Perhaps in a perfect world we should all be vegetarian – or indeed vegan. But, says Colin Tudge, this isn’t a perfect world and a low-meat diet served by agroecological farming is probably the best that we should aim for
Rumour has it that Oxford City Council, following the County Council’s lead of two years ago, has banned meat from all its catering. Jeremy Clarkson, who has 1000 acres at Chipping Norton and has mysteriously emerged as the farmers’ champion, condemned the county’s decision as “Utter, utter, madness”. But, as sometimes seems to be the case with rumours, it seems that this one is wrong. The two councils have merely banned meat from their internal events. They will not serve meat to their own councillors and clerks but guests need have no fears.
Oxford politics aside, however, it’s abundantly obvious that vegetarianism in its various forms is catching on and in some circles is de rigueur. Individuals may choose to follow the veggie path and do very well on it — but is this what’s best for all humankind and for the world at large? Is all-out vegetarianism wise?
Well, in practice, the arguments for a meat-free or totally animal-free diet are of four main kinds: nutritional, ecological, economic, and moral/ metaphysical. So how do they stand up?
Vegans argue that diets rich in animal fare are unhealthy. The body does not need masses of animal protein and some people don’t handle it well, and animal fat tends to be highly saturated which causes blood cholesterol to rise which furs up the arteries with “atheromatous plaques” and leads to coronary heart disease and heart attack. Fat intake should be modest, the lore has it, and the fat we do eat should be polyunsaturated, which mainly means plant and fish oils. Red meat – particularly beef, with its tasty “marbling” –is supposed to be the worst. White chicken (breast) meat is not so bad. The energetic American nutritionist Ancel Keys (1904-2004) promoted these ideas between the 1950s and the ‘80s with a stack of persuasive evidence including the “Seven Countries Study” showing for example that societies that consumed a lot of saturated fat, like the Americans and Finns, suffered far more heart attacks than people who ate little or none at all, like some traditional Japanese and southern Italians (the Neopolitans fared better than the Bolognese). This among much else prompted Unilever to develop and promote Flora margarine, made from sunflower oil.
Others meanwhile, especially the Indian nutritionist P V Sukhatme (1911-1997) pointed out that human beings don’t need a great deal of protein, as was then generally supposed and widely taught, and in fact we could easily get all we need from plants. In particular, cereals and pulses complement each other beautifully. Any amino acid that may be deficient in either one is compensated by surplus in the other. And, of course, the cereal-pulse theme runs through all cuisines from dhal and chapattis to tortillas with frijoles to beans on toast. So it seemed we have no real need for meat and that too much of it, especially juicy steaks, are life-shortening.
Yet others, however, pointed out that meat isn’t just a source of protein and fat. Among other things it’s a prime source of calcium and zinc, which can be hard to obtain in adequate amounts from an all-plant diet. See too my recent blog on www.colintudge.com, on “The absolute importance of cryptonutrients”. These are hypothetical, organic molecules that act somewhere between vitamins and tonics – not quite essential for life as vitamins are, but nonetheless beneficial. Plant sterols are an example: molecules similar to cholesterol, which are said to lower blood cholesterol, and already are promoted as food supplements. I suggest, though, on evolutionary grounds, that there could be many more such agents out there – even thousands – lurking in all kinds of foods (plant, animal, fungal, and perhaps especially in all fermentations) waiting to be investigated.
It turned out, too, that Ancel Keys’ stats weren’t as clear-cut as he suggested. Some societies on high-beef diets suffer very few heart attacks. Of course, vast intakes of anything are unwise (truck drivers’ steaks in Texas in the 1960s were either 16 ounces or 32, sometimes with eggs ad lib) but what really matters, it now seems, is what the animals are fed on. The fat of 100 per cent pasture-fed cattle apparently is significantly more unsaturated than the fat of those that are fed on concentrate and raced to the abattoir. In any case, for people in extreme environments (high mountains, high latitudes, semi-deserts) it can be very hard if not impossible to live well without meat. Thus we are told in Genesis 4 that God “had respect unto Abel” the shepherd, who offered Him “the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof”. But Cain the arable farmer offered Him barley (or wheat) and “unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect”. (Vegans tend to remember that story the other way around). Even I could be a vegan in Kerala with its year-round cornucopia of coconuts, rice, miscellaneous pulses, fruits, green vegetables, and spices. Overall though it is very hard to improve on the idea that all we really need is “Plenty of Plants, Not Much Meat, and Maximum Variety” (close to what Prof Tim Spector advocates in his latest best-seller, Food for Life).
