In the last few days, I have seen statements from the Great and Good Lord Stern, saying that the crucial improvement which might still help save the planet is if everyone becomes totally vegetarian. He is already being disingenuous right there, given that one of his major, and good, arguments is methane from cattle farts, because what he is actually saying is that we should all become vegan.

Now, there are two points here. One is that I don’t think you can socially engineer the entire population of the Western World into exclusive veganism in a generation or even two; what you might well manage to do is to get people to eat vegetarian three or four days a week and cut their meat consumption. 90% of the population cutting their meat and milk consumption by 60% does more for the planet than 20% cutting their meat consumption by 100%. Why not stress cutting down over cutting out?

Two possible explanations – there is the cynical one which is that the proselytising section of the vegan movement is more interested in being pure and right than in actually saving the planet. And there is the very cynical explanation which is that the rich and powerful, who can actually do something about emissions, would rather shift the blame to ordinary people’s diet and say ‘it wasn’t fast cars, and pointless wars, and endless plane flights – it was ignorant working class people eating Big Macs that killed the planet.’ And they can then sod off to their mountain eyries and leave the rest of us to starve, choke and drown, with a clear conscience.

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About rozkaveney

Middleaged, trans, novelist, poet, activist
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47 Responses to

  1. ffutures says:

    Of course ending beef and milk consumption probably leads to sheep, cows, pigs and chickens going extinct pretty quickly, which somehow seems to escape the notice of these people. All of the land currently used for them would be needed for protein vegetable crops, and probably a good deal more because sheep especially can live places where no other “crop” can be cultivated.

    • calimac says:

      Well, they won’t go extinct, any more than horses went extinct when we stopped using them as our principal mode of transportation.

      • rozkaveney says:

        No, but the survival of horses has to do with their role as a signifier of elite status – people celebrate entry into the upper middle class by buying their kid a pony, or by starting to ride to hounds – and as a ceremonial mark of authority – police horses are not strictly necessary but they are symbolically useful. Horses are, accordingly, hobbyist pets and state possessions, for the most part; there are fewer and fewer working horses.

        And that affects breeds – how many big Clydesdales have you seen lately, now that they don’t pull brewery wagons and the like as they did when I was young?

        (Perhaps things are different in the US.)

        I don’t see cattle, sheep or pigs being kept in the same way – they don’t have the same quasi-symbolic status.

      • annafdd says:

        Although goats and rabbits are very good for keeping refuse at bay and keeping your lawns mowed. And I think chickens would be great for keeping slugs off your lettuce.

        Vegans are against this use too, I understand.

      • rozkaveney says:

        The point at which I realized that some vegans were against honey and silk was the point at which I went ‘oh, for heaven’s sake’ and walked away.

      • annafdd says:

        They’re against keeping animals as pets, too, although in a moment of sanity they recognize that cats are allowed because we’re not exploiting them, they are exploiting us.

      • paulathomas says:

        But that’s contradictory because cats are carnivorous. So it’s all right to kill things for your cat but not for you? Words fail..

      • papersky says:

        No, they make vegan catfood.

        I am not joking, they really do.

      • rozkaveney says:

        From which, of course, cats eventually die of dietary deficiencies.

        I sometimes think that some animal rights people are more interested in animals in the abstract than actually existing animals.

      • annafdd says:

        Yes, being opposed to keeping hens in your garden would fall under this category. “You are still keeping them captive for your own convenience”. Yeah, you take from them the rugged but free life of all those wild hens populating our woods, eh?

      • paulathomas says:

        And, something I find gross, they even produce vegan dog food.

      • annafdd says:

        I don’t know about what the orthodoxy is, but you can feed your cats a vegetarian diet (not sure about vegan). It’s expensive and I am not 100% sure it’s as good as feeding them meat, and I wouldn’t do it myself, and I do frown on people imposing their moral views on animals, but in theory, you can. My one vegan friend has two lovely cats, but she also lives with two meat-eaters humans, so she’s ok with other people in her household eating meat.

      • sciamanna says:

        A few years back a friend’s old cat was put on a vegetarian diet by the vet because of kidney problems. The point, IIRC, was that the cat needed a low-protein diet.

