Flu vaccinations 2020

Readers concerned about accepting non-veg*n flu vaccination are referred to this page of the Vegetarian Society website.  In short, none of the four different types of flu vaccine being used in the UK in 2020 are considered suitable for vegans and only one (QIVe, which is grown in eggs but does not contain any other animal ingredients) is suitable for vegetarians.  QIVc, which is grown in cells originally taken from a dog’s kidney in 1958 but which has had no new cells added in the 60-plus years since then (known as a “continuous cell line”), is arguably the most veg*n-friendly option and is recommended for most adults.  The other two vaccines, aTIV and LAIV, the latter given as a nasal spray, contain a fish-derived ingredient (squalene) and pork gelatine, respectively.

Paul Appleby

Book review – Why Waste Food?

Why Waste Food? by Andrew F. Smith. Reaktion Books, 2020, 192 pp; paperback, £9-99

About one-third of all food grown for human consumption is lost or discarded every year. Together, this food waste accounts for about 8 per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In this fact-filled account, Andrew F. Smith surveys the food system from farm to fork, describing the many ways in which food is wasted, even though wasting food is in no one’s interest, while finding reasons for hope through the many community and corporate initiatives to reduce waste. With the United Nations having set a Sustainable Development Goal of halving global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030 its publication cannot come a moment too soon.

The book contains some jaw-dropping statistics.  Here are just a few of them:

  • According to the German documentary film-maker and author Valentin Thurn, European households throw away 100 billion Euros worth of food every year, an amount that is “enough to feed all the hungry people in the world two times over”;
  • A 2008 report by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) revealed that 6.7 million tonnes of food are thrown away each year in the UK, of which 4.1 million tonnes is avoidable waste, concluding that UK consumers spent £10.2 billion on wasted food each year, equivalent to £420 of annual avoidable waste per household;
  • A 2018 report estimated that up to 40% of all fruit and vegetables grown in the UK are rejected before reaching the market.

Set against this are a myriad of schemes from around the world to reduce food waste, including the ‘freegan’ (a combination of the words ‘free’ and ‘vegan’) and ‘dumpster diving’ movements which aim to retrieve edible food waste discarded by supermarkets and other food retailers. So many of these initiatives are described that you begin to wonder how and why so much food is still wasted, and the author might have examined some of the schemes in greater detail, including where they failed to achieve their aims, rather than seemingly wanting to list them all.

The author does not mention what many see as the greatest food waste of all – the 36% of calories from the world’s grain harvest that is fed to animals – but that is another story.  As regards food waste, whilst admitting that “initiatives reducing waste won’t solve all the problems of the global food system”, he finds cause for “cautious optimism for the future”, noting that food waste is an issue “that each of us can understand and to which each of us can make positive contributions.”

Paul Appleby

The British Hen Welfare Trust

A recent article on the Vegetarian Society website by Jane Howarth of The British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), encourages “those who eat eggs to buy eggs laid by hens that have lived a more natural lifestyle” and promotes the rearing of hens in back gardens for those with sufficient room and resources, whilst warning that you “need commitment before you even think about welcoming them into your family”. 

According to the BHWT website, the organization has already rehomed more than 772,000 hens since they were founded in 2005.  Every year they rehome at least 50,000 commercially reared hens that would otherwise be sent for slaughter, mainly in back gardens where a few hens at a time are effectively treated as family pets while providing their new owners with home-produced ‘free-range’ eggs.  I have no problem with this; indeed, saving animals from slaughter is one of the main reasons for becoming a veg*n.  But does ‘rescuing’ end-of-lay hens help perpetuate the egg industry?  Despite the 2012 European Union ban on battery cages for laying hens, 45% of UK hens are still reared in so called ‘enriched cages’, and cage-free rearing systems have welfare issues of their own.  Whatever the system, “modern commercial hens produce a very high yield of around 300 eggs a year. Chickens will naturally live for 6 or more years but after 12 months of laying, the hen’s productivity will start to decline. This is when most commercial laying hens are slaughtered and replaced” (https://www.ciwf.org.uk/farm-animals/chickens/egg-laying-hens).  As well as taking on the costs and responsibility of caring for several companion animals, does taking in a few backyard hens simply allow commercial farmers working with the BHWT to claim that their hens always go to ‘good homes’?  The BHWT cannot possibly guarantee the welfare of rehomed hens, although their website does provide valuable advice, as well as providing a free ‘Hen Helpline’ for owners.  It is also worth remembering that saving laying hens does nothing to help the millions of commercially useless male chicks of egg-laying strains that “are killed almost immediately after hatching …  thrown into an industrial grinder (‘macerator’) while still alive or gassed to death, the preferred method in the UK” (https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/why-go-vegan/egg-industry).

