Meat & Dairy consumption

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Andrew Hunter-RossallYou’re asking for advice on a dilemma about veganism, and your asking a vegan – I’ll warn you that I am going to be biased!

Yes, I think veganism is inherently lower environmental impact than an omnivorous diet (and also far better for your health – 14 of the 15 biggest killers in the UK are linked to poor diet and risks could be massively reduced by replacing meat and dairy inclusive diets with whole food, plant-based diets).

No, I don’t think this is the end of the story. Within the plant-based world, there are heroes (locally grown, organic, whole foods), and there are villains (unsustainably produced soya, palm oil, etc, air-freighted vegetables, highly processed foods, etc, etc).

George Monbiot gives some of the key answers to your questions in that article. Is it better to eat imported soya or local beef? Well if you want to reduce the amount of soya you eat, choose the soya! Most beef is supplemented with feed which is based on soya beans. The vast majority of all soya beans produced world wide are grown for animal feed. It is far more efficient to eat pulses directly rather than using them to grow meat. Of course if you don’t want imported soya beans, then there are plenty of British options – broad beans, bortolotti beans, etc.

But is it harder work? Perhaps! For now! Being a vegetarian was (apparently! before my time!) difficult 30, 40, 50 years ago. Now it is widely accepted and easy. Veganism is becoming more and more accepted, and it’s easy to find recipes and restaurants – there are many vegan and vegan friendly restaurants in Manchester. The ideal low-impact diet – Local, Organic, Vegan, Wholefoods, is still not so widely available in restaurants, but there are some places – El Piano in York stands out for me as somewhere that ticks all the boxes (http://www.el-piano.com/#!issues/cee5). For groceries, Unicorn in Chorlton stands out.

In terms of milk substitutes, I do get through a fair amount of soya milk – I have granola with soya milk for breakfast most mornings, and soya milk with my tea. My wife and I get through about 2 litres per week between us. My understanding is that it’s significantly better than dairy milk, but I’m sure it’s probably not the best solution. Cutting down on dairy and dairy alternatives altogether possibly? (porridge for example tastes just as good with water as with milk – soak overnight for best results). This website has some pretty good comparisons of milk vs soya milk. The comparisons seem very fair to me (eg comparing Tesco’s branded milk vs soya milk – hard to accuse of cherry picking data with such like-for-like comparisons):https://crueltyfreelife.wordpress.com/…/sustainability…/

One last link – the health benefits of a whole food plant based diet mentioned above – highly recommend this website. http://nutritionfacts.org/

The beautiful coincidence (or perhaps not a coincidence?) in all of this is that the sustainable diet, and the diet that is best for our health seem to coincide perfectly!

Andrew Hunter-Rossall: Don’t feel the need to do it all at once. Learn a few great vegan recipes – ones that don’t involve dairy alternatives, or even better that use seasonal and locally produced ingredients. At this time of year that should be easy!

This week we’re having (for our evening meals) – a beetroot madras (beets, tomatoes, spices) with rice (organic, European, but can easily be substituted for millet or another grain, or a potato dish if you want a completely British dish); pasta with a homemade kale pesto and fresh borlotti beans; a curried cauliflower dish (which is a favourite of mine, but does use soya milk); and a spicy lettuce and sweetcorn soup (sounds dubious, I know! It’s a lot nicer than it sounds. Got this recipe from the vegetarian society years ago, and love it!).

Finding a few vegan recipes you like and getting them regularly in to rotation, is the easiest way to transition.

Also, as George Monbiot says in this article – it’s not a case of all or nothing. If you reduce the amount of (meat and) dairy you eat significantly, you’ll be doing huge favours for the environment, animals, your health, etc (especially if you replace with local, organic, whole foods) – don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do this 100% of the time. I’m stricter than GM, but I’m still not 100% then – but I don’t care. I’ve considered myself vegan for 8 years, but I still don’t check every pint of ale (it’s very difficult to find out if fish bladder has been used) or everything with added sugar (it’s very difficult to tell if it’s been filtered through charred animal bones). The effort I’d have to go to to check these marginal things is not worth it compared to the impact it would have. My wife is less strict than me – she might have a piece of cake on someone’s birthday for example. I don’t judge her for it, she sets her own boundaries, and we shouldn’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect.

