Mad humans never learn

The BBC-2 documentary Mad Cow Disease: The Great British Beef Scandal (11/7/2019) was a timely reminder of how this appalling tale of deceit, greed and outrageous dishonesty unfolded. The compilation of old news footage and interviews was intercut with new material, including contributions from some of the scientists and politicians featured in the original archive recordings. This was all spliced together in a compelling sequence, revealing the stunning duplicity of several key figures. Chief among these was John Selwyn Gummer, Agriculture Minister from 1989 to 1993, who infamously stuffed a beef burger into the mouth of his four-year-old daughter. This publicity stunt in May 1990 was a shameless attempt to demonstrate that beef was safe to eat, and to some extent it worked. There were many who believed in the mythical ‘species barrier’; that made it impossible for people to develop a bovine disease even if you ate meat from an infected animal. Others believed that “they wouldn’t let us eat it if it wasn’t safe.” Finally, in 1995 the government had to admit that humans could develop variant CJD (vCJD; the human version of BSE) from eating tainted beef.

The first confirmed case of BSE in the UK was reported in 1986, and it was clear from the outset that this was an unprecedented food scandal. The documentary included the original news broadcast with a cow staggering uncontrollably at a farm in Wiltshire. The UK government persisted with the ‘Beef is safe’ message for nearly 10 years, and during this time it was revealed that the most likely cause of BSE was the practice of feeding cows meat and bone meal (MBM). This was derived from infected cattle or scrapie-infected sheep, and included mechanically recovered meat (MRM). This disgusting sludge included the brains, spinal cord and guts of contaminated cows, which represented the highest risk of transmission to humans. Beef sales did slump, and just about every country in the world banned imports of British beef.

The documentary highlighted the human tragedy of mad cow disease, and included heartrending interviews with the parents of children that contracted vCJD and who suffered a slow, debilitating demise. The official figure of human deaths since 1995 is 177, while the slaughter of 4.4 million cows to prevent the spread of BSE was treated as little more than a footnote. Well they were all going to be killed anyway, so what’s the difference? And all those devastated beef farmers were losing their valuable livestock, and would have to be compensated. I wonder if any of those parents have stopped eating meat, or ever considered the lives of those innocent animals that were dumped onto huge funeral pyres or incinerated in furnaces that still failed to kill the infectious agent. The sorry saga of BSE represents all the worst aspects of human behaviour; arrogance and ignorance driven by the insatiable demand for cheap meat at any cost.

After the admission that BSE was infecting people greater precautions were taken. These included a ban on feeding cattle MBM, and the removal and disposal of ‘specified risk materials’ (brains, spinal cord, eyes, &c). With huge amounts of taxpayer’s money the British beef industry survived a monumental crisis for which it was entirely responsible but has never been held accountable. Nobody has ever been fined, charged or prosecuted. Nobody has ever apologised, or admitted that unforgivable mistakes were made. As for John Gummer, who appeared in The Great British Beef Scandal to give his version of events, he now resides in the upper chamber of Parliament as Lord Deben, and is Chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change. Does that mean he understands that beef production is a major cause of environmental damage through greenhouse gas emissions? I suspect that he might have heard the rumours, but doesn’t believe them. He probably enjoys a roast beef dinner every Sunday, and has no qualms about his role in the affair. But mad cow disease is like one of those horror movie villains that cannot be killed: it will always return from the dead for the inevitable sequel and every attempt to vanquish it ends in dismal failure. Mounting evidence indicates that a second wave of vCJD deaths may be imminent. An unknown number of people are infected with vCJD because they ate BSE-tainted meat between 1985 and 1990, insidiously harbouring an incurable disease that has an incubation period of up to 50 years.

Perhaps the worst aspect of BSE is that, in typically human fashion, virtually nothing has been learned. It seems obvious that feeding an herbivorous species bits of ground up animals is a really bad idea. However, if BSE were happening for the first time today the response of the meat industry and the government would be exactly the same.

