Tuesday, April 22, 2008

animal instincts, gut reaction

George Monbiot is not just a seriously important journalist, but the best political journalist I've ever read (and I say that as someone who keeps George Orwell's Collected Essays Letters and Journalism by the bed).

The sheer range of subjects he tackles, his ability to fathom obscure and technical reports, his daring to tell the truth irrespective of who it upsets (he was attacking biofuels at a time when many greens were fervently in favour, and it lost him friends), his inability to be intimidated by power, and his consistent wit make for utterly compelling reading.

Given the praise he's had - prizes dished out by Mandela and stuff - he should have a head as big as Birkenhead. Instead, he continues to really listen and think, to move away from the circles of mainstream political machinery the better to attack them, and as a result he's stopped winning awards. And he doesn't care.

So it comes as a surprise when his rigorous approach and integrity fail him. He's just written a piece about the way increased consumption of animal products is exacerbating world hunger.

Basically, we're feeding a serious proportion of our food to animals who shit out most of the nutriment. We then eat the high-input low-output animals. So even though we're growing more food than ever, people are starving.

As the animal products are more profitable than the basic grains and pulses, the market is happy to see the poor starve.

Joachim von Braun, head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, said that the current rapid increase in world food prices is roughly 20% caused by the impact of climate change, about 30% by the impact of biofuels, and about 50% by increased affluence leading to more consumption of animal products.

Of course, those proportions are likely to shift as climate change will get a lot worse in the years to come, and biofuels - despite it now being clear that they're an environmental disaster as well as a humanitarian one - continue to grow. We're burning food while people starve.

But it's equally crazy to turn edible food to shit for no good reason, which is what the meat and dairy industries do. Even grass-fed animals get their winter feed from foodstuffs that could be fed to humans. In a two pronged attack, we exacerbate climate change by first chopping down the forests to grow soya for cows, who give it a second punch by turning that soya into shit and climate-assaulting methane.

The obvious thing is for us to eat less animal products. Monbiot concurs.

A vegan Britain could make a massive contribution to global food stocks.

and then immediately backtracks with

But I cannot advocate a diet I am incapable of following. I tried it for about 18 months, lost two stone, went as white as bone and felt that I was losing my mind. I know a few healthy-looking vegans and I admire them immensely. But after almost every talk I give, I am pestered by swarms of vegans demanding that I adopt their lifestyle. I cannot help noticing that in most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey.

Oh look, here's the emaciated and fascinatingly pearl grey Carl Lewis zooming through the air as he wins the Olympic gold medal for the long jump in 1992.

Carl Lewis, long jump, Barcelona Olympics 1992

At the same Olympics he got another gold medal for his running. A man capable of running 100 metres in under ten seconds and 200 metres in under twenty, one wonders how his vegan diet impaired his performance. Monbiot's year of veganism was dogged by his seemingly inevitable ill-health. How was yours, Carl?

my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet

I went to see Prince last year. He's fifty, but with the energy, the verve, the effervescent pizzazz of someone less than half his age. Vegan with it.

I don't doubt Brother George's account of the impacts of a vegan diet on himself. But his implication that this is what most vegans are like is just bollocks. It's a cheapshot that is frankly unworthy of him. It's as daft as saying veganism will make us all into Carl Lewis, or that vegetarianism is bad because Hitler was one.

Certainly, there are some unhealthy vegans. But in the same way, you could report on someone grossly obese and say that's what anyone who eats meat is inevitably like.

Monbiot was clearly eating a poor vegan diet, and was seemingly anaemic. It's easily overcome though. A diet with plenty of fresh greens supplies huge amounts of iron and vitamin C (which helps you absorb the iron).

Can that be done all year round though without importing stuff? Just ask someone like, ooh, George Monbiot. A week before he published the vegan article, he published one that said

There are at least 20 kinds of vegetables and salads (mostly oriental varieties) that you can grow through the British winter. You should be able to eat fresh greens every day of the year.

Many people find that if they suddenly take something out of their diet their health suffers, usually because they're eating the same old stuff but with something missing. Carl Lewis was smart enough to look into the nutritional aspect before he changed.

But even if you don't do that first, it doesn't take much work to find balanced, tasty, easy food that's vegan. You're a couple of clicks away from hundreds of sites that can help you, and there are at least as many books too.

Veggies and vegans tend to eat a lot better than omnivores; as they have to really think about their food, they become better cooks and eat a greater variety of ingredients.

I've been vegan for most of my life. In the 1980s it was a bit more work, but these days there is absolutely no truth in the 'it's too much effort to be vegan and healthy' thing. It's a lazy cop-out by those who haven't got the self-discipline to obey their conscience.

That said, any reduction in the amount of animal produce you consume is positive. There's this common idea that people have to be absolutist, as if it's a religion and any sinful behaviour will see them damned. But someone who is basically vegan but eats animal stuff once or twice a week is clearly having less of a detrimental effect than someone who is an ongoing omnivore because they don't feel they could be unwaveringly veggie.

