Here are my links, quotes and notes for Borough Talks: The Meat Debate on Wednesday 16th June. Please excuse any typos. Join the conversation on Instagram @cheftomhunt. Podcast version coming soon.
1617 words. About a 5 min read.
In the late nineties my first chef and mentor Ben Hodges stood me at the top of a hill in Dorset and asked me what I could see. Quizzically I answered “Beautiful fields, rolling hills and old oak trees”. He replied “These fields are a man-made, industrial landscape, not a natural one.” On the same day, passing a farm Ben said “the smell of manure isn’t just the smell of the countryside. It is the smell of intensive farming”. Is he right? Our quintessential vision of the British countryside is of orderly fields with neat hedgerows filled with a monocultural grassland. Not wilderness full of rich wildlife.
“the updated 2016 State of Nature report discovered that the UK has lost significantly more biodiversity over the long term than the world average. Ranked twenty-ninth lowest out of 218 countries, we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”
― Isabella Tree, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm
In the name of efficiency farms are scaled up and divided into monocultural systems that rear or grow specific animals and crops. Although these systems have high outputs they’re usually very inefficient with high external costs (such as biodiversity loss and land degradation). They also exploit fossil fuels meaning they need very high calorie inputs through the use of fossil fuels to power machinery and provide chemical fertilisers. By separating animals and plants you are left with a dual issue. Animal dung becomes waste and crops are left without fertiliser. In an integrated poly cultural or closed loop farming system animal dung is no longer a potentially harmful waste product but food for plants.
“A common argument in favor of large-scale industrialized agriculture is that it is just plain more efficient, and thus deserves to succeed. But measured by the amount of energy it takes to produce each calorie of food, the industrial farming system is anything but a lean, mean food-producing machine. In 1940, the average U.S. farm produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel energy it used. By 1974, that ratio was 1:1, according to Richard Manning, writing in his book Against the Grain. These days, the calories-to-calories ratio is more like 3:1, according to David Pimentel, a Cornell University entomologist who has studied the environmental impact of various agriculture systems. That’s right: it takes some three calories of energy to produce just one calorie of food, according to Pimentel’s estimates.” Counting calories in agriculture.
Some people argue that veganism is bad for the environment because they enjoy products such as avocados that have been transported long distances. I find this argument laughable, mostly because these food products are part of an omnivorous diet.
Although food miles are an important consideration for many reasons (including supporting local food systems and economies). Local food is not necessarily more sustainable. Because of it’s shiny reputation ‘Local’ can be used as a label by companies to greenwash the harmful impacts of their products.
Riverford give a good example of how local tomatoes aren’t always the best environmental choice. “For every kilo of tomatoes grown in a UK hothouse, 2-3 kilos of C02 are released into the atmosphere. When we can’t grow tomatoes at home without heat, we truck over naturally sun-ripened ones from Spain. This uses just a tenth of the carbon – and sun-ripened toms taste better, too.”
When I was a boy I worked on a small intensive pig farm in Dorset. Hundreds of animals were kept in concrete sheds with a little straw if they were lucky. The pigs were often in ill health with cysts and lesions. Without proper access to the outside, intensive animal agriculture is a breeding ground for disease and can even help spread and develop viruses like bird flu that can be passed onto humans.
Almost all of our meat in the UK is reared in similar cramped and inhumane conditions. Although much much better than no certification at all, even RSPCA Assured meat has very low animal welfare standards, allowing cramped conditions.
“Because most forms of meat production are so resource intensive, any waste has a proportionally greater impact. 20% of all meat produced is lost or wasted each year, the equivalent of about 75 million cows. The production of that wasted meat produces at least 6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, not counting the emissions produced by its disposal. The average UK resident eats about 85kg of meat each year. The 20% or more that most people will waste also wastes on average 263,000 litres of water and, if intensively farmed, stretches of rainforest – stripped for soya feed and grazing, plus the fuel used for its transportation.”
― Eating for Pleasure, People & Planet
The food I cook and write about is in the majority (but not exclusively) plant-based whole food. If I had to choose one of those two ways of eating for health it would be a whole food diet. Processed foods and industrial agriculture are one of the main causes of both climate breakdown and the obesity pandemic. That said, a plant-rich diet is just as important. If a diet is too meat heavy, even if the meat is of the best quality it can cause ill health.
“Researchers have shown that a more plant-based diet may help prevent, treat, or reverse some of our leading causes of death, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Interventional studies of plant-based diets have shown, for example, 90 percent reductions in angina attacks within just a few weeks.”
For the environment “Aim to consume no more than 98 grams of red meat (pork, beef or lamb), 203 grams of poultry and 196 grams of fish per week”.
Even the NHS recommends people eat an average daily consumption of only 70g of meat per day. An 8oz steak is 230g!
The five blue zones – Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece, and Loma Linda, California – are where people live the longest, and are healthiest. And guess what, they eat a predominantly plant based whole food diet. Or at least they did, now modern generations are eating more processed diets which will undoubtedly have implications for future generations.
There are lots of processed meat alternatives worth avoiding, mostly for health reasons. Beyond burgers contain roughly the same amount of fat as a regular beef burger and are nutritionally low. Lesser processed and whole food alternatives like jackfruit, tempeh, tofu and seitan are all, as a rule of thumb, much better for the environment and our health.
Tofu! soya! You might think… Aren’t they bad for the environment? Well no, not so much, the truth is they are much better than their meat equivalent whether that’s organic soya versus organic meat or industrially farmed soya versus industrial animal agriculture.
The anti vegan soya argument is a non starter as far as I can see. Yes it’s intensive production is destructive, however, most soya is consumed indirectly through meat and dairy. According to WWF animals consume 80% of global soy. Growing soya and feeding it to animals rather than humans is a very inefficient use of land and resources.
Beans are actually a really good choice of protein and key to global food security. They’re nitrogen fixers, which means they absorb nitrogen and lock it into the soil through their roots. Nitrogen is a key component of fertiliser. Growing beans in a crop rotation helps reduce the need for fertiliser.
Many soya products consumed in the UK are made using EU grown soy which has not contributed to deforestation. Like most products, organic and biodynamic or agroecological farmed ingredients are always better for the environment and usually our health and should be our first choice when accessible. Whole organic soya beans are very affordable, however, organic plant-based alternatives are similar in cost to high welfare organic meat and dairy products.
“Soy contains a high concentration of essential amino acids and is the main source of protein in our global food supply. Soy production has more than doubled over the last two decades. Unsustainable conversion of forests, savannahs and grasslands to farmland, is endangering wildlife and ecosystems, putting traditional, local livelihoods at risk.”
“We may not eat large quantities of soy directly, but the animals we eat, or from which we consume eggs or milk, do. In fact, almost 80% of the world’s soybean crop is fed to livestock, especially for beef, chicken, egg and dairy production (milk, cheeses, butter, yogurt, etc).”
Yes ‘regenerative’ and low-impact meat exists, all be it with certain welfare concerns no matter the standard of care, however, the fact of the matter is 95% of meat products come from factory farms in the UK and more in the US. This kind of farming is one of the main drivers of climate change. We therefore must either choose to not eat meat at all or eat drastically less meat from climate aware farms for everyone’s benefit.
“We forget, in a world completely transformed by man, that what we’re looking at is not necessarily the environment wildlife prefer, but the depleted remnant that wildlife is having to cope with: what it has is not necessarily what it wants.”
― Isabella Tree, Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm