Now the disciples of Saint Greta want us all to go vegan – and stay at home. They would be better off focusing on how we can eliminate food waste, writes Victor Hill.
The advance of veganism
My first article of 2019 for this august portal was on the theme of Vegan January – or, in the inevitable bastardisation of contemporary language, Veganuary – to which about 300,000 British citizens signed up. (Whether all of those actually forewent all animal products for the entire month is not recorded). Since that article appeared, with the rise of Extinction Rebellion and a new kind of environmental youth cult, the subject has become ever more topical. There has also been a lot of attention given, not least in these pages, to synthetic (aka “clean”) meat. Although relatively little attention has been given to the economic consequences of such a radical change in our dietary habits.
In early August the United Nations published a report which, according to the BBC and other mainstream media, argued that in order to forestall run-away climate change we shall all have to adopt a plant-based diet. This notion that in order to save the planet we must all go vegan has become a mantra amongst one section of the youth cult. Some vegans even believe that their diet should be imposed on others whether they want it or not.
But there is another view. According to the scientist and writer, Matt Ridley, if the average Westerner gave up meat altogether, global emissions of CO2 would go down by just 4.3 percent. Moreover, the money saved by not buying meat and dairy would most likely be spent on other things that cause carbon emissions – like package holidays. At least there might not be quite so many fat people in Economy Class. Yay!
That is not an argument against veganism. Vegans are primarily motivated, in my experience, by the quite reasonable conviction that killing animals for food is morally wrong. (One with which I do not agree – subject, of course to the highest possible standards of animal welfare). Though it is an argument against the United Nations – since the effect of veganism on climate change would be marginal.
David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, claims that if farmers feed their cows with seaweed in their feed, their methane emissions (from the rear end) could fall by up to 95 percent. I hope agricultural feed suppliers have taken that on board. He says: “Individual choices are minuscule compared with what can be achieved through [government] policy”[i].
In energy terms (i.e. counting kilocalories), cows are about 10 percent efficient in turning plant matter (mostly grass, but increasingly soya, which has huge environmental implications) into beef. Chickens and pigs are more efficient creatures: they can achieve about 30 percent efficiency. It follows that, if we used the land allocated to graze cows for sustainable crops, we could use less land and therefore release more land for forestation.
But hang on. Animals can eat things like straw which human beings can’t. What’s more, their dung is the most natural form of soil conservation and fertilisation known to science, without which organic crop production would become impossible. What’s more, much high-altitude land in the UK (where Welsh and Yorkshire hill farmers have reared sheep since the late Middle Ages) and elsewhere can support animals but is quite unsuitable for growing crops.
The argument for meat
Patrick Holden, who is the CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, argues that to protect the planet we should be eating more beef, not less[ii]. He says that beef and dairy cattle are essential in order to maintain the green and pleasant British countryside. Two thirds of the UK landmass is under grass and most of that could not be dedicated to crops. By ploughing up pastoral grasslands a huge amount of CO2 would be released into the atmosphere. Moreover grasslands given over to cattle require minimal pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers – all of which are a potential threat to the underlying water table. Grass, he says, is “the great healer”, and when grown with associated plants like clover, it can regenerate the soil and prevent chemical run-off and soil erosion.
Ruminant emissions of methane have been around since pre-history, so it is unfair to blame modern farmers for them. The key issue is how cattle are fed. If they consume imported Brazilian soya (the UK climate is unfavourable to this crop) and are reared in sheds then that is a climate issue. But if they live outside and eat lush British grass that is another matter. The essential thing is to educate the consuming public: and the labelling of British food retailers like Marks & Spencer (LON:MKS) and Waitrose (John Lewis Partnership, private) is second to none. In the UK you can usually now read on the label the name of the farm where the meat was reared – unlike in many EU countries.
Eco-vegetarians do need to think through the consequences of what would happen to the land occupied by all those lovely cows. And what are we going to do with them if nobody wants milk or beef? Would the vegans like to step forward with their shotguns? In which case, how are they going to dispose of their carcasses? This is another example of the ever-present need for joined-up thinking.
