Veganuary v. Februdairy: how plant-based diets could thin the discussion around food

Sustainable farming advocates are concerned that a new focus on planetary health risks over-looking local solutions.

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Steve Watson bounds up the side of the Nanmore valley in Wales. Small trees that he planted a decade ago have pushed up from under the nibbling mouths of herds of sheep. “That’s one of mine there” he says, pointing with his long stick like a proud father, “and that’s a hawthorn – that’s one of mine.”

Contrary to prevailing opinion, Watson’s methods have shown that young trees and grazing sheep can co-exist without fencing. Through years of close observation and self-taught toil, the scaffolder from Liverpool has populated the valley with healthy holly, willow, birch, oak and rowan. Birds nest in their branches and the grass underneath appears even more grazeable than before, thanks to Watson’s placing of saplings at angles to the slope, where sheep can’t easily reach their early shoots.

Yet even as Watson’s trees grow, there is no certainty his ideas will flourish. Under the present system of agricultural subsidy payments to farmers, land with trees is excluded.

Defra secretary Michael Gove has put forward proposals to change this, with more support for greener methods, such as agro-forestry. But pressures on the government to forge new trade agreements could shrink the scope of Gove’s good intentions.

Furthermore, instead of supporting the common ground between biodiversity and livestock production, current dietary trends risk tearing them further apart. 

This year’s “Veganuary” saw newly knighted Sir 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, according to a Finder.com survey,12 million intend to go meat-free by the end of 2019; of these, 2.2 million will adopt vegan diet.

The UK farming industry has pushed back on social media with a ‘Februdairy’ hashtag – accompanied by photos promoting milk – 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, which they hope will encourage people to visit the farmers and record footage of the conditions in which the animals are kept.

People give up meat for a variety of reasons, from health concerns to food poverty. Yet in an era of rising inequality and populist thinking, the ethical pull of vegan diets seems to be growing in Britain, with a younger, “millennial” demographic more likely to go meat-free. In America, meanwhile, holding right-wing political views has been shown to correlate with both a belief in human superiority to animals and higher levels of meat consumption.  

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

The global agricultural sector is responsible for a staggering 30 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock are an inefficient part of the present system, the report’s authors argue. So at a time when the UN says that we now have just 12 years left to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, large-scale change is needed quick. 

It’s perhaps this background urgency that has led the report to frame its proposals in weighted language more reminiscent of a political campaign than a scientific paper: red-meat is almost uniformly referred to as “unhealthy”, while the “Great Food Transformation” will “provide win-win diets to everyone,” the authors write.

Supporters of sustainable farming fear, however, that pushing the anti-livestock narrative risks defining agricultural reform by what it is against, rather than what it is for. They fear, too, that focusing on sweeping generalisations could crowd-out alternative 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 restoring soils by rotating livestock and arable crops. 

Vegan diets are also more expensive than those that include meat, and could see processed food producers, supermarkets, and agrochemical companies gain from the anti-meat shift at the expense of consumers. “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,” he adds, referring to the new vegan-friendly ranges supermarkets are starting to introduce

In addition, the report’s global focus plays down the advantages of local food chains. Graeme Willis, Senior Rural Policy Campaigner at Campaign to Protect Rural England, argues that buying local, seasonal produce, whether vegan or not, can lower food's environmental footprint through by-passing excessive packaging, waste and transport.

So what does the vegan shift mean for the future politics of food? The diet is still only followed by a tiny minority of the British population, yet as the values attached to it gain more traction – from reducing carbon emissions, to supporting animal welfare – an anti-meat stance is becoming more palatable to politicians.

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 promoting animal rights.

This shift will hopefully bring many benefits, to both people and planet. But if the surrounding debate becomes overly divisive, mediating perspectives could get lost.  From the butter-mountains of the 1970s, to the present subsidy system, which removes farmer’s subsidies from land with trees, reductive and simplistic approaches have failed to make the best of the land.

“We can’t let the divide occur between entrenched metropolitan vegans versus rural interests that are pro-meat and farming,” says Ben Reynolds from Sustain, an alliance for better food and farming. He suggests that the shift away from meat and dairy needs to be more incremental and sophisticated – and to recognise the multiple ways that diet operates among different parts of the population.

A chaotic Brexit withdrawal may compromise this process further – with shortages and rising prices pushing politicians towards quick-fix solutions. An outright meat-tax may subsequently become a much simpler option than a multi-faceted campaign to reduce meat and dairy consumption while also improving the availability of locally sourced, ethically reared, and environmentally sustainable produce. 

But alternative and creative visions are out there. In the Nanmore valley, Steve Watson has grand plans to share his fence-free tree-planting technique with the world, via videos on YouTube. “The whole planet isn’t going to go vegan overnight,” he says, “so we have to be pragmatic and do what we can.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.