Reforesting pasture land to offset UK CO2 emissions

Among the more interesting posters exhibited at the LEAP 2019 Conference in Oxford was one submitted by Drs Helen Harwatt and Matthew Hayek of the Harvard Law School.  The poster summarised the findings of their April 2019 report Eating Away at Climate Change with Negative Emissions.  Subtitled Repurposing UK agricultural land to meet climate goals, the report examined two scenarios in which UK agricultural land currently devoted to livestock rearing, both directly as pasture and indirectly as land used to grow animal feed, would be wholly (scenario 1) or partially (scenario 2) reforested in order to offset the UK’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Under the Climate Change Act, the UK is legally bound to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% compared with 1990 levels by the year 2050, and the government has recently upped this to set a net zero emissions target by 2050.  Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5℃), in line with the Paris Agreement, would demand even more rapid reductions in GHG emissions.  However, the UK is not currently on track to meet even the 80% reduction target.

In addition to a massive reduction in GHG emissions, tackling the problem will require carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere, and the most readily deployable CDR option in the UK is the restoration of its native forests.  Animal agriculture currently occupies almost half (48%) of UK land, whether as pasture (~84,000 km2) or for growing feed (55% of the ~58,000 km2 of cropland).  The authors found that under scenario 2, in which land currently used for growing feed would be converted to diversified fruit and vegetable production for human consumption, thereby increasing UK food self-sufficiency (by value, less the half of the food consumed in the UK is home-produced), reforestation of pasture land would provide a CDR of 3,236 million tonnes CO2, equivalent to 9 years of current UK CO2 emissions.  Scenario 1, in which all of the land currently devoted to livestock rearing would be reforested, would provide a CDR of 4,472 million tonnes CO2, equivalent to 12 years of current UK CO2 emissions.  In relation to the 1.5℃ global warming limit, CDR at these levels would extend the UK’s permissible GHG emissions budget to 2050 by 103% and 75% under scenarios 1 and 2, respectively.

Although neither scenario is likely to be realised, at least in the short term, the report demonstrates the massive potential that the reforestation of land currently used for rearing animals provides for offsetting UK GHG emissions.  As the authors of the report conclude: “Restoring agricultural land currently used for farmed animals back to native forest would contribute substantially to aligning UK GHGs with the Paris Agreement, and provide new opportunities for alternative protein production, fruit and vegetable provisions, and enhanced food security … providing additional benefits including habitats for the reintroduction of wildlife.”  This is surely preferable to the National Farmers Union’s optimistic and largely unproven hi-tech plan for UK agriculture to become carbon neutral by 2040 by growing biofuels for power stations and then capturing and burying the carbon dioxide, increasing the carbon stored in soils, and using technology to reduce the emissions caused by cattle and fertiliser.

Paul Appleby

UK court rules that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief

It is illegal to fire someone for being an ethical vegan because it is a philosophical belief, an employment tribunal in Norwich ruled on 3rd January 2020. The decision was made after a worker alleged that he was fired for raising concerns that his employer’s pension fund was being invested in companies involved in animal testing.

To summarise:

  1. The judgement at the tribunal ruled that ‘ethical veganism’ satisfies the tests required for it to be a philosophical belief and is therefore protected under the 2010 Equality Act. In order for a belief to be protected under the Act, it must pass a series of tests including being worthy of respect in a democratic society, is not incompatible with human dignity and does not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Religion and belief are one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act. The others are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, and sex and sexual orientation.
  2. Under the ruling, ‘ethical vegans’ were identified as being different to ‘dietary vegans.’ The former “try to avoid all forms of animal exploitation in the products they buy, as well as in their diets.” (The plaintiff Jordi Casamitjana, formerly a researcher at the League Against Cruel Sports, declared that he “would rather walk than take a bus to avoid accidental crashes with insects or birds.”)
  3. The ruling does not create a binding legal precedent, but it will have important and far-reaching effects. Employers will have to respect ethical veganism, and make sure they do not discriminate against employees for their beliefs, and the ruling could extend into other areas such as education and school meals.
  4. The tribunal has yet to consider whether Mr Casamitjana was treated less favourably because of his ethical veganism.

Most of the vegans I know would say that they don’t consume any animal products for ethical reasons, although there are some who prioritise the claimed health benefits of a vegan diet. There is nothing new about different levels of ‘strictness’ within vegetarianism and veganism. For example, in Jainism the most dedicated followers wear a gauze mask to prevent breathing in tiny insects. Conversely, many long-term vegetarians and vegans will be familiar with those who claim to be “abstaining from all animal foods apart from when I go out and at the weekend.”