        (The friend was and is a meat-eater, so the cat ended up being the only vegetarian in the house…)

      • calimac says:

        I once read an earnest vegetarian treatise that said that carnivorous wild animals [I don’t think it was talking about pets here] get an exemption because they wouldn’t be capable of understanding an explanation of why it would be better for them to be vegetarian.

      • calimac says:

        I’ve only seen Clydesdales rarely, but there’s lots of animals I’ve never seen at all that aren’t extinct. Your argument is that if we all went vegan these animals would be rare. I agree. I was saying they wouldn’t be extinct.

        Let’s say the whole world goes vegan but modern society remains intact. After the no-doubt gruesome process of disposing of the vast quantities of sheep, cows, pigs and chickens we have now, where could you find them afterwards? Zoos. Petting farms. Firms that rent animals for historical films. Chickens and to an extent pigs are kept as pets. Sheep make wool. Cows are the source for leather which, though vegetarians don’t like it, is not yet replaceable for heavy-duty footwear. Sheep also make good cropping animals, though I hear that goats are better. They won’t go extinct.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Not in the short term, but species that dwindle, and lose their diversity of sub-species and breeds, are species that start to be in danger.

      • calimac says:

        Of surviving in the wild, yes. But we’re not discussing that. Farm animals don’t live much in the wild anyway, and it’d be foolish to merely send them off there and hope they survive. But that wouldn’t happen. I’m just saying they won’t go extinct.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Oh, but, of course, the animal rights people would try precisely to insist on our doing that.

        We’re just quibbling now though – you may be right, but I wouldn’t entirely count on it.

      • calimac says:

        I’m not talking about animal rights fanatics taking over the planet. If they do, other species are going to be a lot more affected than the likes of sheep, cows, pigs and chickens. I’m talking about what happens to these animals, which we primarily keep for meat and dairy, if we all go vegan.

    • bibliofile says:

      All of the land currently used for them would be needed for protein vegetable crops…

      I’m not so sure about that, as the grain used to feed meat animals could feed many more people instead.

      Also, you don’t need to plant “protein” vegetable crops to replace meat consumption. People can get plenty of protein from all plant sources, not just beans. As it is, US folks eat way more protein than they need. (I’m not sure of the numbers elsewhere, but I suspect they’re similarly high in Europe.)

  2. crowleycrow says:

    The way to cut meat and meat-product consumption is to make it very much more expensive. The way to make it more expensive is to mandate humane treatment of the animals, which will raise meat costs. Makes for better conditions ion the meat processing industry too. A plus all around.

    • rozkaveney says:

      And that has been my own practice for years – we source all our meat and dairy as far as we can. (And most of our fruit, veg, pulses and grains come to that). As a result, we can’t afford to eat meat as often as we might otherwise do, and that has two results. One is that we savor it when we do, once or twice a week, and the second is that we make the best economic use of it – saving scraps from roast chicken to make other meals or snacks, and boiling bones for stock.

      • crowleycrow says:

        Yup, yup. Though we don’t get those pulses. I always used to wonder as a child what those were — like marrows, and swedes, and silversides of beef — mystery foods eaten far away by my ancestral people.

  3. gonzo21 says:

    I’m intrigued by how their numbers add up on this. Because as far as I was aware the total greenhouse gas emissions for the entire agricultural sector was 12.5% of the total.

    And the lions share of the agricultural emissions are related to fertiliser production and transport, which is a lot of oil and diesal.

    So at *most*, cattle might contribute maybe 3-4% of total greenhouse gas emissions. And thus a 50% reduction in our cattle might be desirable, its a drop in the ocean compared to the big contributors.

    I think the great and good lord Stern has just been looking for easy headlines.

  4. You’ve pretty nailed it there.

    Far easy to make near-impossible, as as yet un-analysed proclamations than to sit down and actually put in action already thought out achievable but wide-ranging plans, or think them up.

    What’s the point in us all stopping eating meat tomorrow if we replace it with rice (which is the veg equivalent of beef cattle)?

