Veganism as a shining light in farming

John Davis, Co-Chair Greens for Animal Protection, and Diana Newson, Co-Convenor for the Green Party Animal Rights Policy Working Group, outline the reasons why farming plant-based food could be the solution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in food production.

Hazelnut tree
John Davis and Diana Newson

Whilst offering a criticism of veganism, Director of Green House think tank Anne Chapman seems to have a limited vision of what might be possible if we all pull together. Veganism provides a commercial incentive for the changes we want to see: reductions in numbers of livestock and all the problems attached; and increases in the production of plant-based foods. An example of the new direction a business can take is Hodmedod’s, which supplies top quality beans, pulses, and legumes from British farms. Rather than be an insult to British farming, veganism is providing the light that illuminates the direction some (or many) farms could take in this time of uncertainty. 

The food we eat, together with the supply chain that brings it from farm to fork, contributes as much as 30 per cent to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A chart produced by Our World in Data shows the foods that contribute most, and least. Neither vegans nor the Green Party are against farming in any way, and we think farmers should be supported to produce good, healthy, non-polluting, and safe food that not only helps achieve zero carbon but combats global warming by sequestering CO2.  Put simply, we need to start to move towards a more plant-based diet with the understanding that this may be gradual on an individual, family, and national level. Rather than argue over veganism, we need to seriously consider what foods will help reduce GHG emissions so that our children can enjoy a future. If this happens to coincide with less suffering for animals and healthier food, then so be it. Meat (and other animal products) in a person’s diet need to be highly reduced in quantity, and highly improved in quality (measured by environmental effects, health effects and compassion for our fellow beings).  

Over 60 per cent of UK crops are fed to livestock – plus a huge amount of genetically modified soya grown on deforested land. Of this input we get fewer calories back – sometimes much fewer, under 10 per cent for beef. Simple maths shows us that a reduction in the numbers of livestock would free up many of our cereals and grains, fruits and vegetables, and pulses and legumes, allowing them to be diverted for human consumption. In theory we could export food freely to other nations, or perhaps turn land over to wildlife or woodland. For people who say only food unfit for human consumption is fed to animals, perhaps we should stop making it unfit. For example, greatly increased levels of pesticide are allowed on animal food crops, and these crops are then banned for human consumption.  

Nuts about nuts

Another good source of protein rarely considered in the UK, unless it’s Christmas, is the production of nuts.  The UK now has a fraction of the tree cover it once had and we could reverse this by planting nut-bearing trees. At the end of the Second World War there were over 40,000 nut producers in the UK, whereas now there are just 40. Yet, nuts can be made into tasty meals and there are already many products on supermarket shelves to show for this.  

Nut trees rate lowest on a scale of GHGs produced and have a negative GHG contribution as opposed to all other food sources. History shows that the humble hazelnut has survived climate changes in the UK over thousands of years and has often been the staple food source for the UK population. It is no good just wringing our hands and asking what can be done about the current crisis or continuing to bury our collective heads in the sand. Electric cars alone will not do the job. We are on the road to self-destruction, and we need to make hard choices. Farmers can be paid to grow nut trees such as hazel, walnut and chestnut, and we can all enjoy their harvest. New supply lines will create new jobs in forestry and food processing.  

This takes us to the finances. For years we have been subsidising meat production in the UK through various methods such as subsidised animal feed. It can be argued that this was necessary to feed an impoverished nation after WW2, but it has continued too long, and now the massive, vested interests are aghast that change might be in the wind. Why should a UK taxpayer (let alone a vegan one) finance a system that will help destroy our climate? With the loss of EU subsidies, the UK Government needs to find a way to help the land-owning Tory base and is ready to launch ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) where farmers are paid to manage their land in environmentally sustainable ways. One critic said on Radio 4’s Farming Today: “They’ll be paying farmers to breathe next!” Looking through the various initiatives that will attract payments it’s not hard to see why that was said. Many of the payments will be for non-food production that they should take routine responsibility for (such as managing hedgerows or rectifying their own pollution of waterways). Surely being paid to grow crop-yielding trees seems an obvious choice – and, of course, they get to sell the nuts. 

No one can know the real extent of the climate change that we are going to face, but farmers, scientists and people living in coastal areas are already seeing the effects. Crop trees can help enormously with the prevention of GHG accumulation by sequestering CO2 for the lifetime of the tree – which can be from 100 years for hazel, to 1,000 or more for chestnut. Or to put it another way, instead of subsidising farmers to produce high GHG-yielding products, we shift the subsidies to low GHG-yield products. It seems simple and sensible when you put it that way.

Nuts come in their own packaging so do not need to be packed in plastic, remain viable for over a year and are also fine without refrigeration. Also, crop trees stabilise the soil, help prevent flooding, and create habitats for the rapidly declining populations of wild birds and insects. The leaves can be mulched for organic fertiliser. 

Let us not kid ourselves that there will not be problems on the way, though. There are challenges, as with all farming. However, the UK has spent billions on research into livestock husbandry and disease control (most famously BSE and Foot and Mouth), and in the past few years on the pointless and cruel badger cull – which is a sop to the dairy industry. There have been whole governmental departments dedicated to the meat and dairy industries, so surely it’s not unrealistic to suggest that by diverting these enormous resources we can find solutions to our problems. Hopefully organic methods would be employed, such as those already shown to be effective at farms such as Tolhurst Organics where they successfully compete against their ‘non organic’ close neighbours by employing more staff (five full-time staff and one researcher) – with the result of being more productive per hectare and having no outside materials brought into the farm, which is a fraction of the size.

Rather than being a threat to farmers, increased growing of food plants for people, including nuts, beans and legumes, might just contribute to the solution. In closing we should underline that no-one is suggesting this can be done overnight, but we must recognise that we need to make changes and we need to start very soon. We all want to see reductions in GHGs, pollution, deforestation, ill-health and cruelty, and concomitant increases in environmental, human and animal well-being.