Changing the future of food and farming

Veganuary

Our Senior Livestock Researcher Lindsay Whistance wrestles with the arguments for and against Veganuary in this blog

On Boxing Day evening, at the slowing down of festive indulgences, I began to speculate about what should be on my list of New Year resolutions. Of course, all the usual suspects appeared in the line up but, this year, a newspaper article had me thinking about the merits of adding ‘Veganuary’ to the list since, although my diet is predominantly plant-based, I do eat some meat. 

Veganism and human health

Meat is a component of an omnivore diet so it is not unnatural for humans to eat it. That said, omnivores also have more freedom to choose what they eat compared to obligate carnivores or herbivores. Veganism, as a personal or religious choice, has long been present in human society however veganism as a movement, attracting increasing numbers of Westerners, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Veganuary movement, promoting a whole month of not eating any animal-derived food in January, has certainly attracted a lot of interest in recent years with several high-profile celebrities endorsing it and with over 250,000 people joining in last year. Should I be one of the 500,000 people already signed up for 2021?

The arguments for not eating any meat (or for using other products derived from animals), either for January or permanently, appear compelling in the light of current human behaviour patterns. There are certainly some persuasive medical arguments for not eating meat with evidence indicating that a high consumption of particularly red meat and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of several diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer as well as playing a role in ‘all-cause’ mortality. In contrast, replacing most red meat with plant proteins reduces the risk of these diseases.

Factory farming

The turning of farming from a way of life into a global, mass-production, price-cutting industry has resulted in immense numbers of livestock living across the world including around a billion each of cattle and pigs, nearly two billion sheep and goats and getting on for 20 billion chickens. It is estimated that 50 billion chickens are killed for meat every year. Vast numbers of these animals are held in indoor factories or feedlots where they are reduced to numbers in a dataset and where any meaningful relationships with each other, with humans or with the natural world are, at best, difficult and mostly impossible. In any meaningful sense, these are not ‘lives worth living’ and for those organisations promoting veganism as ethically superior on the basis that livestock production is cruel, it is not hard for them to find and broadcast evidence of such cruelty. Evidence that should break the heart of anyone, meat-eater or otherwise.

At the same time, animal breeding goals have largely focused on improving yield, including faster-growing animals, more offspring per litter, more eggs per hen and more milk per cow. Aside from the grave welfare issues these breeding programmes have caused, the production of high energy/protein feeds, required to achieve these increases, places a huge and increasing burden on the globe. Where 83 percent of farmland is used for livestock and livestock feed production, it only contributes 18 percent of all food calories. The global growing, processing and transporting of feed comes with a high ecological price tag including the well-documented violation of virgin land and the felling of rain forests in South America including the Amazon. Additionally, the sheer numbers of farmed animals and the ways in which they are housed and fed contribute to high levels of air pollutants including ammonia and the greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide and methane, being emitted. Cheap meat brings with it a high and unsustainable price paid in many forms including poor animal welfare, poor worker welfare, ecological degradation and climate change. As Compassion in World Farming states, factory farming prioritises ‘value over values’.

This all presents a strong argument for rejecting animal farming but is it the whole story?

Ecosystem balance and health

One issue that I have with veganism is that, in common with factory farming, it sets humans apart from the natural world. Vegan-approved growers are required to have ‘Stockfree’ certification, effectively declaring their land as reserved for human use. But is this not also, ultimately, a rejection of natural ecological systems and the important and sophisticated relationships that exist between herbivores, plants and insects?

Deer are the only large wild herbivore we have left in UK but domestic breeds of sheep and cattle are modern representatives of their extinct or endangered wild counterparts. These large herbivores play a vital ecological role where, even in a relatively species-poor pasture, grazing patterns create multiple sward heights with each acting as host to distinct groups of insects. Alongside this, the trampling of seeds and sensitive grazing help to maintain plant populations in important but ever-dwindling wildflower meadows. The trampling of vegetation and the depositing of manure are also part of natural and sustainable ways to help maintain soil fertility and are important tools in avoiding the use of chemical inputs. Around forty percent of global land is grassland and, in the UK, there are 6.1 million hectares of permanent pasture, representing a major ecological system. Alongside this, the practice of introducing grass leys into arable rotations is increasing along with our understanding of the benefits this brings to soil health and fertility.

