You Don't Have To Be Vegan To Save The World.
Do you really have to be vegan to save the world?
I don't think you have to go vegan to save the world. If we look at veganism purely from an environmental perspective then you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's a pretty good idea. But is it really? Do you have to cut out steak, chocolate, cheese, roast dinners and burgers to save the world or is there another way?
The problem with meat.
Meat is environmentally costly to produce. You can't really deny that. Growing a steak on the back of a cow, or a bacon sarnie in a pig uses a concerning amount of water. To grow just one pound of beef it requires 1,799 gallons of water. A single pound of chicken meat requires 468 gallons of water, but by contrast the same weight of potatoes costs 119 gallons of water.
Equally to grow meat you need a lot of space. Just look at Brazil to see how much of their rainforest they've burnt down to turn into grazing space for cattle (amongst other purposes, which I'll get to in another article). Farming cattle is rather space intensive, and these days is seemingly coming at the expense of ecologically diverse and important habitats.
We'll ignore the moral issue with ending the life of another living being simply to eat it, and perhaps I'll cover that in another column maybe. So we'll stick with those two practical arguments against meat.
And now for the big BUT!
But these are often the worst case scenarios. Brazil is a terrible example of how to cultivate cattle for consumption. So what if we take a look closer to home, which for me is the UK. How do we build beef in Britain? Generally in the UK you'll find that livestock farming is more apparent in hilly terrain. This is land that is inappropriate for arable farming, because you can't get a combine up a hill, or over rocks, but you can a cow. So you can have a natural herbivore graze an area and with a bit of care and forethought grazing can improve the ecology of a landscape.
Cows and sheep are probably our biggest grazers with regards to livestock. And farmers of these species in the UK take great care to not over graze areas and rotate grazing spaces. These animals can recycle nutrients into the soil through their excrement, and help to spread seeds in the same manner. Equally there is a whole host of insects and bacteria that thrive on dung, and can further aid the recycling of carbon, nitrogen, water and nutrients into the soil (I'm trying to keep this general as opposed to letting my zoology degree get the better of me here). Through gentle grazing that is well managed, with low densities of individuals in an area you can maintain and if done very well, improve the quality of a habitat.
While you can't do a huge amount to reduce the water consumption in the meat industry, careful farming means that you can protect the countryside. Farmers these days are a lot more than people in Barbour jackets chewing a bit of straw. They are business men, ecologists, and animals welfare passionistas. By letting their livestock graze in the most natural way as possible you have happier, healthier and more productive animals which is great for a farmer, and in their role as stewards of the countryside, it ticks that box too.
So meat isn't that bad?
No. Not really. If you source your meat properly, from sustainable, local farms you can still enjoy a Sunday roast without denting the environment. And that sourcing of food is key in my argument here. How often do you think about where geographically your food comes from? I love chilli peppers, and use them in a variety of dishes, but did you know that there's a big industry for growing them in the UK? Not far from my home in Bedfordshire there's a farm dedicated to producing a huge span of chilli peppers, from mild and fruity Cherry Bombs and Serenades to the "Handle With Care" Naga chilli.
The Naga chilli is native to the UK and was bred to be the hottest chilli ever, and at 1,382,118 SHU it won a Guinness World Record for it. But on a more regular scale the serenade peppers are typically grown in Mexico. Now imagine how many miles are covered in my making of a chilli con carne? Even if I go to the effort of getting local beef mince, that's all rather undermined if my chillis have travelled 9000 kms around the world! So perhaps the greatest change we need to make to our diets is not necessarily cutting out meat, but making sure we source whatever we can as locally as we can.
So eat locally?
Yes. I still accept that the production of meat is environmentally damaging and that the amount of it that we eat needs to be looked at. But equally how far our food, meat or otherwise, has travelled needs to be taken into consideration. If you think that cutting out meat is doing the world a load of good, but you're instead eating more vegetables that have a higher mileage than a space shuttle (thats a stretch I know, but it makes a point) then are you really doing any net good? Perhaps the change we need to see is not necessarily a move to high mileage veganism, but more towards a locally sourced, seasonal diet.
Instead of shipping in food from miles abroad why not eat what can be grown in the UK, when it can be grown in the UK. When you think about it, you really wouldn't have to make that much of a change to your diet. Think about a Sunday roast. A whole chicken or cut of beef can easily be sourced locally. As can potatoes, carrots, parsnips, peas, the ingredients for a Yorkshire pudding. If you really wanted to have a low mileage diet you could grow your own veg? Then the distance it'll have covered from the end of your garden is the massive sum of perhaps 100 meters, by foot. Not diesel lorries, polluting planes, or smelly ships. If you have the space, it's a brilliantly rewarding thing to sit down to a dinner where you've grown some aspect of it.
What are your take away points?
1. Eat local, and low mileage.
2. Eat less meat. And make the meat we do buy go further.
3. Waste less food. It's tricky enough growing and sourcing it, so don't waste it.
So that's the climate crisis fixed?
No. I'm not saying that eating your neighbour's chicken and some carrots you've grown in your garden will make everything OK. But if everyone made an effort to reduce the impact of their diet then that's a pretty good thing. By sourcing foods locally, making the foods we do buy go further to reduce waste, and reducing our consumption of the ecologically worst foods, we can make a positive impact. I don't want poo-poo the idea of veganism, and it certainly its place, but it's not for everyone. What I think is that a well thought food plan can be just as good. You don't have to go full vegan to save the world.
Have you changed your diet to help the environment? What changes have you made? Let me know in the comments.