Vegetarians (including vegans) argue too that we should all eat an all-plant diet because the planet is all too obviously finite and livestock farming is too profligate. Commonly, we are told, we can produce 10 or 20 times more protein per unit area by growing wheat than by dairy or by raising cattle or sheep. Again the stats are far from straightforward (as Simon Fairlie in particular has pointed out not least in Meat: A Benign Extravagance, in 2010). Ruminants can be raised in places where arable farmers and horticulturalists would fear to tread (too cold too hot too dry too wet) while chickens and pigs can be raised on surpluses and leftovers. Since we don’t need much meat that’s enough. It makes no sense nutritionally or ecologically to grow more cereal than we really need just to raise more animals than we really need.
On the other hand, I suggest, there are no (or very few) systems of arable farming or horticulture that would not benefit from a judicious relationship with livestock, if only to supply manure. It’s not just a matter of nitrogen. Manure-fed crops ought to contain more cryptonutrients than those raised on artificials, and this may well justify the organic farmers’ claim that their crops are nutritionally superior to the industrial kind. (This is speculation, but the idea is surely worth looking at).
The economic case for vegetarianism ought to be open and shut. Of course it could and should be far cheaper to get your calories and protein from cereals, pulses, and tubers. In practice, as always, life is not quite so simple. If we want to eat well – good cooking as well and basic nutrition – then we need high-class crops, which are not cheap, and should not be. But some cuts of meat from what are considered to be the less desirable part of the animal are often the most nutritionally beneficial and also the tastiest and for people who know how to cook, a little goes a long way. As the Rothamsted scientist N W Pirie pointed out in the 1960s (and I have been quoting him ever since), all the greatest cuisines on an axis from Italy to China use meat sparingly.
More broadly: if we are serious about the future of humanity and of the natural world then we need to gear everything we do to ecological and social reality – and this applies crucially to the economy. The goal should not be simply to achieve material increase –“ Growth, growth, growth”, as the mercifully short-reigned Liz Truss put the matter – but to seek to make the world a better place: kinder, more secure, more diverse. E F Schumacher spelled this out in Small is Beautiful in 1972. Wildlife-friendly and people-friendly agriculture is key — meaning “Enlightened Agriculture” aka “Real Farming”, which combines the principles of agroecology and Food Sovereignty. It is not beyond the wit of humanity to devise a more ecologically and socially friendly economy (there are plenty of good ideas out there) but, it seems, no major political party anywhere dares to say so, or to do the necessary re-thinking. So we have agriculture that contrives to maximize profit (for a few) by growing vast surpluses of cereal and pulse with lashings of fertilizer and pesticide just to maximize the output of livestock that nobody really needs, all with tremendous collateral damage, not least to the climate, all supported by big business and by governments like ours that put their faith in big business, and countered by an increasingly influential vegetarian/vegan movement that seeks to eliminate livestock altogether. It’s all very colourful and lucrative (for some) but it is not sensible.
The moral and metaphysical objections to livestock farming are the hardest to answer. To be sure, some moral points seem obvious enough. Thus it is often pointed out that livestock farming can be harsh to the point of cruelty – and although a great many people don’t really care about this, and some take comfort in the seriously out-dated thought that animals are just flesh-and-blood eating machines and that they don’t care either. Some industrial farmers also point out that life in the wild is hard, too – and so, for example, battery chickens were first introduced in the 1950s partly to save the birds from predators and the weather. But most people including most farmers at least in the west agree these days that mammals and birds at least are sentient and even intelligent beings that can and do suffer both physically and psychologically when they are badly treated and are prevented from doing the things they are naturally inclined to do. Intensively reared sows, for example, cannot make nests for their young as they would in the wild. Thus the immediate answer to the obvious charge of cruelty is simply to provide the animals with the kind of food they are adapted to and enable them as far as possible to follow their behavioural instincts.
