Attacks on restaurateurs, farmers receiving death threats and vegans proselytising, warning meat eaters of fire and brimstone had me recently ask where the official line might be between vegan and crazy. Which is why I reached out to the British Vegan Society and got the chance to talk to Louise Davies, responsible for campaigns, policy and research. She kindly answered some additional questions in a subsequent email.
So where did we get to? Part 1 of this blog focussed on how the Vegan Society defines veganism: “… a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. And when can a product be labeled vegan: “Our robust assessment process ensures that any products carrying the Vegan Trademark contain no animal products or derivatives and have not been tested on animals. At present, we do not consider the production methods of food and any associated animal use.”
Ignoring production methods unfortunately does not mean no animals get hurt for vegan food: from bees and bumblebees raised, rented and sold for pollination services in orchards and greenhouses to the gazillions of critters living in the soil. A lot of them get killed in the process of growing vegetables – even on a vegan or ‘stock free’ farm. As farmer Andrew French said in a recent article in the US farming magazine Acres U.S.A. “In order to procure our grains, beans and vegetables, we slaughter hundreds of pounds of vertebrate and invertebrate life in thousands of fields daily.”
My conclusion: There is no such thing as vegan agriculture.
This blog is about a second conclusion: As things stand, vegans and veganism are contributing to climate change and the destruction of planet earth. That’s a bit harsh, you may think, but the key here is carbon. So let’s begin by talking about clothes and shoes.
A climate friendly vegan fashion range is somewhat limited. For shoes there are flip-flops for summer (if made from natural rubber) and for the rest of the year there are various types of canvas shoes (with genuine rubber soles) and rubber boots. That’s it. All other vegan shoes are made from or with plastic, and the raw material for plastic is petroleum. The use of fossil fuels is the main contributor to climate change and global warming.
In summer vegans may feel smug in cotton, linen and hemp, but with the arrival of autumn out come the jumpers, jackets and coats made from synthetic – petrol based – fibres, and worst of all: fleeces! None of these synthetic fibres are biodegradable, all will go into landfill or incinerators and fleeces damage the environment with every wash by shedding millions of microfibres. These fibres are too small to be filtered out in a wastewater treatment facility and therefore end up in rivers and oceans. Microfibres are now found not just in fish but through irrigation in fields as well. ‘Are we eating our fleece jacket?’ (1) was the headline of an article on an NPR (US National Public Radio) website last year. The answer is: yes, we are. And the advice for vegans? Wash your fleece less.
How about wearing wool? Wool fibres have the extraordinary property of protecting your body from loosing heat when it’s cold outside, and when it’s hot they wick away moisture and cool you down. These properties could also be used for the environmentally friendly transport of just about everything that nowadays mostly comes in polystyrene boxes, from fresh produce to vaccines, medicines or your pizza order. Wool can be made into carpets and blankets, bedding and building (insulation) material. And there’s a lot of it: sheep need to be sheared, it’s essential to their wellbeing. Yes, I’ve seen the PETA videos – wherever those images were taken – these videos show animal abuse, not animal husbandry.
But we are not just talking wool vs. microfibers, the issue is much bigger: we need animal-inclusive agriculture to mitigate climate change and cool the planet. Cows and sheep may indeed save the planet. (2) How does that work? Grassland has an enormous capacity to store carbon. Plants ‘breathe in’ CO2 from the atmosphere and – with the help of sunlight – convert it into sugars: this process is called photosynthesis. Some of the sugar is transported to the roots of the plants as the going currency in exchange for nutrients and water the plants could not access on their own. Not just plant roots are involved in the ‘carbon/sugar for nutrient’ barter trade, there are gazillions of fungi, bacteria, microorganisms, worms and beetles who exchange nutrients for carbon, many of them by feeding on each other – it’s a finely calibrated network of interdependencies. And above ground ruminants – cows and sheep – are an integral part of the system: through grazing they expose the grass nodes to sunlight which triggers new growth, they ‘massage’ the soil with their hooves, working in grass and plant seeds, and they fertilise with dung and urine. Over millennia grasslands and herd animals have evolved together all over the world.
Could we not have the grassland without the animals – vegans may ask. No, we can’t. Without the grasses being chewed down, without the massage and the back end fertilisation the grass will grow tall and die back in winter, forming a solid layer which is impenetrable for new shoots and other plants. Over time the grass, too, will die, bare soil appears and erosion sets in. Other plants will settle, shrubs and weeds, what once was fertile grassland will become and remain scrubland.
Could we mow the grass – vegans may ask. We could, some of it at least, but lots of grassland, in particular in the UK, is marginal land on mountain sites – too steep for any mower. And we are talking tens of thousands of acres – are we expecting farmers to do the mowing for free? And with petrol powered machines?
Why do we even need grassland? How about: for carbon sequestration, to mitigate climate change, for flood control and drought management – not just in the uplands, on hill farms and on marginal land, but in what’s left of the prairies, on grassland in Africa, South America, Australia and across Asia.
Just for argument’s sake, what if we were to farm only in areas where grains and vegetables can be grown and left everything else to re-wild. I asked Louise Davies from the Vegan Society how animal numbers should be controlled if there are no predators like wolves, bears or lynx – because in sufficient numbers deer can kill a forest faster than you could wield a chain saw. And allotment holders in Berlin apparently are not happy that wild boars have decided that city life can be fun with human gardeners providing an appealing spread of delicatessen planted buffet style … In many parts of continental Europe wolves, bears and beavers are at home once again; their numbers have increased to the point where a certain quota of animals has to be shot each year. What would a vegan solution for these types of problems look like?
“We would like to see nature being left to manage itself, as it has done before human intervention. Faced with population explosion and a reduction in food as a result, nature would find the solution,” Louise Davies from the Vegan Society tells me. Not just Berlin’s wild boars will agree.
In my interview with Louise I probed further: if the choice is between the environment and animals, between wearing wool or synthetic fleece, what do vegans choose. ‘The Vegan Society is fighting against all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals, being vegan is not primarily about the environment”, was the answer. Never mind that animals, too, will die once we have managed to kill the planet.
With small and medium sized farms that include well cared for animals and work with diverse crops, agroforestry and long rotation patterns we could do everything: sequester carbon and cool the planet, increase soil fertility, wean ourselves from chemical pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers, provide income for farmers, create jobs, revive rural communities, and produce healthy and flavourful food. So don’t go vegan. But if you instead never again touch another mass produced egg, never again have milk that came from a mega dairy and – occasionally – have meat from well cared for grass-fed, free range animals, if you ditch synthetic clothes for wool and plastic shoes and belts for leather, we might all be able to have it all.
(2) For more detail see: Judith D. Schwartz: Cows save the planet, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
Images (c) and used with kind consent @M.Kunz
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