving in the Faroe Islands in close harmony with nature. They still have a direct “hands on” understanding of the importance of the natural resources, and the fact that their own survival actually depends on the killing of animals, on using every bit and let nothing go to waste – and, not least, on doing it in a sustainable way.

Great respect for what ensures the survival
Faroese nature is hard to overlook. You just can’t escape nature when you live in such a small archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic. Nature is omnipresent all around you all the time. You can’t possibly forget it. Especially because the climate is so harsh for most of the year, so you can’t help that you literally feel nature with your entire body every day when you step outside the door.

Although everyday life for many Faroese people (especially in the only city in the Faroe Islands, Torshavn, with 20,000 inhabitants) might look like everyday life as it is for people in most of the Western world, there are so many other aspects of life in the Faroe Islands, which are still very different because of the natural environment, the Faroese live in.

Although the Faroese appear modern and well-educated, it is a fact that everyone – every Faroese – is still very dependent on the relatively limited range of natural resources they have access to in this small country in the middle of the vast ocean. This fact is something that almost every Faroe Islander is very aware of. Most Faroese people know what this nation builds its entire existence on, and therefore (usually) have great respect for, what’s ensuring the foundations of everyone’s survival in the islands.

Self-provided food an important part of culture
It may well be that many Faroese people live a modern life in line with Copenhagers, for example, but at the same time many of them still provide food for themselves and their families in the old ways too – at least in part. Something which is very difficult for outsiders to understand is that it feels like a necessity for many Faroese people to live both a modern and a more traditional life where you hunt your own food. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Faroese can never feel completely certain that the system will catch you if you fall. Therefore, people make it a point of honor to be as self-sufficient as possible.

The entire community is designed in a way where people appreciate and agree that it is necessary to interrupt your daily work when the time has come to bring the sheep home and slaughter them, or go hunting for fulmars and other birds, or hare-hunting, or attending pilot whale killing – and also to prepare and store the food you have provided for yourself and your family. These foods, which people themselves provide, constitute a large part of the total consumption of food and are indispensable for most families – especially for the 12% of the Faroe Islanders, living on or below the poverty line.

Cultural Imperialism to expect vegan lifestyle of the Faroese
In some years, Faroe Islands has been invaded every summer by a lot of people who bring their vegan- or vegetarian lifestyle with them, many incited by organizations like Sea Shepherd. They come to try to force the Faroese to abandon the life that has always been natural for people to live in these parts of the world. They do not understand that the local food from nature’s larder is inextricably linked to the Faroese people’s survival and culture as a whole. They do not understand that when Faroese people kill whales, for example, it’s not so fundamentally different from what butchers do in their own country.

It can’t be regarded as anything other than cultural imperialism when outsiders invade a country (as it happened in the summers of 2014 and 2015) in a number equal to one million foreigners invading Great Britain or France, for instance, interfering with people’s lives there, soiling them with smear campaigns in the media around the world, making all sorts of contortions to prevent them from eating the food they have always been used to eating, and preventing them to survive the way they have always done in the natural environment in which they live. It can’t be regarded as anything other than cultural imperialism to travel to a foreign country that you have no relation to, to tell the people who live there, they must live in ways that do not feel natural to them and require them to live a different kind of life that is totally incompatible with the environment, the Faroese people live in. How can you demand that the Faroese should adopt a lifestyle that basically belongs to a completely different climate and a completely different environment, and in the long run would effectively mean that the livelihood in the islands would crumble?

Will they ever understand?
Faroese people can defend their lifestyle and fish and meat-based survival all they want against attacks from Sea Shepherd, for example, but fanatical anti-whaling activists will never let themselves be convinced by them anyway – and hardly any vegetarians / vegans around the world either.

But it may work to explain to ordinary reasonable people around the world – especially those who are happy to eat meat themselves – why the Faroese people have to kill animals / fish, and thus make them understand that no matter if the people in the Faroe islands become vegans / vegetarians or not, it is absolutely necessary for them to kill animals (fish) anyway to export, if they expect to have any hope of being able to maintain a sustainable society and survive on these windswept islands.

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