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Why I’m Eating My Words on Veganism – Again

Al Gore has gone vegan, a diet I was once skeptical about. Now I believe it is meat-eating that is more environmentally damaging

By George Monbiot

He did it quietly, and the decision is the better for that: Al Gore, according to reports in the US press, has gone vegan.

cattle grazing on hillPhoto by NDSU Ag Comm/FlickrBy preventing the growth of trees and other deep vegetation in the hills, and by compacting the soil, grazing animals cause a cycle of flash floods and drought

Certain things could be said about other aspects of his lifestyle: his enormous houses and occasional use of private jets, for example. While we can't demand that everyone who espouses green causes should live like a Jain monk, I think we can ask that they don't live like Al Gore. He's a brilliant campaigner, but I find the disjunction between the restraint he advocates and the size of his ecological footprint disorienting.

So saying, if he is managing to sustain his vegan diet, in this respect he puts most of us to shame. I tried it for 18 months and almost faded away. I lost two stone, went as white as a washbasin and could scarcely concentrate. I think I managed the diet badly; some people appear to thrive on it. Once, after I had been unnecessarily rude about vegans and their state of health (prompted no doubt by my own failure), I was invited to test my views in an unconventional debate with a vegan cage fighter. It was a kind invitation, but unfortunately I had a subsequent engagement.

In 2010, after reading a fascinating book by Simon Fairlie, a fair part of which was devoted to attacking my views, I wrote a column in which I maintained that I'd been wrong to claim that veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world's most urgent social justice issue. Diverting to livestock grain that could have fed human beings, I'd argued, is grotesque when 800 million go hungry.

Fairlie does not dispute this, and provides plenty of examples of the madness of the current livestock production system. But he points out that plenty of meat can be produced from feed that humans cannot eat, by sustaining pigs on waste and grazing cattle and sheep where crops can't grow. I was swayed by his argument. But now I find myself becoming unswayed. In the spirit of unceasing self-flagellation I think I might have been wrong about being wrong.

Part of the problem is that while livestock could be fed on waste and rangelands, ever less of the meat we eat in the rich nations is produced this way. Over the past week, a row has erupted between chefs and pig farmers over the issue of swill. Feeding pigs on swill has been forbidden since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. The chefs point out – as Fairlie does – that it is ridiculous to feed pigs on soya grown at vast environmental cost in the Amazon instead of allowing them to dispose of our mountain of waste food.

The farmers respond that the risks of spreading disease are too great and that pigs fed on waste grow more slowly than pigs fed on soya. I side with the chefs: I believe that a society capable of identifying the Higgs boson should be able to sterilize waste food. But I suspect that they're not going to win: the industry and its regulators are firmly against them.

I should have seen it coming, but I watched in horror as the meat industry used my article to justify the consumption of all meat, however it was produced, rather than just the meat raised on food that humans can't eat. A potential for good is used to justify harm.

While researching my book Feral, I also came to see extensive livestock rearing as a lot less benign than I – or Fairlie – had assumed. The damage done to biodiversity, to water catchments and carbon stores by sheep and cattle grazing in places unsuitable for arable farming (which means, by and large, the hills) is out of all proportion to the amount of meat produced. Wasteful and destructive as feeding grain to livestock is, ranching appears to be even worse.

The belief that there is no conflict between this farming and arable production also seems to be unfounded: by preventing the growth of trees and other deep vegetation in the hills and by compacting the soil, grazing animals cause a cycle of flash floods and drought, sporadically drowning good land downstream and reducing the supply of irrigation water.

So can I follow Al Gore, and do it better than I did before? Well, I intend at least to keep cutting my consumption of animal products, and to see how far I can go. It's not easy, especially for a person as greedy and impetuous as I am, but there has to be a way.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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Comments

I applaud you for sharing your journey with us - there is a process to coming to grips with these issues, considering all aspects and determining how far we can go ourselves. As for maintaining a vegan diet and thriving, I would encourage you to explore the recipes of Dr. John Mcdougall. Forks Over knives, The China Study, The Engine 2 Diet and PCRM’s website and books by Dr Neal Barnard. I made an awesome Double layer pumpkin Cheezecake this holiday http://blog.fatfreevegan.com/2007/11/double-layer-pumpkin-cheesecake.html and a lentil loaf from here http://blog.fatfreevegan.com/2012/04/dreenas-no-fu-love-loaf.html and everybody ate them up (we were the only vegans at two dinners). Hang in here - it’s worth it for your own health and the health of our planet and fellow animals!

By Roberta Joiner on Sun, December 01, 2013 at 10:39 pm

The best chance to mitigate climate change is to severely reduce consumption of animal foods. About 1/2 of human induced warming is attributable to animal agriculture. Methane is 24 times more potent than CO2 and takes only 7 years to cycle out of the atmosphere. CO2 takes around 100 years to come out. Human pursuit of animal protein is the leading cause of methane release and a primary cause of CO2 concentrating in the atmosphere. Check the facts and act!

“A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

“As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

“The livestock sector emerges as one of the top contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. The impact is so significant that it needs to be addressed with urgency.” UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s report “Livestock’s Long Shadow”

“If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

“It’s not a requirement to eat animals, we just choose to do it, so it becomes a moral choice and one that is having a huge impact on the planet, using up resources and destroying the biosphere.”  ~ James Cameron, movie director, environmentalist and new vegan

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” ~ Albert Einstein

Join the revolution with a 21-Day Vegan Kickstart
http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/kickstart/kickstart-programs

By jc on Sun, December 01, 2013 at 7:27 am

Hi George - 
Thanks for the interesting article - I look forward to reading your book. And I encourage you to look into veganism again; you will feel like crap if you load up on bread and grains rather than veg. You will feel awesome if you do it thoughtfully!
Thanks again - julie

By Julie on Sat, November 30, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Well written! I, too, recently came to the conclusion that I should try my best to reduce my animal product intake and move towards veganism.

I, how ever, had also been swayed by ethical arguments about the wrongness of needlessly killing sentient beings (which I take it you don’t really care for, since you don’t mention that at all), but for what ever reason we arrive at the conclusion, I do think it’s a good one.

I actually think the environmental and ethical arguments are _both_ so strong they provide sufficient grounds to move towards veganism even if _one_ of them should turn out to be wrong or misguided:

If the ethical argument is wrong, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Better environment? I could live with that.

If the environmental argument is wrong? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Fewer sentient beings being killed needlessly? Well, I could definitely live with that too.

By John Lake on Fri, November 29, 2013 at 4:35 pm

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