I was asked an interesting question at West Midlands VegFest on Sunday. Are you a vegan? While you might think that would be a question you'd know the answer to instantly, I hesitated for a moment before saying no.
I do eat a predominantly plant-based diet. So that's vegetables, fruit, beans, rice, but no meat, fish, eggs or dairy. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the food is delicious, and it makes me more careful about what I'm eating. So rather than transferring something from the freezer to the oven, I'm following recipes and making things from scratch - like these delicious deep fried "chicken" wings!
Secondly, eating a plant based diet has a hugely positive effect on the environment. In fact, factory agriculture accounts for roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as the whole of the global transport sector combined.
And of course there is animal welfare. With plans currently on the table for another factory chicken farm in Clyro, I couldn't in all good conscience enjoy my KFC.
At Eighteen Rabbit we sell a cool selection of different vegan items - from wallets to chocolate to skincare.
But - I'm not a vegan. Every now and then I'll get a pizza from Dominos, cheese and all. When we're in Mexico I'll be enjoying some delicious chorizo. When I'm at relatives' houses I'll eat whatever my host has prepared for me. It may seem like a hopeless contradiction. But actually my "sustainable journey" which started at Seventeen Events and continues at Eighteen Rabbit, has taught me that perfection is rarely possible. What matters is doing your best, as often as you can, and not giving up altogether when you choose a less than optimal path.
So I couldn't genuinely call myself a vegan - though I may well one day. For now, I am a proud member of the Vegan Society and enjoying doing whatever I can to promote a plant based lifestyle.
There's an old joke:
Q: How do you know if someone's a vegan?
A: Don't worry, they'll tell you!
So apologies if I've fallen into that trap. But I do have a sense of humour about it! Happy World Vegan Day anyway :)
Some more info on the interesting Powys Transition event about food and farming.
After reeling slightly from Patrick Holden's claim that a 70% meat diet was best for our health and the environment, I then attended a much more palatable session with Helen Porter, representing Compassion in World Farming. Helen spoke about the poor treatment of farm animals in the UK, despite some recent changes in legislation. Battery cages, which allow each egg laying hen the space of about one A4 sheet of paper, are now banned in the EU. However, the legal 'enriched' cages allow just 20% more space.
Helen emphasised the need for consumer behaviour change in order for the situation to improve. If people put pressure on supermarkets, or avoid them completely and buy locally, eventually retailers will respond to what their customers want.
There was a lot of talk about the prevalance of farmers markets in France and the different attitudes to food there. I made the point that it's all very well for us in rural Wales to talk about buying from farm shops and markets, but for many that's just not an option. A tight budget in an urban area often means less ethical purchasing, so we need to work out how ethical eating can be equitable.
The afternoon session was a talk from a local farmer whose farm is currently shut down with TB. Mark Williams told of the stress and upset that TB has caused his family farm. Whilst a non meat eater like me is somewhat cynical to hear that farmers are so sad when they're cows are killed due to TB (they're born to die after all), you could see the genuine upset as Mark explained how TB infected cows are killed prematurely. Of course there's a financial aspect, but the early slaughter is just not what farmers expect or want.
A traditional cattle farmer speaking to a transition town audience is probably either brave or stupid. The audience didn't stray from stereotype and threw a barrage of questions about permaculture, biodynamics and organic farming at Mark. He knew his stuff though and talked about how farming had changed over the years but how he personally believed that chemical fertilisers were improving his livelihood.
On the TB front, Mark called for a controlled badger cull which was not well received by the audience. Currently vaccination rather than culling is used in Wales. Mark's experience didn't change my view that culling is not the answer, but hearing a farmers first hand story was a useful insight.
This event covered a range of issues around food, farming and how it relates to our diet. The issues are complicated and there are many vested interests. It stimulated a lot of debate at the event, and has left me with plenty to think about.
Big thanks to Powys Transition for organising it - oh and for the lovely vegan lunch ;)
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!