An extraordinary thing happened on the Northland Age Facebook page last week.
The average weekly Facebook poll attracts around 5-600 responses, sometimes not that many, sometimes more. Until this time last week the record was 2.7k responses. Not any more.
The simple enough question, 'Should schools be teaching children to consume less meat and dairy?' went viral, attracting 74.6k responses, including thousands from the US and Canada, Asia, India, the Middle East, Britain, and probably many more parts of the globe that we couldn't be bothered determining.
The previous reach record for our entire Facebook page was 37k, in response to the #I Love Kaitaia campaign after the town was labelled the country's murder capital. This one scored 346,560, along with 3.2k comments and 1.6k shares. But there was much more heat than light.
By Friday the discussion had degenerated into a squabble between the vegans and those who enjoy a rare Scotch fillet and butter on their morning toast. The arguments put forward by the former included the view that pastoral farming is not only brutal, in that females of the various species are raped and that their offspring are slaughtered in the prime of their lives, but is also responsible for most of mankind's woes, from drought to disease, poverty and hunger. And, you got it, it's destroying the planet. A plant-based diet, many said, had none of those drawbacks.
The carnivores argued that meat and dairy are essential to a healthy human diet, and, more fundamentally, that people are just animals, and, like the other carnivores with which we share the planet, are following the natural order of things.
There was no sign of give or take from either side. And, with just a few hundred votes in it, the honours went to the vegans.
Initially the carnivores were leading by about 9 to 1, then the vegans took over by a similar margin. On Thursday the carnivores bounced back, taking the lead by about five per cent, until the vegans rallied again to carry the day by a margin of two per cent.
All very interesting, although much of the discussion actually missed the point that the poll was aimed at making, namely whether it was a school's role to teach children that by consuming less meat and dairy they could make a difference in terms of climate change.
We have a problem with our polls, in that there is a very tight restriction on how many characters can be used to pose the question. This means that often they must be simplified, often to the detriment of getting a clear response to the actual issue.
This is magnified by the obvious fact that many people who respond have only a passing acquaintance with current affairs. In this case it seems that many New Zealand responders were unaware of the claim that the proposed curriculum will allegedly give schools the ability to instil in children the belief that they can influence climate change by their diet, to the delight of some teachers and the despair of some parents.
The Northland Age accepts that the question of diet is just one small part of the climate change debate, and of what is understood to be the proposed climate change curriculum. What does not sit well is the impression that school teachers will apparently have the ability to tell children that their lunch boxes may contain the ingredients for doomsday, and that by eschewing meat and dairy they will be doing their planet a favour, and perhaps even saving their own lives.
That might not faze too many parents, who believe that schools in this country make a habit of presenting children with a broad, balanced range of facts on any given issue and allow them to reach their own conclusions. In short, they teach our children how to think rather than what to think. Those parents might well be in a distinct minority.
Certainly the issue of climate change, and its dietary component, is a complex one. It can be fairly argued that no real comparison can be made between pastoral farming in this country, where the animals that feed some of us live in as natural an environment as can be provided for them, and standard practices in some other countries, where animals are treated like machines, and their meat and milk are produced at great environmental cost, not to mention cruelty.
This country's dairy industry argues that it can produce milk, and the various products made from milk, with less environmental impact than any other country in the world. It would also be fair to say that animals that are reared here for their meat and milk are generally treated very well. Farmers will say that they care for and about their livestock, that they make every effort to ensure they are happy and healthy, not only because of a fundamental empathy with their animals but because providing them with the best possible environment makes financial sense.
One farmer said some years ago that he spared no effort to ensure that his beef cattle enjoyed the very best life he could provide. They just had one really bad day at the end of it.
Anyway, the suggestion that schools might push the anti meat and dairy line, and create an entire generation of Kiwi vegans, had clearly defined the battle lines between those who see a plant-based diet as mankind's salvation and those who argue, as one poster did, that there is room for all of God's creatures, right beside the mashed potatoes. And given our experience last week, no one is about to succumb to rational argument from the other camp. We will have to agree to disagree.
However, it is difficult not to compare this issue with that of religious instruction in schools. The government says it will require parents who want their children to receive religious instruction to actively opt in, as opposed to opting out if they don't want it for their offspring. And a number of teachers have applauded that, on the basis that religious instruction in schools amounts to brainwashing.
Nothing new about that, but what's the difference between brainwashing a child in a religious instruction class or in a climate change class? Teachers can't have it both ways. Either receptive young minds are presented with a range of arguments and left to make up their own minds, or are told, by the local vicar or a vegan teacher, that they must believe if they are to save themselves, in this world or the next.
Surely it is up to parents to introduce their children to any form of religious belief, or to teach them that they have a role to play as individuals in terms of addressing the complex issue of climate change. Poll respondents from North America were especially keen on the idea of keeping climate change out of schools, whose sole responsibility was to teach kids to read and write.
That would seem to make sense. It seems unlikely that society's salvation lies in raising a generation of semi-literate vegan atheists. The more literate kids are, of course, the more likely it is that they will become critical thinkers who are able to make up their own minds.
As one English poster put it, "Schools shouldn't be trying to form the views of children at all. They should be teaching children about the meat and dairy industry (both British and foreign) and letting them make an informed decision themselves when they are mature enough to. Forcing opinion on to children is indoctrination."