As part of the event, Ecotricity hosted a debate between Jasmijn De Boo of the Vegan Society and Aine Morris of the Sustainable Food Trust, which was chaired by John Drowley. Essentially – it was about whether animals have any role to play in sustainable agriculture, a topic we’ve touched upon before on here.
Both Aine and Jasmijn have kindly provided a summary of their main points here for your delectation – let us know who you think had the most convincing argument in the comments?
The role of livestock in sustainable farming systems – a vegan debate
Head of Communications, Sustainable Food Trust
Last weekend I was invited as a guest of the sustainable energy company, Ecotricity, to speak at WOMAD, on the role of livestock in sustainable food systems.
I was there to make the case for the benefits of sustainable livestock farming, whilst my opposition, Jasmijn de Boo of The Vegan Society, was promoting a vegan diet for a sustainable future.
We need more vegans and vegetarians
I don’t consider myself to be an extreme ‘pro-carnivore,’ and I firmly believe that society’s relationship with meat needs some serious reconsideration. Collectively we eat far too much meat. Eating meat every day, often twice a day, has become commonplace. The majority of this meat is raised on factory farms, in appalling conditions, with toxic health impacts for the animals, humans and our environment.
An estimated 60 billion land animals are killed each year to satisfy our desire for cheap meat. The impact of our separation from the way food is produced and the invisibility of factory farming should not be under-estimated. If the majority of people visited a factory farm, I am convinced we would significantly change our meat eating habits. It takes a hard heart to witness first-hand the conditions of most industrially produced animals and walk away happy to take responsibility for the suffering that makes its way onto our plates.
However, as much as I agree that we need to eat less meat generally, I am also comfortable with my role as a meat-eater. Over the last five years, I have been present at the deaths of one pig (on a family farm in Italy), one sheep (on Trealy Farm’s Meat Course) and a number of chickens, grouse and rabbits.
Taking a life is a meaningful act. I would challenge the most amorous of omnivores to look into the eyes of a pig as it dies for your dinner and feel nothing. I believe exposure to the way our food lives and dies is essential, and that every meat eater has a responsibility to witness death, and then ask themselves whether they are truly comfortable with their dietary choices.
In my case, the experience made me absolutely confident that meat is a product to be valued highly. The animals that I eat have lived the best possible lives, suffered the best possible deaths and are celebrated in their eating through the care and integrity I bring to their preparation.
Despite some common ground however, at a certain point in the debate I realized that you either believe it is morally acceptable for human beings to raise animals with the express intent of killing and eating them, or you do not.
These two opposing views are pretty much impossible to reconcile. So, just as we had areas in which we agreed, there was also a fundamental opposition between us that was impossible to reconcile.
Veganism is a singular response to one element of a complex food system. The philosophy obviously rejects meat and animal products for food consumption, but offers little dietary advice in terms of locality, method of farming, transport and distribution or product replacement. Animal products are to be avoided at all costs, but eating vegetables that are farmed in chemical monocultures – that lead directly to the loss of birds, insects and wildlife – is fine. I disagree with promoting a diet that avoids local meat, but then allows for meat-substitutes, which are soya-based or often made with palm oil. Palm oil production in Indonesia has led to extensive rainforest clearance for agricultural production, and brought orangutans populations nearly to extinction as a result.
The vegan philosophy fails to acknowledge the vital role that livestock animals have to play in healthy, ‘closed-circle’ farming systems – systems that work to balance inputs and outputs, replenishing, reusing and recycling nutrients wherever possible. When farmed sustainably, and allowed to express their natural behaviours, livestock animals help to build soil fertility (through their manure), break-up difficult soils (with their feet), help to close circles in food production systems (such as feeding pigs food waste or whey from cheese production), and provide essential agricultural labour, especially in developing world countries. The Vegan Society advocates using machinery in lieu of the benefits listed above, but I fail to see how a mechanical intervention can replace animals without increasing the need for inputs of nitrogen fertilizers, and reducing the number of people working the land.
During our debate, Jasmijn argued that a move away from livestock farming would ‘improve rural livelihoods.’ However when asked by an audience member what she would recommend for hilltop, low-fertility farms where sheep or cattle-grazing is the only viable option, the response was to argue that we need less farms, and that re-wilding hilltops with nut trees would be a viable alternative.
I would argue that if we seriously want to consider how to improve livelihoods and create vibrant rural communities, then we need an abundance of small and medium sized mixed-use farms, with many more people working the land. Farmers that grow a diverse range of arable crops, and keep livestock, can use animal-waste to improve and replenish soil fertility, and grow feed on-site, reducing the need for expensive external inputs. Farms need to be as food-secure as possible, and at a time when our climactic conditions are changing, resilience is to be found in diversity.