    Also, what’s with cutting down forests for animals, or for gods sake, feeding them soy! Has everyone forgotten about land management and sillage?

    Fact is we now have all the tech and plans for eliminating fossil fuels from the game, reducing energy requirements, and capturing half of our methane production, within the the space of 10 years, and we’ve had all of it metaphorically sitting on the shelves ready to use, bar the small scale fuel cells (i.e. for cars, buses, trams and trains), for decades now, …but the niggle is very few people in the position to enact the changes dare face ‘creating costs or inconviences’ to avoid a “future” problem whose avoidance, if successful, will be a continuation of the norm, ergo “lacking” in evidence of occurance.

    In a way, it’s kind of like the Millenium Bug; “Yay, we saved the world!” “Did you? I don’t see any evidence…”

  5. redbird says:

    And of course “stop raising cattle for food” is a very different thing from “go vegetarian,” not only because, as you note, dairy is a problem, but because not all food animals produce methane on anything like the scale cattle do.

    I also wonder whether he has thought about the difficulties in trying to convince India to get rid of cattle.

  6. calimac says:

    I invoke the “be careful what you ask for – you may get it” rule here, with vague references to the ecological disasters attendant on mega-crop farming (soy and maize come to mind), which would become more severe if we had everybody eating that.

  7. annafdd says:

    I am trying to cut down on my meat, but I don’t do it for environmental reasons, because I think the problem is a tad more difficult than that and global top-down solutions will be needed.

    It’s just that the more time I spend with animals the more uneasy I am at having them killed for my cravings. High cost of meat due to humane treatment is fine with me, although of course it will mean that only the rich get to eat meat.

    I’ll just pause to note that I am still mad I can’t find veal in this country. It isn’t because there are no calves. It’s just that they kill them AND BURN them within 24 hours of being born. Well, if you have to produce and kill them, I’d rather you did something useful with the meat afterwards, since at that point the damage is done.

    • rozkaveney says:

      The not eating veal thing drives me mad too – veal is a byproduct of dairy products and it is hypocritical not to eat it. How the calves are treated before death is a separate matter.

      (I made this point in hospital when I got stuck next to a proselytizing vegan who lectured me about having milk in my tea. I replied that she had convinced me and that from now on I would eat veal again.)

      Not eating veal is a piece of British muddle-headedness; people have the idea that all veal is crated calves, and so won’t eat it as their one gesture towards humane husbandry.

      • rozkaveney says:

        Oh, and on the spending time with animals thing, I suspect that one of the reasons why I can still eat meat is that I grew up spending a lot of time in the country visiting relatives who ran small piggeries. I played with pigs, a bit, and knew perfectly well where the sausages and bacon came from. Maybe that makes me desensitized.

      • annafdd says:

        I guess it’s the getting inside their head part that starts to make you queasy about eating them. Although I am at peace with eating chicken. And fish. As for mussels, I can only do them a favour by hurrying their reincarnation cycle…

      • annafdd says:

        Yeah right, unlike the highly humane tratement of swine. Right. Grumps.

    • Anonymous says:

      If you are anywhere near Greenwich Drings the butchers on Royal Hill has just started doing UK sourced veal again. Costs a lot, though

      Oliver

  8. Anonymous says:

    Taking a different tack, aren’t the pundits missing a big issue, here.

    It is not just what people do, it is how many people do it. Statements such as from Stern are addressing the symptoms of a problem, rather than the cause which, for me, is population growth.

    Without social engineering, the population will grow until lack of resources prevents growth. Solutions such as GM crops, which increase resources, might allow the world to be fed and to grow…until once again the lack of resources prevents further growth.

    I think the cow argument is just a small distraction from the bigger picture which few people seem to have the courage to look at.

  9. paulathomas says:

    Absolutely correct – well after manipulating the media and starting astroturf denialist movements that is.

  10. paulathomas says:

    As I wrote on the Guardian’s site (several times). The problem here is mankind’s addiction to carbon. Not mankind’s existence or, at least for now, population growth.

    Indeed it has been suggested that Stone Age man affected the climate by burning wood and thereby releasing CO2.