The sneering idea that 'oh, you had some milk chocolate so you're not really vegan' gets bandied around, as if it undoes all the good you do by not eating animals the rest of the time. I note that it tends to come from people who eat meat, essentially as a desperate attempt to gag their own conscience.

By the same token, we could ridicule anyone advocating a reduction in carbon emissions if they ever use any fossil fuels, and tell ourselves that therefore it's OK for us all to drive SUVs and have patio heaters.

As Robin Fishwick observes, the only way not to be a hypocrite is to be an amoral twat

we have a social climate where it is impossible to embrace any moral position without fear of being branded as 'loony' if you cling doggedly to the position, or 'hypocritical' if you fall short of it. The result is that we are left with a cynics jamboree and a tendency towards moral paralysis.

In a perfect world, moral paralysis would not be a problem, but a perfect world it is not, and as soon as you so much as express concern the snipers are out. It is much safer to abdicate all moral responsibility than step into the danger zone - and the danger zone is huge. If you fall short of the ideal you espouse, you are a hypocrite.

It follows, therefore, that in order never to be a hypocrite, it is safest not to espouse any ideals you may have any difficulty living up to - result; said cynicism and moral paralysis.

Better to be a hypocrite than a bastard. If you don't fall short of your own standards once in a while then you probably haven't set them high enough.

It's common for people who are kicking a habit to have a relapse, and if people want to indulge as they shift their habits, if that's what makes it work for them in the longer term, fine. Most ex-meaties I know who give in to temptation are repulsed by the heavy dense unfoodlike feeling of meat in their gut, and it helps them leave it behind.

It is very clear that the consumption of animal products has a severe climate impact. As with the other reasons for abstaining from animal products - compassion for the animals, personal health, concern at the amount of land used and its impact on wild land going under the plough, or straightforward cheapness - it makes more sense to be vegan than vegetarian. And in our lands of plenty, it's not difficult. As George Monbiot's lame attempt shows, there really is no good reason.


John B said...

"It is very clear that the consumption of animal products has a severe climate impact."

Absolutely agree w.r.t. industrially farmed meat.

I'm sceptical there's a net energy loss from grass-fed animals, particularly given that many of them eat winter feed which isn't particularly human friendly (mmm, delicious hay) - are you sure you aren't conflating your anti-animal-eating and your world-hunger-alleviating morals in dismissing this so rapidly?

[after all, the ability to digest grass by eating ruminants and hence not starve to death is why we started being omnivores in the first place...]

merrick said...

John, you're dead right that the animals can eat plants that we can't, then we eat the animals. However, almost nobody eats animals that wander across the savannah grazing. They're farmed, with land set aside for grass. That land could feed far far more people were it used for producing non-animal foods.

If memory serves, the statistic is that an acre of land growing beef provides enough food to feed 2 people for a year. An acre growing soya feeds over 50. As the affluent population increases and they eat more animals, more wild land goes under the plough to grow feedstocks and graze animals.

So, it's not just about the energy used in producing feedstocks for industrially farmed meat, but also about the deforestation to create that grassland (and the absence of reforestation to maintain that grassland).

It's also about the colossal quantities of methane - a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2 - that ruminants produce. Livestock emissions are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined.

Of course, there is some meat to be had from feeding animals the scraps and surplus of human production that can't be eaten by us, but that would provide very little meat. There is also wild meat to be caught, but doing that sustainably would also provide next to nothing.

Ralph Mills said...

Agree with everything in your post. Here are a couple of additional thoughts from a vegan archaeologist:

In pre-agricultural/industrial revolution times most animals were slaughtered rather than fed over winter, and the meat salted or dried. Eating fresh meat all year round is a modern development supported by vast amounts of grains and other animal feeds. Also, from the numbers of animal bones I've excavated on archaeological sites, populations of domesticated/farmed animals were tiny until large-scale urbanisation occurred in the industrial revolution. So we've always been either vegan or vegetarian, with meat as a rare luxury.

Hunting wild animals involves expending huge amounts of energy, with little if any return for all that running about with spears and bows and arrows. That's why humans developed static agriculture (and probably obesity)!

Alice said...

Great post Merrick. I'm a hypocrite only because life without slightly salted butter would not be worth living.

merrick said...

Alice, fabulous to hear from you, I've added you to my blogroll.

Regarding your eating habits, it's better to be a vegan who indulges in butter than someone who says 'well I eat butter, so I'm not vegan, therefore I'll eat other animal products'.

We all have our blind spots. Me, I don't ask enough questions about the beer I drink or the curries I order.

Anyone who claims no animals die for their diet, ask them if they eat food that's been grown with pesticide. Then ask what 'pesticide' means ('pest' = animal we don't like, 'icide' = kill).

Commoner, I'm not sure I agree with all you say. There are many non-agricultural and non-industrial cultures that have animal produce all year round.

In much of the world, pastoralists and nomads can continually graze animals. It's common to take milk consistently in times of plenty, but then when food gets scarcer to slaughter the lactating animals for meat. (This may well be the root of the Kosher laws of milk/meat separation).

