Like many, you may recently have been dabbling in veganism (and if you have, good on you!).
The incentives for a lot of people, in the current climate, are climate and sustainability driven. It’s getting fairly well known now (now that it’s been officially stated by the IPCC) that meat and dairy carry a big carbon footprint, and if everyone went vegan it would cut down our global emissions massively.
Quick recap on why that’s the case – there’s two main reasons:
1. Cows and sheep are ruminants – they ferment their food in their gut and that causes them to produce methane, a tremendously potent greenhouse gas. Further carbon is released when land is converted to pasture, from felling rainforests in many tropical areas, to the degradation and compaction of the soil itself.
2. It’s not *energy efficient* in the ecological sense. As the energy in organic matter moves from one trophic level to another (ie. Plant -> herbivore -> carnivore) only about 10% of the energy from one level makes it into another (ie. 100 -> 10 -> 1). Put that in terms of food production, and we need 10x as much land to produce plants to feed to cattle to feed to us, than if we just used the land to grow plants to feed us. (Another way of picturing that is that you could feed 10x as many people with the same amount of land if we were all eating plants).
So it’s an absolutely true statement that if we all went vegan we would reduce our emissions.
BUT - there are buts.
It became *big* news a couple of years ago that avocados – so popular now that they’re almost a symbol of hipster vegan millennials – are quite environmentally damaging to produce. I’m not refuting that, they require a lot of water to grow – a natural environment wouldn’t support many avocados growing. To make that worse was the news that avocado farmers in Central America were becoming embroiled in a certain amount of hostility, towards each other and from other communities, so that calls human impacts and workers and human rights into question too.
Such a powerful statement can cause a well-meaning person to question their actions, spiralling into questioning all of their well-meaning actions, and can at least hinder progress if not kill it completely.
It’s very easy, when told that you were ignorantly doing more harm than good, to want to just give up.
Fact is, there’s always an exception to the rule, and there’s always an ‘ideal’ way that things could be done. To be successful in your efforts, you've got to honestly do your best, and appreciate that almost everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Another route forward can be to decide to only buy local, seasonal, produce. Then you quickly find that many of the things you like don’t grow in this country (at least at this time of year) – sometimes even things that you’re damn sure DO grow in this country (last summer I found one option out of an entire isle full of apples in Tesco that were UK-grown – and they were some of the only ones wrapped in plastic – ARRGHH!!).
Well-meaning scientists try to rectify this with analyses of the actual carbon footprint of different food types, looking at local vs. Non-local produce. Take this example that looks at 29 very-commonly consumed food products (some of which we can grow in the UK, some of which we can’t): "You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local"
Again you can look at the headline – buying local isn’t [always] better than non-local ([mis]translatable to “Air-miles don’t matter”) – and become somewhat disenfranchised in your attempts to be ethical.
You can, at least, see straight away that beef tops that charts as far-and-away the most carbon-emitting food stuff, so you get to hang on to your conviction that veganism is the way forward while happily learning that nuts are almost carbon-negative because of the active planting of nut trees (I’m sure that’ll be torn apart soon).
You add a pinch of salt to your buying-local practices and carry on.
Then this article will be thrust at you, often by a self-identifying 'carnivore' with the air of a trump-card being played:
(Before you go any further, remember that most articles shared on social media are shared on the title alone, not the content, which troublingly few people actually read).
This is a few years old now but still doing the rounds, and was written by the very well-informed, well-meaning and agriculturally pioneering Isabella Tree. Her book “Wildling” is very worth reading.
The gist of the article is that while *most* meat and dairy agriculture globally is practised quite unsustainably and thus creates a massive carbon impact, it is *possible* to refer beef pretty much carbon-neutrally, in ways that also benefit the wider environment, biodiversity and human wellbeing.
That’s a big fat pinch of salt dumped on any argument regarding beef-consumption and sustainability.
The thing is, she’s right, it is possible to eat meat and to do it sustainably. The small print is that you have to eat far less meat than we, as a society, currently do, and it has to be produced in a very particular, environmentally-sensitive way.