The immediate impact of the ruling will be controversial. Any perceived ‘aggressive veganism’ is bound to irritate hardcore carnivores, who will see the judgement as a direct challenge to their “right to eat meat.” Nonetheless, the fact that the ruling is all about ethics is a dramatic step forward.

Paul Freestone

Don’t hold your breath

The Conservative Party’s large majority in Parliament following last December’s general election means that we must look to the policies in their election manifesto to see what prospects there are for improvements to animal welfare over the next five years.  It is worth quoting the commitments listed on page 54 of the manifesto:

  1. We will introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty.
  2. We will crack down on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies.
  3. We will bring in new laws on animal sentience.
  4. We will end excessively long journeys for slaughter and fattening.
  5. We will bring the ivory ban into force and extend it to cover other ivory-bearing species, and ban imports from trophy hunting of endangered animals.
  6. We will ban keeping primates as pets.
  7. We will bring forward cat microchipping.

Elsewhere, the manifesto promises that the Conservatives “will make no changes to the Hunting Act” (page 43), that “there will be a legal commitment to fish sustainably”, and that in return for maintaining the current level of subsidies farmers “must farm in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, as well as safeguarding high standards of animal welfare” (page 42).

Fine words, but do they amount to anything more than empty promises?  Let’s look at the proposals in more detail:

  1. Good, but how much tougher will sentences be?  The Lib Dem manifesto proposed increasing maximum sentences “from six months to five years, and ensuring that the National Wildlife Crime Unit is properly funded”; the Government should aim to match this.
  2. A laudable aim, but reintroducing dog licensing and curtailing the pet trade might be more effective ways to encourage responsible ownership of dogs and other companion animals.
  3. This measure aims to reinstate the principle of animal sentience enshrined in European Union law, which requires member states to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”, once the UK leaves the EU.
  4. How will “excessively long journeys” be defined?  Compassion in World Farming have called for an 8 hour total journey time limit that would effectively ban live exports from the UK, and there is some hope that this can be achieved given the inclusion of this commitment in the Queen’s Speech of 19 December 2019 and, if you can believe anything that he says, the Prime Minister’s promise to “ban the live export of animals” in the Final Leaders’ TV Debate (BBC-1, 6/12/2019).
  5. This is a welcome measure that should help curb the international trade in animal parts.  However, banning imports from trophy hunting of all animals would avoid exploitation of the inevitable loopholes in any proposed law.
  6. A welcome move that should be extended to include all endangered animals and any animals whose confinement is liable to be detrimental to their welfare.
  7. Good news for cat owners, but efforts should also be made to limit Britain’s feline population (according to the Mammal Society, domestic and feral cats are responsible for the deaths of some 275 million animals per year in the UK, including 27 million birds).

The other promises listed above are somewhat vague (for example, how will “high standards of (farm) animal welfare” be defined?), and the League Against Cruel Sports cite “overwhelming evidence (which) suggests that (the Hunting Act is) being ignored or exploited by hunts on a regular basis”, so making no changes to the Hunting Act seems more likely to benefit the hunters than the hunted.  Elsewhere, the Government appears determined to pursue the badger cull and the manifesto has nothing to say on animal experiments or the caging of farmed animals.  So, the onus rests on campaign groups and the electorate to ensure that the Government keeps its promises on animal welfare, such as they are, whilst lobbying for stronger measures to protect animals.

Meanwhile, can we expect a ban on live exports soon after the UK withdraws from the European Union on 31 January?  Don’t hold your breath!

Paul Appleby

Vegetarian and vegan cookery courses with Oxfordshire Adult Learning

Oxfordshire Adult Learning are offering a series of veg*n-friendly part-time cookery courses during the first half of 2020.  These include 1-day courses on Vegan Cooking – Around the World at John Mason School, Abingdon, on Saturday 22 February and Cheney School, Oxford, on Saturday 16 May, and Indian Cooking: Vegan – Tasty Light Bites at Henry Box School, Witney, on Saturday 29 February and John Mason School, Abingdon, on Saturday 6 June, as well as longer courses on Chinese Cooking – Vegan in Witney (6 weeks from Tuesday 2 June), Indian Cooking: Vegetarian – Introduction in Abingdon (8 weeks from Wednesday 8 January) and Witney (11 weeks from Wednesday 29 April), and an 11-week version of Vegan Cooking – Around the World in Oxford (11 weeks from Monday 20 April).  Details at: www.abingdon-witney.ac.uk.