The metaphysical question is harder. By what right do we presume to breed and confine other sentient beings simply for our own benefit? The question becomes more cogent since it’s now clear that unless people are living in extreme conditions (in deserts or mountain-tops or north of the Arctic Circle) then they don’t really need to eat meat at all. On ecological as well as on moral and metaphysical grounds we surely should be seeking to live in harmony with other species. The key concept here is that of oneness, as emphasised in Eastern religions (Hinduism and its variants; Buddhism; Daoism; Shintoism); and in many “indigenous” religions. By contrast, the Abrahamic religions at best urge us to behave as stewards, and not simply as plunderers. But stewards do not regard the creatures they aspire to look after as equals. To raise animals entirely for our own predilection and profit, and to control all aspects of their lives, is not compatible with the idea that other creatures have rights too and that we and they should see ourselves as part of one great and wondrous Creation.
Yet the various Eastern religions also supply a get-out clause: that although we have a right and even a duty to try to live the best lives we can, and to achieve fulfilment, that we should strive nonetheless to do least harm. And, it seems, agroecological farming that incorporates at least some livestock should in general produce more good food per unit area and be more wildlife-friendly than all-plant farming, and so should leave less of a footprint. In an imperfect world that may be the best we can do.
In short: we don’t really need to be vegetarian, and veganism is not the best or even the least bad option. The best course is to farm agroecologically and emulate the great cuisines. And this, more or less, is what the Oxford councils want to see. As Liz Leffman, leader of the County Council said way back in 2021, “Having plant-based only food at council events will not stop me or any other Cabinet member enjoying sausages and bacon at breakfast or chicken or beef for dinner. It simply sends out the message that more balance in our diet in favour of fruit and vegetables does not need to be at the expense of taste”.
In the mid-20th century nutritionists were wont to suggest that human beings need a great deal of protein. I learnt at school in the 1950s too that animal protein contains all the amino acids we need in the right proportions and so was deemed to be “first class”, while plant proteins generally tended to be deficient in one or other essential amino acid and so were “second class”. Ergo, we were told, plant proteins alone are inadequate. We need meat too (and/or milk, eggs, of fish). This is when industrial livestock farming really off – justified by nutritional theory on the one hand, and made possible big-time by arable surpluses nourished by NPK fertilizers made in factories that hitherto had made the explosives needed to get us through World War II. (The necessary technologies are very similar).
The idea that human beings must eat meat, and the more of it the better, first came to the fore in the 1930s – and was duly satirized in 1935 by John Steinbeck in Tortilla Flat, based on his own experiences in Monterey, as in this passage on the eating habits of the boy Alfredo:
‘At about this time in California it became the stylish thing for school nurses to visit the classes and to catechize the children on intimate details of their home life. In the first grade, Alfredo was called to the principal’s office, for it was thought that he looked thin.
The visiting nurse, trained in child psychology, said kindly: “Freddie, do you get enough to eat?”
“Sure”, said Alfredo.
“Well, now. Tell me what you have had for breakfast.”
“Tortillas and beans”, said Alfredo.
The nurse nodded her head dismally to the principal. “What do you have when you go home for lunch?”
“I don’t go home.”
“Don’t you eat at noon?”
“Sure. I bring some beans wrapped up in a tortilla.”
Actual alarm showed in the nurse’s eyes, but she controlled herself. “At night, what do you have to eat?”
“Tortillas and beans.”
Her psychology deserted her. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me you eat nothing but tortillas and beans?”
Alfredo was astonished. “Jesus Christ”, he said, “what more do you want?”’
Thus Steinbeck anticipated modern ideas on protein by almost four decades. So too his master-novel of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, is just as relevant today as it was then.