Melanie McDonagh

Giving up meat won’t make us greener

Giving up meat won't make us greener
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There was a nifty about-turn last week when the so-called Nudge Unit, the government’s behavioural policy advisory body, abandoned its proposals to get us to shift towards a plant-based diet and away from eating meat. Among other exciting intiatives it suggested 'building support for a bold policy' such as a tax on producers of mutton and beef. It pointed out that the government could get people used to a vegetarian diet through its spending in hospitals, schools, prisons, courts and military facilities – you can just imagine how that would go down with soldiers, prisoners and patients – and declared that a 'timely moment to intervene' would be when people are at university. But it also acknowledged that an 'unsophisticated meat tax would be highly regressive'.

It may ultimately have been that factor that caused the unit to back off from this bovine – hah – move. Because an undiscriminating meat tax would indeed be regressive, and not just socially. Environmentally, contrary to what the exciting vegan movement woud have you believe, it would be unsustainable and counter-productive. This week four militant vegans scaled the ugly Home Office/Defra building to 'send a clear message that we want an end to support for animal agriculture which is killing our planet'. Their banner read: 'COP26: Invest in a plant-based future.' And it seems the COP26 delegates are going to be fed a predominantly plant based menu. A missed opportunity, I say, to showcase sustainable Scottish fish, meat and dairy products.

The obvious point, which should hardly need making, is that not all plant food is equally beneficial and not all meat, fish and dairy is equally problematic. In fact, locally produced meat from animals grazed on grass or salt marshes, kept in low densities on impoverished hillsides, is not just unproblematic; they’re part of the solution to a regenerative agricultural system that can increase the diversity of our plant, animal and insect life. By contrast, eating soya based proteins from crops produced on the other side of the world is actively damaging to the environment. Ditto much of the fashionable components of a vegan diet imported from far flung countries.

Do you suppose the militant vegans who say they intend to stay up the Home Office building – what if it rains? –have brought some nice guacamole to eat up there, or almond milk for their tea? In which case they’re almost certainly doing more harm to more ecosystems than the carnivores that Defra’s cattle producers feed.

This week Waitrose told us about the 'emergency avocado' – that is, the demand for Deliveroo deliveries of tropical fruit, especially avocados. The demand is, as you’d suppose, directly correlated with the amount of wokery in the resident population: Oxford, Cambridge and Brighton are places where avocado toast is treated like bread and butter. Yet, avocados are notoriously problematic, requiring substantial amounts of water – 2,000 litres of water for each kilo of the fruit; transport from Mexico or Israel; and substantial pesticide use on monocultural plantations. Deforestation and ecosystem destruction with your sourdough toast, anyone?

As for those tiresome people forever wanting almond milk with their lattes, they’re practically ecocides, and for much the same reason as for avocados…the crop takes a great deal of water and most of the world’s crop comes from non-rainy California – one much-cited New York Times article suggested it takes 15 gallons of water in California to produce 16 almonds – and certainly requires significant pesticide use. And even if the gallon per nut statistic is exaggerated, intensive production is often at the expense of other, more sustainable crops. If vegans want to be less pernicious, they could stick to oats, root vegetables, mushrooms and leeks, with perhaps blackberries, rhubarb, filberts and apples in season. As for their plant based milk, the good news is that Waitrose is now selling potato-derived milk to replace problematic nut milk; it retails on Amazon now for £11 a litre. I am fond of potatoes but something tells me this isn’t going to be delicious.

The whole notion of environmentally friendly 'plant-based' diets ignores much of the methods of agrarian production: ploughing fields releases enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere whereas permanent pasture stores CO2; one report in the science journal Nature in 2017 suggests that most of the carbon in our cultivated soil has been lost to the atmosphere. There are ways of producing grain and vegetable crops sustainably – rotation, including grazing, is one way of doing it, no-dig systems are another – but by and large, monocultural agrarian plains are more environmentally damaging than extensive cattle or mixed farming which generate animal droppings that enrich the soil and its complex ecosystems.

Most land in Britain is only suitable for growing grass; the best way of converting it into edible protein is via grazing animals. As for the poor soil on hills and uplands, that’s best utilised for grazing sheep. The key in both cases is low intensity stocking; high density grazing really does wipe out species.