I’m a bit of a fiend for pastas, potato salads, soups, and, yes, salads (particularly grated root vegetables with nuts and seeds – filling enough for me :D). Sandwiches are harder – nut butters, marinated tofu, houmous (and similar – try using boiled beetroot or aubergine instead of the chickpeas), falafel, vegetable pates (eg steam some sweet potatoes and blitz with some spices, seasoning and liquid (water if you’re being health, oil if you’re not)), roasted vegetables (particularly roasted red pepper).

Andrew Hunter-Rossall I think everyone should see this image:

land_mammals
It’s really disturbing. In figures: the biomass of humans is about 7 times the biomass of all wild mammals. The biomass of our livestock is double the biomass of humans. This is with the majority of the world eating a reasonably sustainable, low meat diet. As more and more countries move further and further to a Western diet, the livestock required will increase.

There are two problems with the “high welfare meat diet”. The first problem is that the amount of land required is completely unsustainable. In fact in the UN FAO’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM) they point out that the environmental impact of animal agriculture is huge (I think the figure they come to for carbon emissions, for example, is 22% of all global emissions (CO2e), but there are other issues as well as CO2 emissions (water use, land use, soil erosion, polllution of rivers, etc), and this 22% figure is heavily disputed with some scientists claiming the true figure is more than double this). There solution is that livestock farming needs to be intensified, as intensive livestock farming can have a smaller environmental impact per kilogram of produce!
The second, related, problem with the “high welfare meat diet”, is that not everybody could do it. It’s not a global solution, it’s a solution for a rich Western elite, which says “we can still eat our meat and dairy, but poor people need to give it up”. That’s not the solution I want!

Andrew Hunter-Rossall (14 Aug 2016)

The responses on the Guardian are interesting – and diverse!  On the point about organic farming – most meat produced globally is intensively produced. The waste is not used as a fertilizer but is an incredibly toxic waste which often ends up in rivers. There is an organisation promoting farming without animal manure (the Vegan Organic Network), who recently certified some flour for the first time – wheat is notoriously difficult to grow without some kind of fertilizer, either chemical or animal. I don’t avoid wheat or other products grown using animal fertilizer though, I do try to eat mostly organic. It is an interesting issue within the debate, but I don’t think it puts the smallest dint in defending industrialised animal agriculture.

My thoughts (15 Aug 2016)

I feel the urge to debate the idea of your vegan world and my current very low-meat, fairly low-dairy diet, but it’s silly really because in environmental terms it’s probably not much different. We’re not poles apart and I’m constantly debating the pros and cons of what I do now and going full on vegan.
I always shy away from the idea thought. Partly because I don’t want to giver certain things up altogether and partly because I like the idea of using animals to play a part in small-scale organic farming if it means farmers and we as a country can be more self-sufficient. Yes, waste from industrial farming is a massive problem and incredibly polluting to local environments, but if property managed, small organic farming using animals to turn over the soil and enriching it with their natural fertilisers or fish waste used as a natural fertiliser all seems to make sense. I suppose my ideal would be the kind of self-sufficient organic living that was part of the environment movement in the 60s & 70s. It seems like a very natural approach to farming and eating. I struggle with the idea of imported soya to make milk with lots of additives to make it palatable vs. local and organically produced dairy milk. Why wouldn’t you eat venison from Scotland, which is causing overgrazing and Monbiot’s squirrel roadkill? Perhaps most importantly though, I find the message and example of a low meat and low dairy diet more persuasive to others and less ‘radical’ than a vegan diet.
But at the same time, I don’t doubt that if we all converted to veganism tomorrow, it would be the best solution for the planet.
The fact of the matter is, the difference between my ideal and yours is minimal as both rely on a mostly plant-based diet, made from real wholefoods, not processed foods, with minimal or no packaging, locally and organically produced where possible. Both of our ideals a very close to each other and very far from the reality of the rest of society, which relies on intensive industrialised farming.
The direction of travel to get from how society current produces and consumes food to where it needs to be based on either of our scenarios is the same. For that reason, I applaud you and all other vegans, vegetarians and moderate meat-eaters alike, as I’m sure you do, along with other movements like slow food movements, grow your own, food sovereignty movements etc etc. It’s all good and all trying to move us in the right direction.
The core message is the same. Less meat, less dairy, less intensive agriculture. Though some academics do argue that more intensive agriculture in some places (Africa for example) could allow more land to be turned over to nature, with an overall net benefit in terms of GHG emissions. An interesting, but challenging concept for me to get my head around right now, but needs to be considered.