    But it only takes a moments thought to realise just how questionable the argument about carbon and cattle is. Consider the following:-

    1. sheep and cattle are mainly made of carbon and water.

    2. sheep and cattle do not create carbon.

    3. sheep and cattle get carbon from the food they eat (ie grass).

    4. Grass can grow on soils where commercial farming of arable crops would be impossible.

    However this assumes that all cattle are grass fed. The majority aren’t – they are fed a corn based feed which accelerates weight gain (again this is not wholly negative as some of this weight gain absorbs carbon). Now none of this would matter all greenhouse gasses were equal but they are not. CH4 (methane) is the main constituent of cattle gas production and is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

    However CO2 remains a far greater risk than methane in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the period 1750 to 1998 CO2 increased from about 278 to 365 parts per million, in the same period CH4 increased from 0.7 to 1.745 parts per million. Not all of that will have come from bovine emissions either. Some will have been released as the glaciers melt.

    That said CH4 is a dangerous greenhouse gas but it doesn’t last long in the atmosphere (about 8.4 years compared to 100 years for CO2) so reducing the emission would have a positive short term effect but long term CO2 needs reducing and quickly.

  11. marypcb says:

    the methane emission level from cattle is governed by the feed they’re on. grass-fed cows produce much less methane than cows on commercial feeds (and don’t even start on the repulsive US feed lots; due to a regulatory anomaly, feed lot owners get cattle feed cheaper than farmers, so farmers ship their cattle to live in giant stinking lots – drive past the one on I5 south of San Jose for a deeply unpleasant experience). So rather like feeding vegetarian cows on dead sheep = BSE, feeding vegetarian cows on processed feed = more methane. Reforming the farming industry would go a long way towards helping the situation – but we’ve made meat a signifier of the lifestyle we all deserve and are supposed to buy on credit…

  12. gmh says:

    One is that I don’t think you can socially engineer the entire population of the Western World into exclusive veganism in a generation or even two

    I think you might be surprised at the degree of change achieveable.

    Bear in mind that the modern Western diet is, generally speaking, only about 50 years old, and owes much to the post-WWII boom in intensive farming, especially in livestock; it also owes much to a concerted propaganda campaign by the food arm of the industrial complex; Aldous Huxley describes this post-war brainwashing boom in detail in ‘Brave New World Revisited’.

    (There are also a number of other side-effects; the widespread use of antibiotics in the intensive farming method is the single major factor in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of disease over the last half-century. But that’s another topic.)

    I don’t think that many people will simply give up meat like that; and I don’t think anyone serious is suggesting that they will; but I do think that cutting down on the frequency of meat-eating and making the cost of meat reflect the true environmental cost (production and storage and transport) will give people a fairly strong motivation to consume less of the stuff.

  13. paulathomas says:

    Bear in mind that the modern Western diet is, generally speaking, only about 50 years old…

    So those stories my mother told me about Sunday roasts that lasted all week in 1920’s poverty struck St Pancras were figments of her imagination were they?

    The diet before WW2 (and WW1 for that matter) had more red meat of lower quality in it than today’s. It was the nutritional work of JC Drummond among others that brought vegetables into the British diet during WW2 as a way of making up for the meat shortage. I do recommend you read The Englishman’s Food

  14. I’m not entirely convinced that when Lord Stern says ‘vegetarian’, he doesn’t actually mean vegetarian. There are good reasons not to stop using animal products for various things, because they’re more sustainable than their replacements.

    My problem with veganism is that in their concern for not exploiting animals, many vegans blithely wear artificial fibres and dyes. These are all made from petrochemicals, several of the by-products of their manufacture are bioacculmulative and quite incredibly toxic, they are rarely if ever recycled and they do not break down into anything remotely helpful in a landfill. This is not sustainable.

    That said, the farming of animals for various uses does have an environmental impact, far wider than that of the methane from cattle. The water required and the amount of energy going into the animal feed is hundreds of times larger than if you fed the plants to people directly. The embodied energy of a steak would be enough to feed a vegetarian for at least a month. (Comparisons plucked out of thin air, but I can figure the numbers out if asked, it’s my job to know things like this.)

