I am totally convinced by the argument that we should all eat less meat – indeed, this was a big part of my own rationale for becoming a vegetarian in my teenage years. The whole idea that we grow fields full of edible foodstuffs in order to feed animals, often under inhumane conditions, in order to produce meat, when so many millions are starving for want of the staple crops that the animals are eating, made no sense to me and in large part prompted my two-year study of Human Nutrition back in the late 1970s. Fast forward four decades – and add to this justice issue the greenhouse gas emissions of intensive agricultural practices and the health risks posed by a high-meat diet – and the whole idea of meat-based meals daily (or even weekly) is now under much greater scrutiny.
However, it is increasingly common for people to go beyond vegetarianism and adopt vegan diets – two of my four children have done so and have found that their health and wellbeing is improved as a result. George Monbiot (‘I’ve converted to veganism to reduce my impact on the living world’, Guardian, 9 August 2016) has similarly benefited from this dietary change. But those who only read the headline and subhead to his opinion piece (‘Nothing hits the planet as hard as rearing animals. Caring for it means cutting out meat, dairy and eggs’) may be left feeling that his reasons were all to do with climate change. While I would be the last person to argue against anything likely to help in the global fight against rising average temperatures caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, it would be wrong to think that this is his only argument. Indeed, reading his article I am struck by the fact that the real issue for him was essentially the complicity of the Government’s Environment Agency in the pollution of waterways by farming and it is indeed an appalling reflection on those charged with protecting the environment that this could have been allowed to continue despite Monbiot’s best journalistic efforts to expose what was happening.
There is also much more to what he writes on veganism and he admits, for example, that he will not be ‘religious’ about being a vegan, adapting – nevertheless in good Pauline fashion – to the sensibilities of friends or hosts, eating the occasional egg – or a fish that he has caught – and also indulging in other meat on special occasions. Not only that, he admits to consuming roadkill and also animals that have been killed for purposes other than meat consumption, such as pigeons, deer, rabbits and squirrels. In this I absolutely applaud him because he is adjusting his diet to minimise the wasting of edible food. But does this make him less of a vegan in the eyes of those who are stricter adherents? It shouldn’t, at least according to Wikipedia, which defines a vegan as someone who follows either the diet (abstaining from eating animal products) or the philosophy (rejecting the commodity status of animals). On the latter definition I would certainly also count myself a vegan, even though I am no longer even a vegetarian, eating meat relatively infrequently but trying to ensure that it is free-range and/or organic.
Distinguishing further between dietary vegans, as above, ethical vegans (those who oppose the use of animal products for any purpose and who would therefore neither eat animal products nor wear leather shoes etc) and environmental vegans (who avoid animal products on the basis that industrial farming is environmentally damaging and unsustainable), seems to me to be a bit of a complication although it does reflect the underlying motivations of people who have adopted a vegan diet. Clearly, for those whose primary reason for being dietary vegans is that they experience relief from symptoms associated with a mixed omnivorous diet, occasionally eating roadkill or other meat is not an option but environmental vegans could well follow his example.
Monbiot’s article has stirred up some strong feelings, judging by the number of online comments that have had to be removed as ‘not abiding by community standards’ but I am left hoping that there is more to come from him on this issue, in particular in relation to two questions that were not touched on in his article. Firstly, is there good scientific research being done to look at why so many people are finding that modern mixed diets are giving rise to dietary intolerances (gluten, milk etc)? Is this because we are eating more processed rather than primary foodstuffs? Is it a result of farming practices and modifications to the strains of cereals or the feeding regimes of animals? And, if so, how can farmers and growers be given incentives to reverse these trends and grow wholesome, good food that we can all enjoy without risk to health?
Secondly, what are the environmental impacts of following a vegan diet in our modern society, bearing in mind that many people do not have access to local, fresh, organic or free-range products and shop largely from supermarket chains, who seem to be cashing in on this trend? Some very unscientific observations on this latter question suggest that they could actually be significant where the total environmental impact of a particular food is not fully taken into consideration – when milk (especially where delivered to the doorstep in a glass recyclable bottle) is replaced, for example, by almond milk produced in drought-ridden California, processed, packaged into plasticised cartons and shipped across the Atlantic to enter a UK supermarket? Or when imported rice, avocados and sweet potatoes become key foods and coconut or olive oil replaces butter.
A vegan diet can undoubtedly be tasty and satisfying, and it is an excellent development – and only very recent – that those who have adopted such a diet for whatever reason now have access to a wide variety of foods and also to eating out in the growing number of venues offering menu choices appropriate for them. But I think I would still argue that in its ‘purest’ form – rather than the pragmatic Monbiot version! – it is not necessarily the only way of eating that is consistent with a concern for the planet and for animal welfare. Whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous – and whatever the underlying motivation for our dietary choices – we should all be eating with the environment very much in mind. Without a healthy and sustainable planet we risk losing the luxury of making such choices.