I’d like to go one further than that broad statement though, and introduce you to Pasture For Life.
I discovered Pasture For Life meat and dairy about a year ago, and while I’m still happily vegan, if I were to go back to eating meat this is the only meat I would consider eating. It’s good in basically every way.
PfL started mostly as an animal-welfare thing, with incentives to rear fewer cattle in a more natural way – letting them roam free in pasture as much as physically possible (PfL livestock typically spend 10-11 months of the year in pasture), and keeping a smaller more social herd together for longer. The animals are actively happier and healthier during their lives, and when it does come time for slaughter that’s practised very sensitively with as little as possible stress for the animals.
What’s more, to achieve PfL certification, the livestock are only allowed to eat what grows naturally in their pasture – excepting extreme circumstances, they’re not allowed to be grain-fed. Ever. That necessarily means that the land has to be maintained in good condition. The plants growing there have to be healthy and organic, and you can literally only rear as many animals as that area of land can support – establishing a very healthy baseline ecosystem on which the farm is built.
Turns out, when you do that, it has many other good effects.
Establishing a healthy ecosystem right at ground-level – in the soil, the plants growing in it and the microfauna living within those – means that less carbon is actively lost from the soil than in more intensive farming systems, on top of removing the emissions from the addition of any pesticides or fertilisers.
The cows still produce methane, but there’s suggestions that they produce less than intensively farmed grain-fed animals, and the fact that their manure is left to be integrated back into the pasture means that a good amount of the carbon is directly cycled back into the soil. (I personally call a small amount of “BS” for arguments that such a system makes the soil an active carbon-sink, as you’re still net-removing carbon as the carcasses of the animals are taken away and eaten (and what’s not eaten, disposed of), rather than allowed to decompose back into the pasture. But it’s still pretty good).
To me the really cool thing that tops-off the ecological and animal welfare benefits, and makes it more potentially widely appealing, is that fact that it makes the meat nicer to eat (I’ve had this verified by my steak-loving family).
The fact that the animals graze on natural pasture means that they grow slower than grain-fed animals, meaning that their meat lays down more marbelling as they mature. The meat is more tender, more juicy, more flavourful – and packed with vitamins and minerals that you won’t get in grain-fed (even organic) meat. You can even see it as the fat takes on a yellow tinge thanks to the amount of B-Carotenoids it contains.
But does this have a price?
Yes and no. From a small amount of research I’ve not found PfL meat to be any more expensive than other “good” meat (ie that you’d find in a butcher who’s passionate about the meat they sell, or what you’d find in a farm shop (many PfL farms operate with their own farm shops too)). Yes it’ll be more expensive than value meat you’ll find in a supermarket, but you’ll be able to taste that difference amount the other less mouth-centric benefits that PfL offers.
Is it a problem that PfL meat *has* to be more expensive to be cost-effective to produce?
No. Honestly I don’t think that’s an issue, because while for most people a certain budget will get them less PfL meat than supermarket value meat, we don’t need to eat as much meat as we’ve been socially habituated to eat. Any argument along the lines of “I can’t afford PfL meat because I need to eat lots of meat” is simply bull.
Another argument may be “I want to eat lots of meat”, and in that case it’s almost certainly that you don’t know what you’re missing. Vegan food can be some of the best food in the world. It can also be some of the worst. I’d argue that the same can be true of meat.
Unfortunately, because it’s pretty niche, Pasture For Life meat isn’t very widely available at the minute. Many PfL farms currently operate out of a single farm shop, though a good few sell online and deliver too. (Some may argue that that adds food miles, which while true, is a very small and frankly quite petty issue in the context of climate change and revolutionising our food and farming systems). Find out how much of a difference it makes and try some PfL meat from a farm near you.
So the next time you hear an argument either for or against sustainability, remember the pinch of salt to take it with. We have a colossal system to reinvent here – of course there’s going to be stumbling blocks along the way. Every effort counts, and very few don’t have room for improvement. Because there’s probably a *best* way to do something, and it’s probably not currently being practised.
You can help change that.