For decades activists have been labelling meat-eating as “murder”, but perhaps they weren’t just referring to the animal being killed in the process, but our planet too. The role of our diets in contributing to the climate crisis is being increasingly covered in the media, and with clear and direct impacts of intensive deforestation for farming and grazing being seen in catastrophic events such as the fires that sweep the Amazon, the need for us to change what we eat has never been so prominent.
There is arguably no one more in support of this argument than Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, and this week on Channel 4 he presented UK audiences with more evidence of how our level of meat consumption is driving us towards a global disaster. But far from being all doom and gloom, Apocolypse Cow doesn’t just preach the negative impact of farming on our landscapes but also discusses how everyone from farmers to consumers can go about changing our habits in order to better support them.
Many people in the UK rely on meat and dairy to make up all three of their meals each day. But the products British citizens consume in fact provide less nutritional value than we credit them with, and are produced by an industry that currently doesn’t do much to mitigate for its impact on the climate. Intensive land use for grazing and feed production – along with the need to import additional animal feed supplements – combine to produce meat and dairy products that provide minimal calorie intake and nutritional value but with maximal environmental impact.
We all know about the dangerous greenhouse gases that are produced by farm animals bred for meat, and how their mass production is driving the climate crisis exponentially (producing 5kg of meat creates the same amount of CO2 as a return flight to New York), but what about farming’s impact on the ecosystems that make up our British landscapes?
Grazing these animals strips rich landscapes of their biological diversity by promoting monocultures and destroying habitats. Farming with pesticides and fertilisers removes naturally occurring soil and plant nutrients and irreparably damages UK soils, leaving us with an estimated 60 harvests before farm land can no longer sustain our consumption of meat and dairy.
And it’s not only our land being affected. Animal waste from farms runs into rivers, killing off vital aquatic plantlife and insects that would normally filter the water and keep it clear, leaving it the colour of “ox tail soup”. The science is there and so are the shocking visible effects. So what is being done that can help consumers make better choices?
Thankfully, as seen in the documentary, there are solutions being worked on by laboratories all over the world and the presence alternatives to inefficient meat sources and carbon-producing dairy sources on supermarket shelves are on the rise. From meat-free burgers to pancakes made from water, and even flour made from thin air (that has 6 times more protein than wheat flour and requires far less land) scientists are creating food sources that mean we won’t be going hungry if we choose to move away from meat and dairy.
But if we change our diets, what happens to livelihood of British farmers that run these so-called “carbon factories”? As has been encouraged by conservationists and ecologists throughout the UK, rewilding these areas of land provides an invaluable opportunity to bring back some of the rich biodiversity that has been lost to UK landscape for decades. Furthermore, turning arable land into meadows and forests offer far more carbon sequestering potential than grasslands.
And what about the evergrowing number of deer roaming the Highlands that characterise part of Scotland’s man-made ecological and biodiversity imbalances? Methods of population control in the form of deer culling much like at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, present an opportunity to improve biodiversity that is somewhat conflicting to members of the vegan community. Whilst filming Apocalypse Cow and during a visit to Glenfeshie Estate, Monbiot shoots and kills a red deer as part of the Estate’s culling activities which have now removed 90% of the deer population from the landscape. Whilst being visibly upset by the experience, even Monbiot admits that this is currently the only effective method to stop the deer from destroying the glens.
What he hopes for as an alternative in the future aligns with our own hopes at TENT: for the return of large carnivores and apex predators such as wolves and lynx to do this culling for us and to level out the ecological playing field again. As the country’s attitude towards abating the climate crisis shifts, perhaps this is no longer such a fantastic pipe dream.
But if any of these changes are to be effective and sustainable, we need to be realistic about how we implement them. Currently over 50% of the UK’s land is taken up by sheep and cows, meaning that it is completely unrealistic to assume that we can close down the farming and dairy industries over night – it would be impossible.
They say that when you’re faced with a seemingly impossible task, it’s best to start where you are and use what you have.
We have a lot of farms; we also have a lot of knowledge about how to use farmland regeneratively to create sustainable methods of production. Organic and regenerative farming provide better habitats for insects than the monocultures which are characteristic of arable land, thereby improving biodiversity and enrichening ecosystems rather than degrading them. Alternatively, the new Agricultural bill suggests that EU subsidies currently relied on by UK farmers could be used to rewild the landscape, not only benefiting the environment but also human health.
Whatever solutions we choose going forward, the first step is to alter our mindsets and be more open to conversation and to change. Dialogues need to be opened between industries that are currently opposed, allowing both to reach compromise that is mutually beneficial. Only then can industries and consumers begin to reverse the damage that we’ve done and re-establish the ecological equilibrium of our landscapes. It will take time and small steps are important if we are to be realistic about making sustainable change, but in the words of Greta Thunberg, “no one is too small to make a difference”.
Apocalypse Cow is a fascinating documentary, and all of us at TENT are thrilled to see the natural climate solution of rewilding feature increasingly in the fight against climate change. We highly recommend giving it a watch – it might even provide you with the nudge you need to give “Meat Free Monday” a try!
watch the documentary here