Could meat be more cruelty-free, sustainable and environmentally friendly than eating plants?
6+ ways conventional crop agriculture is far worse than pasturing animals
How did we farm before the agricultural revolution took a firm hold?
Last autumn I was invited to write an article for the Maghera Times, a local magazine. It’s run by the Maghera Historical Society. MHS is a super local community charity. It’s very active, holds a lot of talks and social nights, and is great at reflecting on some of our local history. Guest speakers have come from further afield, such as when Race Amity visited form the USA).
I really wanted to take an approach that honoured what the Maghera Historical Society does, but also drew on my training and experience as a Nutrition and Lifestyle Coach. So I decided to reflect on how our food landscapes have changed over the past several decades.
I asked my mum for help in recalling what it was like for her growing up, and we got to reminiscing a lot about what it was like growing up in a small town before supermarkets. Thinking back to a time when you could pop to the local butcher for fresh meat almost every day. My family were able to make use of their hotel’s fridge to keep it fresh. And how there was still a meat safe in the garden where they kept other fresh produce. In the summer they draped a damp towel over the meat safe to keep it cool, and re-wet that towel regularly when it started to dry out.
My mum grew up in a small town, and spent summer holidays on a farm
My mum spent summers on my granny’s family farm, where she’d grown up. Granny was from County Cork. It was a decent sized farm, and they kept a menagerie of dairy cows, chickens, pigs, ducks, dogs, cats, and old Irish Cob horses to help work the land and pull carts. They also grew a few crops, like potatoes, onions, and root vegetables, some apples and other fruit trees and bushes. Not only that, but they foraged for wild mushrooms, blackberries, and other fruits. Thankfully they knew enough about which were safe to eat to avoid being poisoned.
This was before the agricultural revolution, or very near the start of it, so at that stage ALL farming produce was organic. Most of their food was local and seasonal as well. Nearly everything was cooked from scratch.
Modern dietary guidelines told us that we were doing almost everything wrong.
As a result we risk losing treasured traditional nutrition knowledge passed down from generation to generation
Things have changed a lot since then.
Unscientific dietary recommendations were introduced, first in the USA, then the UK, and subsequently in many countries in the world. These have created a great deal of confusion for a lot of people.
The guidelines creators have systematically, and without evidence, demonised many of the nutritious, nourishing foods that my mum and granny grew up eating. Foods like red meat, full fat dairy, liver, and eggs.
The guidelines advise people to replace these natural, whole foods with ultra-processed and processed foods that are nutritionally destitute
They lead people to believe that cereal grains are at least as nutritious as red meat and other meats. This is despite the fact that, in order to reduce the risk of severe malnutrition, products containing cereal grains, especially wheat flour, must be “fortified” or “enriched”. This means that cheap, synthetic, and often completely inactive multivitamin and mineral complexes need to be added. These multi mineral complexes are also often contaminated with heavy metals like lead and cadmium.
Pastured red meat and organs are naturally excellent sources of all of these supplementary nutrients, without usually having as high a risk of contamination).
Despite all of this “enrichment”, year on year we are seeing increasing levels of malnutrition in the UK. The worst malnutrition that we’re now seeing is of nutrients found in liver and red meat in abundance.
And yet pseudoscientific studies like this one would have you believe that red meat is bad for your health, and that animal products are not a requirement for good health at all.
A lot of what we are recommended by dietary guidelines and expert committees is propaganda, pure and simple
Now we are being deliberately fed propaganda that removing meat from our diets is also better for the environment, more sustainable, and “cruelty free”. But do these claims hold up to scrutiny?
I wanted to get people to think in much more detail than they may have previously done about where their food comes from.
Everything that we put in our mouths has a story, but we often only see and think about one element of that story, if we take the time to think about it at all.
Hopefully you’ll have a positive reaction to this article, but I know that some people will find it challenging.
You might feel challenged by some of the things I am going to ask you to explore, but I implore you to think about them in depth anyway
I imagine some of you will have a very visceral response to what I am going to say. It might make you feel uncomfortable, confused, defensive, or outraged. It might not make sense to you. You might think that I am lying to you.
But I would really like you to read it anyway, and to invite it into your heart to mull it over. I don’t want it to be a source of anxiety for you.
I don’t want you to become depressed reading it, although feeling sad for a bit is a perfectly legitimate response.
Instead, I want to provide you with more information to help you to make more informed choices as a consumer.
In addition, I want you to feel empowered and motivated to learn more about where your food and other consumables and purchases come from.
Not only that, but I’d also like you to think about what happens to them when you are finished with them.