Paul Freestone

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The Oxford Group

Recent correspondence has provided a timely reminder of the significance of the Oxford Group in the growth and development of the animal rights and veg*n movements. The Oxford Group was a group of intellectuals associated with the University of Oxford “who met and corresponded to discuss the emerging concept of animal rights” in the late 1960s and early 1970s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_Group_(animal_rights)).  Together they produced the book Animals, Men and Morals (1971), a collection of essays edited by the postgraduate philosophy students Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris. Other significant figures associated with the group were Richard Ryder, who first coined the term speciesism to describe humanity’s discriminatory attitude towards animals; Andrew Linzey, theologian and founder of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics; and Peter Singer, whose hugely influential book Animal Liberation (1975) is considered by many to be the cornerstone of the animal rights movement.  In 1982 Singer wrote a fascinating personal account of the group which he dubbed the Oxford Vegetarians, coincidentally a previous name for OxVeg.

Robert Garner, professor of political theory at the University of Leicester and a founding member of the Centre for Animals and Social Justice, and his Research Associate Dr Yewande Okuleye are currently researching and writing an account of the Oxford Group for publication by Oxford University Press next year. If you have any recollections of the Oxford Group you are welcome to contact Professor Garner at rwg2{at}leicester.ac.uk.

Paul Appleby

Book review: The Selfish Ape

The Selfish Ape by Nicholas P. Money. Reaktion Books, 2019, 158pp; hardback, £14-99

If The Selfish Ape sounds like a cross between two influential books by Oxford academics (The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, first published in 1967 and 1976, respectively) this may not be entirely coincidental.  Like Morris and Dawkins, Nicholas Money is also based in Oxford, the difference being that this is the college town of Oxford, Ohio, where he is Professor of Botany and Western Program Director at Miami University.  (In fact, Dawkins is quoted on the dust cover, extolling the author’s “vivid, prose-poetic imagery”, and he would surely approve of Money’s contempt for religious creationists: “committed to the idea of human specialness (sic) … they are the ultimate egotists.”)

The Selfish Ape, gloomily subtitled Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction, recasts Homo sapiens as “Homo narcissus: (a) species of ape of African origin that devastated Earth’s biosphere and thereby drove its own extinction” (note the past tense).  In ten short chapters, each titled with a ‘G-word’ (Globe, Genesis, Guts, and so on), Money provides a brief survey of human evolution, biology and nature before concluding that our species, along with all the larger plants and animals, is doomed.  On the way, he notes that humans “are nothing without botany (plant life)”, “more similar to fungi than we are to plants or to any of the other major groupings of life”, and have five times less DNA than onions (“the human genome is unexceptional in its informational capacity”).

Money rightly identifies population growth as the elephant in the room of environmentalism, noting that: “If abortion was eliminated, the annual growth of the global population would shift from a little above 1 per cent to 2 per cent.” Putting it bluntly, he advises: “The greatest contribution that an individual can make to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to be dead. Failing this, the next best thing is to abstain from manufacturing babies.”  Placing the blame for environmental degradation and global warming on “Western science and engineering” coupled with “human selfishness”, Money looks at how we might cope with what he sees as our inevitable demise, concluding that: “unable or unwilling to change course … the best that any of us can do until the sky falls is to be kinder to each other and humane towards the rest of nature.”

Pessimistic and outspoken it may be, but The Selfish Ape provides a dose of realism for a species that is on course to bring about its own destruction.  Whether we can rise to the challenge and somehow forestall environmental collapse remains to be seen, but the omens do not look good.

Paul Appleby

Veg*n hotels and B&Bs

Congratulations to OxVeg supporter Lizzy Hughes of Our Lizzy, whose B&B and vegan cookery school in Malvern, Worcestershire, was recently listed among 10 of the best UK B&Bs for vegetarians and vegans in The Guardian newspaper. Lizzy writes: “The full cooked breakfast comprises of premium quality vegan sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, hash brown, and scrambled tofu and toast. Lighter options include toast or a bagel with one or more of the following toppings: scrambled tofu, vegan ‘bacon’, mushrooms or tomatoes. Or Pancakes filled with bananas or seasonal fruit.” Wheat and gluten-free options are available, and a two or three course evening meal can also be booked on request. (The recipe for scrambled tofu mentioned above can be found here.)

