The global food system is broken. A vegan diet might not be a perfect panacea, but it’s the best option going.
The planet is hurtling toward a climate catastrophe, and public health is suffering, with more people than ever before either overweight or underfed.
Solutions are needed, and quickly, if these devastating trends are to be reversed.
The growing vegan lobby continues to put a plant-based diet forward as a solution: a response that has inevitably prompted great scrutiny. This is no bad thing; big claims must be put under the microscope, and veganism certainly makes many.
The single biggest way individuals can reduce their impact on the planet is by cutting out meat and dairy, according to the most comprehensive database yet on the environmental impacts of different foods. There’s a growing body of evidence showing that a plant-based diet can control and even reverse common ailments like type 2 diabetes, and a vegan lifestyle is, without doubt, also kinder to the 3,000 animals who are slaughtered globally per second for food within a progressively pressurised system. Through no fault of their own, many British consumers have an erroneously picturesque image of animal farming in the 21st century.
Though more famous for its arable endeavours, Kent is part of the UK’s move towards intensive US-style farming. The county has more than 1,600,000 indoor-reared livestock (mainly egg hens) restricted in their ability to express their natural behaviours. There are around 10 industrial-scale beef facilities, similar to controversial US-style ‘feedlots’, in operation across England – including sites in Kent.
The impact of these operations on the people who work within them, as well as those who live near them, in terms of localised water and air pollution, cannot be underestimated.
And yet despite this increasingly industrialised backdrop of food production, the notion of abstaining from animal products is often written off thoughtlessly. Laughed off, even. This is perhaps unsurprising: any divergence from the status quo will be subject to intense pressure; the consumption of animals is so woven into the fabric of society that to eat plants instead is seen as an extreme choice.
For many, the default response is to look for counter arguments. A popular one is that veganism is hypocritical, as mice are killed during harvesting (a 1993 study using radio-tracking and live-trapping methodologies to track mice discovered the ‘process of harvesting itself had little direct effect on the mice’ – killing just one of the 32 monitored. However, removal of the crop, which provided cover, increased predation pressure). Others will offer a false dichotomy: either you’re a vegan eating highly processed food imported from the other side of the world, or a responsible omnivore consuming only grass-reared local meat.
But the reality should not get lost in the bombastic rhetoric of either side.
Vegans should be educated about the impact of their lifestyle – a more eco-minded diet using sustainable crops like oats and legumes (the growth of which provide benefits for the soil), will ultimately positively impact animals and the environment far more than a diet reliant on highly packaged and processed foods.
And omnivores should be open to being equally well-informed about the impact of their lifestyle, and their own motivations is dismissing a plant-based diet, if real progress is to be made in healing the broken global food system.