This month at ‘Daylesford Discusses’ we explored ‘Meat & the conscious consumer’… which needless to say was right up my vegcentric street! The turnout was fantastic - testament, I think, to how engaging and important the questioning of meat’s place on our plate is becoming.
I was joined by environmental journalist, and author of ‘The Ethical Carnivore’, Louise Gray; cook and founder of Punch Foods, Alexandra Dudley; nutritionist Rhaya Jordan; journalist and founder of Biccim, Lizzie Rivera; and Richard Smith, Senior Farms Manager to Daylesford Organic. Quite the panel! We discussed the environmental implications of eating meat, the animal welfare considerations, and the pros and cons with regards our collective health. Needless to say, 75 minutes was not nearly enough, and neither is this blog-post summary..!
I’ll share my two biggest take-aways from the discussion here; the first is the environmental impact of eating meat, and the second is the animal welfare atrocity of intensive dairy production.
The consensus of our discussion was this: if one does chose to consume meat and dairy, provenance is important, yes, so choose local, organic and free-range products… but, crucially, quantity is key. We need to be at least halving our demand for animal products if we are striving to become ‘conscious consumers’.
My research in advance of this talk led me to Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie. Fairlie makes the case that local animal products reared as ‘default livestock’ are in fact sustainable: that’s livestock which is reared on areas unsuitable for arable agriculture, or livestock that’s fed byproducts and waste products from within the food industry rather than dedicated feed crops. It participates constructively within the wider agricultural ecology, rather than monopolises it. Fairlie argues that defsult livestock can produce as much half the world’s meat and dairy, which I take to be very encouraging.
There is much merit in his argument, but the one thing that has stayed with me more than anything else is the inefficiency of growing dedicated feed crop for livestock… Mass deforestation has to occur to grow the necessary grain and soy, resulting in monstrous carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity. CO2 is also produced in the processing of fertilizers for said crops, and these fertilizers in turn secrete nitrous oxide into the atmosphere… Suffice to say that choosing pasture-reared livestock from a local farm mitigates the negative environmental impact of consuming meat; we just need to be choosing it half as often. There’s a glaring humanitarian issue bound up within the inefficiency of such livestock production too… 40% of all the world’s grain is fed to livestock and yet 800 million people a day go hungry. Far better surely to feed this grain directly to people? As one lifts the lid on livestock production it becomes utterly impossible, in my opinion, to condone our demand for cheap animal protein. When I first identified as a vegcentirc chef I used the hashtag #LessMeatBetterMeat when cooking with animal products – a little trivial perhaps, but not a bad nutshell for an important idea.
My second take-away was Richard’s impassioned description of the non-organic dairy industry… it was nothing short of chilling. Puberty can be brought on early in heifers by altering their feed and encouraging weight gain. Cows can thus be impregnated before they are 2 years old, and not yet themselves fully grown. A cow is in gestation for 283 days, often in horrendously limited space. Her calf is taken away swiftly, and she is then milked up to 3 times a day for the next 305 days… (and may well be impregnated again 2 months after giving birth!). Feed is often tailored to boost productivity: typically, a grass-reared cow might produce 4,000 litres of milk in one lactation, a cow reared on a cocktail of grains, soy, and some grass, can produce up to 12,500 litres per lactation, and have little or no freedom of movement during that time. Her udders are disproportionately big. It’s not uncommon that her body is spent after as little as 2 pregnancies, and she will be culled by the age of 5… a cow can, and should, typically live 20 years.
Prior to this my stance on dairy was somewhat confused… at times I felt that dairy which has been locally sourced and non-intensively produced was a viable environmental option, preferable, perhaps, to more exotic alternatives. Yet, in consideration of the animal’s welfare I’m not sure that this is something I can abide. On any ethical conundrum such as this we won’t all come down on the same side, and that's okay. But the fact that we are all questioning the origins and implications of our food more and more is a brilliant thing.
Like I said – far too much important content for a blog post (!) but food for thought none-the-less I hope? I would love to hear your thoughts, and hope you can join us at the next Daylesford Discusses. We will be exploring ‘wellness’ on September 11th at the Notting Hill store.
Simon Fairlie Meat: A Benign Extravagance
Louise Gray The Ethical Carnivore
Compassion in World Farming The Life of Dairy Cows