The Meat Paradox: Does the vegan way of life stand up to scrutiny?

Full disclosure, this article is written by a committed omnivore. However, I am also committed to saving our environment, so I have set aside my dietary biases to deep dive into the vegan rhetoric with an open mind, so stay with me.

It is undeniable that the intensive farming of domesticated animals has caused environmental damage and allowed for sanctioned animal cruelty. Plus, do we need to kill a sentient being to enjoy our food and hit our daily protein intake?

In 2023, much like the politics of our day, we are deeply divided.

Feeling guilty yet? That’s the idea and it is exactly this type of language that has labelled the extreme end of the Vegan lobby as hysterical. Describing meat produced using industrialised farming methods as murder. In my neck of the woods, Brighton (boasting the largest vegan population in Europe), it’s not unusual to see a group outside a supermarket protesting the sale of dead animals in the store. This can be very intimidating for customers and the workforce. Which is the idea. Is Veganism another side of our increasingly woke culture? Story for another day perhaps.

The vegan way holds many merits and is the fastest-growing food movement across the planet.

At the same time as the vegan lifestyle is having such a wide appeal, meat-eating is expanding faster than at any time in the last fifty years. This is part of what is described as “The Meat paradox”, 85% of the population would say they wanted to see the end of industrialised farming methods involved in rearing animals for consumption, yet this is not reflected in how we buy our meat, 95% of which is derived from factory farming methods.

Many agree that the way we produce ‘cheap meat’ is wrong, encouraging the use of questionable methods; intensive breeding, GM and the free use of antibiotics both as a growth promotor and at the same time enabling the breeding of animals in worse living conditions, as given the antibiotics usage infection and disease are of less concern. Hence it’s quite normal for chickens to be reared in sheds containing upward of 20,000 birds.

We should be eating less meat but of better quality. Although most people believe it, we continue to buy cheap meat. You can tell this by our shopping habits which show that although we support better animal welfare, we just don’t want to pay the price for it.

If the vegan diet was derived from scratch cooking vegetables across a wide variety of plants (approximately 30 per week), then yes, with some care it is a healthy option. But we live in the UK, where most of the food consumed is highly processed. Our Vegans are just the same, they want the same junk food as everyone else, just without the animal content. Processed food is processed food. Where the ingredients listed on the packet are over 10 or more and you can’t understand what the stuff is without a degree in applied science, then you know it is processed. There is no way of getting away from it. It’s bad for your health, with or without animal produce.

Is vegan farming a more sustainable system? In short, not really.

On a traditional farm with animals, there is a wealth of natural fertilisers – nature’s way to help the crops grow. Without animals included in the farm system providing this natural fertiliser, farmers must rely on chemical alternatives derived mainly from petroleum oil to be able to produce for our ever-demanding needs.

Tablehurst Community Farm in Forest Row is an interesting example of what could be a suitable alternative. Started in 1996 by a young South African, Peter Brown (a lifelong vegetarian) as a purely organic and Biodynamic farm. Peter’s view is that without animals on the farm providing this natural fertiliser and other benefits, it wouldn’t function. Maybe the Vegan lobby could adjust to this setup. The animals at Tablehurst, compared to other UK-farmed livestock have a great life, longer without any inputs being added to their feed to get them to fatten up faster. Provided with more room to roam, if you go you are encouraged to go and spend some time with them. In fact, just before Christmas, a signup sheet goes on the wall at the shop. If you join you can visit the animals in organised groups to sing Christmas Carols for them (yes really!). This occurs a few weeks before most of the animals are slaughtered for the high Christmas demand. We love animals in this country. But we also like eating them. I believe these animals taste a lot better than most.

Could this be the model for the future? Better quality meat is being produced in a system much kinder to the animals. At the end of the day, their lives are taken the same as the rest. It is just in the run up to the inevitable, they have a much happier life.

Looking at some of the figures associated with world meat consumption is scary. From 2014-2019 the number of meat eaters worldwide quadrupled. In the five years from 2015, meat consumption in Australia, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and Iran rose by 30%. In the past half-century, farm animals have tripled, while wild animals’ numbers have dropped by 2/3. The UK consumes a billion birds a year, 95% of which are raised by factory farming. Poultry for human consumption makes up 79% of the entire world’s bird population. Industrialised agriculture in the UK omits more Green House gasses than the entire German economy. The modern chicken is derived from the original wild bird, which took up to six months to form an adult animal. Via breeding, antibiotics, and GM, the modern factory bird takes just over four weeks to get to the same size. We are not eating chicken, more like overgrown chicks.

For the meat industry to work at a level that won’t kill us and planet earth, we need to cut meat consumption by 80%. Yes, that’s right, 80%. We still must increase food production to cope with the up-and-coming world population.

Present estimates of population growth are set to top 10 billion by the end of this century. Whichever way you look at it, we’ve got to start planning, however it’s done, we must bring meat consumption down.

If the entire world population ate in the way Europe does, we would need two and a half planets to produce enough food. If everyone consumed as the US does, we would need more than four worlds’ worth of production. We have got to change.

We can’t keep hiding from these problems. All becoming vegans is way too simplistic to deal with this complex matter. So what, as an industry, could we do?

If we could take a stance now rather than being reactive to the dilemma. Becoming proactive in what is a very important debate. We know we can’t carry on as is, it is truly not an option.

Could we take the lead? We certainly know a lot about populations eating habits.

I need more answers. I’m an eater of animal produce, not a breeder but I sure would like to be involved in the conversation.

Anyone with views on this, whether a die-hard meat eater or a modern vegan, please get in contact. Let’s talk about what could be done. We can’t afford to sit on the fence any longer – “the house is on fire!” I’m not trying to be dramatic, but we can’t keep expecting change whilst turning our heads the other way.

We must do something… and sooner should be our only option.

Fact checks from.

The Soil association.
Rob Percival.
The World Farming Organisation.
Professor Tim Spector.
Maryn Mckenna.

Written by John Harris, former founder of The Good Eating Company and co-founder of LetsConfab.