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I've turned away from George Monbiot to reduce my impact on the living world

By Rosewood Farm, Aug 11 2016 12:36PM

I don't like to get personal, but I'm hoping I'll be forgiven this time. My reasoning being that I am quoted Monbiot on an almost daily basis by well-meaning people who should really be on the same side as me. We all care about the environment and want to be proactive, but unfortunately a division has been set up between us which harms forward progress. I was also asked recently to get specific on why I believe George is wrong, so I shall, taking his latest article as ideal fodder, in which he proclaims 'I've converted to veganism to reduce my impact on the living world'.

Disclaimer: I have no issues with veganism as a personal choice, indeed, I spend a lot of my time fighting the 'eat less meat' message on the grounds that nobody needs to be told what they 'should' be eating; we all have different dietary needs, budgets and tastes and we should be free to make the right choices for ourselves. No, my issue with veganism begins when it is touted as a solution for climate change, biodiversity loss etc.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) lovin' it in our pasture
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) lovin' it in our pasture

You're probably already aware from previous blog posts that I believe crop farming can be just as harmful to the environment as livestock farming, indeed is most of the time. And I'm hoping that you've followed my work in regenerating the internationally important wetlands of the Lower Derwent Valley, a role I fell into by accident, to know that livestock are a really handy non-fossil fuel tool in improving habitats and happen to produce human food and clothing as a by-product...something maize or potatoes do not. So, I won't revisit that here, I am simply going to discuss the points raised by George only, one by one.

His first argument focusses on the planet being unable to sustain so many people if they eat meat because livestock takes up so much land. Specifically, he rounds on extensive livestock farming, claiming it is no better than intensive because it 'uses up more land'.

My answer to this is firstly, that we can all stop panicking about the population. Seriously, watch this talk on Youtube by Dr Hans Rosling very carefully and get back to me. Secondly, what George completely fails to take into account is that land used for extensively grazed livestock is not taken away from nature - nature can live alongside, and biodiversity can even be boosted by the presence of grazing animals.

Butterfly, lovin' the Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) in our pasture
Butterfly, lovin' the Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) in our pasture

I was drafted in to the SSSI land near me to graze it when Natural England recognised it was undergrazed and losing biodiversity at a worrying rate. Three years on and biodiversity is booming, with species never before recorded on the entire nature reserve site being spotted for the first time! You only have to look at my Instagram account for real-world examples of some of the 95 wildflower species and abundant deer, voles, owls etc. that my cattle look after. Granted, the cattle aren't natural, they are merely simulating the action of native wildlife, but I don't mind if I'm farming cattle, deer or bison here; if the public would rather I switched from beef to venison, so be it! I could be browsing goats and/or pigs in a forest if that was my local habitat. The point is, large grazing animals, whether native or domestic, provide human food alongside tending an ecosystem, and maize, or soya, or whatever annual crop you care to mention, can only compete with the ecosystem.

There is also the usual efficiency thing in George's article, about needing far less land and it being much better for us to eat beans ourselves rather than feed them to stock. George drops a couple of clangers here -

Number 1 - My grazing livestock eat NO annual crops at all. The only thing they ever eat from conception to slaughter (except in extreme circumstances which has happened once in my 20years livestock farming) is unfertilised, native pasture from my own farm. So, if ALL the British citizens ate was meat from animals raised like this, not only would we have far more land available for food production, but we would have NO land that did not also support wildlife; NO sprayed, ploughed crop monocultures at all. Wow.

As an aside, if this monbiot-model were to be applied, it'd be a bit worrying - if we relied solely on crops, we rely solely on fossil fuels. The vast majority of crop production is currently inextricably dependent on diesel, petrochemicals and mined compounds for survival - if they ran out, vegan Britain would be stuffed! My cattle survive solely on the grass grown here which receives no inputs other than sunlight and rain. If oil or whatever runs out, we only have haymaking to consider which could be done by the animals themselves and minimal extra staff. They also have legs, so can deliver themselves to the abattoir or customer. If crop production had it's chemical rug pulled from under its feet and went back to relying on horses, we would have to swallow a drop in yields, needing extra land for the horses (which we couldn't eat because we're vegan) and needing many more hands back on the land, which would obviously affect how attractive the vegan model looks.

Number 2 - Pigs and chickens have their niche. If we are to be depending on crops for the bulk of our diet, we're going to produce a lot of waste as the proportion of the plant which humans can eat in the whole production cycle is a relatively small percentage, which rather than being a problem, pigs and chickens neatly convert into food for us (meat, eggs) and food for our food (poo for the crops). Most people accept that it's only when we divert human grade crops to these animals and coop them up too tightly or try to jam them into the wrong habitat that they cause such heinous environmental problems and completely lose their niche and efficiency.

Which leads neatly onto George's point later in the article about soya. He says that "Almost all the soya grown where rainforests once stood is used to feed animals." He's not wrong here, but it's very misleading without the background information to this and ends up making the wrong point. The reason animals today eat so much soya, is because demand has soared from humans (vegetable oil - the 'healthier alternative', up by 146% in 50 years), but we're only eating a portion of the crop in a very highly processed form, which generates staggering amounts of by-product, and it had to go somewhere, so it was used as cheap animal feed. This is a recent thing - our grandfathers in Britain wouldn't recognise soya as animal feed at all. Our stock survived without it before, and they can survive without it again if we stop fuelling the demand for 'vegetable oil'. As we've discussed, some animals can survive without any crops or byproducts at all.

Marsh Stitchwort (Stellaria palustris), just chillin' in our pasture
Marsh Stitchwort (Stellaria palustris), just chillin' in our pasture

Finally, George gives his main reason for finally turning vegan as witnessing a dairy farm pumping out noxious waste into a river. Apparently the Environment Agency did or could not act due to powerful lobbying forces at work on the government.

As a counter to this I can say that inaction from the Environment Agency is not something I recognise here. Here, in a wetland floodplain area, water is a big deal. We are actually constantly monitored because, ironically, a lack of grazing animals in the area and a move to cropping has meant sediment run-off into the river, silting it up and compacting the land, eroding the soil and worsening flooding. When they recently detected an increase in sediment levels, the alert went out and a meeting was arranged with local farmers to discuss what could and should be done. I admit, I rested on my laurels and didn't attend. This had the EA hunting me down and coming to inspect in person! Happily though, they found no problems in my dykes and said to carry on doing what I was doing.

I'd like to be back on the same page as Monbiot's concerned following, then they can ditch dietary contortions, enjoy their steak and I'd get some valuable financial support to enable my work to continue. If not, I could be out of business and my farm revert to the Monbiot Model - a small percentage ploughed to within an inch of its life for crops, and the rest undergrazed as it was a few years ago, with biodiversity plunging far enough to make Natural England jittery. I can find a silver lining in this though; if George can be so easily swayed by the actions of a single farm, then maybe that farm could be mine next time?

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