My job is to look at the world and wonder... "How can we make things better?"
Over the past few years since I got the food and soil bug, I guess I’ve been pondering one big, central, hairy-arsed question:
How can we feed 8 billion (or 10 billion, etc.) people in a way that’s sustainable, healthy, and ethical?
And it seems to keep coming back to one equally big, difficult, and hairy crux question…
Should we eat meat?
I thought I’d publish one post that summarises the arguments on all sides, and where I currently stand.
In an attempt to make the issue easier to tackle, we can probably agree it all comes down to three criteria:
First, let me be clear that practically all of us, whatever our diet, would do better with more fruit and veg, particularly leafy greens. Most of our diet should consist of fresh, green veggies, with some complex carbohydrates, fruit, berries, and nuts.
Also, there’s a huge difference between industrial/intensive meat farming and the more natural alternative. Most people who eat meat eat bad meat, which has been grown too fast, fed only on grains for their last months, often given a lot of antibiotics, and in some countries hormones, lived an unhappy life, and slaughtered at the most economically profitable time at the lowest cost.
Bad meat pretty much correlates to cheap meat, which has been produced for volume and profit alone. And I am convinced that cheap meat is detrimental to human health, very bad for the animals, and very destructive for the planet. So bad meat fails all three tests, and therefore is not a sustainable option for humanity.
The typical plant-based diet can be better all-round (for health, animal welfare, and environmentally) than the typical omnivore diet. Many people whose diet contains a lot of “bad meat” and refined carbs would probably be better off going vegetarian or vegan. But that fact does not logically extend to make plant-based ideal!
Of course, even an entirely plant-based diet can be full of crap. You could fill yourself up with too much processed food, and relatively empty foodstuffs like white bread, pasta, corn, sugar, and palm oil. It’s still a “plant-based” diet but a very unhealthy one.
The health risks associated with even a pretty complete vegan diet are well documented (I’m putting together a list of bookmarks to people’s personal stories of giving up veganism here), as are the health risks of eating too much, or the wrong kind of, meat. It has to be said that some people manage very well on a vegan diet whereas others do not do well at all. It’s possibly down to each individual’s own biological make-up.
Some people look to technology for answers. We are now seeing lab-grown fake meat entering the market, and burger or bacon substitutes that can apparently taste as good as the real thing. I am skeptical about how sustainable and healthy these foodstuffs can be, compared to a more natural product that we have clearly evolved eating for many thousands of years.
A diet that contains high-quality meat (entirely free-range, pasture-fed, heritage breeds, happy life, humane slaughter) or wild fish avoids the deficiencies associated with a pure plant-based diet. But I believe it has to be good meat, the kind that we evolved eating, and probably has a very different effect on the body than the majority of “meat” that’s sold and consumed today.
I do believe that the optimum diet for human health is one that’s rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, and also some very-high-quality meat.
Further reading on human health…
Now we get into the real emotional core of the problem. Even if meat is good for us, it inevitably means killing an animal that anyone would agree does not want to die (unless we choose to eat animals that have died either by natural causes or in accidents). Nobody who’s healthy wants to die, it is our instinct to survive.
So can it be okay to take the life of another animal, just to use its body as food? Perhaps it’s easier if we break the question down into three parts:
This is a nice easy one to start with. Yes, science shows that we have evolved for an omnivorous diet. I can’t see how homo sapiens would have survived an ice age without meat.
Of course there are plenty of videos and memes that claim the human physiology is actually vegetarian or frugivorous (primarily fruit-eating) by selectively comparing various physiological attributes to other animals. See, for example, “Shattering the Meat Myth: Humans Are Natural Vegetarians”.
But I think those arguments are comprehensively dispelled in this excellent article by a vegan PhD evolutionary biologist: Humans are Not Herbivores
Also check out the excerpt of Vaclav Smil’s book “Should Humans Eat Meat?”
Some people will argue that the biological factor trumps the moral factor: if it is natural for homo sapiens to kill and eat meat, then morality doesn’t come into it. (Would we insist that all dogs – primarily carnivores who can also eat vegetable food – eat a plant-based diet?)
Of course, even if we evolved eating meat, that fact alone is not enough reason to continue to do it. I’m sure we could stop eating meat today if an alternative were shown to be healthy for us, good for the animals, and good for the planet.
Another angle on this is to ask whether it’s natural for animals to be eaten. There’s clearly a case to say that there is, at least in their natural state. Cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry are food for predators in the wild.
But you might then argue that we are now living in a more evolved or advanced world, where advanced technological or cognitive development means we no longer have to be bound by the old natural ways. That’s an argument I’m prepared to run with… but only if all the criteria are met.
Is it necessary for us to eat meat? Not in every case. I think it’s quite obvious that some people thrive on a totally plant-based diet. Clearly, many others do less well and are practically driven by their bodies to go back to meat. Can everyone thrive permanently on a diet with no meat? I am not convinced they can.
I would say this question comes down to the individual. If you are moved to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, fair play to you. I wish you health and happiness for as long as your choice works for you.
