In 2019, if you aren’t a proud vegan living that #PlantBasedLife, you’re either one of two types of people:
- A shameless carnivore
- A guilty cheese-lover with a weakness for bacon rolls and Big Macs
If you – like me – are the latter, there’s a decent chance you know what you’re doing isn’t helping. With the insurmountable rise of veganism across the planet that has seen the number of people ditching meat and dairy skyrocket from just a few million in the early 90’s to around 550–950 million in 2017, eating a full-meat fry up can feel like the equivalent of emptying your plastic waste straight into the river.
Thanks to eye-opening documentaries such as Cowspiracy and What the Health, the general public has been made brutally aware of the devastating impact that the meat and dairy trade have on our health, animal welfare and the wider environment.
Are we selfish to perpetuate the cycle? Unfortunately, yes.
There is absolutely no debating it. However, activists who call for us to switch entirely to a strict vegan diet might not necessarily be right either. In fact, contrary to popular belief, continuous crop production is not sustainable and the carbon cost of ploughing fields should not be ignored. According to a 2017 report in the science journal Nature, up to 70% of the carbon in our cultivated soils has been lost to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
The environmental impact of veganism
The uncomfortable truth is that the intense production of palm oil, soya bean oil, rapeseed oil and even sunflower oil to meet fast-growing demand from the vegan movement takes its toll on the environment. Then there’s the decline in pollinating insects and the use of pesticides which would have likely been banned years ago if not for the fact that they are essential to intensive vegetable growers.
By cutting out entire food groups, we create a problem of overreliance on another, especially in the case of veganism in which a healthy diet depends on certain products to provide plant-based fats and protein. Almonds, for instance, require a lot of water, fertilisers and pesticides to grow, but are a favourite for vegans as a substitute for cow’s milk. While oat milk has a low environmental impact as oats are predominantly rain-fed, the milk is highly diluted with water during production, giving it little nutritional value.
Perhaps the most Instragrammed food, avocadoes being exported in such seismic quantities to meet demand forced Kenya to temporarily ban exports of the fruit in 2018 to protect their own supply. Yet avocadoes are a fruit that both vegans and vegetarians turn to for a healthy source of natural fat.
Beyond just being a valid argument that you can raise with that vegan friend (and be a hypocrite in doing so), it’s a significant issue that is easily overshadowed by the horrors of the meat and dairy industry and, as a result, overlooked by most guilty meat-eaters making the switch to a plant-based diet. However, follow this line of reasoning and you reach a deadlock: when it comes to eating meat, are we damned if we do and damned if we don’t?
Could rewilding be the solution for sustainable food production?
While there’s no question that the global population should make an effort to reduce meat consumption and groups calling for the end of high-carbon, unethical forms of meat production are 100% right to do so, there’s no point pretending that your carbon footprint is automatically erased by simply ditching the dairy and meat. Whether vegan or carnivorous, the current practices used in agriculture are unsustainable. So long as factory farming continues, soil degradation and environmental damage will be the outcome.
But while veganism may not be a silver-bullet in saving the planet, there is a more sustainable option – but it requires systemic change on a global scale. According to forage agronomist Dr Peter Ballerstedt, grass-based agriculture is the only truly sustainable agriculture.
“Our grassland resources are our largest and least well-utilized resource that remains,”
he said in a recent Podcast.
“If we look at the entire surface of Earth, the water as well as land, only 4% of that total surface is cultivatable land. We can make improvements, we continue to do that, but something approaching 14% of the world’s surface is range land – that gives a sense of the differences of productivity – but we also have about 10% that is forest. If you put those together you come up with about a quarter of the Earth’s surface can be in some form of ruminant animal production system.”
Ballerstedt calls it the Ruminant Revolution – an opportunity to take advantage of the potential of grazing and browsing to lead the way towards healthier diets. Most places on earth cannot sustain annual grain agriculture at the rate it is currently being driven to but can support a combination of sustainable crop and animal agriculture.
Mob-grazing and the benefits of pasture-fed cows
Cows tend to get a bad rep because they consume so much more than single-stomached animals, which means more fertilisers and more pesticides are needed to grow their food. However, ruminants’ stomachs are capable of digesting cellulose, which means they can graze on grassland that other animals cannot. When cows and other grazing animals are free to roam and feed on a natural diet of grass, the health of the soil can be restored. Where land is unsuitable for plant crops, livestock can be introduced to utilise the otherwise hard-to-use excess food waste.
On the surface, using animals like cows in agriculture may seem counter-intuitive. Cows emit methane, a deadly greenhouse gas that has a greater impact than carbon. But by grazing, these animals promote thriving grasslands which soaks up the carbon from the atmosphere to store it in the soil. It’s like the old wives’ tale that cutting your hair helps it to grow, except this one is true: since grasslands have experienced millions of years of grazing animals, they have evolved to flourish from their hungry hairdressers.
Commonly called “mob grazing”, supporters of this idea argue that it allows farmers to produce more meat per acre, without using chemicals or grains. The problem is a general mis consensus of the role that ruminant animals play in the environment. As Ballerstedt puts it in his manifesto,
Promoting health and sustainability through conscious consumption
There’s no question that we should all reduce our meat consumption. It’s also incredibly difficult to argue with the slogan on the poster hung in my local Vegan Mexican chain that asks:
..in block capitals above a print of a wide-eyed new-born lamb asking for mercy in its expression alone.
But if your aim as a vegan is to help the environment, improve your own health and end animal cruelty, a strictly plant-based diet not the way forward. In truth, the hardcore vegan, the shameless carnivore and the guilty Big-Mac eater are all wrong.
A sustainable diet is one based on conscious choices that support a healthy ecosystem.
So, next time you rush to fill your basket with avocadoes in a bid to save the planet, you might want to think twice. Still, you can’t argue with the poster: if you, like me, are that arsehole, let’s make a conscious effort to cut that sh*t out.
[POUTIQ] Wendy Loraine is a freelance copywriter and founder of The Bristol Content Shop, and a regular contributor of creative social commentary for Poutiq. She is also a talented social media influencer, and Poutiq’s very own Tik Tok influencer!