Meat . . . or veg?

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Meat . . . or veg?
Asparagus and boiled egg for a delicious seasonal breakfast.
Asparagus and boiled egg for a delicious seasonal breakfast.

Mary Green looks at the implications of what we eat . . .

It looks as if we are going into April without having any really cold winter. It has of course been unusually wet and the ground is sodden. However, most native wildlife can manage this, and the more trees and fully grown plants there are, the better the land absorbs water.
It’s not been especially warm either (unlike last February) so most flowers, insects and birds are arriving at the normal time, a good sign for their survival. My plum tree, though, started to blossom earlier than I have ever recorded it, so I just hope the frost doesn’t come back!
I promised to look more into the wider implications of meat eating this time. I eat four or five portions of meat a week – and at least 50 of vegetables or fruit. Both have implications for our environment.
There is evidence that eating too much meat harms the planet. Methane gas caused by farm animals’ flatulence contributes to global warming. Feeding animals on grain or soya uses up resources which we could grow to eat ourselves, and often causes deforestation in other countries. Growing less soya and grain to feed animals could slow down loss of habitat and provide more land for crops to feed humans directly.
However, sustainable pastoral farming is a rich habitat for wildlife, much better than arable farming. Methane is a relatively short-lived gas compared to carbon dioxide, and in moderate numbers grazing animals and their gases have always been here. Animals don’t have to be fed on grain – they can be grass-fed on flower-rich meadows, make use of uplands not suitable for direct food-growing, and even graze in woodland. Their manure is precious organic fertiliser.
There are farmers all over England signing up to pasture farming, some combining it with partial rewilding. The establishment of sustainable agriculture probably depends on including grazing animals. Intensive rearing of animals, though, is bound to be harmful, to habitat and to climate change.
What this means is that it’s not just the name of what you eat, but what it actually is and where it comes from that counts. So, if you are a meat eater you can cut down on the amount of meat. You can make sure it comes from a sustainable farm and is free range, fed on meadow grass, not grain or soya. This costs more, but not if you eat it less often. You can also avoid processed meat with chemicals in, which have been associated with health problems. Since having bowel cancer, I have stopped eating processed meats with nitrates and phosphates. You can get sausages and bacon made with just salt and spices, but they cost more and are not local.
You might find it difficult to balance health and environment. Chicken may be healthier than red meat but is likely to be fed on grain and soya so will have bad environmental effects. Chicken used to be a rare treat – in my childhood lots of people had it for Christmas. Chickens were kept in small numbers, fed out of doors on kitchen scraps and what they could forage. Similarly, many people kept a pig, again fed on scraps or foraging in woodland. They were not an environmental threat. Farmed intensively, they are a major threat.
For health and environment, you can eat as much seasonal vegetables and fruit as you like, buying them as locally as you can. It helps if they are grown organically, but, grown without pesticides and herbicides, they don’t have to be certified organic to be a better choice.
Trying to buy seasonally is hard here. At the local shop in winter I could buy two kinds of imported avocado but no seasonal sprouts, parsnips or swedes. You should be able to get local seasonal fruit and veg, including stored English apples and pears, even in winter.
The environmental impact of eating entirely vegan food is harder to know. You will want to eat complimentary proteins – grains, pulses and nuts. Almost all pulses – beans, peas, lentils and the multitude of soya products – are imported. Only two per cent of soy beans are certified not to come from cleared forest land.
We could grow far more pulses in Britain, and used to, so that is something we could change. Most nuts are imported. We used to harvest and grow nuts – another casualty of orchards disappearing. We could do again; especially filberts and cobnuts which are a form of hazel nut, and walnuts.
We could use more of our own grains, especially barley, oats and old varieties of wheat. We would have to grow them differently, though, as now most grain fields destroy the natural environment.
There are transport and packaging issues with most current “vegan foods.” If you want to buy basic foods like flour, nuts and beans without plastic, there is a shop in Bromsgrove that sells everything loose.
If we all went vegan, the implications for our environment would be huge. In Western Europe our biodiversity depends on land being grazed by animals. If we had no farm animals, we would need wild deer, cattle, horses, sheep and goats to maintain the balance. They would have to be controlled by a higher level predator: either us, culling them (in which case, why not eat them), or reintroduced lynx, wolves and bears if we “rewild”.
We can’t live and farm our plant foods with these wild carnivores around us, so we would have to separate out the wild areas from where we lived and farmed. I don’t like this model, but it has been suggested as a solution. I think it would separate people from nature even more than we are now.
Some of the other things you eat will undoubtedly be processed and imported, but you can keep this to a minimum and look out for things with only a few ingredients. Remember the old adage – don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. Try to avoid palm oil, which is rarely sustainable, or any ingredient you wouldn’t use yourself when cooking from scratch.
One thing which there is no argument about is that refined sugar is not good for you. It was never a natural part of human diet, and we don’t need it. It’s been calculated that getting rid of all sugar plantations would mean people need never again be short of drinking water. Huge areas of land could become biodiverse again. People would be healthier. However, it wouldn’t be any good if we used artificial sweeteners instead, as these cause other problems.
There are lots of natural ways of eating sugars in fruit and vegetables. And 100 per cent cocoa chocolate is wonderful – you can even buy it in Alvechurch! You can make a start by just noticing how much sugar they put in manufactured savoury foods, from baked beans to sausages, and so-called healthy foods like probiotic yoghurts and plant milks. However, getting rid of sugar would have a huge effect on our culture. A sugar tax on drinks is one thing but asking the WI not to make cakes is another!
If you are trying to lower your carbon footprint by not using a car, it’s hard to buy food these days, with the demise of local shops. Just having someone else deliver it doesn’t really help. I was remembering how we used to eat when I was young. There was a local baker, a grocer, a butcher and a greengrocer/fishmonger who each delivered once a week, so there were only four delivery vans a week in our village, except of course the daily post and milk.
Nowadays there seem to be so many deliveries that our little dead-end road is always busy. I guess the way to minimise the effects of driving on your food choices is to buy as locally as you can and plan ahead!
There is a real opportunity now to change our farming practices and with them our eating habits and the way we see our environment. Cutting down on meat and only eating sustainably-reared meat would improve our environment, especially biodiversity, and our health.
Growing more of our own plant foods, including grains, nuts and pulses as well as vegetables and fruit, would benefit us all. But it would mean a huge change in our farming practices. Planting more trees means integrating them into our farming as well. It’s all possible – I’m just not sure if we will.
Perhaps all countries will agree to take action. We can but hope. In our own way we can look at our food choices and their impact on the world. And carry on enjoying both the food and the wonderful environment we live in.

To remind you, here are some photographs of this environment around us here in April.