I have had vegans tell me that eating the “dead, decaying bodies” of animals is harmful to the soul. My first issue would be to ask, how can that be the case, if it’s natural? But perhaps you might argue we can evolve to a higher state of being, away from our pack-hunting ancestors. That is an idea that I’m open to adopting, but again only if all the criteria are met.
Let’s be honest. No matter if you’re the most bloodthirsty carnivore, there is a part of all of us that gets what’s unpleasant about killing for food. I hate to see videos of animals going through slaughterhouses. Of course it is upsetting.
But what is the alternative? Should we release all the cows, pigs, and sheep into the wild to make their own way in the world? I think, if we did that, many of them would end up in traffic collisions, or possibly shot as pests or safety risks. If they were to breed in large numbers, do they get to wander the fields and eat whatever they can find?
Or should we look down the road where there are very few of these large animals, just a handful left in zoos and sanctuaries run by nice, well-meaning, middle-class folk? In my heart, that would be as much of a tragedy as seeing animals in the fields and knowing that one day they will be harvested for meat.
There’s an old Italian saying I like…
Every animal deserves a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good chef.
This brings to mind a deeper reverence for the fact that life and death are inextricably linked.
I constantly find myself turning over the various facets of the problem: kindness, health, nature, biological destiny, and the vision of a world without large animals. There is a constant tension between the unpleasantness of death and the truth that it’s part of the cycle of life.
Maybe, with all our technological achievements, we have strayed so far from nature’s ways that we have lost sight of that beautiful, awful tension? Maybe our fear of our own mortality can leak out so that we become afraid of all death, seeing it as a bad thing, as though we think we can cling on to immortality ourselves?
Without death, there can be no life. And, like it or not, we humans are pretty much in control of all the land and what happens on it. So what kind of life and death do we, as masters of Nature, choose?
Is it better for an animal to have a life that’s destined to end quickly by someone else’s decision, or never to have a life at all?
And the more I study soil science and permaculture, the more I realise that Nature is far from vegan! Healthy soil is literally teeming with an unimaginable number of little animals and other wondrous creatures, all dancing the dance of life (and death) as part of what is known as “the soil food web”.
Plants partner with specialised fungi, trading nutrients for energy. Roots exude organic sugars to feed bacteria, which in turn help feed the plants. And practically everything is either eating something else or trying not to get eaten. All the poop and dead bodies of microorganisms is actually what builds our soil. Everything from the tiniest bacteria and archaea to nematodes to earthworms to moles… it’s all part of the life of soil, which in turn is the source of most life and most of the food we eat.
The idea that there is any diet without death is absurd, as we’ll explore further below.
I’ll admit there are good arguments that some (perhaps most) of us can live healthy lives without meat in our diets, which could get more feasible over time as technology advances. And obviously the question of whether it’s better for animals to live and die at our hands than never live at all is a knotty one.
Taking an optimistic stance, the stage could be set for a plant-based diet to win the day. But, perhaps surprisingly, the final of the three essential criteria could prove to be its biggest stumbling block.
Everybody knows that meat farming is dreadful for the environment… right?
Well, again we have to draw a very clear line between good and bad meat. It turns out that farming good meat is at least very beneficial for sustainable food production, and possibly absolutely essential!
It is extremely important when looking at the science that we should not lump bad meat farming in with the progressive, more natural systems that are in practice around the world.
Farmers and scientists in many countries are rediscovering that pasture grazing of animals – from chickens to pigs to cows – can be excellent for the environment.
One of the biggest threats facing the survival of the human species is actually soil depletion. Current estimates point to there being between 40 and 100 years of growing left before we have literally lost our topsoil, that magical, essential life-giving medium that allows us to grow our food.
Mechanical ploughing and tilling make it easier to grow crops on large scales by chopping up or burying weeds and their seeds, leaving a standardised surface for planting our desired seeds. However, this mutilation brings dire consequences. When you break up soil and leave it open to the air, the carbon it holds oxidises, literally turns into the greenhouse gas CO2 and floats up into the atmosphere.
Plus, when soil is left open to the air and sun after mechanical mutilation, it goes hard and further loses its ability to store water. The water can only collect and run off, taking precious topsoil with it, often combined with an excess of fertiliser. This is what has causes the giant dead zones in rivers and seas, including the Gulf of Mexico.
So let’s be really clear. The vast majority of plant farming today is unsustainable.
Farmers are finding they have to apply more and more inputs such as fertilisers (which are derived from oil), which drives up their costs, which squeezes their profits, which means they have to consolidate farms into ever-bigger megafarms, massive fields with nothing but corn (or soy or wheat or whatever single crop they grow) as far as the eye can see, which they manage using bigger and more destructive machines.
And because there’s only one crop growing at a time (monoculture), there is a huge lack of biodiversity. The beneficial insects and birds are absent, which means that when a virus or insect arrives that could destroy the crop, there’s nothing in Nature’s toolbox to keep it at bay.
When I say “nothing as far as the eye can see” I really mean “nothing”! If you can, take a trip to your nearest “conventional” farm, walk onto a field and just look. What life can you see? Birds, small mammals, rabbits? What about insects? What about earthworms?