I want you to know that there are some great farmers and options out there where you can find ethical products that are healthy and useful. Some of these farms can even help to repair some of the damage that agriculture has done to our environment, and to our health.
These farmers and producers are dying to get to know you. They’re incredibly proud to showcase their products.
But first and foremost I would just like you to take a moment and reflect on your food choices.
And I want you to feel hope about the future, and that you can make a difference by voting with your money. People are working on how to make farming practices much, much better, and they have already come up with a lot of solutions.
I want you to feel excited and optimistic about the future. Even better, I’d like you to be part of a new regenerative agriculture movement that is helping to usher in a new epoch in farming and sustainability.
Growing crops is not the cruelty-free nirvana we have been promised. They have an environmental cost, and it might be an awful lot steeper than you really want to pay
Crops result in many more animal deaths than grass fed animal farming. This article only mentions rodent deaths that are occurring as a result of growing wheat. So this is not an estimate of how many wild animals might die during crop farming: far from it, in fact.
There are many more animals of all sizes and species that are dependent on having a natural ecosystem, and for that ecosystem to flourish. But as many as 40 rodents die per acre of arable crop farming per year.
Tilling agricultural land really does result in a lot of death and destruction
In conventional monoculture crop farming the land is tilled, cutting swathes through soil and animals. Tilling exposes marvellous microbes, that are killed by oxygen and have been coexisting happily in the soil, to the air.
So we are not just talking about the deaths of all the animals that are crushed and dissected during tilling.
There is a loss of ecosystems and the variety of plants available for other animals to live off as well. Tiny critters (all the insects, grubs and bugs that help plants to grow, or that are natural “pests” of some plants) are killed too. In addition the predators of the smaller animals also suffer as a result of their food sources being destroyed. Plus any babies of those animals that are safely tucked away from the till will starve to death when their parents die.
Not only that, but the exposure of the soil to the elements makes it vulnerable to being lost through erosion and swept into rivers. In turn this creates loss of soil, which eventually leads to deserts where nothing can be planted anyway, as happened in the dust bowls in America.
It also creates soils that are more vulnerable to flooding and drought as well as fires, because shallow soil that has lost its humus can not act like a sponge to absorb water in the same way as healthy soils that are rich in carbon.
Slash and burn agriculture, and hedgerow removal result in habitat destruction and loss of nesting sites
Slash and burn agriculture affects enormous areas of forests and grasslands annually to make way for crop growing. It creates pollution and greenhouse gases, kills and displaces animals, and reduces plant diversity.
It also depletes the soil rapidly, creates soil erosion, results in conditions that predispose to mudslides, landslides, contaminated water, and dust clouds. Hedgerows that provided shelter and food for birds and animals are removed in large scale arable operations.
Pest control is a euphemism for the violent elimination of any animals that enjoy eating the same foods that we do
Pest control of crops can also involve the use of dogs and guns to control the numbers of wild animals like pigeons, crows, moles, and rabbits, reducing the available food for predator species.
Conventional crop agriculture is an excuse to spray lots of very toxic chemicals frequently, and in large amounts, right up to the point of harvesting. This can even threaten marine ecosystems
Now do the same thought experiment with spraying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers. All of these cause direct deaths to the animals in the fields at the time, as well as indirect deaths and suffering by poisoning their predators, like owls, raptors, crows, snakes, and foxes.
Consider how the run off from all of these chemicals gets into waterways where it kills more invertebrates, amphibians, fish and reptiles both directly and indirectly by poisoning. The damage doesn’t stop there though. Run off also causes huge algal blooms, which later die and cause suffocation of enormous bodies of water, like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Poor animal farming practices, particularly factory farming, are as much to blame as poor crop growing practices. Overgrazing using conventional grazing practices is also harmful.
Almost nobody considers how fertilisers are made. They don't grow on trees, you know...
Now consider that these synthetic chemicals are produced in factories using waste products from the steel industry, mining and from the petroleum industries. These factories also produce a lot of extremely toxic waste as a byproduct which must be disposed of as well.
Where does that often end up? Back in the waterways, resulting in even more animal deaths and suffering. If you wouldn’t drink the effluent downstream from a chemical fertiliser or pesticide factory, what do you think might be happening to the plant and animal life that has to live there?
The irrigation water needed to grow some crops may be diverted away from areas where it is needed to sustain ecosystems
And remember where your irrigation water for crops comes from as well. Remember that the soil is degraded by industrial scale farming. Remember that it has a poor ability to hang on to water. Many of our crops are particularly water hungry.
