Articles

Should We All Be Vegan?

By 26 March 2020 No Comments

Qualified in agriculture (PhD in crop physiology), and with occasional sorties into academia (Visiting Professor at Cranfield University [1983-9]), John has been involved in the rural economies of African and Asian countries for five decades. In 1983, he set up his own business (Rural Investment Overseas) to work directly with local entrepreneurs, seeking to address issues through the concept of willing buyer and willing seller rather than through charity. In 2009, he met two British farmers who were raising their ruminant animals wholly on pasture and they set up the Pasture-fed Livestock Association (PFLA) as a community interest company. It is now a nationwide movement of which he is Honorary President.

The rise of veganism within the last decade has been exponential and interest in it has increased seven fold in the five years between 2014 and 2019 according to Google trends. It now gets almost four times more interest than vegetarian and gluten free diets. In 2018, the UK launched more vegan products than any nation and for scientists, policy makers and economists, the idea of a vegan future is especially interesting and one of the biggest reasons is the perceived benefits to the environment.

When thinking about veganism two thoughts come to mind . Firstly, that there is a story behind everything we eat – the production of food is not just about statistics but about relationships between the land, its plants and animals and the people who farm it…..and that we are what we eat. Secondly, it’s not the cow it’s the how. The focus should not simply be on the animals – which have been part of mixed farming since time immemorial – but on the changing way in which many are now raised.

A recent statement in Joseph Poore’s influential paper, published in Science Magazine and oft-quoted by vegans, provides some common ground on which we can build: “The large variability in environmental impact from different farms does present an opportunity for reducing the harm, without needing the global population to become vegan”.

So, should we all be vegans? Two questions….

(1) Who is “we”? Are we referring to the people represented by an often urban, middle class, western audience? If so, how significant will be the impact? Or are we telling the more than one billion people in the poorer parts of the world, who depend upon animals for their livelihood, to give them up? If so, who do we think we are?

(2) What would happen if there were no animals on the world’s farms?
I respect the views of those who have chosen to be vegans but I do not believe that we should all follow suit. I base my view on a lifetime of working with rural communities in many of the poorer countries of the world, for whom their animals are vital. The veganism debate has become increasingly binary and unpleasant and there is a growing vilification of animals that have served, and continue to serve, mankind well over millennia. We need to understand why that is. There is a similar vilification of the farmers who raise them and yet ultimately we are all dependent upon the world’s 400+ million farmers to feed us. Some of them may be part of the problem but farmers must be a key part of the solution to both healthy food and planet, as they farm the land on which we all depend and we need to engage with them.

Wholesome food. Since we are what we eat it behoves us all to eat food that is conducive to both physical and mental well-being. It is hard to think of anything that is more wholesome than food certified as biodynamic – an approach to farming that is beyond organic. The Demeter certification underwrites a closed loop system – meaning that nothing is brought in from outside the farm. It seeks to blend soil, plants and animals in harmony with nature. There are no artificial fertilisers, no pesticides and no hormones –and a focus on composts and homeopathy. Each farming activity is done in tune with the phases of the moon, reflecting natural energy flows and seeking to retain natural life forces within the food that results.
But central to this nature-focused approach is the cow – the current target of so much ire – consuming the biodiverse and deep rooting pastures that are integral to the farming rotation – making use of this dynamic relationship between plant and animal that heals the soil after it has been damaged through cultivation, in the process returning precious manure to the soil whilst at the same time producing meat, milk and leather.

India’s dairy farmers. I have had the privilege over a period of six years of being involved in the rural villages of Bihar in northern India – a state of 105 million people, many of whom are materially very poor. Every household that has access to land has one or more dairy cows or buffaloes. These animals eat a combination of grasses and legumes and crop residues and produce two valuable products. The most obvious is milk but equally valuable is manure. As a result of Operation Flood, set up in 1970 under the dynamic leadership of Verghese Kurien, every drop of milk not consumed within the household is sold to one of 60,000 farmer coops, where it is tested and consolidated until it reaches a cooperatively-owned pasteurisation plant. Here it may end up in retail packs for sale in shops, or continue to coin-operated dispensers such as you can find in the shopping malls of Delhi. The revenue that is generated from these cash sales flows back down the same channels to the individuals households that supplied the milk – even to the person who had only a litre to sell. The cows – sacred to many – play a vital role in each household, providing nutritious milk in their diet together with a flow of cash, the manure producing biogas for cooking before feeding the soil with its nutrients and organic matter.

Around 75 million dairy farmers in India (more than the whole of the population of the UK), own 300+ million cows and buffaloes (roughly a third of the world’s large ruminants) producing approaching 20% of the world’s milk and supporting around half a billion people. Given the unsettling history of British involvement in India, and that the carbon footprint of these rural people is a fraction of those of us in the west, who are we to suggest that they should give up their cattle and buffaloes?

Post-conflict goats. I have also worked in a number of African countries experiencing conflict and been involved in seeking to help rebuild the rural economy thereafter. Working with many traumatised people as they returned to their destroyed homes was a humbling experience. There was a strong focus on listening to people’s needs and common to everyone was a wish to start farming again to feed themselves. Support for this had two key elements. The first was to provide seeds, tools and fertilisers and the second was to provide a goat.

