In a recent article in The Guardian newspaper Isabella Tree made a case against veganism on the grounds of its potential negative environmental impacts. Her argument was that calls for us all to switch entirely to plant-based foods will lead to an increase demand for industrially grown soya, maize and grains and that we should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides.
The article addresses the issue of industrial livestock production stating, “we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable.” Tree uses most of her article however, to describe the experience of herself and her husband in converting their farm from a conventional arable and dairy business to extensive grazing, using free-roaming herds of old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and red and fallow deer, in what she calls a “rewilding project”. This has led to a vast increase in biodiversity in both flora and fauna which she describes in detail to back up her argument that eating less but ‘better’ (i.e. environmentally sustainably produced) meat is a good thing for the planet.
What we eat is a personal ‘ethical’ choice based on compromise and priorities. I suspect that for many vegans, the ethics of industrial livestock and dairy production outweigh the ethics of industrial crop production. Addressing the issue of the environmental sustainability of a vegan diet, Tree makes the point well that we should make as informed a choice as possible and be aware of the potential impact of that choice so that we can balance our personal ethical priorities better. But the article makes another important point, although unintentionally. “For 17 years we had struggled to make our conventional arable and dairy business profitable, but on heavy Low Weald clay, we could never compete with farms on lighter soils,” says Tree. In other words, they were farming their land in the wrong way and they have now gone back to farming in a way that is suitable for their land.
UK farming evolved over centuries with different regions specialising in different farming systems. For livestock and dairy this is evidenced by the selection of regional breeds suited to the environments they were being raised in. The advent of EU farming subsidies distorted the market and much of this regional specialisation ceased. In many ‘livestock’ counties ridge and furrow fields, which had been grass since the middle ages and supported dairy and meat production, were ploughed up for monoculture wheat. Initially yields from these fields were good – due to fertile soils from the extensive period of being in ley – but now with the soil depleted they are totally reliant on, “high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides.”
We often forget that farming is about providing an income for the farmer. Individual farmers have to make choices about how they farm, based on economics. Subsidies have distorted the UK farming system and many farmers are now economically ‘locked-in' to high-input, environmentally unsustainable production systems which are not the best for their land and may not sit well with their personal ethics. Many are not able to afford the transition to a system better suited to their land and thus requiring less inputs, as carried out by Isabella Tree and her husband.
The government has stated that it will continue farming subsidies after Brexit but that these will be for environmental schemes. In the past, schemes such as ‘wildlife’ field margins have (literally) tinkered at the edges. As we look forward, policies need to be put in place that allow more farmers to get away from the ‘one size fits all’ production system of wheat and oilseed rape which dominates agriculture today. Environmentally sustainable production systems, such as re-wilding or organic production, are alternatives but they are no silver-bullet. The UK has big regional differences and we should celebrate and embrace that diversity and use the opportunity provided by Brexit to assist farmers to get back to farming with their land, in a way that requires the minimum of inputs.
Professor David Pink is Emeritus Professor of Crop Improvement, Harper Adams University, and trustee of the Food Ethics Council