I respect people who decide to pursue a vegan diet. But there are undoubtedly health issues. Children raised on a vegan diet become deficient in iron and Vitamin A which are essential for brain development. That is why developing countries tend to increase the consumption of animal proteins as soon as they can afford to. As they do so, educational attainments improve.
An information war is underway
Extinction Rebellion now has its own newspaper. It’s called The Hourglass, and activists are handing it out at railway stations – presumably for the benefit of the older demographic who do not glean all their news from digital media. It teems with news of melting glaciers and rising sea levels – not to mention the disease, famine and war that these entail.
The orthodox climate science opinion is that most optimistic scenario is that the Earth’s temperature will rise by two degrees Centigrade above the 1800 level in the late 21st Century – but that the current trajectory (assuming there is no drastic reduction in carbon emissions) is more like four degrees. That is a level that would make the Alps look like the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. We are already up by about 1.1 degree. So we most definitely do have a problem.
This amount of climatic disruption is, so the climate zealots tell us, likely to give rise to huge numbers of “climate refugees” – 200 million by 2050 according to the United Nations. Though the fact is that much of Africa and the poorer parts of the Middle East are already on the move. Whether the people crossing from Libya to Italy on unseaworthy vessels today are climate refugees is debatable. I suspect that it is more accurate to describe them as economic migrants.
As Matt Ridley says, the United Nations’ telling people in developing countries to go vegan is a bit like Queen Marie-Antoinette’s solution the peasants’ hunger: Let them eat cake! Of course there is evidence that some people in developed countries eat more meat than is good for them. Healthy living is certainly one reason why the “clean” meat trend has met with huge demand – as Beyond Meat’s (NASDAQ:BYND) share prices suggest.
The latter’s share price rocketed by 400 percent after flotation in May – only to bomb in August. Having launched at $65.75 BYND it hit a high of $234.90 on 26 July. As I write it is trading at just under $143. That’s still a very good gain for initial investors but a disaster for those who bought at the top. Impossible Foods, according to its own website, is preparing for a “juicy” IPO shortly. Their benchmark is obviously BYND.
Actually, plant-based meat substitutes are not new. The Chinese have a highly sophisticated tradition of vegetarian cooking which mimics meat and fish, the key ingredient being soya. Those substitutes will continue, even though soya is now regarded by climate purists as a no-no because it is widely grown on land cleared on rain-forest.
Even some of the major fast-food restaurant chains are or will shortly be offering synthetic meat alternatives. In late September McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) introduced the plant, lettuce and tomato (PLT) burger for a 12-week trial in its outlets in Toronto, Canada. These are made with Beyond Meat’s pea-protein meat substitute. The PLT is topped with cheese and is cooked on the same grill as meat and eggs, and is therefore not suitable for vegans, though will no doubt be welcomed by flexitarians.
I don’t doubt that clean meat will turn out to be much more than a food fad and that, when the economics become more favourable, it will be very widely produced. It will certainly be a staple food on board space ships heading to Mars in the 2030s. But remember that, as investors, we should invest in future cash-flow – not trends.
Fighting food waste
Food waste is a modern scourge which hardly gets a mention on mainstream media. In the UK, households bin around one third of all the food they buy. That is shocking on so many levels.
Waitrose is one of several UK supermarket chains which take food waste seriously. They work with a charity called FairShare Go which helps to get sell-by date food to food banks right across the country while it is still perfectly healthy to eat. Waitrose has also introduced a product range labelled Little Less Than Perfect which offers wonky fruit and vegetables. Similarly, they introduced the Forgotten Cuts meat range to promote things like ox cheeks, offal and bone marrow which seem to have gone out of fashion. The late, great Clarissa Dixon-Wright (the younger of the two fat ladies) was a great champion of offal. If we are going to eat animals at all then we should eat every piece of the carcass and waste nothing – just as our much poorer ancestors did.
The same applies, by the way, to fish. Australian celebrity chef Josh Niland says that it just doesn’t make sense that, in the western world, we discard most of the fish. No wise Chinese family wastes any part of a fish: fish head soup is a staple family meal right across East Asia. Josh even makes fish eye chips by blending fish eyeballs with tapioca flour. (Apparently, they taste like prawn crackers). And a new generation of young chefs are reviving the art of re-cycling left-overs. Skye Gingell can make a mean bread-and-butter pudding.
