The debate over the future role that livestock plays within our food system has become more polarised and acrimonious over the last few years, resulting in entrenched positioning which does little to address the human and ecological crisis the world confronts today. We need a diversity of actors to come together to create new, positive and inspirational vision for the future of sustainable livestock farming. One that moves us from the polarising debates to constructive dialogue and action.
I recently returned from the Oxford Real Farming Conference, having been inspired by the many farmers using a wide variety of agroecological and regenerative farming principles ( protected cropping, closed loop manure systems, no till agriculture, integrated pest management, companion planting, silviculture, sustainable animal feeds to name but a few). These farmers demonstrate what millions are farmers are doing around the world, to improve the health of the planet and of humankind. I heard how these farmers were improving on farm biodiversity, reducing emissions through carbon sequestration and improving the health and nutritional quality of the foods they were producing.
Despite the overwhelming examples of positive stories there was however, one debate that made me feel quite depressed. It focussed on the role of livestock in delivering healthy and sustainable diets. It really hit home how polarised, fractious and antagonistic the debate has become, both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Effectively we had two media commentators, Joanna Blythman, who is very critical of the vegan movement, on one side and George Monbiot, who sees no future for land-based meat production on the other, arguing over two quite extreme points of view.
George called for a ‘great technological shift away from farm to factory’. He claimed that most of our staple foods (apart from fruit of veg) ‘ will no longer be products of photosynthesis and that there are more efficient ways of doing this faster’ highlighting that lab and cultured meat and the use of other fermentation technology will have to replace traditional forms of livestock production (both intensive and extensive). See his recent Guardian article entitled Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet for further information on his stance.
Joanna questioned the health and sustainability claims of cultured and lab-based meats and suggested a plant-based dogma meant many ingredients were being imported from many parts of the world creating their own sustainability impacts. She was highly critical of veganism and plant-based diets claiming they lack key vitamins (B12, K, D etc.) and fatty acids. For a more recent article by Joanna see her article entitled Millennial Veganism here.
Whilst the debate and the extremes in positioning is a great recipe for attracting media headlines it does very little, in my view, to help identify solutions or navigate a pathway that could start to pull people with differing values and perspectives together. I for one find this hugely frustrating – should the debate really be led by high profile journalists with very entrenched positions or should we try to find areas of commonality? – The common ground that binds the majority of farmers and those that advocate more plant-based eating? Broad statements that criticise the values of entire movements do nothing for moving the debate forward. It creates a ‘them versus us’ mentality and continues reinforce false dichotomies such a ‘nature versus farming’, ‘farmers verses vegans’ and so on.
During the course of my work and at the conference itself, I spoke with a myriad of farmers (those pursuing agroecology and conventional farming), vegans, environmentalists, academics and the health community and I believe there is far more to bind them than the controversies surrounding these debates would suggest. What binds everyone is a positive vision of a better world. Yes, there may be different policies, practices and pathways to achieving that vision, but that is surely inevitable. Every individual, community, culture will have different starting values. We should be celebrating this diversity in values and recognise that there will be a multitude of routes to meeting our unifying visions.
Many actors, with whom I engaged at least (that may be influenced in turn by my own values!), did seem to support a ‘less but better approach’ to the issue of livestock farming and meat consumption. Those more extensive and pasture-based livestock systems that improve livelihoods of farmers (so they are paid a ‘fair price’), restore ecosystems (soil, water, carbon, biodiversity) and improve human health. There was also in general a recognition that more plants (e.g. wholegrains, fruit and vegetables) in diets are required in some parts of the world (Europe/North America). Elsewhere (parts of Africa for example) livestock consumption will need to increase to meet the nutritional needs of the poorest.
I would argue that in the UK and elsewhere ( maybe focussed in each devolved country in the UK) we should be pulling a diversity of actors ( farmers, citizens, academics, policy makers, NGO’s etc) together to create new, positive and inspirational vision for the future of sustainable livestock farming. One that inspires a diversity of actors that move us from the polarised debates to constructive dialogue and action.
Do you agree or disagree with me? Do you for example, think that it is impossible to find a common vision that unifies? Do you have examples of how other organisations has managed to find a common/vision and approach which has unified the different positions? I would welcome your thoughts on this subject.
By aiming to take an impartial path between Joanna Blythman and George Monbiot – there is a failure to look at the science to determine which direction we should be pointing – and an overwhelming body of research very clearly points us towards Monbiot’s position of plant-based. Firstly take a look at the EAT-Lancet report (https://eatforum.org/eat-lancet-commission/), where 37 top multi disciplinary scientists compiled a diet that remains within planetary boundaries, reduces 10M premature deaths a year and feeds 10bn people. There is a tiny amount of animal produce. Then Harwatt and Hayek (2019, https://animal.law.harvard.edu/publications/eating-away-at-climate-change-with-negative-emissions-harwatt-hayek/) who analysed UK land, where currently 35% of the UK is dedicated to livestock, 13% to feeding livestock, and just 11% growing crops for humans. This compares to just 13% forested areas. Livestock is the biggest cause of biodiversity destruction, deforestation (a lot of feed is imported from S. America), anti-biotics misuse, river quality and ocean dead zones – and a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If you look then look at Poore and Nemecek (2018, see his 45min talk here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8miQs3mPGu8) with perhaps the most extensive life-cycle analysis conducted – including data from 38,000 farms globally. The message is overwhelming across all of these environmental parameters. How soon we consider lab grown protein is another matter, however in the meantime the message from science is loud and clear – and to position these two individuals as somehow similar in terms of evidence to back their arguments is a disservice to science – and to those who will be most seriously impacted by the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction whilst we pretend (in the same way we have done with climate science) that there’s somehow a serious debate here still to be had.
P.S. This doesn’t even cover ethics. Take a look at this ted talk by Melanie Joy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0VrZPBskpg, or watch this recent documentary / trailer free here – http://www.dominionmovement.com).