Will vegetarians lay waste to our rural lands?
ARE VEGETARIANS RESPONSIBLE for greater environmental destruction than omnivores? That was one of the interesting topics that came up at this week’s Sydney Festival panel discussion at the Sydney Recital Centre in Angel Place.
It was perhaps the most controversial as well as interesting topic in a 90 minute session that was good, but that could have been better. Impressions of public discussions like this are subjective, I know, thus mine represents nothing more than a personal impression that was shared by at least one other that I know of.
Blogger and journalist, Sarah Wilson, hosted the talk but I can’t get away from the impression that the time could have been spent on the meatier topics (no pun intended). I thought that there was too much sharing of tips, something which maybe would have been better retained as an outro to the conversation rather than surfacing several times throughout it.
Sarah was joined by panelists Georgie Somerset, an Australian beef producer; Natalie Isaacs, the Founder and CEO of 1 Million Women; Jane Fullerton Smith, Managing Director of Greenshoot Pacific; and Professor John Crawford, Professor of Sustainability and Complex Systems in the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney. The audience asked questions via SMS and Twitter.
For me, it was Georgie Somerset and John Crawford who were the most interesting in their ideas and it was Georgie who responded well to questions about the sustainability of meat eating.
Professor Crawford agreed with her that facts and figures often used in this country to try to show that beef production and meat eating have no place in a sustainable society were incorrect because they were derived either from a global amalgamation of information or from the US. They represented mainly lot-fed animals, those kept in pens and fed grain. As Georgie pointed out, most Australian beef is pasture fed.
Virtual water is an estimate of the volume of water used to grow a grain, vegetable or meat animal and on the surface it appears beef consumes a lot. Once again, it’s necessary to distinguish between lot fed and pasture fed. Where pasture is grown with rainfall, the water will pass through the water cycle anyway, so the volume consumed by grazing animals is simply their harvest from rain that falls in the area.
Professor Crawford agreed that overstocking of rangelands degrades soils by compaction and causes erosion, which he emphasised was a very serious problem in Australia. So did Georgie Somerset. Yet, some environmentalists and advocates of vegetarianism advocate the abandonment of grazing on our rangelands, which are often in semiarid regions and are unsuitable for grain production. The only economic use of those lands is grazing. Assuming there is no overstocking or other activities injurious to the soil, grazing represents the optimal economic landuse for those regions.
It was the co-creator of the permaculture design system, Bill Mollison, who said that the greatest impact on the land, the most extensive and that which creates greatest change, is agriculture. In today’s terms we might say that agriculture is humanity’s biggest terraforming project and it is responsible for species loss as well as the clearance of vast swaths of natural vegetation, maybe even affecting climate. This is background for a point raised during the conversation that night, that a vegetarian diet, were it to be more widely adopted, would lead to higher demand for grain, for more land upon which to grow it and to greater environmental damage.
Were lot feeding of beef and other animals to stop, much grain would be freed for human use, though much of this in the US would be unacceptable for human consumtion as it is genetically modified and therefore excluded from the human food supply chain. It might be possible to replace it with non-GM varieties, however, or with a more diverse selection of grains.
This, though, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. It should be recognised that animal protein is concentrated, it is energy-denser than that derived from plant sources. This is a reason that archeologists believe it can explain the human adoption of hunting — animal protein provided more energy per unit of time and effort to obtain it compared to gathering. That freed time for cultural development. It may also have played a part in the development of the human brain, they speculate.
If there’s one learning from the conversation this week it’s that we should be discerning in the information we believe when it comes to questions about the sustainability of grazing and meat production and that might be used in advocacy. Use of the wrong information, such as that from overseas, could discredit those advocating both sustainability and vegetarianism.
We might also remember that there are agricultural innovators such as South African, Alan Savory, (TED talk July 2012) who has developed sustainable dryland grazing systems, and North American, Joe Salitan, who grazes commercial quantities of chooks in a manner that does not deplete the soils and that produces a quality product in demand.
When it comes to the sustainability of our food supply, it was these questions around the sustainability of grazing and rural landuse that I think were the more important of the evening. The tips on reducing food waste were interesting enough but they were not the type of information that made people think deeply about their food, where it comes from and how it s produced.