Making space for herbivores

Beneficial herbivore-grassland relationships are well documented and traditional livestock breeds have long been used as a sensitive tool in the management of conservation areas. One might argue that these beneficial interactions can still occur, without the farming element, where tracts of land are set aside as parks and reserves. An example of this approach exists in the Netherlands where Oostvaardersplassen, a 56 km2 area (5,000 hectares) of marshland was fenced off and ‘rewilded’. Horses, cattle and deer were introduced and left unmanaged. Without any control of numbers and a series of mild winters, their populations rose without check resulting in overgrazing, trees dying and a drop in wild bird populations. The harsh winter of 2018 left these animals in a desperate state with numbers crashing from over 5,000 to fewer than 2,000 and with ninety percent of the dead animals eventually being euthanised (shot) before they died of starvation. Neglect of animals, penned in by human fences, is also cruel.

A similar crisis is developing here in UK where the shutting of restaurants during lockdown has drastically reduced the demand for wild venison and therefore the culling of deer. This has led to a population explosion that cannot be supported by available habitat and which now poses a serious threat to woodland ecosystems as well as other habitats. As in Oostvaardersplassen, as available feed sources become depleted, deer will starve, trees will die from excessive debarking, and other wild animal and insect population levels will be at risk.

Ecosystem balance and human health

These examples illustrate the importance of considering the balance of energy and resources across different trophic levels and that maintaining a balance requires a degree of active population control. Whilst there is evidence of self-management of resources and population numbers in apex predators, there is no such control exercised by herbivores, or omnivores, including humans. So if the herbivores’ place and value in ecological systems is to be respected and population management is necessary, might we not then reasonably utilise these resources in a sustainable way, including eating the meat? And if we eat the meat, should we not then also be using the rest of the body? A strong argument for using animal-derived products such as wool and leather, is their durability and biodegradability. So many alternatives to animal products are either plant-based products (also) not produced at a globally sustainable level, or synthetic materials (recycled or otherwise), placing a much heavier burden on the world. Pollution from oil-derived materials at both macro and micro levels must now be considered to be one of the biggest crimes against the natural world.

Although reducing meat consumption does bring health benefits, a vegan diet is not without its own health concerns. Some nutrients, such as calcium, iron and vitamin B12 are not easily sourced from plants. As for calcium, a couple of years ago, I was sitting in a conference listening to a nutritionist talking about his fears of a ticking time bomb of health problems for women. Our teenage years provide a crucial window for the development of strong bones that help prevent osteoporosis in later life. With an increasing rejection of dairy products by teenage girls, these girls and society have yet to pay the cost of their behaviour change. Vitamin B12 is important for red blood cell production and brain function and a lack of it can lead to both nerve damage and heart disease. So, if both eating too much meat and eating no meat can lead to a risk of heart disease, perhaps, in human health terms, the old adage ‘everything in moderation’ still holds true. In line with this, the NHS currently recommends that eating up to 70g of red meat a day can be part of a healthy diet.

Plant protein sources and emissions

A second thing that industrial farming and the vegan diet share is a reliance upon the same global market of plant protein sources and nearly two-thirds of all soya imported into UK is already used in human food or industrial products, rather than as animal feed. Blame for the destruction of habitats to grow these products must therefore be shared. As for the related issue of emissions, there are 7.8 billion people on earth and, on average, each person is releasing one litre of intestinal gas each day. The amount of different gasses present in flatus includes 10-30 percent CO2, around 10 percent methane and up to 90 percent nitrogen. It is worth noting that these gasses are produced predominantly from vegetable-based foodstuffs, including beans, most vegetables and wholegrains, and that human emissions of greenhouse gasses increase with an exclusively plant-based diet. (Pork is the exception, producing higher levels of methane compared to other sources of meat). In contrast to livestock, humans are commended for these emissions since, according to a health magazine, ‘farting is the result of a healthy, complex ecosystem in your intestines’.

