The Vegan Debate
On January 3rd, I was sitting on an ornate wooden bench in the Oxford Council Chamber waiting for an ORFC session to start, and was sensing an unusual amount of apprehension in the room. Pitched as a debate – perhaps in acknowledgment of the combative response it usually provokes - the session was on veganism.
Somewhat regrettably, diet isn’t often discussed at farming conferences. But the current trend towards veganism is making farmers pay attention, particularly because UK food culture and farming practice has focussed on meat and dairy for centuries.
Being vegan may have once been considered an extreme lifestyle choice upheld by politicised eccentrics, but this year record numbers of people have pledged to do ‘Vegan-uary’ eschewing all animal products for the month of January. There’s no ignoring the recent tidal wave of online content promoting a vegan lifestyle, including a littany of celebrity endorsements for ‘converting’. If you believe what you read, vegan lifestyle is the key to a healthier body, glowing skin, a better sex life, and to being ultimately socially and environmentally responsible. And with vegan items appearing absolutely everywhere from M&S to Aldi, its safe to say veganism is no longer a fringe lifestyle choice. Even Greggs – the UK’s most ubiquitous meat-based snack-monger – has come up with a vegan sausage roll that they apparently can’t make enough of.
Does this mean that folk are finally paying attention to the growing body of research that unequivocally links meat consumption with climate change, poor health and dietary disease? The Lancet recently released a compelling and controversial report recommending a drastic global reduction in the consumption of all animal products, indicating that the ‘ideal’ diet would incorporate no more than 50g each of eggs, fish, meat and sugar, and would require most of us to triple our intake of vegetables, fruits and legumes.
Gloomy reading for those who love a good cheeseburger.
Clearly, maintaining current levels of meat and dairy consumption would be irresponsible. But if the UK adopted the diet recommended by the Lancet, our agriculture would have to transform itself in response. The landscape we currently know; the pastures and hill-farms grazed for centuries to produce our Sunday roasts and sharp cheddar cheeses, would become unrecognisable without livestock.
Most of the producers at the ORFC consider our climate and landscape to be perfectly suited to producing high quality meat and dairy, and many publicly advocate for the positive environmental effects of mixed agriculture and pasture fed livestock.
And many were perhaps hoping that this debate would raise the question of whether the UK could sustainably provide for a vegan population without importing the necessary amounts of plant protein which we cannot grow, and enough vegetables to supplement our current meagre production (the UK only grows about 55% of veg consumed).
The panel, consisting of 2 vegans and 2 livestock farmers, were all folk who could speak both personally and professionally on the matter, having all contributed significantly to wider public dialogue about the ethics of meat consumption.
Simon Fairlie, who owns a micro-dairy in Devon, most famously wrote ‘Meat: a Benign Extravagance’, arguing for the integral role of livestock within a sustainable production system. Next to him was Isabella Tree, a farmer who recently published ‘Wilding’ documenting the rewilding of their estate in West Sussex in which livestock played a vital role. Opposing their views were Kerry McCarthy; an outspoken vegan and MP in Bristol East (the most vegan town in the UK) and previously Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Maresa Bossano, a proud vegan and co-ordinator for a nationwide community supported agricultural network.
The debate began with Kerry provoking a huge groan of dissent from the room. “Of course, the one thing we can all agree on is that the biggest source of carbon emissions is livestock”.
If you’ve seen Cowspiracy, you may have been convinced that livestock production – particularly beef - is responsible for all environmental ills, and when it comes to carbon footprint, there is no difference between raising cattle in intensive industrial units or pasture feeding. Indeed, a recent Oxford University report “Grazed and Confused?”, says that pasture fed beef is no more environmentally sustainable. But many of the farmers at the ORFC would contest the considerations of the research, saying that pasture fed beef, when sold locally, reduces unnecessary transportation of food, is not using imported cattle-fodder (which often requires deforestation to produce), is making use of a natural resource otherwise nutritionally useless to humans (grass), and negates the requirement for imported fertilizers in maintaining soil fertility.
