Last weekend I was invited as a guest of the sustainable energy company, Ecotricity, to speak at WOMAD, on the role of livestock in sustainable food systems. I was there to make the case for the benefits of sustainable livestock farming, whilst my opposition, Jasmijn de Boo of the Vegan Society, was promoting a vegan diet for a sustainable future.

We need more vegans and vegetarians

I don’t consider myself to be an extreme ‘pro-carnivore’ and I firmly believe that society’s relationship with meat needs some serious reconsideration. Collectively we eat far too much meat. Eating meat every day, often twice a day, has become commonplace. The majority of this meat is raised on factory farms, in appalling conditions, with toxic health impacts for the animals, humans and our environment.

An estimated 60 billion land animals are killed each year to satisfy our desire for cheap meat. The impact of our separation from the way food is produced and the invisibility of factory farming should not be under-estimated. If the majority of people visited a factory farm, I am convinced we would significantly change our meat eating habits. It takes a hard heart to witness first-hand the conditions of most industrially produced animals and walk away happy to take responsibility for the suffering that makes its way onto our plates.

Conscious carnivore

However, as much as I agree that we need to eat less meat generally, I am also comfortable with my role as a meat-eater. Over the last five years, I have been present at the deaths of one pig (on a family farm in Italy), one sheep (on Trealy Farm’s Meat Course) and a number of chickens, grouse and rabbits.

Taking a life is a meaningful act. I would challenge the most amorous of omnivores to look into the eyes of a pig as it dies for your dinner and feel nothing. I believe exposure to the way our food lives and dies is essential, and that every meat eater has a responsibility to witness death, and then ask themselves whether they are truly comfortable with their dietary choices.

In my case, the experience made me absolutely confident that meat is a product to be valued highly. The animals that I eat have lived the best possible lives, suffered the best possible deaths and are celebrated in their eating through the care and integrity I bring to their preparation.

Despite some common ground however, at a certain point in the debate I realised that you either believe it is morally acceptable for human beings to raise animals with the express intent of killing and eating them, or you do not. These two opposing views are pretty much impossible to reconcile. So, just as we had areas in which we agreed, there was also a fundamental opposition between us. 

Vegan philosophy

Veganism is a singular response to one element of a complex food system. The philosophy obviously rejects meat and animal products for food consumption, but offers little dietary advice in terms of locality, method of farming, transport and distribution or product replacement. Animal products are to be avoided at all costs, but eating vegetables that are farmed in chemical monocultures – that lead directly to the loss of birds, insects and wildlife – is fine. I disagree with promoting a diet that avoids local meat, but then allows for meat-substitutes, which are soya-based or often made with palm oil. Palm oil production in Indonesia has led to extensive rainforest clearance for agricultural production, and brought orangutan populations nearly to extinction as a result.

The vegan philosophy fails to acknowledge the vital role that livestock animals have to play in healthy, ‘closed-circle’ farming systems – systems that work to balance inputs and outputs, replenishing, reusing and recycling nutrients wherever possible. When farmed sustainably, and allowed to express their natural behaviours, livestock animals help to build soil fertility (through their manure), break-up difficult soils (with their feet), help to close circles in food production systems (such as feeding pigs food waste or whey from cheese production), and provide essential agricultural labour, especially in developing world countries. The Vegan Society advocates using machinery in lieu of the benefits listed above, but I fail to see how a mechanical intervention can replace animals without increasing the need for inputs of nitrogen fertilisers, and reducing the number of people working the land.

During our debate, Jasmijn argued that a move away from livestock farming would “improve rural livelihoods.” However, when asked by an audience member what she would recommend for hilltop, low-fertility farms where sheep or cattle-grazing is the only viable option, the response was to argue that we need less farms, and that re-wilding hilltops with nut trees would be a viable alternative.

I would argue that if we seriously want to consider how to improve livelihoods and create vibrant rural communities, then we need an abundance of small and medium sized mixed-use farms, with many more people working the land. Farmers that grow a diverse range of arable crops, and keep livestock, can use animal waste to improve and replenish soil fertility, and grow feed on-site, reducing the need for expensive external inputs. Farms need to be as food secure as possible, and at a time when our climactic conditions are changing, resilience is to be found in diversity.

Most concerning about the vegan position was the fundamental lack of differentiation between industrial and sustainable farming systems (for the sake of argument, let’s call them organic.) Jasmijn repeatedly made the point that organic cows are not much happier than factory-farmed cows, are still forced away from their mothers at an early age, and still slaughtered young when cows “could potentially live for 20 years.” It was clear that all livestock farming was lumped together under the catch-all of ‘animal-eaters.’

I struggle with the principles of these arguments, not only because I disagree with the suggestion that organically farmed animals are unhappy, but because I also fail to understand the reasonable alternative in which tens of thousands of previously farmed animals are left to either roam wild, or would by proxy assume some sort of role as pets, removing them from a productive and useful role to become a consumer of food and energy in their own right.

The morality of meat and the pleasure of taste

Many people eat meat not only as part of a healthy and balanced diet, but because it tastes good and people derive great pleasure from doing so. The smell of crispy bacon sizzling in a pan, a perfectly cooked steak, the crispy pop of crackling between your teeth, are all sensory experiences. These experiences bring a range of benefits from the positive hormonal and chemical reactions in our brains, to the social benefits of enjoying a meal as part of a group. Human beings are sensory creatures. We do a great many things for pleasure, and arguing that society as a whole should stop these activities is at best naïve, at worst fundamentally unrealistic.

The vegan alternative doesn’t stack-up

Whilst I still maintain that more people regularly substituting meat with vegan or vegetarian options is a positive thing, I left the debate convinced that veganism as an ideology is not going to drive the significant change needed to transform our global food systems.

Veganism is, at its core, reductionist. It advocates dietary choices that seem unpalatable to the majority of the meat-eating, dairy-loving British public, and for this reason it is not a philosophy that is going to garner enough public support to have significant influence.

We need to create a mainstream movement for change, a new philosophy for food production that is inclusive and engaging regardless of socio-economic barriers, and whilst veganism does have an important role to play as part of this wider movement, it will fail in its singularity to drive the scale of change that is needed if we are to create a genuinely sustainable food future.

You can read Jasmijn de Boo’s blog about the debate here.

Photography by Compassion in World Farming

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