Artillery Row

Vegan diets won’t save us

Not all plant food is virtuous and not all meat and dairy is problematic

As a young man I had a rather carefree existence. Throughout my adolescence I was heavily involved in the D.I.Y hardcore punk scene — putting on gigs and writing fanzines about the latest bands and records. I was dedicated to this obscure subculture. If I wasn’t stuck in a crappy rust-ridden van, travelling hours up and down the country to watch a band play in front of five people, I could be found in the back room of a run-down pub, diving off poorly arranged speaker stacks and more often than not landing on my back onto a sticky beer sodden floor.

I decided to go vegan. And I stayed so for over ten years

Part of this lifestyle involved putting on bands from out of town, many of whom would then proceed to stay at my flat. It was my job to feed them. Much to my surprise many of them were vegan. At this juncture I knew little about vegans. All the stories I had heard implied they were mildly obscure inoffensive cranks — the bane of countless dinner parties. The sort of person that would send a host apoplectic if they showed up unannounced, leaving them to frantically rummage through a salad drawer to throw something resembling food onto a plate. 

Anyways, I couldn’t help but notice how thin all these musicians were. I was shockingly overweight — breaking the scales at almost 19 stone. Rather than becoming indoctrinated into this lifestyle through moral propaganda or philosophical considerations, my rationale was health. I wanted to lose weight. So after a few discussions, I decided to go vegan. And I stayed so for over ten years.

So, why have I just spent three paragraphs romanticising my salad days? To provide context. I may not be sitting comfortably in retirement on my vegan pension, but the years spent rigorously following this diet should add validity to my argument. 

This was a quarter of a century ago. A lot has changed. Now the diet that was once the preserve of a small and eccentric subculture has started to become mainstream. Veganism appears to be gaining popularity. According to the Vegan Society, some 600,000 people in Great Britain have taken up the diet. While admittedly small — representing just one percent of the country — this is increasing worldwide. It is estimated that 79 million people, or 8 percent of the world’s population are now vegan. Barclays estimates that in ten years the alternative meat market will grow ten-fold and be worth £100 billion, looking set to replace ten percent of the global meat industry.

There are many reasons people adopt a vegan diet; a lot of people cite moral and ethical considerations. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve made the switch after watching grainy video footage taken from inside a factory farm — it is a horror show no doubt — but it’s not a balanced representation of the wider meat industry. Meanwhile, identitarians attack carnivores on the spurious grounds of abetting “toxic masculinity”, woven deep into our cultural fabric is a connection between meat and traditional masculine traits. What better way for the modern social justice warrior to shun “toxic” masculinity than to remove the offending product from their diet. If only everything in life was that simple eh?

If we’re going to suggest something as divisive as a meat tax, then surely we must slap a tax on these environmentally destructive foods?

The latest reason for eschewing meat and dairy is environmental. According to an Oxford University study, published in Climatic Change, carnivores emit two and a half times as many dietary greenhouse-gas emissions per day as vegans. Meat production is the latest issue to be blamed for the destruction of the planet. In order to avert a climate catastrophe we are being urged to drastically reduce our consumption of meat. One article suggests we could cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70 percent if we adopt a vegan diet. 

This is not the view of Michael Shellenberger. In his book Apocalypse Never, he reminds us that this alarmist headline refers just to agricultural emissions (a small fraction of total greenhouse emissions). Shellenberger cites a number of studies that all come to a similar conclusion. “If every American went vegan”, he says, “emissions would decline by just 2.6 percent.”

It should go without saying that not all plant food is virtuous and not all fish, meat and dairy is problematic. For example, free range and organic eggs make up 45 percent of the market. By contrast, the consumption of soya based products flown in from the other side of the world is environmentally destructive.

If you really want to talk about problematic food, two of the biggest offenders are on the veggie side of the debate. Avocados — that most middle class of foods that forms the diet of the new woke class — require 2,000 litres of water to produce per kilo. Meanwhile almond milk, an essential part of an expensive Starbucks coffee is a veritable ecocide. One source suggests it takes 15 gallons of water to produce just 16 almonds. Worse still, 80 percent of the world’s crop grows in the arid and drought-prone state of California, meaning vital water is siphoned off for almond irrigation. Now, if we’re going to suggest something as divisive as a meat tax, then surely we must slap a tax on these environmentally destructive foods?

As with every ideology, unfortunately veganism has become political. There will always be someone willing to be more extreme. Freeganism is an ideology based on limited consumption. Freegans are people who live off whatever people throw away. If we are going to place them on the progressive stack then surely freegans are more virtuous than vegans? 

There’s no doubt we are a wasteful society, so short of becoming a freegan or indeed vegan, what options are left for a more conscious carnivore? Well for starters, we can be less squeamish about what we eat. This could be achieved if we started eating the whole animal, not just the tasty bits like the sirloin or rump. Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail cookbook will show the ethical eater how to do this. 

While I agree, a diet heavy in meat is neither healthy nor environmentally advantageous, it is moderation, not coercion that is key. Eating meat will not destroy the planet. Locally sourced, sustainable and ethically produced meat is the way forward. In the age of Brexit, we should all be looking at consuming more products from the British Isles. Meat is a primary example of this.

I still have meat-free Mondays, but I enjoy taco Tuesday with alacrity!

Those of you curious as to why I stopped being vegan. Yes, my health improved. Briefly. After twelve years I had lost six stone. The problem was I could no longer gain any weight. No matter how hard I tried, it kept coming off. After a visit to my GP I was diagnosed as anaemic. A lack of fibre and protein meant I was unable to satiate my appetite. The years without zinc, Iron, B12 and Omega 3 and 6 had taken its toll. Plus a chronic lack of calcium means I now have early on-set Osteoporosis. 

What’s the lesson in this cautionary tale of woe? A balanced diet that includes all food groups is the safest and healthiest one. I still have meat-free Mondays, but I enjoy taco Tuesday with alacrity!

Maybe meat is murder, but it forms an essential part of our diet. It should be up to the individual to decide for themselves what they choose to eat. Instead of being coerced or shamed into changing your diet, people need to be presented with all the facts (whether environmental or health) so they can make up their own mind. If you are not free to decide for yourself, you place one foot on the road to tyranny.

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