However, are veg*ns who could rehome end-of-lay hens but choose not to do so turning their back on the problem?  Vegans might reasonably complain that they do not eat eggs and therefore bear no responsibility for the welfare of laying hens, although by rehoming hens and giving away the eggs to omnivorous friends and neighbours they would not only be saving animals from slaughter but could help reduce demand for commercially produced eggs, including those from caged hens.  A simpler alternative is to encourage non-vegans to give up eggs, or at least to buy eggs produced under higher welfare systems, perhaps from a nearby household that keeps a few hens.

Paul Appleby

Book review – Beans: A Global History

Beans: A Global History by Natalie Rachel Morris. Reaktion Books, 2020, 128 pp, 52 illustrations, 47 in colour; hardback, £10-99

It is indicative of the low esteem in which beans are held that there have been around 80 previous titles in Reaktion’s Edible series before they were given a book of their own.  Natalie Rachel Morris puts the record straight with this very brief introduction to an “unsung staple of diets worldwide”.

The Fabaceae or Leguminosae family is one of the most common in the plant world with about 19,000 known species, including forage crops such as alfalfa and clover, popular garden plants such as lupin and laburnum, and the familiar grain legumes such as beans, lentils, peas and peanuts.  Seeds of the latter (also known as pulses) and their culinary uses form the basis of this book.

Beans follows the familiar format of books in the Edible series, with chapters covering their botany, origins, cultural significance, bean cuisines and future uses, plus a section of historical and modern recipes, including two contributed by the chef/owner of the amusingly named 24 Carrots, a vegan restaurant in Arizona.  The importance of beans in vegetarian/vegan cuisine is acknowledged, with references to Pythagoras (although he and his followers avoided them for reasons lost in the mists of time), American vegetarian pioneer William Alcott, the Nation of Islam, and (for no clear reason) the Vegan Society.  In addition to their nutritional benefits – beans are high in protein (forming a ‘complete’ protein when combined with grains), fibre, complex carbohydrates and folate – legumes are vital to agriculture through their ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen using bacteria present in root nodules, making it available to other plants through the soil and reducing the need for chemical fertiliser.  Set against this, their unfortunate effect on some consumers, hilariously demonstrated in the campfire scene from the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, are only a minor inconvenience.  Aquafaba is featured, the trendy and valuable liquid from cooked beans used as a substitute for egg white in baking and as the basis for a range of vegan ‘fabanaise’ in the US, but other popular bean products such as tofu (from soybeans) and hummus (from chickpeas) barely rate a mention, and the oils extracted from beans are not mentioned at all.  And surely the lima (or butter) beans grown in Peru took their name from the country’s capital city Lima, rather than the other way around as the author claims.

Beans is a concise and colourful introduction to valuable foods that are too often taken for granted.  However, the book is way too short for a serious examination of such a wide variety of foods and too many of the illustrations serve as little more than space fillers.  Beans deserve better than this.