Paul Appleby

Cardiovascular disease in vegetarians and vegans

A major study of cardiovascular disease risk in vegetarians published in the British Medical Journal in September 2019 elicited considerable media interest. Based on data from 48,000 participants in the EPIC-Oxford study, the study compared risks for two common cardiovascular diseases, coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke, across three diet groups: meat eaters, fish eaters (who ate fish but not meat), and vegetarians (including vegans). The researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH), Oxford University, found that the fish eaters and the vegetarians had 13% and 22% lower risks of CHD than the meat eaters, respectively, but that the vegetarians had a 20% higher risk of stroke than the meat eaters. Each of these differences in risk was statistically significant, meaning that they were unlikely to have arisen by chance.

Several media outlets, including the BBC, chose to highlight the higher risk of stroke in vegetarians in their headlines, which might have caused some concern among vegetarians and vegans, but the NDPH website presented a more balanced picture of the findings.  Putting the risks into context, the lower risk of CHD in vegetarians corresponds to 10 fewer cases of CHD in vegetarians than in meat eaters per 1000 people consuming these diets over 10 years, whereas the higher risk of stroke in vegetarians equates to three more cases of stroke per 1000 people over 10 years. The graph at the bottom of the NDPH web page neatly illustrates the results, showing that the vegetarians had a lower risk of CHD and stroke combined than the meat eaters, as a consequence of the lower incidence of stroke compared with CHD in the overall population.

The researchers attributed the lower risk of CHD in vegetarians to their having a lower body mass index (a measure of obesity) and lower rates of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes, but were unable to explain the higher risk of stroke, suggesting that lower levels of several nutrients, including vitamin B-12, and, ironically, their lower cholesterol concentrations, might be to blame. In a supplementary analysis, the researchers split the lacto/ovo-vegetarians and vegans into separate groups in order to calculate risks for vegans compared with meat eaters.  However, the relatively small numbers of vegans in the study meant that none of the differences in risk between vegans and meat eaters were statistically significant, although the results were similar to those for vegetarians as a whole.

Paul Appleby

Book review: A Feast for the Eyes

A Feast for the Eyes: Edible Art from Apple to Zucchini by Carolyn Tillie. Reaktion Books, 2019, 184pp, 100 colour photos; hbk, £14-95.

This superb book presents a delicious edible alphabet from A to Z. Every page reveals a fresh surprise, and confirms the idea that food is also art. It is uniquely human to transform avocados, salt, fruit and marzipan into a visual delight that is clever, witty, weird and wonderful. The artistry and outstanding attention to detail is quite remarkable, and my personal favourites include the mosaic Captain Kirk & the Gorn (2013), constructed from a variety of seeds, rice, beans and lentils.  Unsurprisingly, this compendium features some animal foods including caviar (as the head of Frankenstein); honey (a naked woman totally covered in it); and a life-sized cow sculpted from butter (a traditional exhibit at the Iowa State Fair for over a century). However, these are the exception and the vast majority are vegetable based. Feast For The Eyes is highly recommended, and you have to marvel at the skill and imagination required to reshape and stain mass produced semolina noodles into a fabulous version of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Paul Freestone

Spuds we like … and throw away

Writing in The Selfish Ape (see review below), Nicholas Money describes mashed potatoes as “the most filling food available to humanity”, citing a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1995. In the study, the researchers compared the satiety ratings of 38 common foods, each served in portions with identical energy content. Boiled potatoes came out on top, with a satiety index more than three times that of white bread and seven times that of croissants, which were the least filling food studied. Satiety ratings correlated positively with the protein, fibre and water contents of the foods, and negatively with the fat content; the more protein &c that the food contained the more filling it was, whereas the higher the fat content the less satiating it was.

The humble potato may be filling, despite its high water content, but it is low in protein and carbohydrate compared with most other staple foods and is not counted as part of the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables.  Perhaps this is why “potatoes are the most wasted food in the UK home” according to Helen White of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, with more than 4 million spuds thrown away every day.  To help reduce potato waste the National Trust is using leftover mashed potato as a gluten-free addition to their lemon drizzle cakes. The Trust also has some good news for vegan visitors, with a vegan orange-spiced Christmas cake scheduled for the forthcoming festive season and a veg*n recipe page on its website.

Altogether, UK households discard 7 million tons of food every year, equivalent to one in every five bags of food shopping.  To make matters worse, a study by the government-backed waste reduction body Wrap has found that “more than £1bn of food destined for UK supermarkets is thrown away or fed to animals before it leaves farms every year”.  What a waste!

Paul Appleby

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