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Plant-based diets are on trend, and not only with Instagram celebrities, but also amongst business and tech luminaries. Veganism has rapidly risen from a somewhat eccentric personal choice to a perfectly mainstream method to solve our environmental woes. Climate change can surely be reverted if only we didn’t have so many cows farting into the atmosphere?
Turning all humankind vegan is not only extremely difficult, but unnecessary, and that may bring negative unintended consequences. In the following lines we will take a closer look at the figures supporting the view that meat is hopeless; we will then look at the social and economic impact of veganism, including the risk of removing food from traditional supply chains to hand it to a handful of tech firms. Lastly, we will propose how to fix the system to keep the social, economic, and environmental balance so we can correct the course of industrial farming.
A closer look at the data
As always happens with myths, they originate from the truth. The agricultural sector, including industrial animal farming, has a huge negative impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and use of chemicals. Agriculture represents a third of the manmade greenhouse gasses that go into the atmosphere every year, most of it coming from the impact on land-use change – e.g., deforestation. Direct emissions of livestock account for a remarkable 5%, which could reach 14.5% if all factors are included.
But as always, figures need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The above figures represent global averages of beef production, which aren’t useful to inform personal dietary decisions. Indeed, many studies indicate that the environmental impact of meat is hugely dependent on the local context of production, practices, and other factors. This is even more evident when these figures are considered alongside industrial animal farming with extensive livestock production systems. Cows, and other ruminants like sheep or goats, produce methane in the rumen (fore-stomach), and release them into the atmosphere. They do so because they can digest stuff that humans and other animals cannot, and that’s why they do not compete with us for food or land, with grazing often happening in marginal land not suitable for crops. In farming systems where natural grazing plays a key role, the methane produced is part of the biogenic carbon cycle. That is, the carbon that is stored in grass is upcycled by the animal, broken down into CO2 and partially released back into the cycle. (This doesn’t happen in industrial intensive farming.)
Also, one must take into account the nutritional value of meat when compared to other food. Comparing the impact of 1 kilogram of lettuce to that of 1 kilogram of meat is nonsense, as they have very different nutritional qualities.
Even if the impact is acknowledged, many other industries are doing much worse, and are happy to get people looking the other way (for instance, big oil).
Good farming, bad farming
Not all farming is equal. Extensive animal grazing has been a fundamental part of the natural systems for thousands of years, contributing more to local biodiversity than the current monoculture, industrial production of crops like soy or maize. Not only is this true, but extensive animal farming can also play a fundamental role in the battle against climate change by helping to keep healthy soils that sequester (aka capture and store) carbon. Furthermore, they are the main source of organic manure in regenerative and organic agriculture practices – substituting synthetic fertilisers – helping to increase yields of responsibly produced vegetables.
Their importance is so big in temperate ecosystems that ruminants are fundamental to clean forests and avoid fires. The lack of animal farming in rural ecosystems, combined with climate change, can make fires more frequent, as we are seeing now.
This shows that environmental, social, and economic impacts of food systems are different pieces of the same puzzle and changing one will have (un)intended consequences in the other.
Veganism is one of those instances where we’re told that, in order to save the planet, we, as individuals, must change our personal habits. This type of approach seldom works and can be economically and socially very problematic, as often only the wealthiest can afford acceptable alternatives. In many countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America livestock plays a fundamental role not only for their own nutrition but also as additional income for many families. Promoting an agenda that seeks to eliminate livestock can have tremendous impacts on these communities. Sophisticated and highly processed plant-based alternatives are simply not an option in most parts of the world.
It is a well known fact that meat played a key role in the evolution of humans, and that our bodies and metabolism are acclimatised to processing it. t. In fact, the problem of eliminating meat from food systems is that we need to find alternative sources of protein and other critical micronutrients to fully develop our brains and bodies, particularly in children.
Therefore, it comes with no surprise that the rise of veganism and plant-based diets is seen as a huge business opportunity. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Beyond Meat – the Tesla of the Food Industry– or Impossible Foods -whose CEO pledged “to eliminate meat entirely from food systems by 2035”– are already producing a myriad of meat replacements and milks to help us substitute our meat intake.
The problem with this great food transformation is that it is heavily dependent on quasi monopolistic industrialized food systems that extract protein from fossil fuel-reliant monocrops like soy and are protected by intellectual property. Impossible Foods needs 14 patents to protect its “impossible burger”, and has 100 still pending; the same goes for Beyond Burger who has dozens of patents registered for its products, making it harder for the market to have sufficient competition to enable wide consumer choice.
For food producers, retailers, and eateries, buying these ultra-processed foods makes a lot of sense economically, as their supply chains would be more concentrated and products more standardised– for instance, your local supermarket wouldn’t need to explore local meat producers to get the best produce.. Leaving aside the health risks of ultra-processed food, we should also be considering if we really want to extend “Big Tech” monopolies into the food-production market..
Meat me halfway
The case for veganism has become more and more ideological, but, yet another chance for virtue-signaling in a polarized world. This is not new – various religions have historically had an interest with the “purity” of food. Safe to say, imposing a mandatory diet upon large groups would not only be difficult, but also morally questionable given cultural culinary traditions, and of course, personal choice!. But such a feat, even if accomplished, would probably not be that useful to revert climate change.
Perhaps, a more pragmatic approach could be more effective. . Promoting and incentivising farming with mixed systems of crops and livestock, adding new requirements in terms of animal welfare, or implementing policies that tackle food waste (which accounts for an astonishing 8% of greenhouse gases). Proximity shopping would also be helpful, as it could help reduce meat intake if Intensive farming is extremely widespread , making cheap and low-quality meat readily available, causing not only emissions but concerns for animal welfare. A return to extensive farming and moderate meat consumption is something we could aim for to contribute to the well-being of the planet as well as to human health.
Veganism was first reported to exist amongst the followers of Pythagoras, a Greek thinker and religious leader, as a personal choice based on philosophical beliefs. Is there any reason why this should be any different nowadays, even if the gurus of today preside over boardrooms instead of agoras.
Positive effects of grass-fed livestock farming
- Helps to keep healthy soils that sequester carbon
- Promotes local biodiversity
- Clean forests and avoid fires
- Improve livelihoods and economies of rural communities
- It is a source of high-quality nutrients
Sacred Cow: A great documentary and website packed with interesting figures
Watch a video… eating less meat won’t save the planet
A famous documentary: Kiss the Ground and the importance of grazing to keep soils healthy