Paul Appleby

It’s batty, but we perceive them with fear instead of awe

After rodents the second largest order of mammals is bats, and with over 1,400 species they comprise about 20% of all global mammal species. Bats are the only mammal capable of true and sustained flight, and are more manoeuvrable than birds. They can fly at fantastic speeds, and display dazzling aerial acrobatics. Unlike birds, bats can move their wings independently and by folding one wing make rapid turns. Over 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci recommended (via his sketches and notebooks) that any potential flying machine should imitate the flexible super-light bones and elastic wings of bats. Brazilian free-tailed bats have been recorded completing up to 12 hours of non-stop flight. In fact, bats are quite extraordinary and their evolutionary success can be traced back over 50 million years. They range from tiny bumblebee sized insectivores that weigh just 2 grams (Kitti’s hog-nosed bat) to massive fruit eaters with a wingspan up to almost 180 cm (5 feet 6 inches) and weighing over a kilo (the golden crowned flying fox).  Both of these species are endangered, and the golden crowned flying fox is being hunted to extinction for its skin and meat.

Apart from flight, bats’ other ‘superpower’ is echolocation, a complex navigation system that baffled scientists for centuries until it was confirmed in 1938.  Several years later it was realised that echolocation has a dual function; for navigation and as a hunting tool, but not just for insects. Some bats use it to identify the unique petal shapes of specific nectar bearing flowers. Fortunately the human ear can’t hear the sounds that bats make because they are incessantly “shouting their heads off”.

The comic book superhero Batman first appeared in 1939 as ‘The Bat-Man’, but he didn’t actually have any superpowers. In fact, he was a rich orphan (Bruce Wayne) who sought revenge after his parents were murdered. This seems slightly remiss of Batman’s creators because they had the opportunity to give him the power of flight, and amazing built-in echo location. Whereas Spiderman acquired his arachnid powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, Bruce Wayne decided to “become a bat” after one carelessly flew into his mansion one evening. The immediate appeal of Batman in the original comic strip was the striking graphic design of his costume: it was instantly recognisable, and endures to this day. This “creature of the night” would strike fear into “cowardly and superstitious criminals”. Unfortunately, Bruce Wayne was as ignorant about bats as most people. Batman did appear to fly when he jumped off buildings, but he was actually using his bat cape to glide (which most bats don’t do). Scientifically, owing to his weight Batman would have crash dived into the ground with an appropriate “ker-splatt”. However, the idea that humans are superstitious about bats is certainly correct.

In her excellent book Bat (Reaktion Books, 2018) Tessa Laird writes: “In almost all corners of the world, bats have inspired fear and revulsion. Long before tales of blood sucking bats were relayed from the tropical Americas back to Europe, bats were already disliked and feared, and at the least considered to be pests, vermin and agents of evil. Any association in European art & literature could only signify madness, melancholia and sympathy for the Devil.” Obviously, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) has been hugely influential and the insatiable demand for new film and TV adaptations perpetuates popular myths and prejudices about bats.

The Wikipedia entry for bats tells us that: “Bats provide humans with some direct benefits, at the cost of some disadvantages. Bat dung is mined as guano and used as fertiliser. Bats consume insect pests, reducing the need for pesticides and other insect management measures. They are sometimes numerous and close enough to human settlements to serve as tourist attractions, and they are used as food across Asia and the Pacific Rim. On the disadvantages side, fruit bats are frequently considered a pest by fruit growers. Due to their physiology, bats are one type of animal that acts as a natural reservoir of many pathogens, such as rabies; and since they are highly mobile, social, and long-lived, they can readily spread disease among themselves. If humans interact with bats, these traits become potentially dangerous to humans.”

