Minette batters the facts

The environmental impact of meat and dairy production is a key reason for people going vegan. The fact that these foods are totally unsustainable, gobble up precious resources, and cause so much damage is indisputable. However, it seems that the National Farmers Union (NFU) has decided to launch an insidious campaign to counter all this “vegan propaganda” and “misinformation”.

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions (9/11/2018) NFU President Minette Batters responded to the question “Should meat be taxed?” by launching into a rambling monologue which included these contentious statements: “Beef contains vital nutrients, and there are environmental benefits of grazing beef cattle. Two thirds of the UK landmass is grass, and this offers a unique opportunity. Our grazing herds and flocks are paramount to these carbon sinks, and offer unique growing opportunities for beef. There are other parts of the world where grain feedlot systems cause deforestation, but we aren’t doing that in the UK. Beef and other red meat is an integral part of a healthy balanced diet. Subsidies aren’t linked to red meat production. We have some of the highest standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety protection.”

Every claim in this statement is either incorrect, or a distortion of the truth:

  • Beef does contain vital nutrients, but apart from vitamin B12 they are all readily available from a plant-based diet. Moreover, beef contains deadly saturated animal fat but no dietary fibre.
  • Any idea that grazing cattle or sheep provides environmental benefits is false. On the contrary, these systems cause huge damage.
  • The exact proportion of the UK landmass devoted to agriculture is debatable, but it seems to be less than 60%, and it definitely isn’t all grass. Arable crops including wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, sugar beet, vegetables and fruits are a significant part of UK land use.
  • Other countries have huge areas devoted to grazing cattle and sheep. Argentina has a vast grass fed beef industry, and most of New Zealand’s landmass is covered with 30 million grass munching sheep. Therefore, claiming that the UK has “unique opportunities” for grazing livestock is incorrect.
  • In May 2018 it was revealed that “industrial scale fattening units with herds of up to 3,000 cattle in grassless pens” are operating in the UK. The Guardian (29/5/2018) identified “nearly a dozen operating in England”, and the largest “fatten up to 6,000 [beef] cattle per year”. This is small in comparison with the 800 UK poultry and pig ‘mega farms’ where the biggest house over a million chickens or 20,000 pigs. Nonetheless, this recent evidence proves that US style feedlot systems have infiltrated the British beef industry.
  • Dairy cows in the UK rarely feed on grass alone because it cannot provide the enormous amount of energy required by the demands of the modern dairy industry.
  • Any notion that grazing ruminants assist ‘carbon capture’ within the grassland itself is laughable. Cows and sheep pump out huge amounts of methane, and their manure releases both methane and nitrous oxide. Grass fed systems utilise staggering amounts of land, and the idea that grassland “is only fit for grazing” is disingenuous. Why can’t it simply be left alone as a wild area? Grass does absorb some carbon, but on a much smaller scale than trees. It is true that grass holds CO2 in the soil (hence ‘carbon sinks’) but it cannot negate all the gas and waste generated by cows and sheep.
  • Red meat production is heavily subsidised.
  • The old argument that “we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare” is totally discredited. Has Ms Batters forgotten BSE, Foot and Mouth disease, e-coli and the 2014 horsemeat scandal that revealed widespread abuse of the so-called food safety standards. The biggest ongoing UK food scandal is campylobacter, endemic to the British poultry business and responsible for 90% of all food poisoning cases in the UK (killing an unknown number every year).

In the subsequent listeners’ phone-in programme Any Answers, three of the four respondents were beef and sheep farmers, and unsurprisingly they all opposed a tax on meat. One claimed that: “The most efficient method of turning grass into food is via livestock.” In fact, the process of turning grass into food (meat and milk) via grazing animals is hopelessly inefficient. Ruminants are designed to convert grass into energy for the animal, but using cows and sheep to produce food for humans is wasteful and unsustainable. The FCR (feed conversion ratio) for beef varies from about 7:1 to 10:1 (depending on the system) but cattle require huge amounts of feed, including grass, grain and soya beans. Grass fed beef is actually less efficient than beef produced intensively (each cow needs a big chunk of land) but all beef production is profligate and involves catastrophic environmental damage (deforestation, water consumption, emissions, &c). Environmental campaigners are now recommending that global beef consumption needs to decrease by 90%.

