Today is World Vegetarian Day—and there are many reasons for non-meat eaters across the globe to celebrate. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Bill Clinton has gone vegan (almost*). Yet there has also been a worrying backlash against this diet choice.
First—bravo Bill. Along with womanising and a taste for interns, Bill has given up “pleasures” of animal flesh too. Clinton prefers not to say the “v” word outright, opting to call it a “purely plant based diet,” but then again he never was one to call a spade a spade when questioned. Clinton’s motivation to stop eating meat and dairy was probably more about his health (and looking trim for Chelsea’s big day) than trying to limit his carbon impact or a concern for animal rights. But the news is a welcome endorsement of the very real health benefits of going vegan, particularly at a time when many prominent environmentalist are now rethinking veganism.
Take George Monbiot. He recently wrote an oddly partisan article retracting his earlier thinking—namely that following a vegan diet was the only socially and environmentally responsible stance to take, due to its energy efficiency. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” released earlier this year, agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, account for 70 per cent of global freshwater consumption, 38 per cent of the total land use and 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But Monbiot has changed track following the publication of Simon Fairlie’s book, “Meat: A Benign Extravagance,” and now accepts that eating meat is perfectly in line with a sustainable and environmentally ethical life. It all depends, he maintains, on how we produce it.
Citing Fairlie’s argument he suggests that “we could afford to use a small amount of grain for feeding livestock, allowing animals to mop up grain surpluses in good years and slaughtering them in lean ones.” He then speculates that if we were to adopt a system that was low energy, low waste, just, diverse and small scale, explicitly one that “differs sharply from the one now practised in the rich world,” then “we could eat meat, milk and eggs (albeit much less) with a clean conscience”.
Such reasoning, however, seems quite perverse when set against the realities of global food production (it can hardly be called “farming” today) and our entrenched model of consumption. The demand for increasingly cheap meat, milk and eggs by the consumer—and the supermarket pricing wars that go with this and intensify the pressure placed on farmers and their production methods—show no signs of abating.
The pressure to produce great quantities of cheaper meat and dairy has only been exacerbated further by the economic downturn, and the expansion of increasingly urban, westernised diets in countries like China and India. Our current “farming” model is so far removed from the one that Fairlie endorses that Monbiot is surely being wholly irresponsible in endorsing meat eating as environmentally sustainable, without making crystal clear the profound and radical changes in food production and consumption that would need to take place in order to support his reasoning.
One can’t help but smell a rat—and a rat that smells rather like a bacon sandwich. Monbiot is far too ready to accept Fairlie’s argument that the UN’s estimates—of livestock being responsible for 18 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions—are somewhat high, instead believing that the number may be somewhat closer to 10 per cent.
The ease of his acceptance is especially odd considering that there has been so much debate in the scientific community over whether in fact the UN’s 18 per cent figure is actually far too low, because the hypothesis upon which it was reached excluded respiration as a contributing factor. Moreover, even at 10 per cent, the figure would still be unacceptably high.
Perhaps most telling of all is Monbiot’s failure to mention, even in passing, the endemic and immeasurable cruelty inflicted upon animals that takes place within current farming methods. Nor does he give attention to the impact that excessive meat and diary consumption is having on our health—the current concern over rates of obesity in China being a good case in point.
And that pretty much tells you all you need to know about this “conversion.” Monbiot doth protest too much. Like most “meat apologists,” it seems he’s just looking for a defence to eat meat—rather than at the numerous reasons to go vegan.
*Apparently he has the occasional portion of fish.