Most concerning about the vegan position was the fundamental lack of differentiation between industrial and sustainable farming systems (for the sake of argument, let’s call them organic.) Jasmijn repeatedly made the point that organic cows are not much happier than factory-farmed cows – they are still forced away from their mothers at an early age, and still slaughtered young when cows ‘could potentially live for 20 years.’ It was clear that all livestock farming was lumped together under the catch-all of ‘animal-eaters.’
I struggle with the principles of these arguments, not only because I disagree with the suggestion that organically farmed animals are unhappy, but because I also fail to understand the reasonable alternative in which tens of thousands of previously farmed animals are left to either roam wild, or assume some sort of role as pets, removing them from a productive and useful role to become a consumer of food and energy in their own right.
The morality of meat and the pleasure of taste
Many people eat meat not only as part of a healthy and balanced diet, but because it tastes good and people derive great pleasure from doing so. The smell of crispy bacon sizzling in a pan, a perfectly cooked steak, the crispy pop of crackling between your teeth, are all sensory experiences. These experiences bring a range of benefits from the positive hormonal and chemical reactions in our brains, to the social benefits of enjoying a meal as part of a group. Human beings are sensory creatures. We do a great many things for pleasure, and arguing that society as a whole should stop these activities is at best naïve, at worst fundamentally unrealistic.
The vegan alternative doesn’t stack-up
Whilst I still maintain that more people regularly substituting meat with vegan or vegetarian options is a positive thing, I left the debate convinced that veganism as an ideology is not going to drive the significant change needed to transform our global food systems.
Veganism is, at its core, reductionist. It advocates dietary choices that seem unpalatable to the majority of the meat-eating, dairy-loving British public, and for this reason it is not a philosophy that is going to garner enough public support to have significant influence.
We need to create a mainstream movement for change, a new philosophy for food production that is inclusive and engaging regardless of socio-economic barriers, and whilst veganism does have an important role to play as part of this wider movement, it will fail in its singularity to drive the scale of change that is needed if we are to create a genuinely sustainable food future.
Positive impacts of Meat and Dairy? Name one
Jasmijn de Boo
Chief Executive, The Vegan Society
Were you at Womad last week? Organisers of the World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival pride themselves on offering an exciting and inspirational festival experience.
Their partnership with Ecotricity sets the platform for great debate about the environment and energy use. I was invited to discuss attitudes towards our food choices and the impact this can have – food being one of the biggest concerns when it comes to the environment.
The question was: “Vegan and/or organic – the positive impact of meat and dairy, or not?” I argued “not” on behalf of The Vegan Society. Opposite me was Aine Morris, head of Communications at the Sustainable Food Trust. A fantastic debate followed with much interaction from the audience. In case you missed it, I’d like to outline some of my arguments, including a few specific points raised during the debate.
Sustainability: where did it all go wrong?
People love food. It plays a hugely important role in our daily lives. Sharing food and preparing food for others have culturally developed worldwide over millennia. We used to prepare what we need. We lived more or less in balance with our environment until the advent of ‘livestock farming’ over 10,000 years ago, which some people say revolutionised our relationship with the natural world. Others argue it marked the beginning of an exploitative era of other animals. Either way, we started taking more than we needed, causing more damage along the way. Some believe it to be the beginning of an unsustainable world.
Time to move away from farming non-human animals
Recent articles in the news have featured a range of food scandals, trends and solutions. People’s curiosity turns them to technological developments. While humans are capable of remarkable inventions, we need not look to futuristic food applications. The solutions to feed a growing human population with respect for the environment including the other animals with whom we share the planet are easy and healthy.
A well-planned healthy plant-based diet provides all the nutrients people need. Mainly plant-based diets have nurtured numerous civilisations in the past, and it’s time we seriously consider vegan lifestyles now. Promoting meat-and-dairy based diets no longer makes sense when you take into account all the ‘hidden costs’, including environmental, health and ethical problems of ‘farming non-human animals’. Rising input costs are destroying animal farmer livelihoods. A move away from animal farming will help improve rural livelihoods, tackle climate change, improve global food security and reduce risks of serious diseases.
Vegan diets require less land, water and energy
Human farming of non-human animals is causing extensive damage to our environment. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation showed that ‘the global livestock industry’ is in the top three causes of all major environmental problems, including global climate change. Farming non-human animals for food is responsible for at least 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in CO2 equivalent. In 2009, The Vegan Society estimated that healthy vegan diets in the UK can require just one third of the fertile land, fresh water and energy of the typical British ‘meat-and-dairy’ based diet.
A 2006 life cycle analysis study by Baroni et al. showed that a vegan organic diet had the lowest environmental impact compared to conventional vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous diets and organic vegetarian and omnivorous diets. Beef has the greatest impact on the environment and other high impacting foods include dairy cheese, milk and fish.