It is no surprise to find that Ms Batters is co-founder of a group called Ladies in Beef, which “champions Red Tractor farm assured beef.” There have been several exposés of shocking conditions at Red Tractor farms, and in February 2018 the TV chef Jamie Oliver declared: “Red Tractor only meets the bottom standard of animal welfare.” Oh really, that high?

Paul Freestone

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Our brains get bigger, but wisdom declines

It is ironic that ‘sapiens’ (derived from the Latin) means wise. The human brain has evolved into something quite extraordinary, and it remains unsurpassed in its sophistication, despite all the portentous claims for Artificial Intelligence. Unfortunately, our collective behaviour as a species demonstrates that stupendous brainpower doesn’t equate to greater wisdom.

A new study (published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) presents a bleak assessment of humanity’s influence on our planet. Despite the fact that humans are only 0.01% of all life (measured by biomass) we have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and 50% of all plants. In sharp contrast to this appalling devastation, we have reared breathtaking numbers of domesticated animals. Farmed poultry (chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese) make up 70% of all the birds on the planet. It’s even worse for mammals: 86% of all land mammals are either livestock or humans. Paradoxically, our dominance (or disproportionate meddling) isn’t reflected in our puny collective weight. Worms are three times greater, fish 12 times more and fungi 200 times as much by weight.

Many scientists believe that the catastrophic destruction of wild species and habitats is the start of the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. The speed of this process is staggering (half of all animals have been lost in the last 50 years) and yet many people and most politicians are either ignorant about what’s happening or couldn’t care less. Moreover, with typical human arrogance some individuals and specific groups will defend the annihilation of the natural world. It is argued that all this highlights human ingenuity, and our extraordinary ability to bend nature to our will. Some even believe that a higher authority has bestowed this unprecedented ability upon us, and humans have a God-given right to obliterate anything that stands in our way. In fact, our so-called triumph over nature is a delusion, and picking a fight with the most awesome power on Earth is distinctly unwise (there can only be one winner and it won’t be us).

Human activity has dramatically transformed the planet, but anyone who celebrates these ‘achievements’ is seriously misguided. Less than 17% of wild mammals (from mice to elephants) remain since agriculture began about 12,000 years ago. Three centuries of whaling has left just 20% of marine mammals in the oceans, and industrial fishing has decimated fish stocks. Don’t be fooled by all that ‘teeming life in the oceans’ footage that was broadcast in the Blue Planet II television series. The methods currently being used by Dutch ‘pulse trawlers’ in the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea underlines a distinct lack of wisdom. Electrodes emit short pulses into the seabed, and these cause fish to spasm and jump into the trailing nets. This system dates back to the 1980s when it was used by Chinese fleets, but rapidly abandoned as it had several negative repercussions. It all sounds about as clever as dropping explosives into the water. Dogger Bank is a designated marine reserve, and the uncharacteristically wise decision to protect it (taken in 2011) is totally undermined by these ‘high tech/low IQ’ practices. It requires a lot of brainpower to develop a technology like pulse fishing, and none whatsoever to actually use it. Dogger Bank is legally protected under EU law, but the Dutch are exploiting a dubious loophole and have even claimed: “there is no proof that electric fishing is damaging sea life.”

A decisive indicator of intelligence is learning from your mistakes, and Homo sapiens perform especially badly in this respect. It should be blindingly obvious that wiping out entire species for short term gain will have catastrophic long-term consequences. Can we change our appalling behaviour before it’s too late? Professor Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, whose study is described above, recognised the need for change by pointing out that: “our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms.” Sadly, Professor Milo has yet to join the estimated 6.4% of the Israeli population who describe themselves as vegetarian or vegan (http://veganstrategist.org/2017/05/17/vegan-revolution-israel-fact-fiction/), although he insists that he now eats “less meat”.