Recycling food waste in the production process is another challenge. Waitrose turns tomato leaves into recyclable punnets used for Duchy Organic tomatoes. Duchy is, of course, the food brand owned by HRH The Prince of Wales, who has been promoting environmentalism for more than 40 years. Duchy has a turnover these days of around £200 million. Waste peas and lentils are even processed into pasta boxes.
The real issue is that food waste has become socially acceptable. In the old days people used up leftovers – that is, they cooked according to what was left in the fridge or pantry over the course of the week.
Over the last year or so, in my house, we try to plan meals over the week, the high-point being Sunday lunch. This, by Tuesday, has normally become a tasty soup…As the week goes by so meat consumption reduces to nil on Fridays – which was, of course, the traditional Roman Catholic practice in which I was brought up. Fasting, as those who observe both Ramadan and Lent will tell you, can be very rewarding. What’s more, if you manage food carefully while eating well, your pets can benefit too. Don’t get me going on the iniquities of mass production dog food. My dogs get at least one fine bone a week each.
One of the most environmentally disastrous decisions of modern times was taken at Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This sanctioned the eating of meat by Catholics on Fridays for the first time. I would respectfully suggest that Pope Francis (whose name-saint is the patron saint of animals) revisits this.
Meanwhile, back in the countryside…
Calor Gas (private) enraged some country folk by donating £5,000 to the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), an organisation described by County Life magazine as wholly opposed to rural interests[iii]. Calor provides a great deal of energy in rural areas across the UK which do not have a gas mains network and, according to its detractors, should have known better.
Now Calor wants its donation back. Why? Apparently, LACS set up a “sanctuary” for red deer on a few hundred acres of Exmoor. Without a proper conservation policy the deer population quickly outgrew the food resources available – but LACS is wholly opposed to culling by any method. So LACS started to feed the deer with hay and concentrates. That increases hunger and spreads disease. So LACS now has a “sanctuary” full of starving and sick animals. When Calor found out about this they changed their attitude.
As Agromenes of Country Life wrote last week: the whole of the animal world is only held in balance by predation. That applies as much to cute creature like rabbits as to unpleasant ones like rats. All culled meat, in my view, should unapologetically go into the food chain – even if the squeamish don’t like it.
In the round
I’m happy that so many young people care about our future. (Though, it would help if they looked at their own consumer behaviour, as some adults do). What is wrong is when activists, motivated no doubt by sincere but un-tempered beliefs, seek to shame, bully and coerce others into adopting their own lifestyle. We have had quite enough of extreme pseudo-religious ideology in the last 30 years: enough to know that it has deleterious consequences.
We really need to get beyond this awful guilt (a characteristic of much of modern “Western” culture), which, as any Buddhist will tell you, is a useless, even negative, emotion. Up to 40 percent of the Earth’s land area was already affected by human cultivation and farming 4,000 years ago, according to a recent study by the University of Queensland[iv]. In fact, it is now clear that the age we call the Anthropocene Epoch started, not with the industrial revolution, but with hunter-gatherers learning how to farm, pre-Bronze Age.
We are not responsible for global warming, Saint Greta – even if we do have a responsibility to act. We need to resurrect the notion of social responsibility for the good of all. But spare me the hair-shirts and the gruel.
Since moving to west Norfolk in the early spring, I have learnt that the Fens, which lie just to the east of where I live, are both a natural landscape and one which has been cultivated for about 6,000 years. I’ve been reading the marvellous books of the archaeologist Francis Pryor. He traces, intricately, how an ancient people (our ancestors – but I don’t mean necessarily genetically) created a landscape by taming and breeding animals. We should think twice if not three times before abandoning their work, of which we are all the inheritors.
The pigs here, by the way, snort around muddily in open fields. In most of Europe they reside in cages.
[i] Interviewed by Simon Heffer in The Sunday Telegraph, 29 September 2019.
[ii] To protect the planet we should be eating more beef, not less – Daily Telegraph, 14 August 2019.
[iii] See Logic is the best weapon, by Agromenes, Country Life, 02 October 2019
[iv] Published in Science, using data sets of 255 archaeologists looking at land use from 10,000 BC to 170 years ago.