Goats can convert otherwise indigestible plant materials into nutrient-rich milk – as well as in due course to meat and skins. A village community selects a few members who are most competent at raising animals and each receives a pregnant nanny goat or one with kids. They in turn select the person they feel has the most empathy with animals, who is sent away to become a bare-foot vet. As the nanny produces more offspring, half of them are given away to other members of the community to share in the benefits derived from these productive animals. These goats are vital to the seeding of new life.

So cows play a vital role on biodynamic, closed loop farms and in the economic and spiritual lives of around half a billion of India’s rural people, whilst goats play a vital role in rebuilding the lives of rural people who have lost everything through conflict. Are we in the predominantly urban west telling them that they should give them up whilst we continue to drive, fly, purchase phones and tablets and trade in energy intensive bitcoins? I hope not.

The high carbon soil core sample on the left (from @boomplaatsorganicfarm) comes from a pasture where rotational mob grazing is practised, cattle and sheep graze for one day then move onto a fresh camp, leaving behind their dung and urine. The camp is only grazed again after three months of regrowth. The low carbon sample on the right comes from a land where grains are grown and there are no ruminants to regenerate the land.

Any discussion around food needs to start with the soil. It is the most basic, vital and precious medium – without which humanity could not exist – and the world’s largest, single terrestrial store of carbon. Carbon is lost through cultivation to produce the plants that are the basis of all diets – whether vegan or omnivore. That lost carbon needs to be reabsorbed and the soil needs to be healed. You do not have to be a historian to know that ruminant livestock on biodiverse pasture have been part of traditional, closed loop, mixed farming systems across the globe since time immemorial as well as making use of land that is too steep, wet or shallow to be cultivated. The grazed pasture acts as a pump that sucks the carbon back into the soil and builds the organic matter that retains water and nutrients (see above). So how is it that such a central pillar of traditional farming systems should suddenly become the focus of so much ire?

We need to move the debate away from a simplistic one focused solely on farm animals to a wider one around the way we farm and produce food. Animals have always played a vital role in mixed farming, mimicking nature. But as farming has become more industrialised – in response to the pressures to produce cheap food – they are increasingly raised separately, out of balance, producing more manure than the land on which they are raised can absorb and polluting the environment. At the same time, in the absence of animals on the land, the plants that we all consume (100% for vegans) are increasingly produced dependent upon a wide range of chemicals that damage the life of the soil and pollute the environment. The story of the journey to the vegan plate can often be one drenched in chemicals. We need to argue for balance. It’s the how not the cow or the sow – and that should be our focus.

We need to move beyond these binary messages. Instead of denigrating farm animals and the farmers who raise them we should be focusing on reversing the trend towards industrial farming and the free market, cheap food policies that encourage it. We should seek a much better understanding of the relationships between land, water, plants and animals, that are the essence of productive and sustainable farming in harmony with nature – and be willing to pay more for our food.

Support regenerative farmers. If you give up meat and dairy because you feel you can save the planet – then please also give up your carbon-intensive phone and tablet, car and flying and demonstrate your total commitment. Remember that animals play a vital role in nature and maintain the fertility of the living soil within mixed farming systems; that we will still need the world’s 400+ million farmers to use the land under their care to feed us; that a simplistic ban on meat and dairy – without recognising the wide variations in both production methods and nutrient density of the produce – is damaging the very regenerative farmers on whom we depend for feeding us in the future. That is where we need to start and build positive relationships with the jigsaw of pioneering farmers who farm in harmony with nature. Pasture for Life is a significant piece within that jigsaw – so find an opportunity to visit a Pasture for Life farm – about which more here.

We need to move beyond these binary messages. Instead of denigrating farm animals and the farmers who raise them we should be focusing on reversing the trend towards industrial farming and the free market, cheap food policies that encourage it. We should seek a much better understanding of the relationships between land, water, plants and animals, that are the essence of productive and sustainable farming in harmony with nature – and be willing to pay more for our food.

Support regenerative farmers. If you give up meat and dairy because you feel you can save the planet – then please also give up your carbon-intensive phone and tablet, car and flying and demonstrate your total commitment. Remember that animals play a vital role in nature and maintain the fertility of the living soil within mixed farming systems; that we will still need the world’s 400+ million farmers to use the land under their care to feed us; that a simplistic ban on meat and dairy – without recognising the wide variations in both production methods and nutrient density of the produce – is damaging the very regenerative farmers on whom we depend for feeding us in the future. That is where we need to start and build positive relationships with the jigsaw of pioneering farmers who farm in harmony with nature. Pasture for Life is a significant piece within that jigsaw – so find an opportunity to visit a Pasture for Life farm – about which more here.

Ruth Davis

Ruth Davis

Ruth joined Oxford HR in 2018 after completing a BA in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She completed multiple economic development courses, in addition to her dissertation which she wrote on the Anglo-American response to the AIDS epidemic, looking at international relations through a human rights lens.