Our fields are turning into bio-deserts, and they’re doing it at a frightening rate. And I would extrapolate that the majority of plant-based diet models are completely unsustainable. The simple fact is that, whether you’re growing crops to feed to animals (which is stupid) or to feed to humans, the way we’re going, there are only a few decades left before it all grinds to a halt.
Large grazing animals are an essential component of nature’s model. When you remove them from the system, the system breaks down.
Intensive grazing appears to be one of the key factors, not only for sustainable farming, but actually to restoring our topsoil.
Pioneers like Allan Savory have watched and learned from nature and developed methods that can be applied to many different climates, based around modelling the movements of grazing herds that emulates their original natural patterns.
In their natural state, grazing animals like buffalo or sheep would keep together in tight herds, which gives them protection from predators. That means they would intensively graze one area, while dropping dung and urine, and would very soon have to move on to the next area. And that model is actually perfect for building healthy grasslands with healthy soil.
Moderate grazing stimulates perennial grasses and other plants to grow more vigourously, pulling down more carbon from the atmosphere and into the soil through root exudates. Plus, as any gardener knows, manure is the perfect natural fertiliser.
Is it possible to achieve similar results without using animals? Well, yes, you can get something similar, but not in a way that can sustain our growing population. There are veganic farmers who don’t use any animal help and instead use compost derived from green manures or plants grown specifically to be composted. However, the down side is that – at any time – around two thirds of all the growing land have to be dedicated to “crops” that are not going to be eaten. They are just for compost. To me, that makes as much sense as growing fields of grains just to feed to cows!
It is also worth noting that animals (even multiple herds of different species) can be raised in a rotation (leader-follower system) on the same area, because they eat differently. AND, you can also grow perennial food for humans from trees and bushes on the same land – at the same time. And all that diversity is natural, healthy, and resilient. The reductionist approach – growing just one thing in one large space – could be the biggest failure of the way we farm today.
So, if grazing herds are the key to restoring our life-giving soil, what do we do? There are few or no natural predators for the herds left in most countries, so humans have to replicate the conditions and force the herd to bunch together and move on frequently, usually using either fencing or dogs.
I strongly recommend you watch Allan Savory’s landmark TED talk, “How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change”.
And what do we do with these animals? Do we allow them to breed? But if there are no predators, how do we control that? The simplest answer has to be that we are the predators.
I honestly don’t see any other way of sustainably feeding 8 million-plus people.
Overall, then, for me, and at this point in time, a top-quality animal and plant diet is the ideal: for our own health, for the animals, and for a sustainable future on this planet. So let’s return to the original question…
How can we feed 8 billion (or 10 billion, etc.) people in a way that’s sustainable, healthy, and ethical?
Leaving the issue of ethical killing aside for now, there are two main problems:
I answer “no”, for two reasons.
First, there are lots of very serious vegetarians and vegans who have been forced to abandon the diet for health reasons. I may do some research and compile a list.
And second, many regions cannot support enough plant farming to support the people who live there. Places that are very cold or very dry, mainly.
Of course, we could just tell everyone to leave those regions and that point would be nullified. Still, all the human life in Earth today cannot live vegan. It’s a middle-class arrogance to say they could, when we can but avocados and quinoa flown in from all around the world.
Most plant production in the West particularly is unsustainable. Combined plant/animal rotation is more natural and positively sustainable. It doesn’t necessarily follow you have to kill and eat those animals, you could just keep them for grazing and for their manure, but then again, we’ll be looking at a human population reduction (and using animals at all goes against strict vegan philosophy).
So it really does come down to ethics in the end. It’s us or them. Or us and them? Or is it? It’s not a case of animals have to die so that humans can live. It’s a case of animals live and die along with humans who live and die. Natural, rich, interwoven systems.
The alternative is for us to abandon large areas of the world back to the wild, which I confess I do find romantic. “The lion shall lie down with the lamb.”
But which is the more natural? In general, I’ll always turn to Nature for guidance. Nature has figured out a model that has worked beautifully for millions of years.
In my opinion, CAFOs should be consigned to history, along with industrial-scale slaughterhouses. Farms should raise both animals and plant food together, and the animals should ideally be killed right there on the farm perhaps using mobile slaughterhouses.
Eat the best-quality meat that has been lovingly raised and slaughtered in the least distressing way possible, even if it means you can afford to buy less.
Where possible, grow your own (plants, eggs, or meat).
What you can’t grow, buy locally, preferably direct from farmers you know.
Buy and eat what’s in season. That will mean you get more local food that’s in keeping with your body’s rhythm.
And, ideally, all plant foods should be grown in a way that minimises damage to the environment, and unnecessary loss of animal life. So we need to find ways to grow food without digging, ploughing or tilling the soil. We need to stop using petrochemical fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, and instead look to more natural solutions, which inevitably leads to permaculture and regenerative agriculture, and a world where humans thrive living in a way that is more closely entwined with Nature’s cycles.
In this very sensible video, Niall Doherty explains why he gave up veganism (also blog post here).