Take almonds for example. Californian almonds are mostly grown by a couple of enormously rich investment groups. They require enormous amounts of water to be diverted away from other lands, drying them out, creating the conditions that make droughts, fires and floods much more likely.
There are a bunch of other practices that are common enough in conventional agriculture that would make any decent person's skin crawl. But how often do we think about blood cashews, slavery and murder when it comes to our food choices?
This doesn’t even touch on :
- clearing rainforests for crops,
- how crops like palm oil contribute to the destruction of habitats and violently displace indigenous people and murder them if they refuse to leave,
- slave labour,
- child labour,
- cashews and their corrosiveness to labourers’ skins,
- factory farming and how industrial crops are used as an excuse to continue with this terrible practice,
- wiping out pollinators like wild bees,
- the abuse of conventional honey bee hives,
- or even how GMO crops have increased the amount of herbicides being used while simultaneously reducing the viability and yield of those crops over time.
So far we've only considered food, but natural fibres also really deserve a special mention
And what about the alternatives to natural plant and animal fibres for clothing, bedding, flooring, towels, shoes, etc? Is using synthetic, manmade, non-biodegradable plastics a better option?
Microplastics are being found on the ocean floors in the invertebrates living there now as well, and most of these are the byproduct of fabrics run through a washing machine, like acrylics and polyester. Surely using wools is far better than this? Giving sheep, goats and alpacas a haircut in the summer so that they can keep cool and not die of heatstroke is not cruel, it’s kind.
Here is how we can take action to choose healthier options for ourselves and for the environment
So what sort of alternatives are there?
Regenerative and biodynamic agriculture
Regenerative farming, that integrates properly managed plant crops and animals, is the future of farming, and will feed the world; not GMOs which will continue to degrade and destroy the soil while selecting for antibiotic resistant organisms at the same time.
You can buy pastured meats and use cheaper cuts. In fact we all need to be eating nose to tail, including the organs, and waste no part of the animal.
Regenerative farming can even reduce greenhouse gas production by taking carbon from the air and fixing it into the soil. At the same time it ensures that the soil quality improves, and removes the need to use synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. Natural predators are instead invited back into the farming ecosystem to take care of the pests naturally and recreate a natural balance.
Think hard about all your choices, and make the best choices that you can afford, and get your hands on
Appreciate, respect and do not waste any food that you buy or grow, whether it is of animal or plant origin. Be conscious in your buying decisions. Support local farmers who are doing things well as much as you can. Do what you can afford.
You might even be able to grow some of your own food. I’d mentioned above how cashew nut farming can be particularly exploitative and cause a lot of suffering for producers in India. If you live in the right climate and have some land, have you considered growing cashew trees? You can find out how to safely grow and harvest cashews here.
But before you put ultra-processed junk food that has supported habitat destruction, displaced animals and small farmers, and has exploited factory workers and labourers into your body, think about what alternatives you might have.
How can you contribute to sustainability?
Do you have a little garden where you can plant some vegetables, fruit bushes, grow some mushrooms in a sack, or even keep some backyard chickens or ducks? Can you take up composting, or do you already do that?
Can you reduce your consumption of prepackaged goods?
Can you support your local farmers by buying directly from their farms, or from a local farmers market?
Can you find places that will refill your old cleaning products and shampoo bottles, or even just switch to homemade cleaning products and “no-poo”? Can you switch to more natural fibres instead of synthetic? Can you use more recycled products, or just reuse things yourself?
Can you cook more of your food from scratch, and turn leftovers into delicious meals instead of throwing them out?
From now on when you see veganism, or even just reducing your intake of meat, being touted as the most sustainable way to eat, will you be able to critically evaluate that claim? Will you also be able to identify the marketing opportunity that this represents for Big Agriculture and Big Food?
Hopefully this has given you some food for thought. How can each of us become a more conscious consumer?
Veganism has been touted as the most sustainable option, but once you actually scratch below the surface and inspect where your food is really coming from you soon discover that that is a lie.
Which raises the question: how did so many of us have the wool pulled over our eyes about this supposedly cruelty free option? It instead promotes heavy use of farming practices that increase the rate at which animals go extinct.
Big money, big agriculture, multinational corporations that monopolise fake foods, and even religious evangelism are pushing these agendas which are not backed up by rigorous science.
When you follow the money, where does it lead? Who really stands to benefit by telling you to go vegan or even to reduce your intake of animal products in your diets and in your homes? Who is making the biggest profits here? Is it really small, traditional farmers, pasture raising their animals?
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Drop your comments below about 3 things that you might do differently, having read this article.