Two arguments are advanced in favor of veganism and vegetarianism. One is the moral one, that the animals we eat are sentient beings that are similar to humans and that it is wrong for us to kill and eat them, even if we eliminate the cruelty of factory farming. The second is an economic and environmental argument, that animals are a highly inefficient source of protein, requiring the expenditure of a vast amount of resources. The rough rule of thumb is that as we go up the food chain, we lose 90% of the energy at each stage. In other words, by feeding grain to animals for the meat, we get only 10% of the energy that was initially stored in the grain. If the animals are fed a diet of animal protein, then we lose another 90%, leaving us with only 1% of the initial energy. This is highly wasteful.
But this article suggests that the second argument against meat may not be as strong as once thought and that certain types of animal husbandry can be better than growing plants for food, since so many food crops plants are grown in an industrial manner similar to that used for animal and have similar downsides.
Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.
The author describes what happened when they took their 3,500 acres of land whose soil had been depleted by years of crop farming and made it free-range grazing land for cattle, pigs, deer, and ponies that could wander about as they pleased.
Twenty years ago, our soils at the farm – severely degraded after decades of ploughing and chemical inputs – were almost biologically dead. Now we have fruiting fungi and orchids appearing in our former arable fields: an indication that subterranean networks of mycorrhizal fungi are spreading. We have 19 types of earthworm – keystone species responsible for aerating, rotavating, fertilising, hydrating and even detoxifying the soil. We’ve found 23 species of dung beetle in a single cowpat, one of which – the violet dor beetle – hasn’t been seen in Sussex for 50 years. Birds that feed on insects attracted by this nutritious dung are rocketing. The rootling of the pigs provides opportunities for native flora and shrubs to germinate, including sallow, and this has given rise to the biggest colony of purple emperors in Britain, one of our rarest butterflies, which lays its eggs on sallow leaves.
Not only does this system of natural grazing aid the environment in terms of soil restoration, biodiversity, pollinating insects, water quality and flood mitigation – but it also it guarantees healthy lives for the animals, and they in turn produce meat that is healthy for us. In direct contrast to grain-fed and grain-finished meat from intensive systems, wholly pasture-fed meat is high in beta carotene, calcium, selenium, magnesium and potassium and vitamins E and B, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – a powerful anti-carcinogen. It is also high in the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA, which is vital for human brain development but extremely difficult for vegans to obtain.
The powerful moral arguments against eating meat and the use of industrial farming practices remain intact. But the author argues that the economic and environmental questions surrounding animal farming are more complex.
There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.