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21 September 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:47am


By India Bourke

As in other parts of politics, the debate around diet is becoming loaded with stark dichotomies – which could obscure smaller, local solutions.

Steve Watson bounds up the side of the Nanmore valley in Wales. Small trees that he planted a decade ago have managed to emerge from under the sheep herds’ nibbling mouths, protected by carefully chosen gorse bushes and outcrops of earth. “That’s one of mine” he says, pointing with his long stick like a proud father, “and that one – isn’t it doing well!”

Contrary to prevailing opinion, Watson has shown that young trees and grazing sheep can co-exist. Through years of close observation and lonely toil, the scaffolder from Liverpool has populated a whole valley with healthy holly, willow, birch, oak and rowan. Birds nest in their branches and the grass underneath is even better for grazing than it was before.

Yet even as Watson’s trees grow, the space for his ideas is shrinking; instead of supporting the common ground between biodiversity and livestock production, current dietary trends are tearing them further apart. 

Campaigns pushing veganism are on the rise. This year’s “Veganuary” saw newly knighted Chris Packham call on Britons to take the first step towards a vegan diet. Thousands pledged to swear off animal products for the month, and a recent survey shows 12 million intend to go meat-free by the end of 2019 – including a rise in vegan to 2.9 million; an increase of 327%

The UK farming industry has pushed back on social media with a ‘Febudairy’ hashtag – accompanied by photos of cows in sunlit meadows – only for animal rights activists to hijack the phrase. One group, called Project Calf, has even created a map showing the names and locations of over 9,000 dairy farms across England and Wales, where it wants people to protest the removal of calves from their mothers.

These tensions reach back decades, to the consolidation of the animal rights movement in the 1970s, but appear to be reaching a peak in this era of rising inequality and populist thinking. People give up meat for a variety of reasons – from health concerns to food poverty – yet younger, “millennial” demographic are more likely to go meat-free, and research suggests a link to ethical ideals across the age groups. In America,

In this context, Meat and dairy are becoming shorthand for global capitalism – and rejecting them a convenient way to protest the generalised concept of elite control. (The Economist magazine already uses the “Big Mac Index” as a way of measuring a country’s purchase power)

Linked to this idealistic impulse is also a rising awareness of the global environmental crisis undermining our soils, seas and air. A recent report from the medical journal The Lancet, with support from the philanthropic EAT Foundation, argued that feeding a projected population of 10bn can only be safely achieved if the entire world shifts to a plant-based diet. For the average European, this would mean eating 77% less red meat – leaving room for just one beef-burger every fortnight and 1.5 eggs a week.

The authors of the Lancet report have even framed their proposals for a new “planetary diet” in strongly weighted language: red-meat is almost uniformly referred to as “unhealthy”, while the “Great Food Transformation” will “provide win-win diets to everyone.” 

Narratives against meat and dairy are consequently of appeal to politicians across the political spectrum. Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns, Green Party peer Jenny Jones and Labour’s Kerry McCarthy MP, have all leant Veganuary their support. While the Tories are also cleaning up their ‘nasty’ image by launching CCTV in slaughter-houses and animal rights.

Some supporters of sustainable farming, however, fear that pushing an anti-meat narrative risks defining agricultural reform more by what it is against rather than what it is for. The shortcomings of global, industrial food production are vast, and require urgent attention if the world is to prevent continued habitat destruction and runaway climate change (the MET Office warned this week that global warming could exceed 1.5C within five years). But painting agriculture’s options in terms of stark dichotomies could obscure smaller, local solutions.

 “A key weakness in the [EAT-Lancet] report is the failure to fully differentiate between livestock that are part of the problem and those that are an essential component of sustainable agricultural systems,” says Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, which supports xxxxx mixed farming systems.

Vegan diets are also more expensive than those that include meat, and could see processed food, supermarkets, agrochemical companies and seed producers all gain from the anti-meat shift. “The trend to plant-based diets is interesting because many of the new products are ultra-processed,” says Shane Holland from the slow Food movement. “who hasn’t heard of the “fake meats” with their chemistry set ingredients, or “milk” replacements with added chalk and vitamins to make them a nutritionally viable option.”

The trend towards radical and reductive dietary solutions thus risks ripping the sustainable food coalition apart. Where once the movement created common ground between different demographics – from a right-wing instinct to conserve rural communities, to left-wing support for skilled labour and ethical produce – now it is setting them at odds.

“We can’t let the divide occur between entrenched metropolitan vegans versus rural interests that are pro meat and farming,” says Ben Reynolds from the Sustain alliance. Instead, the shift away from meat and dairy needs to be more incremental and sophisticated, and recognise the multiple ways that diet operates among different demographics.

Michael Gove has so far pitched the impending EU exit as an opportunity to heal these divides by utterly transforming the UK’s farming system. His National Food Strategy, headed by the founder of Leon, promises to be all things to all people; taking on the vested interests of big landowners, maintaining trade, and restoring “natural capital”.

In the instance of a chaotic Brexit, however, food shortages and rising prices could push politicians towards quick-fix, headline-grabbing solutions. A meat-tax subsequently becomes a much simpler option than a multi-faceted campaign combining a reduction in meat and dairy consumption with improving the availability of locally sourced, ethically reared, and environmentally sustainable produce.

On the Finlay farm in Galloway, calves are kept with their mums; at the Rothamsted grassland research centre in Devon, breakthroughs are being made in natural soil improvement; and at the Taymar Grow Local co-operative, local produce is being made available to people on lower incomes. Focusing on planetary-scale answers to the current food production crisis thus risks obscuring these smaller, local solutions. As Steve Watson has proved in Wales, 

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