Is eating no meat actually doing more harm than good?

18 05 2017

I spend more time on the internet arguing wih vegetarians/vegans than any other group of people……  I so wish they would get off their high horses and start supporting farmers who do the right thing…. and that goes for all you meat eaters out there who buy meat from supermarkets….  STOP IT!!

This opinion piece was originally published by Farmdrop on 4th May 2017.

The younger generation are positively redefining the way we see ourselves in relation to food and the environment.

I grew up in the late 1960s and so I consider myself a bit of a hippy. That decade marked a fundamental mind-set shift in the way people saw themselves in relation to the world. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint where these ideas came from; many of them simply seemed to come through intuition.

I mention this because, for the first time since the late 1960s, I feel like another shift in consciousness is occurring among the younger generation, particularly amongst so called ‘millennials’.

There is a new field of scientific study called epigenetics which shows that all living organisms constantly interact with their external environment and that these influences can prompt changes in gene expression which can be passed down through the generations. Plants, for example, have epigenetic responses to the environment they grow in, as a result of which a plant may have a subtle difference in its genotype from its parents. Even more interestingly, certain epigenetic traits can stay dormant for several generations, only to find full expression at a later time.

So I suspect that the changing shift in consciousness towards food production and sustainability may actually be partly epigenetic. Perhaps the radical energy of the 1960s is now finding expression among millennials, albeit in a slightly different way.

For these reasons, as an organic farmer of almost 45 years, I have never been more optimistic about the future of farming. However, I am growing increasingly concerned about the large number of people turning to diets that may not necessarily be either healthy or sustainable.

If we are to move to a genuinely sustainable food system, then I think we all need to become much better informed about the sustainability or otherwise of different food systems. Only then we will be better placed to challenge the huge amounts of misinformation on so-called sustainable diets which are encouraging people to avoid all meats and animal products, despite the reality that in many (if not most climates and regions) it is difficult to farm in a truly sustainable way without livestock.

What is the problem with food and farming?

It has become a cliché but it’s true: supermarket food is not cheap and comes at a heavy price. The industrial application of nitrogen fertiliser has contaminated our water systems and atmosphere with dangerous nitrates; the subsidised production of fructose corn syrup has driven an increase in obesity and diabetes; and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals has caused a resistance to these drugs amongst humans.

The real problem is that none of the costs of all this damage is charged to the people who use it and, on the other hand, the positive effects of sustainable farming are not supported.

The current policy framework supports a dishonest economic food pricing system, as a result of which, the best business case is for farmers to grow using industrial methods and for retailers to buy the commodity products from industrial farms, process the hell out of them, package them so the consumer knows nothing about their backstory and then make a profit by turning that around.

So we need new incentives and disincentives, which ensure that the polluter pays and those who farm in a truly sustainable way are better rewarded for the benefits they deliver.

But what are the most sustainable farming methods?

There is no doubt that agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributor towards climate change. Cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is very important but to actually reverse climate change – take CO2 out of the atmosphere – then we need to change the way we farm, particularly in relation to the way we look after the soil.

This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, thereby mitigating harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Britain’s soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than total annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Moreover, high levels of organic matter are also the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change and ultimately improving our health.

The problem is that industrial farming methods have depleted organic matter in the soils. In the East of England, around 84% of the land’s carbon rich soil has been lost and continues to disappear at a rate of 1 to 2cm per year. That represents an enormous amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Sustainable food systems are therefore about much more than simply avoiding nasty chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices.

It is possible for farmers to reduce the emissions from agriculture by re-introducing rotations in the way they use their land – introducing a grass and clover phase that builds soil organic matter, which is then grazed by ruminant animals on rotation, who fertilise the soil further, and results in an ability to grow healthy crops.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.

How can you have the most healthy and sustainable diet?

Everyone, at least in principle, wants to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, but we are all very confused about how to do it. If you asked 10 people what the most sustainable and healthy way to eat was then you would probably get 10 different answers. A few might say vegetarian or vegan (the numbers eating a vegan diet has increased by 360% in the last decade) but I think that a large scale switch towards vegetarianism may not necessarily be compatible with sustainability.

In my opinion, many people have been led astray by bad science. The tools used by scientific researchers in the past, and whose published papers have prompted changes in people’s diets, were not based on sound science. It was said that red meat and animal fats should be avoided, both because they are unhealthy and because ruminant animals (cows and sheep) are largely responsible for harmful methane emissions.

But it turns out that neither of those positions are necessarily true.

The study that prompted Governments in Britain and the United States to recommend people to reduce their intake of fats was not based on solid evidence. It is this study that encouraged the food industry to replace fats with added sugars, and we are only now understanding the damage these do to our health.

And the studies that recommended a reduction in red meat consumption on grounds of reducing its environmental impact only look at certain factors in isolation rather than the whole food system. Land-use is often considered as bad in all instances, even though raising livestock is sometimes the only productive land use option available. In roughly two thirds of the UK’s agricultural land area is grass and the only way we can turn that into a good soil that stores carbon and grows healthy crops is to have ruminant animals grazing on a rotation system to fertilise the ground.

These flawed assumptions have had significant consequences for the way people eat. Beef production has halved since the 1980s and the consumption of lamb, arguably the most sustainable grass-fed meat for the land, has plummeted. While new evidence is now showing that animals fats are good for our health and cattle grazed in the right way can actually reduce carbon emissions by creating fertile soils.