A healthy gut does result in gas emissions but to praise one species and condemn another for the same outcome is perverse. If there were no farmed animals, would we be pointing our finger at, for example, the buffalo, bison or wildebeest? Are not our domesticated breeds the modern representatives of their wild ancestors and therefore deserving of respect for the ecological niche they occupy? A sounder approach might be to stop measuring this in such a reductionist way, to stop looking at the problem of emissions at a species level by recognising that it is not an issue of their existence per se. This is a problem of numbers, both of livestock and of humans. However sensitive and difficult a topic it may be, the cost of uncontrolled human population numbers cannot be discounted as part of the global nosedive in ecological health. In the last fifty years alone, the human population has doubled and, in that time, the amount of meat consumed has tripled.

Facts and feelings

At an individual level, I regard veganism, or any other food choices, as largely personal and private. When dietary choices are represented by a movement, just like all lobbying groups (including those representing factory farming), they are based on and driven by the reasoning of some in order to change the behaviour of others. And so misuse of language and false arguments matter. A lot. A look at the Vegan Society website reveals a page where the number of animals ‘saved’ by choosing a vegan diet can be calculated. It goes on to state that, since vegans tend to avoid other animal products like wool, ‘even more animals owe their lives to vegan power’. This is an entirely false claim. Since there is no direct link between animals that are bred for meat and the end customer, if any one person gives up meat, there is no ‘saving’ of animal lives. The customer is anonymous and the animals are killed regardless. The fallacy of this argument is highlighted by the recent inability to deliver animals to slaughter plants in the US, due to corona virus closures. These animals are not being ‘saved’ by not being eaten but are instead being ‘depopulated’ (killed) on farm. It is projected that millions of animals, chickens, pigs and cattle, will be killed in this way. Not one will be ‘saved’.

The swinging pendulum and principles

The intensification of animal farming and high meat consumption on the one hand and the total rejection of meat-eating on the other remind me of a pendulum swinging with both actions representing ecologically unstable and unsustainable choices. If we choose a third way; a way which sees humans as a part of (or at least closer to) ecological systems, would this slow down the pendulum swing and bring our global health closer to a stable centre? Doing so would involve respecting the herbivore as a key component of ecosystem health, it would recognise the position of farmed species in the natural world as representatives of their extinct or endangered wild counterparts and it would enable us to properly honour our ‘ancient contract’ with these domesticated species. Using the health of an ecosystem as a guide to population control (carrying capacity) would also mean a rejection of factory farming and its abuse of the world’s resources. Producing and selling meat at its true value and cost would then help to limit excessive meat consumption. It would also enable farmers to better fulfil their role as guardians of nature. If this argument stands up, it offers a meaningful way forward for the coexistence of nature and farming (land sharing) as an alternative to the proposed increase in intensification of food production and its separation from nature which is then managed as reserves (land sparing). It also brings all farming and food production closer to the ideals of global harmony as enshrined in the four principles of health, ecology, fairness and care. These are the principles upon which organic farming is based but surely they are sound principles for us all to live by and aspire to?

Returning to the question of joining in Veganuary, I certainly see some merits in people taking part, since it offers a moment in time to expand food experiences which may then lead to a reduction in meat consumption and a rejection of industrial meat in the future. A similar outcome has been seen in farmers converting to organic but stopping once the financial support for conversion ran out. These farmers returned to conventional farming but with a marked reduction in the use of chemicals.

Ethics and actions

The ethical choices we make are informed by both knowledge and our perception of the world. My own choices are based on my beliefs and understanding that humans are not separate from the natural world, that herbivores play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and that, in order to maintain a balance of energy between trophic levels, the eating of some meat from high welfare systems is acceptable. As increasing numbers of smaller-scale farmers are focussing on how to best fulfil their role as guardians of nature, it becomes easier for me as a consumer, not just to reject factory farming outright but to actively support their efforts. There are many options including supporting organic livestock farming, the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, the Farm Wilder enterprise, and individual farm businesses such as the Knepp estate. If one accepts this argument, the seeking out and supporting of these farmers is critical in shaping the footprint of farming towards ecologically sustainable practice. This support is even more critical under the hardships and chaos created by the Covid virus. With the fragility of our food supply chain being exposed by Covid, the smaller, more sustainable food producers have been hit the hardest.

So, Veganuary will not be added to my list and instead, I will be maintaining my low meat diet and continuing to source it from high welfare, agroecological systems.

Lindsay Whistance

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