Viewed in this way, bats serve only to provide humans with “direct benefits”, including amusing tourists and being eaten. Their essential role as pollinators is ignored, and fruit bats are a “pest”. Moreover, bats fly around too much and live too long.  Finally, they carry pathogens dangerous to humans and this links to the current pandemic. It has been widely reported that coronavirus jumped from bat to human via an intermediate host (the persecuted pangolin is usually cited) but this remains unproven. Bats have developed specialised immune systems, and when flying they have a peak temperature that mimics a fever. Bat pathogens have evolved to withstand these peaks, but if transferred to humans a high temperature fever probably won’t kill it. Sixty-one per cent of all human diseases are zoonotic (spread from animal to human) as are 75% of all new diseases discovered in the last decade. Crucially, humans are the main cause: the mass destruction of forests and natural habitats, increased human to wildlife contact, hunting and trafficking are the drivers of zoonoses. Instead of looking at our own appalling behaviour it is typically human to blame a family of animals that are actually vital to our survival. Bats pollinate over 500 species of plants, disperse seeds in flight over a wide area and devour millions of insects that would otherwise decimate crops and spread disease. There are bats that eat fish, fruit, frogs, and flowers but most are insectivores and some species can catch over 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. A tiny pipistrelle (the most common British bat) can eat up to 3,000 insects in a night. Globally, bat populations are in decline and the last thing these maligned and misunderstood creatures need is more vilification and persecution.

Paul Freestone

The Punter goes vegetarian

The Punter public house, 7 South Street, Oxford, OX2 0BE, now has a totally vegetarian/vegan menu.  When I ate there recently the food was pretty good and a visit is definitely recommended.  The pictures below show a starter and stir fry at the restaurant.

Paul Freestone



Poland’s vegetarian Nobel laureate

I hadn’t heard of Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk until I came across an article publicising the English translation of her novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.  Intrigued to learn that Tokarczuk is a vegetarian and the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, I ordered a copy.

The novel is unlike any that I have ever read.  The protagonist, Janina Duszejko, is an eccentric older woman who lives alone and scrapes a living caretaking the holiday homes of city dwellers and teaching English part-time in a rural area of south-western Poland near the border with the Czech Republic.  Reclusive and unconventional, a believer in astrology and admirer of the poetry of William Blake (the book’s title is taken from Blake’s poem Proverbs of Hell), Janina recounts the loss of her ‘Little Girls’ (two dogs) and the mysterious, violent deaths of several prominent members of the local hunting fraternity, whom she despises.  Called in for questioning by the local police, Janina vents her anger:

“Killing (of animals) has become exempt from punishment. And as it goes unpunished, nobody notices it any more. And as nobody notices it, it doesn’t exist. … Crime has come to be regarded as a normal, everyday activity. Everyone commits it. That’s just how the world would look if concentration camps became the norm. Nobody would see anything wrong with them.

In fact Man has a great responsibility towards wild Animals – to help them to live their lives, and it’s his duty towards domesticated Animals to return their love and affection, for they give us far more than they receive from us.

You’ll say it’s just one Boar … but what about the deluge of butchered meat that falls on our cities day by day like never-ending, apocalyptic rain? The rain heralds slaughter, disease, collective madness, the obfuscation and contamination of the Mind. For no human heart is capable of bearing so much pain. The whole, complex human psyche has evolved to prevent Man from understanding what he is really seeing. To stop the truth from reaching him by wrapping it in illusion, in idle chatter. The world is a prison full of suffering, so constructed that in order to survive one must inflict pain on others.”

Are these the ravings of a mad woman, or a heartfelt plea for justice from someone who has been marginalised and deeply wronged?  You will have to read the novel, which explores various themes including society’s outcasts and the hypocrisy of organised religion, as well as animal rights, to find out.  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, priced £8-99.

Paul Appleby

Can dairy farming ever be truly ethical?

An item in a Vegetarian Society mailing caught my attention.  Warning that “the dairy industry is a subject of debate in some veggie circles” (something of an understatement given that concerns about the cruelty of dairy farming led to the formation of the Vegan Society in 1944), readers were directed to an article by Wilma Finlay of The Ethical Dairy, “a Scotland-based dairy farm with a focus on the welfare of its cows and calves” (https://www.vegsoc.org/lifestyle/ethics-and-the-dairy-industry/).  Reading the article, I was impressed by the farm’s adoption of “cow-with-calf dairy farming”, in marked contrast to the conventional policy of separating the calf from its mother within a few hours of birth, and the apparent benefits to the welfare of cow and calf.  The article went on to claim that vegans have been some of the farm’s “strongest supporters”, while taking a sideswipe at “activists” for “several waves of attacks on social media” and complaining of “a backlash from those in the farming industry who favour a more intensive approach”.

