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To meat or not to meat: Why Veganuary might not be the environmental saviour you think it is

To meat or not to meat: Why Veganuary might not be the environmental saviour you think it is

Veganuary the simple commitment to eat a plant-based diet for the month of January has exploded in popularity in recent years. According to an official survey, over 582,000 people around the world took part in the challenge last year and that number is expected to increase in 2022. This reflects the huge uptake in the vegan diet on the whole over the past decade: in 2014 only 150,000 people were registered as vegan. This number jumped to a whopping 600,000 by 2019. Reasons behind the choosing the lifestyle vary but largely centre around two main points: animal welfare and environmental benefits.

A sustainable food system has to involve eating local, seasonal foods that have been responsibly sourced as much as possible. January is one of the least bountiful months when it comes to seasonal fruit and vegetables in the UK: in order to boost the vegan diet in this month particularly, a huge amount of additional food is imported. Increased air miles dramatically escalate the carbon footprint of the foods you consume. A 2019 study found that air-freighted vegetables have five times the environmental impact than UK-grown produce.

The Ethical Butchers beef farms raise cattle in the most natural way possible

(The Ethical Butcher)

Of course, there is no doubt that veganism has environmental benefits, but oversimplified statistics and a lack of criticism around the negative farming practices that are just as prevalent in produce as they are agriculture has allowed a dangerous narrative to thrive around veganism. That is: that eating plant-based is wholly good for the environment, and eating meat is inherently bad for it, when the reality is a lot more complicated. This is the reasoning behind the Ethical Butchers Regenuary campaign. Launched in 2020 by co-founders Farshad Kazemian and Glen Burrows, Regenuary aims to tackle the misinformation around Veganuary and highlight the various ways that regenerative farming can help the environment.

Regenuary was inspired by Veganuary and specifically the lack of importance the movement places on sustainability and provenance, Burrows tells me. I saw ads from fast food brands offering highly processed meat replacements and the whole movement seemed to be looking very much in the wrong direction with brands using it to greenwash even more highly processed foods. Burrows himself was a vegetarian for 25 years before he launched the Ethical Butcher with business partner Kazemian. He admits that the original intention of Regenuary was to directly target Veganuary and the common practice of simply replacing industrially produced meats with industrially produced meat alternatives. Three years later, the narrative has changed, with Regenuary hoping to encourage everyone to make lower impact food choices.

Matt Chatfields aged mutton product cull yaw has taken the UK restaurant scene by storm

(The Cornwall Project)

In terms of how our food choices can help the planet, it can be reductive to say eating X way is good and Y diet is bad. Food systems are multifaceted, and farming in particular agriculture encompasses everything from poorly managed battery farms to free range, organic systems that put quality of life and environmental benefit at the forefront. I think the direction the vegan movement is heading is terrible for both planet and human health, says Matt Chatfield of The Cornwall Project. To produce soya on the level needed they will rely on the same system that created the green revolution (third agricultural revolution), which is centred on chemicals and monoculture. I dont believe in this system but one where the sun is the fuel and ruminants are the engine. Chatfield has been key to bolstering awareness of regenerative farming. His aged mutton product cull yaw has taken the UK restaurant scene by storm, popping up on menus everywhere from Mangal 2 to Brat. Cull yaw is the meat that comes from female ewes that are too old to breed anymore. The sheep are grazed for longer, allowing them to put back into the land and live a better life.

Sheep are called golden hooves, Chatfield tells me. For me the most important thing is to get ruminants grazing outside all year round. They are the driving force behind getting organic matter below ground and storing that all important carbon. For every per cent increase in organic matter in the soil, you can hold an extra 20,000 litres of rain. The relationship between grazing animals and overall soil quality is incredibly interlinked. If done properly and under adequate circumstances animals can infinitely improve soil quality, which allows other elements of the natural environment to shine.

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Regardless of whether youre consuming meat or not, the messaging around Veganuary fails to account for the complicated nuances within all kinds of food production and consumption. Gordon Ker, founder of Blacklock, touches on this, saying: Eating sustainably all stems from questioning where your food comes from. Thats why #Regenuary hits a particularly pertinent cord. It asks us all to make better-informed choices about the food we buy and its effect on the environment and to source as much of your food from producers who use regenerative farming methods, where possible. He talks about the importance of consuming meat in moderation and ensuring that when you do eat meat it comes from responsible and sustainable sources. Farming is everything. Plants release chemicals that attract animals to eat certain parts and leave others which assists their growth, manure fertilises the soil, which in turn leads to greater plant life, ultimately absorbing carbon into the ground, adds David Taylor, head chef at Grace and Taylor on the Hampton Manor grounds. If you are able to choose meat that is responsibly farmed then that is a great step. However, all our pockets have different depths and pricing gets very steep, very quickly so easily becomes unaffordable and inaccessible for many. Eating real food is the most important thing, highly processed foods are creating deeply damaging impacts to the climate, and, in turn, to our health, so by just cutting those out, you will be able to make a substantial difference.

The Ethical Butchers lamb is guaranteed to be pasture-fed and free of any unnatural additives

(The Ethical Butcher)

Burrows describes regenerative farming as being outcome based rather than being a set of prescriptive methods as you would find within, say, organic. Put very simply it means the farmer is operating a model of continuous improvement and reacting to this and feeding back into the system. He tells me that you can measure improvement based on biodiversity and carbon content of the soil with more complex ecosystems being far more resilient to change. It is conversations around these specific elements that he feels are missing from the messaging around Veganuary. Even now, after what I believe is seven years of Veganuary, there is little to no talk within the campaign about how to assess low or high impact foods, just as long as they do not contain any animal based products, says Burrows. Whilst its true that poor animal agriculture is very damaging to the planet, a large part of this is because of how crops are produced to feed those animals. However, those same production methods produce crops for us. Industrial GMO mono crops produce vegan foods and these are not sustainable let alone regenerative.

The popularity of the Veganuary movement can be closely linked to a growing awareness of how the foods we eat impact the environment and the overall wellbeing of the world. But, as Burrows puts it, simply cutting out animal foods and replacing them with highly processed alternatives will do no good for the planet. There needs to be nuance in these conversations, and an understanding that simply cutting out meat is not the be-all and end-all answer to saving the planet. Chatfield summarises this well: Animals have to be part of the agricultural system if we are to reverse climate change and feed people.

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