All right everyone, take a deep breath. I can almost hear the plant-fuelled rage about to be unleashed. I myself was tempted to join the plant-based (that’s “vegan” to the unenlightened) movement recently, but first decided to do some research in Suffolk, a major centre of UK agriculture. On the plane ride over, I rewatched Cowspiracy, a popular documentary about animal farming.
Arguments against the consumption of meat, presented by the likes of Cowspiracy, cover a few main beliefs. First, environment: that farming meat is resource-heavy, and contributes to global warming through methane production. Second, morality: that ending a sentient life for food is immoral. Third, health: that meat is the cause of health problems such as heart disease. As someone who lives, breathes and works in sustainability, I wanted to believe this, but I knew that the answer couldn’t be a simple as the world being saved by everyone going vegan tomorrow.
Let’s talk about the environment. At Iken, coastal Suffolk, I visit Yarn Hill, a livestock and vegetable farm with around 250 Lincoln Reds, a heritage breed of cattle. Natasha Mann, the farmer, tells me that in summer and autumn, the cattle feed on the water meadow, which, since the land’s regeneration from grain production, has also brought back the native water birds. In winter, they’re herded uphill to turnip fields and sandy plains, where they eat turnip silage. In the final few months before slaughter, barley and oats – also grown on their farm – make up around a third of their diet.
As I walk to inspect the herd, I have to avoid cow pats, but there are no manure lagoons, which is a major source of methane. The way Mann farms is beneficial to the environment: biodiversity is returned to the area thanks to the recreation of water meadows, and designated pollen and nectar areas ensure a healthy bee and butterfly population.
A widely publicised study suggests around 57,000 litres of water is needed to produce a single kilogram of beef. Another shows that livestock contributes to 39 percent of agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions. These studies don’t distinguish between small-scale, environmentally aware operations and factory farms, where animals are kept in a confined spaces and encouraged to eat almost non-stop, and manure is washed off into a huge lagoon (an anaerobic method that causes methane emissions). As with humans, the amount of methane in a cow’s fart depends on what it’s fed and how well its gut is doing – in factory farms, cows are fed grain, which is like us eating junk food non-stop. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 80 percent of livestock are raised this way.
Now, the morality issue. To eat is to kill. The production of palm oil, a “vegetable” oil ubiquitous in our diet requires deforestation on a scale that far exceeds that for cattle farming. It involves burning forests, which kills mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. In most countries, wildlife is hunted and trapped as a matter of course, in order to keep it off farmland. Hunters are invited on to farms in Australia to kill kangaroos and rabbits chomping on crops such as cucumbers, just as Hong Kong lettuce farmers use wild-boar traps. And I haven’t even mentioned the worms and microorganisms that must die for healthy soil. As a human who eats food – plants or otherwise – you have killed.
Finally, health. Although I’m not a nutritionist, I do have access to scientific literature claiming that meat, especially red meat, causes health problems. Recommendations published by the American Heart Association (AHA) in 1961 suggested a diet low in certain sources of fat and cholesterol, including red meat, could help prevent coronary heart disease for at-risk patients. These guidelines were based on epidemiological studies, which are usually used to help researchers identify potential risk factors and association, and clinical trials, to find out if there’s a causal link.
To take you back to high-school science, correlation doesn’t mean causation, and subsequent clinical trials on red meat have demonstrated no such causal relationship. The World Health Organisation (WHO)’s claims in 2015 that processed meat and red meat are carcinogenic and just as bad as smoking have also caused a stir in the scientific community. In fact, the WHO’s own FAQ states that “eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer” and refers only to association, not causation, between red meat and cancer.
So, there’s no evidence that unprocessed meat causes cancer, and eating non-factory-farm meat can actually be good for the environment – and though I can’t prove it yet, I think that meat produced in an environmentally conscious way tastes better. At the end of the day, that’s all us gluttons care about anyway.