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January 5, 2022   6 mins

Curious how acceptable veganism has become. George Orwell scathingly described vegetarians as “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking to the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” Somehow, via Linda McCartney’s textured soya sausages, veganism has become a mainstream path, not just to health, but to a bright future. As George Monbiot, the high priest of British veganism, exhorted his Guardian readers, “The best way to save the planet? Drop meat and dairy.” It’s the cows. They belch methane.

The UK is a world leader in veganism, the first country to have a Vegan Society. Here, more than a million people will stop eating animal products this month as part of Veganuary, of which Monbiot is an “Ambassador”. After that, who knows? You may want — and the Ambassadors certainly desire — that you embrace the whole vegan testament, and deny yourself not just meat, fish, eggs and dairy, but all animal products. The wool jumper on your back. The leather shoes on your feet.

Of course, the success of veganism is no mystery at all. Vegans are absolutely correct in maintaining that plant-based food can be healthy, and that the welfare conditions of much of the globe’s livestock are pitiful. (On ethical grounds alone, I wouldn’t touch an intensively-reared pig with a bargepole, let alone with a knife and fork. And I’ve farmed for 20 years.) True too: Daisy the cow is implicated in climate-change. No sane or caring human could disagree.

Such is lower case veganism. Sensible, and sensitive. The problem comes with majuscule Veganism, which rages beyond animal ethics, diet and environmental concerns into a fundamentalist crusade untroubled by science, untouched by rationality. When humans killed God, they needed a replacement for religion. Upper-case Veganism is the latest faith for the lost middle classes.

A certain proof is offered by THIS IS VEGAN PROPAGANDA (& OTHER LIES THE MEAT INDUSTRY TELLS YOU) by animal rights activist Ed Winters, published by Vermillion this salutary month. A cursory glance down the contents list is sufficient taster of Veganism’s salvationism: “Veganism is the Moral Baseline,” “Our Past Shows Us Why Veganism Must Be Our Future,” “There’s No Such Thing as a Happy Farm Animal” (if you go to the website of Veganuary, there is a photograph of a woman petting a cute cow; if the cow is not contented, then Veganuary is exploiting the cow. ) “Veganism Could Save Your Life,” “A Vegan World Would Be Better for Everyone.”

Where does one begin? With The Fall, I suppose. For Vegans the omnivorism of early humans is an inconvenient truth, to be negated by counterfactuals (such as PETA’s memorable “We Don’t Have Carnivorous Teeth”), or avoided by the “That was history” excuse, as with the author’s, “Whatever happened tens of thousands of years ago… should have no bearing on determining whether or not what we do to animals is justified now.” Actually, human anatomy has changed remarkably little in the last million years. We still have canine teeth, and a stomach more resembling that of a dog than a sheep. Meat-eating is natural. It’s why you salivate over a plate of bacon.

Veganism, in rejecting our animal essential, elevates us above the creatures of the earth. It is speciesism disguised as correct-thinking. Ironically, we would not be the verbal, intelligent humans of Vegan perfectibility without meat. Harvard University evolutionary biologists Katherine Zink and Daniel Lieberman, nailed that truth in their paper “Impact of meat and Lower Paleolithic food processing techniques on chewing in humans,” Nature, 2016: “Whatever selection pressures favored these shifts [the bigging of the brain, development of speech], they would not have been possible without increased meat consumption combined with food processing technology.”

As with any half-decent religion, Veganism has an end-of-Eden story. “Huge amounts of the forests of the UK have,” Winters writes, “over time, been cleared and replaced with grass pastures to feed artificially produced, selectively bred animals, all so we can produce what is an absurdly damaging product.” (He means meat.) But are grass pastures intrinsically ecologically evil? Hardly. A traditional hay meadow can boast 40 different plant species per square metre — one of the most botanically rich habitats you are ever likely to find. Grazing by livestock is essential to their biodiversity; without grazing, the trees and the most vigorous grasses take over.