Where do we go from here?

My message is simple: a healthy diet should work backwards from the most sustainable way to farm, and that ideally means eating the foods produced by mixed farms using crop rotations which include a fertility building phase, usually of grass and clover grazed by cows and sheep, but also pastured pigs and poultry.

Industrial farming has been an extractive industry. We have dined out on the natural capital of the soil that previous generations have laid down for us. We need to fix that because the environment in which a plant or animal is produced goes a long way to determine its nutrient value when consumed by humans.

Is our future our past?

7 07 2016

At ten months, Chock the ox is already earning his keep around the farm. Photo: Steven French Family.

If there’s one thing most post peak oil commentators have given too little consideration to it’s how goods will be moved and how farms will function in our scary and fast approaching future.

Sure there’s the fraternity that talk about bicycles and walking and they’re on the right track, particularly if you’re lucky or wise enough to reside in a city or village.

However a means of energy or transport that doesn’t involve some form of technical reliance such as electric cars, high speed rail, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels or waver power, seems to be strangely missing from the dialogue. Certainly low-tech conveyances such as barges and sailing ships occasionally get a mention, and rightly so. But when the blindingly obvious is mentioned eyes often glaze over.


The one thing that’s almost always overlooked is using animals for transport and farm work.

Pretty much until the early 1900s it was animal power that kept civilization going. Yet today, a little over a half century since many rural people still used animal power, using animals to produce actual horsepower seems unimaginable.

Yet, a snapshot of 1900 could be a view of our future.

Back to the future

I’m lucky enough to live on the island of Tasmania, one of the seven states of Australia.

Much of Tasmania is highly fertile and we have a great climate. Although Tasmania may seem remote, our farmers have always been as keen to modernize in ways akin to our farming cousins in the US. The widespread adoption of tractors for farming happened here around the time of World War II.

But the time that I really want to focus on is the 1930s, when my parents were growing up and most farmers still relied on horses. The maternal side of my family farmed only a couple of miles away. Both families’ lifestyles and farming methods were similar and would have been typical of almost everyone who worked the land in those days. They had:

  • No electricity
  • No telephone
  • No internal combustion engine on the property

My dad’s parents did have a car but my mother’s family never drove. Nan and Grandpa never had a driver’s license even though they farmed another property a fifteen minute bike ride away.

A good living

The point is that they enjoyed a good standard of living, certainly by the standards of the 1930s but also, I suspect, by today’s standards. There was a vibrant social life centered around the little township of Whitemore, with several sporting teams and social functions usually held two or three nights a week. These people were not country yokels by any means. They were articulate and well traveled. Their farms were highly productive. And they used virtually no petroleum.

Yes, they had a little kerosene for their lanterns, and maybe grease and oil were used to lubricate moving parts on the horse-drawn equipment. But their use of petroleum was pretty much nonexistent compared with today.

There was a train-line not too far away and the children rode their bikes to the station to catch a steam-train to high school, a 45 minute trip. Nowadays the local children catch a bus for a one hour trip to their nearest high school. Much of the farm produce was delivered to the railway station by wagon where it was transported to markets.

Their water supply was pumped from the well thanks to a windmill and a hand pump.

Man and beast alone

Paddocks were plowed, worked and sown with horses. At harvest time horses pulled binders which tied the crops into sheaves. The sheaves were later forked onto horse drawn wagons and made into huge stacks not too far from the farmyard. During early winter a wood-fired traction engine (steam-engine) pulled a drum from farm to farm. A drum is a huge threshing machine which took 15 men to operate. It was belt-driven from the traction engine’s flywheel and it threshed the grain from the straw. These drums were still working around Tasmanian into the 1950s. They can still be seen in operation at some of our historic farming field days.

The point that I’m belaboring and repeating is that these farms used almost no petroleum, were highly productive, and farming families and laborers enjoyed a good standard of living.

Could we return to this style of living and farming? The answer is yes, but with some not-insurmountable difficulties.

Ramping up to face the effects of peak oil

First the number of heavy horses required would take decades to breed up. Also there are very few people around with the ability to work heavy horses. It’s a skill that I suspect not everyone has the ability to acquire. An ill trained or poorly driven horse is dangerous and it can take years to learn the skill necessary to work a horse properly.

The answer is oxen (we call them bullocks here in Australia). There’s no shortage of cattle and they are much more placid and easier to train than horses. Also their harness requirements are minimal and they are easy to feed and maintain. The only downside is that oxen are slower than the horse but hey, that’s not so bad, is it?

Up until the mid 1800s all animal power on farms was supplied pretty much by oxen, although the farmer may have had a light horse for riding or to pull a cart. In most American Western movies and TV shows horses are pulling the covered wagons that made up the wagon trains. In actuality, these covered wagons were mainly drawn by oxen. Possibly a slower but certainly a more sensible option, ox could pretty much live off the land they were passing through and didn’t suffer from many off the health issues of the horse.

Could oxen save the day? Quite possibly. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called for ox to be used as beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

Ramping up food production – conserving energy – a cash strapped economy – falling oil supply? Sounds familiar? How long before a leader of the western world pleads for a solution to the same problems? Or have they already but are looking in the wrong direction?

–Steven French for Transition Voice