But there was something missing.  What, I wondered, happened to the male calves who would never produce so much as a drop of milk?  So I asked the Vegetarian Society, and was directed to a page on the farm’s website that painted a more honest picture of life (and death) for their cattle.  You won’t be surprised to learn that The Ethical Dairy is not a slaughter-free operation: “eventually the cows and the bull calves will enter the food chain for meat.”  In other words, the cattle end up just as dead as those reared conventionally, although the cows at least enjoy longer and arguably better lives.  The calves stay with their mothers for 5-6 months, after which the males and females are separated, the latter joining the milking herd while the bull calves are either sold for veal production or reared on the farm for beef and slaughtered at 16-18 months of age.  What’s ethical about that?

So, is there a slaughter-free dairy farm in the UK?  Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’, the Hertfordshire-based Ahimsa Dairy Foundation run by Hare Krishna devotees, “a not-for-profit company which campaigns for and promotes the concept of slaughter-free milk … whereby no cows, calves and bulls are ever slaughtered”.  Cows at Ahimsa are milked by hand, no artificial insemination is used, and calves of both sexes stay with their mothers until weaned and with the herd throughout their natural lives.  When they are past milking age the cows are ‘retired’ and spend their remaining days eating grass and chewing the cud, while the draught power of the bulls may be used for ploughing or milling flour.  Although Ahimsa are undoubtedly practicing a humane method of dairy farming, there are concerns about the financial viability of the venture, and I am not convinced that exploiting animals of another species to produce a food that is uniquely suited to their infants can ever be considered truly ethical.

Paul Appleby

The lockdown diaries (or why I love social distancing)

After receiving the government text telling me “You must stay at home” on 25 March I cycled to my office on Cowley Road as usual. I rapidly adapted to the lockdown restrictions and could easily avoid any direct interaction with anyone. After a few weeks I noticed several distinct advantages; the air was cleaner, everywhere was quieter, cycling was safer, and the night sky was bright and clear. Social distancing is easy for me, and I actually prefer this 2 metres rule (just make it wider). If kissing, hugging and handshaking disappear permanently I will be delighted. The sheer joy of telling total strangers to “move back please, and keep your distance” is absolutely wonderful.

I dislike all this ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘we’re all in it together’ drivel, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to live through the wartime era, listening to We’ll Meet Again repeatedly and enduring the genuine deprivations of rationing. I look at my dwindling supply of coffee beans (only 4 bags left) and wonder if I can survive without that delicious shot of freshly brewed caffeine (after my hot shower) every morning. In fact, the only food item that eludes me is wholemeal bread flour. In desperation I buy a bag of organic Khorasan flour which costs an outrageous £4 per kilo. On the packet it’s claimed that this is “ground from the wheat of the Pharaohs”. I nervously check the use by date, surely it can’t be that old. One morning I cycle past a long queue (one of the latest extended versions) on the Iffley Road. I stop to take photos of this new phenomenon, and realise that people are lining up to buy bread at the artisan bakery where you can spend £6 on a single loaf. In the bright, glorious sunshine it suddenly feels like the most luxurious pandemic in history.

One Thursday evening I venture out to observe and photograph the weekly ‘clap for the NHS’. This noisy ritual includes banging old saucepans, and then I notice a frenzy of cheering and riotous applause as a vehicle starts to progress down the street. As it gets closer everybody on either side of it is going berserk, and then I can see it clearly. As it moves past, even I feel a tingle of excitement as this beacon of hope and fortitude sweeps through the ecstatic crowd – it’s a Tesco delivery van.