Our Lizzy is the only one of the ten establishments listed where I have stayed, and the only other one that I have even heard of is the long-established Yewfield Guest House in the Lake District. It is a pity that the others do not advertise themselves to the veg*n community more widely, through publications of the Vegetarian and Vegan Societies and the various vegan magazines currently available, but perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places. Websites such as VeggieHotels seem to offer a better option. Recently The Guardian hailed the “UK’s first vegan hotel”. Saorsa 1875 sounds fantastic, but the Scottish Highlands are rather a long way from Oxford, a city with a notable absence of exclusively vegetarian or vegan accommodation.

Paul Appleby

Vegan burgers compared

The ITV-1 programme Save Money Good Diet (18/6/2019) compared the value for money and taste of four vegan burgers against a Birds Eye beefburger (69 pence per burger; 251 kcal, including 19 grams of saturated fat).  The burgers were rated by the presenter and ‘meat-avoider’ Sian Williams, and the nutritionist and ‘committed carnivore’ Ian Marber.

  1. Iceland No Bull Burgers (£1 each; 215 kcal). Both tasters liked this one, but said that it only contains 12 grams of protein (which is plenty). This item is only available in Iceland stores, and was produced by the chain as a specific vegan burger that mimics the taste and texture of meat.
  2. The Viana Seitan Burger (£2.08 each; 172 kcal). Marber described this as “really horrible”, but Williams thought it was “not bad”. Seitan is an alternative to soybean based vegan foods, and is produced by washing wheat flour dough until all the starch granules have been removed. It has a high protein content, is a good source of iron and is low in fat. Seitan is popular in the cuisines of China, Japan and East and Southeast Asia. My personal experience of seitan is limited, but the seitan burger at Happy Friday Kitchen (282 Cowley Road, Oxford) was chewy and almost inedible.
  3. Beyond Meat Beyond Burger (£2.75 each; 255 kcal). Of the four products tested this was the most expensive (Williams commented: “If only they could get the price down”), but both testers were very enthusiastic about the texture and ‘mouth feel’. Marber stated: “It tastes like a regular burger, and I’d be happy to eat this.” It was noted that the packaging declares that in comparison with beef “the Beyond Burger is minus 90% of GHGE” (greenhouse gas emissions).
  4. Tesco Spicy Beanburger (44 pence each; 214 kcal). The cheapest of all the items tested, and highly rated by both tasters. This product has been available for over a decade and is the only one (from the range tested) that I’ve eaten and it’s very good with a nice hit of chilli. It’s a distinctly vegan bean burger and doesn’t pretend to be a meat substitute like the others.

The latest market research indicates that the upward growth in sales of vegan foods, and the development of new plant based items will continue. The success of Beyond Burger style products is clearly evident, as all the supermarkets are producing their own versions (which will slowly reduce in price). Crucially, these new ‘meaty texture’ vegan burgers aren’t actually aimed at vegans but at the general consumer and ‘committed carnivores’. This revolution is undermining the meat industry by subverting their customers into becoming ‘meat reducers’ and ‘flexitarians’, and they really don’t like it. A European Union agriculture committee wants to prevent the use of the terms ‘burger’ and ‘sausage’ to describe meat-free foods. Alternative terms proposed within the ‘compromise amendment 41’ include ‘veggie discs’, but why not describe the traditional meat sausage as: “Ultra-processed emulsified saturated fat offal tube, containing various unspecified bits of unknown animals from numerous dubious sources”? When the UK exits the EU the British government can tell this committee, which is heavily influenced by the meat industry, to get stuffed.  (The Vegetarian Society recently gave evidence to a House of Lords committee considering this issue: https://vegsoc.org/comment-opinion/house-of-lords/).

