Is animal agriculture guilty of ecocide?

With barrister Michael Mansfield making recent headlines for proposing a ban on the consumption of meat, Tim Thorpe, Campaigns and Policy Officer at The Vegan Society, explores the practical solutions to promoting plant-based diets.

Cows eating hay in indoor enclosure
Cows eating hay in indoor enclosure
Tim Thorpe

‘Eating meat is a crime against humanity and should be BANNED’ read the Daily Mail headline after recent comments made by Michael Mansfield QC. The high profile civil rights lawyer was talking at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference where he spoke about the idea of ‘ecocide’. He said: “I think when we look at the damage eating meat is doing to the planet, it is not preposterous to think that one day it will become illegal.”

This was sure to raise blood pressure as much as a diet of red meat and cheese, but the idea of ‘ecocide’ resonates with many in the environmental movement. Ecocide was defined by the late Polly Higgins QC, another barrister and life-long environmental campaigner, as: ‘damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, such that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been or will be severely diminished.’ 

Clearly the impacts of global agriculture fit this definition and there is now strong evidence that animal products are the primary driver of this destruction. 

The higher impacts of animal products are inescapable as they are driven by the inherent inefficiency of raising animals for consumption. Most of the calories consumed by animals are used up in metabolism and do not end up as usable protein. This means that vast areas of land are used to grow crops for animal feed and for grazing pasture, driving habitat destruction and reducing available land to grow plants for human consumption. Recent research has suggested that pasture-fed animals emit more gases than intensively farmed animals, resulting in a catch 22 for the industry.

Despite a rise in the number of vegans, vegetarians and ‘meat reducers’, there has been no decline in the overall consumption of animal products. So whatever the merits of a ban on meat, with consumption levels still so high, it is not on the horizon.

More practical proposals to consider

In June, the Green Party introduced a new policy stating that it will ‘actively promote an immediate transition from diets dominated by meat and other animal products to increasingly plant-based diets and to lifestyles using environmentally sustainable products derived from non-animal sources.’

Through our Grow Green campaign, The Vegan Society aims to promote economic measures that target food production, including changes to agricultural subsidies to better reflect the environmental impacts from different forms of agriculture. But this approach must also address imported animal products to avoid unfairly penalising UK farmers through the replacement of their products with even higher impact products from abroad.

Effective policies to reform farming should consider barriers as well as incentives. Often farmers are asset rich but cash poor and may not have the equipment and know-how to make the change from animal to plant-based production. Capital grant schemes targeted at farms that want to make this transition would enable farmers to manage the costs and risks that this brings. Research into new crop varieties, farming practices and processing technologies could also accelerate the rate of change.

Behaviour change

But changes in production must be matched by a shift in demand. The last few years have seen an increase in the availability of vegan options at restaurants and in supermarkets but there’s a long way to go before a vegan diet matches a non-vegan diet for convenience. Government should support this transition by guaranteeing at least one nutritionally balanced and sustainable plant-based option on the menu in every public sector institution.

These policy changes would put more power in people’s hands and address the issues of cost and convenience which have stalled a more rapid transition to plant-based diets. In the meantime, individuals can make a huge difference by transitioning away from animal products and joining The Vegan Society’s campaign to Plate Up for the Planet.

Recommended