I’m enjoying a US reality TV show that makes me laugh out loud. It’s a deceptively simple format; a fat pompous man wearing a ridiculous wig answers questions at a White House press conference. It’s all unscripted, and he’s allowed to say whatever he likes with hilarious consequences. He’s rude, delusional, aggressive and ignorant, but will (for example) express his profound belief that drinking disinfectant will cure anyone infected with coronavirus. Apparently, in the USA some people really believe that this nutcase is the President. Fortunately, in the UK we have the visionary Prince Charles to guide us. To promote a campaign to ensure that home grown fruit and veg is fully harvested this summer Prince Charles proclaimed: “Food doesn’t happen by magic.” That’s true for most of us, but not for him. Every time he sits down at a dining table (in any of his four luxury homes) all sorts of food magically appears out of thin air. After he’s finished eating, he waves his magic royal wand (or has someone to do this for him) and all the dirty dishes clean themselves.

After eight weeks several KFC outlets are allowed to reopen, and long queues instantly appear at all of them. Paradoxically, this doesn’t make me depressed but simply confirms my belief that anyone who eats this junk is too stupid to care about. Even Boris Johnson has admitted that being overweight (17.5 stone) was the main reason that coronavirus almost killed him. I briefly fantasise about a deadly virus that will only infect meat eaters.

As the lockdown restrictions start to ease, I’m deeply conflicted. I desperately want to retain all the environmental advantages, and shudder to think of crowded streets again. But the insidious process of sliding back into the hideous reality of ‘normal life’ is already happening. There’s more traffic, and morons driving around with music booming. Clear blue skies are scarred with the billowing contrails of jet aircraft. I’m apoplectic when it’s announced that the masses will be allowed outside for the explicit purpose of ‘enjoying themselves’. I’ve never heard of such utter selfishness.

Paul Freestone

Book review: The Future We Choose

The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (Manilla Press, 2020; £12-99)

When Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was asked on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One programme in 2018 to name the most important thing that individuals can do to combat climate change, her answer was unequivocal: “stop eating meat.”  The advice remains much the same in this guide to Surviving the Climate Crisis (to use the book’s subtitle), in which Figueres and political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac urge readers to “eat less meat and dairy”, adding that “eating none at all is best”.

The authors are best known for their roles in securing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C, and ideally no more than 1.5 °C, above pre-industrial levels, in order to prevent irreversible climate change.  To reach this goal, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to be at least halved by 2030, and reduced to net zero (meaning that emissions must be no higher than the amount the Earth can naturally absorb) by 2050.  A daunting prospect given that average global temperature is already 0.9 °C above pre-industrial levels, with the current human population of 7.8 billion predicted to rise to 9.7 billion by mid-century.  However, as the authors point out, it is a challenge that we must accept.

The Future We Choose is arranged in three parts.  Part 1 outlines the scale of the problem and presents two possible scenarios: a world in which global warming has reached and exceeded 3 °C, as predicted by the present carbon emissions trajectory, and the world we must create in which global warming is limited to 1.5 °C.  No prizes for guessing which is preferable, although even under the second scenario “the long-lasting greenhouse gases … are still causing increasingly extreme weather … glaciers and Arctic ice are still melting, and the sea is still rising.”

Part 2 describes three mindsets needed to tackle climate change: stubborn optimism (determination to succeed), endless abundance (being content with what we already have), and radical regeneration (creating a life-sustaining society).  This is the weakest part of the book and is little more than a prelude to the all-important ten actions needed to stand at least a sporting chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change that are described in Part 3.  These actions range from the practical (such as reducing consumption, global reforestation, and replacing fossil fuels with clean energy) to the political (including building gender equality and actively engaging in the political process).  They are all fairly predictable, although the thorny issues of population control and racial equality are conspicuous by their absence, and the claim that “when women lead, good things happen. That is the unequivocal conclusion of years of research” is risible (the UK’s two female prime ministers come to mind).  No wonder that the authors’ website is www.GlobalOptimism.com.

The Future We Choose is not a bad book; indeed, it is readable, positive and optimistic, though lacking in detailed argument, and the great and the good (including Ban Ki-Moon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall, Yuval Noah Harari, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tim Smit) line up to sing its praises on the inside front and back covers.  However, the book seems to be preaching to the converted at a time when everyone needs to be on board.

Paul Appleby

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