After Greggs launched their Vegan Sausage Roll in January another well-known brand, Ginsters, introduced their Vegan Moroccan Vegetable Pasty (£1-70 for 180 grams). Predictably, this has caused shock and outrage in some quarters (Piers Morgan infamously tasted a Greggs Vegan Sausage Roll on live TV and spat it out). Happily, the stunt backfired and the Greggs product has been a runaway success, with the chain claiming that it has boosted their profits and public profile. In fact, the Vegan Sausage Roll is now their fifth best-selling item. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it tastes like because this would mean going into a Greggs store and joining the queue.

Paul Freestone

Rewilding Britain to counteract climate change

It is generally accepted that global warming compared with pre-industrial levels needs to be kept below 1.5ºC if possible and certainly below 2ºC if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. However, as Rewilding Britain point out in their recent report Rewilding and Climate Breakdown: How Restoring Nature Can Help Decarbonise the UK (https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/our-work/rewilding-vs-climate-breakdown): “Reducing carbon emissions alone will not be enough to keep the heating of the planet below 1.5ºC. Large amounts of carbon also need to be removed from the atmosphere.”

There are some high-tech (and extravagant) methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere, but as the environmental activist George Monbiot points out, the restoration of living systems offers a cheaper solution (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/03/natural-world-climate-catastrophe-rewilding). Rewilding Britain suggest that one quarter of UK land could be restored to nature through a scheme that “would create 2m hectares (4.94m acres) of new woodland and 2m hectares of species-rich meadows, and ensure full protection of the UK’s 2m hectares of peat bogs and heaths” (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/21/rewild-quarter-uk-fight-climate-crisis-campaigners-urge).  Together, “these ecosystems would absorb and store carbon dioxide equivalent to 10% of the UK’s annual emissions” whilst providing other benefits such as flood mitigation and the enhancement of biodiversity and lanscape amenity value.

The scheme would be expected to cost £1.9 billion, around two-thirds of the £3 billion the UK currently spends on European Union farm subsidies, which constitute more than one-third of the EU budget and disproportionally benefit large landowners (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/23/eu-in-state-of-denial-over-destructive-impact-of-farming-on-wildlife).  The scheme would also require massive changes in land use, although, as the Rewilding Britain report points out, there are 1.8m hectares of deer stalking estates and 1.3m hectares of grouse moor estates in the UK that could be put to better use. A new subsidy system could be used to “support farmers and other landowners to increase carbon sequestation on their land and restore damaged and degraded ecosystems”, helping the UK to achieve its commitments under the Climate Change Act.  A parliamentary petition in support of the proposals (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/254607) has already gained more than 100,000 signatures, meaning that it will be considered for debate in Parliament.

Paul Appleby

Upcoming vegan markets and fairs

Sunday 23 June, 10 am – 3 pm.
Newbury Vegan Market, Market Place, Newbury, RG14.
Expect to see a wide range of vegan stalls including delicious food, ethical clothing brands, cruelty free cosmetics, arts and crafts, plus light entertainment throughout the day. Details at: https://www.veganfairs.co.uk/upcoming-events/newbury-vegan-market-2019.

Friday 5 – Sunday 7 July, 10 am – 5 pm daily.
Just V Show, Olympia London, Hammersmith Road, Kensington, London W14 8UX.
A summer celebration of beautiful vegetarian and vegan food, drink and lifestyle products, organised by f2f Events and supported by the Vegetarian and Vegan Societies.  Details and tickets at: https://www.justvshow.co.uk/london/.

Sunday 21 July, 10am – 3 pm.
Stroud Summer Vegan Fair, Subscription Rooms, George Street, Stroud, GL5 1AE.
Stalls showcasing vegan food, ethical clothing and cruelty-free cosmetics, plus an exciting programme of thought-provoking talks and demos. Admission £2, accompanied under-14s free.  Details at: https://www.veganfairs.co.uk/upcoming-events/stroud-summer-vegan-fair-2019.

The next Oxford Vegan Market will be held in Oxford Town Hall, St Aldate’s, Oxford, OX1 1BX, on Sunday 3 November, 10:30 am – 4 pm, admission £2 (https://www.vegfest.co.uk/event/oxford-vegan-market-4/).

Paul Appleby

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