There is certainly a case for reducing our meat consumption and confining it to better and more expensive meat. And by better, I mean, meat from animals that haven’t been intensively farmed and routinely dosed with antibiotics, raised on mixed pasture – certainly not grain-fed, and have been raised if not locally, at least in the British Isles, including Ireland (lots of green grass there).

There’s also a compelling case for eating the whole animal, including offal; if we only eat steak or the hindquarters of beasts, well, it means there’s an awful lot of it wasted. But the young who are most likely to be vegan are also the generation more likely to go yuck at the prospect of a nice devilled kidney or a cheap dinner of liver and onions. Admittedly, I draw the line at tripe (I blame a bad experience in Spain), but really, the ethical eater should start by reading Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail cookbook, which envisages eating practically every bit of a beast.

Before considering good meat production, maybe we should see off the favourite vegan claim about cattle, viz, cattle farts, or rather, burps, are methane, and methane is an evil greenhouse gas. Even yesterday, the Prime Minister told a group of school children that 'cows burp a great deal and emit a lot of gasses'. First off, the cows’ belches don’t hang around the atmosphere forever; after about twelve years they’re reabsorbed. And what’s now apparent is that the diet of the cattle is important: as Boris Johnson did clarify, methane production is reduced if cattle feed includes seaweed (don’t ask me what that does to the flavour) and similarly if they graze on mixed pasture including wildflower leys, where plants grow that contain fumaric acid which naturally reduces methane emissions. Come to think of it, meat is plant-based food; it’s just plants at one remove.

So, what’s behind the notion of regenerative agriculture, with meat production as part of the mix? It’s based on the interaction of plants and animals, to the benefit of both. Pigs that are reared outdoors root around in the soil, stirring it up and fertilising it to the benefit of many insect and plant species. Cows that are extensively grazed are actually beneficial to meadow maintenance, for instance, that most endangered habitat. Salt marsh meadows are maintained by sheep, not damaged by them. It’s not always possible to graze cattle on pasture all the year round in some parts of the country; some good farmers shelter their herds indoors in winter, often on silage. But some native breeds are hardy enough to be outdoors almost all year.

The emphasis in restorative farming is on outdoor grazing grass fed herds; a further component is pasture that eschews pesticides and herbicides with the cattle themselves not given routine antibiotics and anti-worming agents, just as necessary. Another factor is often the deployment of slow growing natives species that can digest rough grasses – including hairy pigs and longhorn cattle – and crucially the avoidance of over-grazing, packing more animals onto the land than it can sustain. Some farms deploy fun-sounding mob grazing, which is simply moving the herd regularly to herb-rich meadows. All this is a world away from industrial scale farming and the intensive animal husbandry which allows millions of people access to cheap meat, but which is impossible to square with animal welfare. The problems are especially acute with pigs. On that, vegans, I’m afraid, have a point. As for chicken, most of it is intensively reared in conditions that should make us look askance at Nando’s and KFC … cheap poultry isn’t cool if it’s underpinned by animal cruelty.

With these principles in mind, where should we be getting our meat to make sure it’s ethically produced, environmentally beneficial? As I say, native breeds that are slow growing are particularly likely to be in high welfare herds that are farmed sustainably. So the Rare Breeds Survival Trust website which gives a tool for would-be customers to find suppliers near them is worth consulting. Another excellent body is the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, which supplies a list of farms where herds are fed almost wholly on grass; their list of producers is extensive, and some sound like animal nirvana, at least until slaughter time.

It’s worth seeking out local producers from the suppliers but among those worth trying are Askerton’s Castle Meat in Cumbria, Knepp Wild Range Meat where the meat is part of a rewilding project; The Ethical Butcher (a consortium of like minded producers) and Piper’s Farm - a farm which is part of a West Country consortium of ethical producers. For lamb and mutton, there's Caorach, a small family-run farm in Dorset, who do the mob-grazing thing in summer (info@caorach.uk).

With any of these, friends, you can look vegans in the eye. And by all means, eat plants too: fruit and veg as well as meat fish and dairy. It’s good food we’re after…good for us, good for nature. But maybe give the avocados a miss.