The interrelation between grazing herbivores and soil health is something the first agriculturalists would have understood implicitly, and, as Isabella stresses, to remove them from our landscape and productive ecosystems would be unnatural. “Before we discuss whether meat consumption is sustainable or not, the first focus should be on the health of our soils which we rely on for all life.”
Supporting a largely vegan population would require intensive arable and vegetable production reliant on fertile soils. For centuries, such production has been completely integrated with herbivores who are fed from the land and produce natural fertilizer - creating a closed loop system. Compost made solely from vegetable organic matter is not sufficient. Without livestock, arable farmers require significant amounts of imported fertilizer created using fossil fuels. Such fertilizers, while providing short term fertility, have been shown to degrade the soil in the long term.
When asked whether vegans would allow for their vegetables to be produced in a system supported by livestock, Maresa conceded that it would be fine for animals to be allowed to graze and for us to use their manure, but farmers would need to find another way of making money from such livestock than selling them as meat. Another collective groan and a few audible face-palms made Maresa blush and admit it was perhaps ideological to imagine farmers could afford to keep cows as pets, but that she couldn’t help her feelings.
“I know, it’s silly. Maybe it’s fine for traditional cultures, like the Massai warriors. I wouldn’t object to them continuing to eat meat. But I don’t think we need to nor should eat meat here.”
Kerry nodded and agreed that vegans weren’t asking everyone to stop eating animal products, “But the vegan philosophy needs to be heard. If more people in the UK want to be vegan, then producers have to respond to that and provide.”
I wondered what she meant. What exactly is the vegan philosophy?
Isabella observed that many vegans and vegetarians who visit their farm – a re-wilded estate that produces pasture fed meat – actually find they have lots in common philosophically.
Indeed, when the motivations for becoming vegan are multifarious, can it be said there is any unanimous ‘vegan philosophy’. Beyond a decision not to consume meat or animal products, reasons for becoming vegan could include personal health, the health of the planet, weight-loss, wanting a lower-budget lifestyle, or because it is associated with subverting the system. And if veganism unanimously stands for ‘cruelty-free’ is this unfairly discounting wide variations between farming methods and approaches?
Simon Fairlie voiced his frustration that many vegans appeared to tar all forms of livestock farming and farmers with the same brush, assuming that any management of livestock would be inherently cruel and unsustainable. He stressed that working with animals was also an ancient art that could teach humility, compassion, respect, and a humbling awareness of our place within the cycles of life and death.
“Factory farming isn’t an argument against meat eating, just as clothing production in sweat shops isn’t an argument against wearing clothes.”
After the applause had died down, Maresa gently accepted his point, agreeing that many vegans were perhaps not widely informed about farming but had heard or seen the worst stories of intensive production.
Kerry added that simply cutting out all animal products does not make a diet inherently ethical or sustainable. “Even vegans need education about the impacts of their diet.” The debate continued, exploring the exploitative use of pollinators in almond production, and whether lab-made meat solved an ethical problem or further distanced us from nature – issues that point to the fact that no diet can be zero-impact, or account for unlimited nuance in the complex interrelation between food production, environment and culture.
Plenty of heads nodded as Kerry calmly insisted that regardless of whether veganism was the answer for everyone, transforming the predominant meat-heavy diet of the west would have a massively positive environmental impact and that anyone choosing to make that change should be supported.
Whether vegan or omnivore, a common enemy was identified in the industrial food system. Debating which diet or lifestyle is superior perhaps just creates an unhelpful distraction from addressing the more pressing common concern of voracious consumption of fossil fuel, ecosystem exploitation and pollution, all in the name of food production.
I can absolutely understand that while the media is full of reports of political turmoil, global health concerns, and environmental degradation, its hardly surprising that people are looking for some way to take control. A diet that appears to simplify the difficult task of being a responsible, high functioning human being, is eminently attractive.
But in truth, anything we eat has an impact on the planet, as does our mere existence. No single ingredient is ethical, healthy and environmentally sensitive the world over. Diet is not only personally, but also ecologically, economically and politically relative. As Isabella wisely concluded, “to be truly ethical we ALL need to dig deeper into understanding food production and how we eat”.