They have a Vegan movie out on the BBC Carnage, by Simon Amstell. A mockmentary, it imagines a UK in 2067 where the whole country is vegan, meat is banned, but older generations are suffering the guilt of their carnivorous past. I think I’d have to criticise it for going for the hard sell a bit too much and ignoring certain key facts, which means it will merely comes off as too preachy to be taken seriously.
Figure 1: Carnage movie premiere
For example, at the end of the film all the farm animals get freed from the farm so they can live a life of bliss, yes? Ah no! Most farm animals won’t survive long outside of a farm. Decades, if not centuries, of selective breeding means many breeds of chickens, pigs and cattle simply won’t be able to survive for very long outside of a farm environment. If animal products were banned, the kindest thing you could do to them is put them all down immediately.
And while certain breeds of cattle, sheep and deer can survive outside of a farming environment, there would be issues. These animals populations are often sustained by animal feed, which in turn is grown using large quantities of fossil fuel based fertilisers. Without this feed they would literally strip the countryside bare, destroying the ecosystem and then starve to dead. And given how much methane they generate, keeping them alive would negate the main argument for veganism, fighting climate change. So large numbers of them would have to be culled as well.
Suffice to say day one of a vegan world would involve the biggest mass slaughter of animals since the K-T impact. And then there would be the problem of disposing of all those billions of animal carcasses. The sky would glow red for months with funeral pyres….and barbecues!
Figure 2: The mass slaughter and burning of animals during the Foot & Mouth crisis
And we are talking about prohibition here, anyone care to remember what happened when they tried that in the 1920’s? Within 10 minutes of bringing in such a ban they’re be spiv’s down every back alley in the country selling black market meat. And the meat would be produced under the most awful and inhumane conditions. Plus you’d have just put a price on the head of every pet, wild animal, bird and zoo animal in the country, who would start disappearing into back alley slaughter houses.
As a vet once pointed out to me, a lot of those in the animal rights movement have a very naïve view of nature (or politics) and how it works. They don’t seem to understand that life is tough and nature is cruel. Part of her job as a vet involves animal welfare on farms. And if you think things are bad on a farm, go watch a nature documentary sometime. And speaking of which in order to keep animal populations in balance in the absence of hunting, or farming, you would have to reintroduce predators. So you’d be saving lambs from the abattoir, just so they could get their throats ripped out by a wolf or fox.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s major issues with animal welfare that need to get tackled. I would note that I’m writing this while tucking into a vegetarian curry. And as I’ve discussed in prior posts, our food production system and in particular the meat industry needs major reform if it is to become sustainable. Brexit now raises the risk that current UK animal welfare and food safety standards will go backwards, as poorer American style standards are introduced. But equally there is a need for some realism here.
Figure 3: Global carbon emissions by source [Source: EPA, 2015]
Certainly one of the main arguments for a vegan diet is climate change. Meat is a fairly energy intensive food. About a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions are as a result of farming (all farming, meat production is about 14.5%) and land use changes. And while the carbon footprint of the other main headlines, energy, transport and industry are all stabilising or falling, emissions from agriculture are still rising. So its quickly becoming a priority that needs to be tackled.
Figure 4: Carbon footprint of different foods [Source: BBC, 2009 & Lantmannen foods]
Furthermore, at least a third of the world’s grain supply is also fed to farm animals, food that could be used to end world hunger, and the left overs could probably power more than a few biofuel powered cars too.
Figure 5: Carbon footprint by diet
That said, we need to avoid making unfair generalisations. As I discussed in a prior post on this topic, there is a certain level of meat that can be produced worldwide with a minimum of environmental impact. Once we exceed this threshold, the resources needed increase exponentially. Needless to say this is the problem, we’re producing too much meat and having to devote large amounts of land and energy towards that task in ways that simply aren’t sustainable.
Figure 6: A graph by Simon Fairlie from the recent BBC Horizon program showing the limits to sustainable meat production, via plant products (blue, 40MT/yr), Food wastes (orange, 110MT/yr) & Grazing land (Green, 40 MT/yr). Once we exceed these limits the resources needed increase exponentially [Source: BBC, 2014]
Different types of farming methods have very different environmental impacts. Its been suggested for example that feedlot cattle have a lower carbon footprint. However such studies tend to only consider the outgoings, they often fail to account for land use changes (which represent at least half of all agriculture related carbon emissions and they can be quite high for a feedlot). Or the environmental impact of non grass grazed animals as well as the the carbon absorption of vegetation on traditional farms, in particular the likes of hill farms, which in the UK often have a phenomenal growth rate.
Also there’s the issue of EROI’s to consider. The Tsembaga tribe of New Guinea practice a form of sustainable slash and burn agriculture along with animal husbandry (specifically pigs). They produce a yield of 16.5 times the energy back from food that they put in. By contrast a US corn farm has an EROI of just 2.4 and a US rice farm 1.37 (Aubecht, 1989). So its important to realise its not a simple case of black and white.
