The old adage “We are what we eat” is only partly true, at best.
We eat vegetables but we are not vegetables. Similarly, those of us who eat meat are, in a real sense, meat – but we are not chickens or pigs. And almost all humans would recoil at just the thought of eating another human.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what we eat defines who we are, what we feel and how we see our place in the world. As I explored in a previous column, whatever we eat has some kind of environmental and social impact. But it is also self-evident that some kinds of food have a greater impact than others.
The Caviar industry, for example, has led to the extinction of the Sturgeon in large parts of its native range – especially in the Black Sea. Elsewhere prawns are mass-produced using slave labour, as well as destroying Mangrove swamps, which are some of the most important habitats for wildlife on the entire planet.
Closer to home, the relationship between what we eat, the kind of food grown by UK farmers, and how those farmers will be supported by the Government, is one of the most important debates taking place now as a result of Brexit. So it should come as no surprise that I will continue my exploration of this debate in this column – an exploration I started here.
Reports are being published almost weekly now, by various groups seeking to influence that debate in the run-up to Environment Secretary Michael Gove publishing a new Agriculture Bill – which we now understand will appear in “the second half of 2018” – which to me means the Autumn.
At a recent consultation event Gove laid out his views on what sort of food should be being produced and consumed. He talked about food production being about “health, living longer more fulfilling lives, and a greater connection with the natural world.” He asked (rhetorically) whether farmers should be producing food that was healthy and good for the environment. And he emphasised the impact of the food we eat on our wellbeing, noting that diet and lifestyle were now the biggest factors affecting our health.
Given Gove’s politics it was obvious he was going to talk about how individuals have to make their own choices – whether to eat healthily or not, but he also recognised that Government, while not being the Nanny State, has a role to play – including as “an instrument to remove perverse incentives” – presumably referring to incentives that encourage people to eat unhealthily. He reiterated that he wanted to see a new agriculture policy support high quality food production but importantly, added a caveat
“food that’s good for us is good for the planet.” Now this is an interesting idea – and one that can be moulded to a variety of different viewpoints.
The Vegan Society recently published a report “Grow Green: Solutions for the farm of the future” in which they argued that farmers should be specifically supported to grow far more pulse crops – that is peas and beans, for human consumption.
Peas and beans are very healthy foods – high in protein and also plenty of other essential components of a health diet. Producing them avoids many of the problems associated with animal protein, even aside from the animal welfare issues. Pulses also have a very low carbon footprint and require little or no Nitrogen fertiliser, which is responsible for so much environmental damage, here and worldwide. As the Vegan Society study shows, we used to grow far more pulses that we do now – so some sort of incentive is needed to reverse that trend.
And if you think veganism and the wider issue of people reducing or stopping eating meat is a fringe issue, think again. A recent survey found that 12% of the UK population has given up eating meat. 12%. That’s nearly 8 million people. With a further 25% planning to reduce their meat consumption over the next 12 months. Taken together, that’s over a third of country. And even meat-lover and former vegan-baiting celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has said he is going to give “this vegan thing” a try.
Others are advocating that people reduce the amount of meat and dairy in their diet, and to be much more selective about how the meat and dairy they do eat, is produced. The Eating Better charity recently published its Eight Principles for better eating, covered here in the Guardian. Eating Better is as sceptical as I am about the use of Red Tractor as an indicator of anything, other than legal compliance; and recommends looking for labels from LEAF, and the Organic certification system. The organisations also looked at what “free range” really means and how important it is to find out where your meat/dairy is produced and under what conditions, if you are going to continue eating it.
The Dairy industry immediately hit back at the report, as you would expect, but it shows they are worried. And it’s not only the statistics on changing diets outlined above, that should make them worry. Recent stories such this one, where a dairy farmer was fined for illegally supplying water contaminated with nitrate fertiliser to his tenants; or this one – where effluent from a dairy farm killed wildlife in a local stream, do the industry no favours.
Nor does the increasing use of Maize instead of grass, to feed dairy cows. Maize, if not grown very carefully, can cause immense environmental problems – from the loss of farmland wildlife, to nitrate pollution, even leading to vital top-soil being washed off fields exacerbating urban flooding downstream. Lush has already highlighted the damage caused by growing Maize for biogas.
The debate around the future of farming in the UK continues to hot up. If you’re interested in contributing your views on how farmers should be supported in future, please send your views to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove at Defra. Various organisations have created easy to use portals to help you send in your views – sustainable food charity Sustain has one here and RSPB has one here.
If you care what you eat, make your voice heard.
This article first appeared in Lush Times.