Paul Freestone

Growing the Good

Published in October 2018 by the Changing Markets Foundation in collaboration with Mighty Earth and Compassion in World Farming, Growing the Good makes the case for a low-carbon transition in the food sector (https://changingmarkets.org/portfolio/growing-the-good/).  The report wastes no time in identifying the scale of the problem posed by the animal agriculture industry:

In total, livestock are responsible for around 16.5% of the world’s GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, and are the leading source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions. If expected forecasts for growth in meat and dairy consumption materialise, there will be almost no room within the total allowable global emissions budget for any sectors other than agriculture by 2050. … Studies overwhelmingly suggest that a shift towards healthier diets, lower meat and dairy consumption and significant food-waste reductions is an essential condition to ensure the world’s temperature keeps below a 2°C increase, as agreed by the world’s governments at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference of the United Nations.

Animal agriculture is an extremely resource-intensive way to feed people; today, 70–80% of all agricultural land, including a quarter of all cropland, is required for pasture and the production of feed. This totals one-third of the planets’ ice-free land surface. … We are currently experiencing what scientists call the sixth great mass extinction in the Earth’s history; one of the foremost underlying drivers of this is animal agriculture, estimated to account for about 60% of human-caused biodiversity loss on land.

Finally, the excessive consumption of animal products in high-income countries is already between two and three times higher than what is considered healthy, and is associated with an increased incidence of diet-related disease. Mounting scientific evidence is linking our excessive consumption of livestock products, particularly red and processed meat, with increasing incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The report goes on to document the impacts of livestock rearing on climate change, land use, deforestation and biodiversity loss, and health and food security, before examining the immense financial power of the livestock sector, the rise of meat alternatives, and the need for a low-carbon transition in the food system. A particularly eye-catching diagram compares the Earth’s land mammals by weight: at 34 million tons, the world’s wild animals are overshadowed by humans (358 million tons) and their domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep, pigs and goats (520, 136, 90 and 39 million tons, respectively), not forgetting their companion animals (49 million tons).

Faced with this gloomy prognosis, the report identifies an “absence of policies to drive reduction in meat and dairy consumption, and to promote more sustainable diets and food-production systems”, warning that “climate action in (the livestock) sector cannot wait any longer, and the window of opportunity to meet internationally agreed climate targets is closing.” By way of solution, the report puts forward a series of policy recommendations, including updating fiscal policies to reduce the demand for meat, shifting subsidies away from factory farming, incentivising the production of underused protein crops such as pulses, and funding the research and development of plant-based meat alternatives.

However, the report stops short of setting targets for reducing the consumption of meat and dairy products. For this, we should turn to a recent study published in the 25 October 2018 issue of Nature (https://www.ndph.ox.ac.uk/news/feeding-10-billion-people-by-2050-within-planetary-limits-may-be-achievable-say-researchers). In this study, the researchers examined a range of options for reducing the environmental effects of the food system, including dietary changes towards healthier, more plant-based diets, improvements in technologies and management, and reductions in food loss and waste. The only combination of options that would stay within the planetary boundary for greenhouse gas emissions was one requiring “ambitious dietary change towards more plant-based, flexitarian diets, in combination with either reductions in food loss and waste or technological improvements.” The flexitarian diet defined by the study was one based on global dietary guidelines for healthy eating but with “more stringent limits for red meat (one serving a week), white meat (half a portion a day) and dairy (one portion a day).”  A vegan diet, which has been shown to produce considerably lower greenhouse gas emissions than low meat or vegetarian diets (Climatic Change 2014; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-014-1169-1), would leave us more room to manoeuvre.

Paul Appleby

How many vegans are there?

Veganism has undoubtedly enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in recent years, but how many vegans are there in the UK? An Ipsos MORI poll conducted for the Vegan Society in 2016 estimated that there were about 540,000 dietary vegans in the UK, representing 1.05% of the adult population.  More recent surveys have estimated the proportion of the population who are vegan to be 2% (with a further 7% vegetarian) according to the AHDB/YouGov consumer tracker, June 2018, or 3% (with a further 9.5% vegetarian) according to the Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2018-19 (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/01/third-of-britons-have-stopped-or-reduced-meat-eating-vegan-vegetarian-report).  However, more than half of the respondents who described themselves as vegetarian or vegan in the Waitrose survey admitted that they sometimes eat meat, suggesting that the 3% vegans figure may be unduly optimistic.