Not least because the door swings both ways here. A recent US study took a commonly circulated vegan diet, did the maths on it and concluded that adopting this vegan diet would actually lead to one’s carbon emissions increasing. Why? Well because while crops are generally less energy intensive as compared to meat, that’s not universally true. As noted earlier US grain production barely produces a net energy positive and requires significant amounts of fossil fuels to sustain. Certain crops, notably fruits are quite energy intensive, particularly if they are grown out of season in poly tunnels.
Figure 7: Carbon footprint of Tomatoes under different growing conditions [Source: Carlsson, 1998]
Some fruits and vegetables also can have a relatively large environmental impact. For example, Asparagus has a notoriously high carbon footprint. Its unfortunate that the movie I mentioned earlier chose to highlight coconut milk because the water needed to produce a litre of coconut milk is double what’s needed to produce a litre of cow’s milk. A kilo of rice also requires more water to produce the same amount of chicken or pork. Maybe not a huge problem in the UK, but water shortages are a big issue in other parts of the world. And of course we can’t produce coconuts, soya or rice in the UK, so those would have to be imported (i.e. more food miles).
Figure 8: Water use of different farming methods [Source: Chapagain, & Hoekstra, 2004]
Clearly the issue here is much as it is with meat. Much as there’s a “carrying capacity” of meat the world can sustainably produce, there’s a carrying capacity of fruit, vegetables and grains that can be produced with minimal environmental impact. Once we exceed these thresholds, the environmental impact increases rapidly, as the example in figure 7 for tomatoes illustrates. Add in long food miles for certain exotic fruit and veg and I think you get the idea.
Figure 9: Food miles by transport method
Indeed a food mile problem with fruit and veg is its need for air transportation over meat and grains (which can often be shipped more slowly by boat in refrigerated storage) due to its short shelf life. There’s also an issue with large amounts of fruit and veg being thrown out, although this can be a problem with meat as well, as figure 10 shows.
Figure 10: Waste and spoilage of different foods from field to plate
I would argue the solution here is changes to how supermarkets work, i.e. differential pricing, selling stuff close to its sell by date off cheaper (decreasing the chances of it having to be thrown out) and making the same item that’s going to keep for longer more expensive.
Figure 11: Seasonal eating
But what all of this highlights is its not that simple to say “become vegan”. There is a need to try and stick to locally produced food’s, where possible, and those that are in season. Of course this restricts the dietary options yet further and feeds into one of the major complains of those who try to go vegan and give up – that they struggle to eat a balanced diet (this is one of my concerns too and why I’ve never gone fully down that route).
Admittedly some do make the rookie mistake of eating what they always did, but cutting out the meat (often because they live in a non-vegan household). That’s a one way ticket to scurvy. You need to be a bit more inventive. e.g. the veggie curry I’m having is made from a range of UK vegetables….although that said, the one I had the other week was lentils and chickpeas, which I’m guessing aren’t local…nor is the rice! My point is that its not easy and this needs to be acknowledged.
All in all, while there are good reasons to go vegan, but I worry that trying for the hard sell is just preaching to the converted and will just turn most people off. I would rather focus on messages that will get somewhere, e.g. the need to give up beef.
Indeed here’s an interesting idea from Simon Fairlie in which he proposes to put a tax on meat, in particular beef. I think this sounds like an idea that need to be explored, although I’d focus initially on just getting rid of farm subsidies for meat. Also we’d need to tackle the issues I raised earlier regarding the large uncertainty as to the exact environmental impact of meat (or fruit and vegetable production). Otherwise the meat lobby will simply point out how terrible for the environment certain vegan products are and suggest those should be taxed as well.
And making food more expensive is the sort of thing that’s seldom popular. After all, many have argued for a tax on sugary drinks or a minimum price for alcohol in Scotland. Yet its taken several years to get those laws in place. And that’s with universal cross party support. Obviously in a scenario where one side or another objects (and its a given that they will in the case of meat) then would make such legislation a very tall order.
So its important to get your facts straight, vegans need to do some fact checking before they start making claims that aren’t entirely correct, or they’ll end up with egg on their faces (if you’ll pardon the pun). And the hard sell merely makes vegans come across as the sort of fanatics who would ban a woman from bottle feeding her baby breast milk in a vegan shop (and yes this did actually happen). Or the idots who came into my Cousin’s restaurant (they claimed to be fruitarians who won’t eat anything on the menu unless it had fallen naturally off a tree, she’d have taken them a little more seriously if once wasn’t wearing a leather jacket and the other leather shoes!).
So I would focus on smaller more achievable goals (e.g. reducing beef consumption) rather than going to extremes, which will simply be ignored.