Friends of Earth estimate that the average British consumer uses over a kilo of soya beans per week – because the ‘meat, dairy and eggs’ we eat come from animals fed on soya beans. We could each get 400 g of nutritious protein and 80 g of vital dietary fibre – as well as other nutrients like essential omega-3 fats – by eating that kilo of soya first-hand each week. Also, a kilo of soya could meet the basic energy needs of two adults for a day. Passing human-graded food such as grains and soya through animals results in a massive waste of nutrients and energy.
Why feed livestock when we could feed people?
Animal farming makes it harder for the most vulnerable people to feed themselves. In 2009, United Nations Environment Programme revealed that the basic calorie needs of 3.5 billion humans could be met by the net grain waste each year in the world ‘livestock’ industry.
In the developing world vegan farming reduces the risk of conflict over scarce water and grazing land and it does not require reliance on domestic animals for food when the survival of the animals can be uncertain, for example in times of drought.
The latest updates on the health benefits of veganism
The current typical British meat-and-dairy based diet is adding to chronic disease and greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012, public health experts from Cambridge University showed that shifting from meat-based diets can reduce our risks of major illnesses such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and colorectal cancer, whilst also cutting our greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.
This month, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council endorsed well-planned vegan diets for every age and life stage: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/n55
According to the American Dietetic Association “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diet, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
Why simply going organic doesn’t tell the whole story
Where organic has a clear advantage over chemical agriculture, it’s usually more distinctive with crop farming. Even organic ‘farmed animal’ grazing is not a carbon sink in a proper comparison to natural vegetation. Cows do not ‘save the earth’ as was claimed by the Sustainable Food Trust Head of Communications, Aine Morris. Grazing cows may have a small role to play, but effective and sustainable carbon sinks require mass tree and forest growth. While mitigation and adaptation are important, we really must focus on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and one possibility is to switch from ‘animal farming’ to crop farming. Other GHG emissions such as methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia, are higher in organic ‘livestock farming’ than in organic crop farming.
All animals have a right to life
Non-human animals are living beings seeking life and freedom, and avoiding harm and danger, but about 60 billion land animals and over 90 billion marine animals are used and killed as products and commodities to satisfy human taste preferences. Aine admitted this was the main reason to eat products derived from other animals.
In every ‘livestock system’, no matter how high the welfare standards, animals will suffer. The Five Freedoms will never be met completely. They include the freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom from discomfort; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express natural behaviour. Ultimately, humans take away life (animals do not ‘give up their life’ as Aine suggested – they have not given consent to be slaughtered), and they are nearly always killed prematurely.
Every week in the UK 3,000 male calves are killed shortly after birth, and over 40 million day-old chicks are killed each year including those from organic farms. While in organic ‘dairy farming’, for example, milk yield may be lower, disease prevalence decreased, and the time that calves spend with the cows increased, no system is stress-proof. During life on the farm, handling, transport and slaughter, animals will suffer and die, including those raised in organic systems. Many lambs suffer from hypothermia in the field, and many will die. This is needless, as products derived from animals are unnecessary for humans to maintain health.
UK organic livestock numbers are a tiny fraction of total number of livestock, ranging from 0.8% for pigs to 3.6% for sheep, and organic farming trends are declining. While The Vegan Society agrees with organic principles being more in harmony with nature, the intensity of human labour and other inputs makes organic products generally a less economically viable option for a large proportion of the population.
Farming Stock-free makes for a smarter economy
The Vegan Society believes in a world in which humans do not exploit other animals, and would like to see farmers thrive without raising and killing non-human animals. We would like to see efforts, skills, knowledge and funds redirected into plant-based agriculture. Without subsidy the pork, lamb and beef industries would already have collapsed. If subsidies are to be continued, they would be better invested in stock-free horticulture.
Stock-free farmers (arable farmers who don’t use manures or other products from farmed animals) avoid the reliance on the livestock industry to produce manure. They are unaffected by fluctuating costs of animal feed and can function well without subsidies. In the UK stock-free farming offers an alternative to the tight margins and low farmer confidence currently placing many ‘dairy farmers’ in a precarious situation.
A few grey areas shouldn’t hold us back
A couple of questions from the audience focused on grey areas or moral dilemmas not directly related to veganism but touching on issues such as the impact on animals living in the wild. Palm oil is one such example. While it is true that some vegan products contain palm oil, the problematic product is also found in a range of non-vegan foods, and in absolute terms, palm oil is probably consumed in higher quantities by non-vegans. Veganism is not a “hole-proof philosophy”, as a few people argued. We never claimed we are 100% perfect. Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable— all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.
I believe, however, that vegan arguments are evidence-based and the “holes” in our philosophy are significantly smaller than those in philosophies based on trying to justify the exploitation of other animals to satisfy our taste preference.
In summary, I’d like to turn the initial question around: consider instead the positive impacts of a vegan diet and lifestyle of which there are a great number and counting.
Thanks for reading! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below?