In an attempt to arrive at a definitive figure, the Vegan Society commissioned another survey by Ipsos MORI in 2018. This time, as well as asking respondents how often they ate meat, fish or shellfish, or any other animal products such as milk, cheese, eggs or honey, respondents were asked to describe their diet by choosing from five categories, including “completely vegetarian” and “vegan”, using a question from the Food Standards Agency’s Food & You Survey of 2016.  Based on answers to the food frequency questions, 2.19% of respondents were classified as vegans, but only 1.16% of respondents described themselves as vegans.  Analysis of the discrepant answers suggested that the lower figure was the more accurate, so the Vegan Society have adopted a cautious approach in estimating the number of adult vegans in Great Britain at about 600,000 (or 1.16% of the population; https://www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics).

But how strict should we be in categorising diet? Put another way, how often is a vegan (or a vegetarian for that matter) allowed to lapse before he or she can no longer be described as such?  Tobias Leenaert, author of How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Lantern Books, 2017), has suggested that people who are 98% vegan should be counted as vegans.  On this basis, eating a non-vegan meal no more than once per month would be considered acceptable, but any more than this would get you struck off the vegan register.

So, how many vegans (or ‘98% vegans’) are there in the UK? The short answer is that no one knows for sure, but somewhere between 1% and 2% of the adult population (roughly equivalent to half a million to one million individuals) might be a reasonable guesstimate.

Paul Appleby (with thanks to Malcolm Horne)

Long Table Meals

OxVeg supporter Amy Symington gained an MSc in Applied Human Nutrition from Oxford Brookes University.  Back home in Canada, Amy is a nutrition professor, research associate, and plant-based chef at George Brown College, Toronto.  She also coordinates the culinary nutrition program at Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto (GCGT), a not-for-profit organisation that provides social and emotional support for people affected by cancer.  Amy has written a cookbook and nutrition guide for chronic disease prevention and management, Long Table Meals: A community focused, culinary nutrition guide to optimal health, to be published in September 2019.  In the introduction she writes: “Taking the time to sit, eat and share homemade, nutrient dense meals with loved ones is important at any stage in life, but can be particularly vital when faced with compromised health.  Sharing and breaking bread together can be medicinal in so many ways.”  Proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to GCGT.  A selection of Amy’s vegan recipes and further details can be found on her website: http://ameliaeats.com/.

Paul Appleby

Amy_Symington_photo_by_Darren_Kemper

(Darren Kemper’s photo shows Amy in her kitchen.)

Let Us Be Heroes

Let Us Be Heroes is a new vegan documentary film directed and presented by Rebecca Cappelli. The film explores the impact of our food and lifestyle choices on our health, our home planet and our values with athletes, digital, food and fashion entrepreneurs, a public speaker and an ocean warrior fighting to protect people, animals and the planet. For further details and to watch the film go to: www.letusbeheroes.com.

Oxford Eco-Vegan Festival, 24 November

The Oxford Eco-Vegan Festival returns to the Kassam Stadium, Oxford, OX4 4XP, on Saturday 24 November, 10:30-17:00. Tickets cost £3 on the door or you can purchase VIP tickets in advance (allowing early entry and a goodie bag of vegan treats) by emailing events{at}farplace.org.uk. The Festival aims “to promote a vegan diet, sustainability and animal welfare in a positive atmosphere”, with the organisers promising “many stalls mainly featuring food though there will be charity, beauty, clothing and wellness stalls with various talks taking place throughout the day.” OxVeg media rep Paul Freestone is scheduled to give a talk on Animals in Warfare: A Shameful History at 3pm.

Profits from the event go to the organisers, Farplace Animal Rescue. Further details and directions to the Kassam Stadium here.

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