Give it up, hero George, and learn how to cook.
By Frank Armstrong
In an article published in the last edition of Village George Monbiot exhibits a surprising naiveté towards veganism for a writer who is generally authoritative, and clearly a big Village favourite. He recalls how he had “tried it for 18 months and almost faded away”; although he concedes that he “may have managed the diet badly”.
The first point to make here about veganism is that it is not purely a ‘diet’. A vegan can consume tray loads of junk food or arguably the healthiest diet available: a whole-food, plant-based regimen.
It is a social movement grounded in a philosophical position that rejects the use of other animals by human animals and promotes equality of consideration for all sentient beings. Its origins are recent: in 1944 Donal Watson broke from mainstream vegetarianism to found the Vegan Society, and there is no Das Kapital for adherents to follow. Unlike most other political ideologies it does not merely seek to regulate inter-human relationships but extends into complex human relationships with the natural world including how we produce food and other materials.
Reflective vegans such as Roger Yates of the Irish-based Vegan Information Project acknowledge that not every position has been worked through. Indeed the utilitarian philosophical pronouncements of one of its leading voices Peter Singer are regarded with horror by many in the movement.
The commoditisation of animals into chattel is anathema to veganism, but there are many involved who regard the complete overthrow of capitalism as a necessary prerequisite for its flourishing. Ironically, it is in Silicon Valley, a hotbed of capitalism, that many of the alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs are being developed.
George Monbiot previously seems to have allowed his own failure to nourish himself adequately to sway his views on the issues involved. Of course if humans were obligate carnivores like cats it would be hard to make arguments in favour of veganism. But Monbiot and the rest of us evolved from herbivorous primates, and those on well-planned vegan diets positively thrive: a host of epidemiological studies, most famously the China Study, have shown higher life expectancy and lower morbidity for those on plant-based diets. The position of the American Dietetic Association is that: “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes”.
Of course there are economic and environmental imperatives for veganism. In ‘Animal Liberation’, Peter Singer claims: “[T]hose who claim to care about the well-being of human beings and the preservation of our environment should become vegetarians for that reason alone. They would thereby increase the amount of grain available to feed people elsewhere, reduce pollution, save water and energy, and cease contributing to the clearing of forests”. The livestock sector accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. The livestock and fishing sectors don’t pay their external costs – especially environmental and health costs – and are usually heavily subsidised.
But in the end Monbiot accepted the arguments of Simon Fairlie articulated in his book with the curious title ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance’ (2010).
Fairlie accepts that the current dominant method of producing meat, by feeding cattle grain and soya, is unsustainable but argues for giving food waste to pigs (some of which was banned after BSE and Foot and Mouth). In Fairlie’s schema pig meat should become more widely available since pigs ‘convert’ feed very economically into flesh. Ruminant animals meanwhile should be restricted to feeding on grass, straw and surplus grains. His prescriptions amount to a reversion to pre-industrial agriculture with far lower consumption of meat than at present.
But even Fairlie’s approach is wholly inadequate and inappropriate for a global population that has risen from 1 billion in 1800 to over 7 billion – over half of whom now live in cities – today (with this set to rise to 70% by 2050). Raising animals for small-scale slaughter in cities would present a significant disease risk. To produce meat for the masses there must be industrial scale. So Fairlie’s ideas are dependent on mass re-ruralisation.
It is important to concede that there is a threshold up to which meat production is sustainable. Vaclav Smil has calculated that by abandoning the feeding of grain to animals the world could comfortably accommodate an output of 190 million tonnes of meat – two-thirds of current supply – if crop residues could be turned into animal feed, and pasture were used more efficiently. In Smil’s view universal vegetarianism is not necessary or desirable even though animals are just better at digesting some things than humans, notably grass and food waste.
On Smil’s model everyone in the world could eat meat, if they wanted to, so long as individual consumption was kept at around 15-30 kg a year: roughly what the average Japanese person eats. But average meat consumption in Ireland is 87.9 kg a year; to get to Smil’s sustainable levels would involve cutting down by at least two thirds the amount of meat currently consumed there (15 kg a year works out at just 41 grammes a day).
Meat-eating is addictive. This is observed in the Middle East where meat from locally raised animals, especially mutton from sheep, is highly prized, but according to Tony Allen (1994) “the pressure generated by this demand is greater than any market or other sanctions which might control it”. This process is observed around the globe. It is in part due to meat conferring high social status but also, it seems, because when we consume it habitually we alter the bacterial composition of our guts.
According to a paper by Norris, Molina and Gerwirz, (2013) the human gut is: “a highly innervated organ possessing its own nervous system known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) that is in constant communication with the central nervous system (CNS) through nerves such as the vagus, which directly connect portions of the gut to the brain”. This leads them to the hypothesis that bacteria actually control host appetites. That this should be the case is not surprising as “over three billion years of evolution have honed the capacities of bacteria to exploit their environments”. Human consumption of foodstuffs nourishes specific bacterial strains: “a system of selection exists based on the positive-feedback relationship between the particular nutrients consumed by the host and the bacterial composition in the gut such that this system leads to stable attractors of bacterial composition and host behavior”.
Since the choice of one sort of food over another is often determined by the pleasure given, while the amount consumed can be determined by feeling “full”, the authors believe that “there is some evidence that bacteria may be able to modulate human reward systems based on dopaminergic activity and to modulate feelings of satiety based on the presence of peptide YY (PYY)”. This may explain why, after a lapse of time, cravings and desires for certain categories of nutrients decline. Even the most dedicated carnivore can learn to forget.
Revealingly, Professor T Colin Campbell indicates that low-level consumption of animal products (3-5%) does not diminish the benefits of the whole-food plant-based diet he recommends but argues: “When we go the whole way, our taste buds change and remain changed, as we begin to acquire new tastes that are much more compatible with our health’ (2013,). This may be because “diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the gut microbiome (David et al, 2014)”.
Thus when Monbiot says that he intends “at least to keep cutting my consumption of animal products, and to see how far I can go”, it would appear that he will find it difficult to alter his eating habits permanently because he will fail to alter the bacterial composition of his gut. In order for it to feel less like a battle, he needs to go the whole way.
In any event the extension of compassion to all sentient beings provides the best starting point for making the change permanent. Only that motivation makes it possible for someone to get over their cravings.
It is far easier for someone to identify with the pain and suffering of another animal than weigh up the competing claims of environmentalists, economists and epidemiologists. But new studies have also shown that plants may actually feel pain (although the curling of a plant’s leaves is quite distant from the shrieking of a slaughtered large mammal, for most).
Veganism shouldn’t be any more expensive than an omnivorous diet in spite of a perverse subsidy regime. Moreover, as our numbers grow the range of food alternatives and other substitutes will too. A great gastronomy can be developed using plants alone: humanity currently eats only about 600 varieties out of the hundreds of thousands that are available. The vegetarian cooking of India is among the best in the world. George Monbiot should learn how to cook.