Hunting wild animals is certainly more effort than hunting berries, but then the calorific rewards are greater too - ruminants feed most of the day whereas carnivores feed for only a short time.

I think the lack of a plant source of the essential vitamin B12 and the presence of so many beneficial nutraceuticals exclusively or predominantly in animal products suggests that we did evolve omnivorously. Oily fish are so very good for us, it's surely what we've spent a long time eating.

But I'm sure you're right that eating animal products in anything like modern quantities is an industrial invention, and a main contributor to obesity (how many fat vegans have you ever met?).

And the thing is, with modern knowledge of the damage caused by eating animal products, coupled with modern nutritional knowledge on how to have a less impactful diet but be completely healthy, we can readily be vegan.

Ralph Mills said...

You are right about nomadic peoples, but theirs has always been an unsustainable existence. You stay somewhere until the vegetation has been grazed out, then move on to the next patch of green. This can only support very small populations and it is believed that this type of grazing has resulted in major prehistoric desertification (e.g. the Sahara).

I'm not sure about your hunting argument - most human hunting expeditions are unsuccessful (it has been found, backed up by archaeological evidence, that many traditional hunters only catch a few large animals in their entire lifetimes!), and therefore rely on the existence of others (usually women) gathering plant food.

I agree absolutely that human species evolved as an omnivorous scavenger, eating whatever it could find. Its major source of B12 (like herbivours) was from the surface films on plants (which we now wash off) and from soil (which we wash off).

A vegan diet is definitely not "natural" in that we eat carefully washed and processed/cooked plant foodstuffs and turn up our noses at any animal foods that might come our way! But in our present world, in my opinion it is both sustainable and ethical.

merrick said...

I wrote to George Monbiot about it and he replied:

Hi Merrick,

thanks very much for writing. Yes, what I said was a bit unfair. I suppose I was lashing out because I now get badly mobbed by vegans wherever I go, and I'm heartily sick of it. I really can see them coming: I know what they want to talk about before they open their mouths, because many of them look as if they have risen from the dead. It's not a good advertisement.

I tried very hard to stick to the diet during those 18 months, for all the reasons we know so well, and tried to eat everything I needed. But just as I had to concede defeat, I think the vegans who keep trying to recruit me should concede that it doesn't work for everyone. I have a very high metabolic rate: perhaps this was why it did me in.

Is there really much of a difference in impact between a largely vegan diet with a little organic milk, the occasional egg, the fish I catch myself, the odd wild rabbit and very rare organic lamb chop, and total veganism? Looking at the fascinating and rather horrifying household diet charts (see attached), I see that I am eating a very small fraction of the average. As this is surely the hardest of all habits to change, isn't the message that you can go most of the way and greatly reduce your impact going to be more appealling and effective for most people than the demand that you cut all animal products out of your diet?

All my best wishes, George

merrick said...

To which I responded:

Is there really much of a difference in impact between a largely vegan diet with a little organic milk, the occasional egg, the fish I catch myself, the odd wild rabbit and very rare organic lamb chop, and total veganism?

No, not really. We agree on this one. It's something that occurred to me when I was in Dominica (years ago, before the knowledge of the impacts of flying, I hasten to add). I watched a man on a raft in the bay, lying in the sun. After a couple of hours he pulled up fishing lines from the edge
of the raft and paddled ashore.

Half an hour later, having been selling his harvest round the other houses in the village, he was at our door with a bucket of freshly gutted bloody fish.

Being vegan and squeamish about it, I refused. That night I ate food cooked with chick peas and soya chunks. Being the Caribbean, these were very probably American - and therefore probably GM - soya chunks. Harvested, processed (lord alone knows how they turn beans into the array of soya products we see), wrapped in plastic and shipped across to Dominica, stored in an air conditioned shop for me to drive to to buy.

Out of me and the fisherman, it was clear who was really doing the damage.

As my reasons for veganism shifted from compassion for the farmed animals towards land use and the need to maintain the wild environment, and latterly concern for the climate impact, so I've come to see it not as a religion but as a tendency.

So yes, it's about reducing as far as possible.

Rather like food miles, it can be a blunt tool for measuring impact (your wild caught fish versus Tofutti soya ice cream, shipped frozen from America and at a health food shop near you).

I believe the friends of mine who eat skipped animal produce and roadkill are taking a higher moral position than I am (I'm simply too squeamish - I fainted when a small blood sample was taken the other week).

isn't the message that you can go most of the way and greatly reduce your impact going to be more appealling and effective for most people than the demand that you cut all animal products out of your diet?

Absolutely. I've already had two friends who've read my piece say that it's made them reduce their animal produce further as they've seen the border isn't vegan/veggie/anything, but that it's a gradual scale where every step helps.

But joining in with the already considerable stereotyping of vegans as unhealthy loons disparages those who've made it further along the scale than most, and discourages others from following them there.

Any 'reduce' message is going to be more appealing than an abstinence one. The same's true of driving and flying and using electricity, but we don't ridicule those who've totally given up.