Just don’t expect a Vegan to tell you this. On the altar of Veganism, the meadow pipit, the meadow brown butterfly, and meadowsweet will be sacrificed. For all of their fine talk against exploitation, vegans are no friend to the animal. Because, if we all go Vegan, there will be no farm beasts outside specimens in unsustainable populations in zoos. Ermintrude, Chicken Little, and Shaun the Sheep will have to be mass culled.

And this extermination would have a calamitous effect on ecology. I have no wish to be a nerd about turd, but a cow produces, via its poo, a fifth of its own body weight in insects annually. In the British countryside an upwards chain of wild creatures feed on said insects, culminating in the apex predator, the fox (a determined scavenger of beetles in dung.) There are dung beetles which actually specialise in types of farmyard manure, such as Onthophagus joannae, which favours sheep poo. Get rid of the poo, and you get rid of the dung beetles. Why the decline in swallows in arable East Anglia where bovines are a rare sight? Not enough cow shit, in all likelihood.

What you can expect from a Vegan is the catechism that meat and dairy take up 83% of global agricultural land and provide only 18% of global calories. But there is good reason for the planetary extent of livestock. About two thirds of farmland is “marginal,” meaning little apart from grass and scrub will grow there because it is too dry, too steep, too rocky, too wet, too wind-blown. As a Masai cattle-herder and a Shetland shepherd will delight in explaining, livestock are extremely efficient when it comes to transforming stuff humans cannot eat into tasty stuff they can.

Veganism knows the cost of livestock farming, but not its value; it knows the value of plant-based food, but not its cost. Not all the soya for which Brazilian rainforest is felled goes into cattle feed, it goes into “meat free” burgers too. The intensively farmed arable lands of East Anglia — which grow the Vegan’s daily bread — suffer soil erosion to the tune of tonnes per acre annually. A recent study in the Environmental Science & Policy journal calculated that about 3.07 tonnes of soil are lost per hectare of agricultural land per annum in Europe, with the vast bulk coming off crop-land. At that rate Vegans will die of hunger before they drown in the rising sea of climate change.

Ah, climate change. Will Veganism save the planet by killing off methane-emitting farm animals? Ruminants do indeed produce methane, but then so does rice; methane from rice farming causes 3% of anthropogenic global warming. Ruminant methane from grazing cows, however, is virtuously recycled into the soil by being broken down into CO2 and absorbed by new grass. Unlike the methane produced by water-logged paddies. If the Vegan dire prophecies scare you, it’s worth mentioning that seaweed additives for cattle may reduce emissions by 82%.

We cannot eat our way out of climate change by going Vegan. Professor Frank Mitloehner of the University of California, a world expert on air quality, calculates that if the entirety of the US were to go vegan for one year, the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would amount to 2%. Something. But not the salvation of the planet.

And again, will no one consider the costs? Consider this: when did the West start getting ill? In the Seventies, when Western governments issued nutritional advice that demonised the saturated fats in meat, dairy and eggs and promoted carbohydrates as healthy food. The consequence is an epidemic of obesity. Winters talks about the “meat industry” as a monolith that puts profits before people, but what about the Vegan industry? Investors are pouring billions into alt-meat and dairy brands. Nestlé UK & Ireland supports Veganuary. Harrods and Volkswagen are taking part in Veganuary’s “workplace challenge.” Veganism has the fingerprints of Big Food all over its robes.

According to Mintel, Gen Z consumers are Veganism’s great hope, with over half (54%) of under 25s seeing the reduction of animal products as a good way to lessen humans’ impact on the environment. Big Vegan has done a job on them, and got them “flocking to the smell of ‘progress’”.  But Gen Z should be wary of the false prophets of Veganism.

If they really do care about the environment, they should  celebrate January by ditching the trainers in favour of a pair of leather shoes; synthetic trainers cause 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Then cancel the flight to Amsterdam; two years of Veganism would be required to offset the trip. Hell, buy a woollen jumper too, instead of a nylon one; nylon manufacture creates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. And then put back the supermarket’s Jasmine rice from Thailand, and tuck into a slice of local organic beef. Farm bullocks are not the problem. Fundamentalist Veganite bollocks are.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.