What Should We Eat? (Part 1)
It's time to think seriously about what we put in our mouths. Food affects a whole host of issues: climate change, world poverty, fairtrade, health and finance. I spent a fascinating day on Saturday discussing these issues with a range of interesting speakers, and heard some challenging new ideas.
The event was organised by the Powys Transition and Low Carbon Communities Network, so you can probably imagine the audience demographic. Many of us seemed to be very environmentally aware, most likely arriving at the event ready to be told that a locally sourced, organic diet, low on meat and dairy, would be best for all concerned.
The first speaker to challenge this preconception was Patrick Holden, ex head of the Soil Association and campaigner for organic food. It was unsurprising to hear him speak passionately about the need to remove chemical fertilisers from our farming and the need to move away from industrial farming. Our soils have now been mined for all their nutrients and will not longer maintain yields even with chemicals. We now need to return fertility to the soil, by planting grass and clover. The problem with this, however, is how is a farmer to make money if they have no crops and have returned their field to grass?
The answer, Patrick says, is to put ruminants on the land. Add sheep and cows to feed off the grass, and they can then be sold to bring income to the farmer.
The process of refertilising the soil would allow crop rotation, so you'd move the animals around every year or two, and grow crops on the fields which have been fertilised.
Patrick's view was that this farming approach should be reflected in our diets, and we should consume an average of 70% meat.
So what about the risks to our health and the planet if we farm and eat in this way?
I soon realised that Patrick has an answer to everything, and his method and argument was extremely well thought through. I don't agree with it, but here's how he addresses the potential pitfalls in his plan.
On health, Patrick claims that the idea that animal fats are bad for you is false. This was a claim made in the COMA report in the early 1980s and health guidelines were swiftly issued to encourage lower fat diets. This also changed farming, and leaner animals were bred with less harmful animal fat. Apparently the COMA report also talked about the risks of sugar, and Patrick suggests that the sugar lobby pushed the media to go in hard on animal fats, and that actually the risks of animal fat are much lower.
A quick scan of recent nutritional papers shows that Patrick has a point. Some of the content in the COMA report is being questioned. However, this line jumped out at me:
"In the context of rising obesity levels in most countries around the world, the fact that fat is the most energy dense nutrient (at 9kcal per gram compared to alcohol at 7kcal per gram and protein and carbohydrate at 4kcal per gram) means that reducing high fat foods in the diet is generally a component of most strategies for weight loss."
Surely claiming that animal fat isn't bad for you is a bit of a stretch?!
Now, onto the climate change issue. We know that cows emit methane and that animal agriculture is a massive contributor to our carbon emissions. So how does Patrick's model get around that?
Again, he disputes the available evidence. Current figures include the destruction of the rainforest which, Patrick says, should not be part of farming figures (despite the fact that the destruction is to provide farmland for animals). He says that there has always been a methane cycle, for example huge numbers of bison used to roam the plains in the USA, and now that has simply changed to cows being farmed for consumption. He claims that fossil fuels are the problem that is within our grasp to solve, not animal agriculture.
I'm not sure we had droves of bison in the UK that would make up for the 9.7 million cattle we have at the moment.
Patrick presented a vision of the quaint, small scale, traditional farmer, who can mimic nature by using crop rotation and ensure that people can eat a high meat diet from local well looked after animals.
This simply isn't possible. We don't have the land available to do this. If people are going to eat a 70% meat diet, the only way of satisfying this demand would be to use forms of industrial farming.
It's fairly clear from existing evidence, that Patrick is burying his head in the sand when it comes to the health and climate change aspects of his approach to farming. He may want to dispute these facts, and he may be challenging the 'anti ruminant lobby', but at some point he will need to wake up to the realities we are facing.
I was going to blog about some of the other speakers at this fascinating event, but that will have to wait for another day!