    So, there are good reasons for keeping our commensal animals and very good reasons for changing our lifestyle so that we are not intensively farming poor-quality meat to be churned out into poor-quality food with the large quantity of unused remains – e.g. the not-breast part of the chicken that doesn’t get used for McNuggets – being fed back into the production chain (you could hardly call it a food chain).

    Other commenters are quite right, part of the problem is the high status value that we put on eating meat. And yes, I see it as being a much easier thing to change people’s ways to eating less meat than to cut it out altogether. I also agree that the problem is not our numbers but our addiction to energy-intensive lifestyle and status symbols. I’m never in favour of population reduction arguments, for various reasons including that the population would have to be reduced by about 90% to support our current impact indefinitely. That sounds like genocide to me, I don’t know about anyone else.

    I see the major stumbling block in all of this being the firm grip that the farming and agrobusiness lobbies have on the world’s governments. Try to tell a dairy or beef farmer that he (rarely she) will have to turn to arable, and the outcry will be incredible, not just from the farmer but from the conservative press. There are ways around it, paying farmers not to produce so much, which will have to come from farming subsidies, which will have to come from taxes, and that will last for one half of one electoral term. Artificially jacking prices up to better embody the environmental impact of the food would work, but that would have to be done with a tax, it isn’t a thing that you could make the market do without interference. Once again that won’t be politically popular. Of course scarcity due to low production levels would also jack the price up but that would also push meat into once again being an aspirational status symbol, which is what got us where we are in the first place.

    It’s the same problem with conserving fisheries – the owner of the fishing boat can’t afford to reduce his catch below a certain level, so you have to put a percentage of fishermen out of business. The knock-on effect is to destroy the processing industries, the support infrastructure, the livelihood of fishing towns, causing unemployment and deprivation. So the political pressure to not do anything is massive. And it has to be done because some of the major fisheries are already dead.

    The permanent way to make the change would be to make it unfashionable to eat huge amounts of meat and make it more profitable to be a vegetable grower. Short of deploying the orbital mind-control lasers, that means a public information and health campaign, with support from celebrity cooks, to create a vegetable-freindly cuisine. That would work to a certain extent in the UK, I don’t know how well it would go elsewhere. Can you see the headlines, though? ‘Eat Your Greens!’ Gov’t Says.

    • rozkaveney says:

      The water that goes into grass fed cattle is largely rain…

      • Most beef isn’t from grass-fed cattle, especially in the USA. Cattle drink a lot too, and most of the water that goes into feedlot cattle doesn’t come from rain, or is wasted in processing grain (and cows) into feed. I have no argument with grass-fed cattle, it’s a more sustainable style of agriculture than others, like free-range chickens.

      • rozkaveney says:

        I know it isn’t but it should be – and that’s part of the point. I am entirely in favour of massive policy and consumer-led reform of agriculture and think the exclusive vegetarianism argument a waseteful diversion from that.

      • You are correct in that, and Stern is in the wrong for making those statements. If I seem to have argued that exclusive vegetarianism is any more sensible than veganism, then I didn’t mean to.

        Going back to your original post, I don’t think that the vegan lobby has much influence over Stern, and I don’t think it’s the cynical position that you are suggesting. I think it’s another kind of cynical action, to shoot the agro lobbyists below the waterline. If Stern is promoting the abolition of meat and dairy faming in his position as lord of what is sustainable, then a compromise position can be hammered out by ministers in the spirit of ‘see how much worse it could be.’

        I think it’s the first ridiculous offer in a long bargaining ploy.

    • rozkaveney says:

      Re: Another analysis

      I hadn’t seen it, but knew quite a lot of the arguments in it. Not about the fact that grass-fed cattle don’t fart as much, though I should have guessed that.

      What amazes me is the sheer dishonesty of the eco-vegetarians on a lot of this. One of the things which put me off when I last seriously considered going vegetarian – as opposed to cooking vegetarian quite a lot of the time and sourcing all the meat I eat at home – was the way some doctors hugely exaggerated the imminent disaster of CJD – ‘we will lose a generation’ – as a way of pushing their private agendas.

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