Article by Jayne Buxton:

George Monbiot’s documentary about the end of agriculture, Apocalypse Cow (Channel Four, 8th January) was certainly entertaining, and gave us plenty to think about. Unfortunately, it was also rife with factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations that undermine its premise.

The misrepresentation started before we’d even sat down to watch. The programme’s subtitle –  how meat killed the world –  belied the fact that George was actually laying into both animal and non-animal agriculture. Perhaps he didn’t want to invoke the wrath of all those vegetarians and vegans who’d surely be infuriated by the idea that their diet might not be so virtuous after all. Or maybe George was just being clever, exploiting the current rage for meat bashing to generate more eyeballs for his programme.

Whatever the reason for the choice of title, the misrepresentation didn’t stop there. Let’s take a quick tour through the programme to see where George’s facts and figures were less than truthful.

Alarm bells rang for me at about the ten minute mark. George states that the carbon footprint of 4 kilos of meat is equivalent to a return flight from London to NY. In the leadup to dropping this bombshell, George inserts a qualifier, stating that this figure is true

“when you account for the forest and other ecosystems that could be grown on the land used by livestock”. Many viewers will have been so struck by the stunning so-called fact that they won’t have noticed the qualifier. But let’s be clear about what’s actually going on here. George has taken the GHG emissions from livestock and added the emissions that might be saved if the land was used differently. But he has not done the same for the transatlantic flight to which he’s comparing the 4 kilos of meat. This is like comparing apples to basketballs. Imagine how different the numbers would look if he had bothered to calculate the carbon footprint of all the resources that might have been saved if that plane had never been built and the oil used to fly it had never been drilled for?

George is not the first person to try this sort of trick. A New Yorker journalist made this same claim a while back and his argument was successfully challenged by Frank Mitloehner, UC Davis Professor & CE Air Quality Specialist. It must be tempting to try to bump up the emissions from meat if you’re a vegan making an anti-meat argument, because the real numbers won’t help you. In the US, the largest consumer of meat in the world, GHG emissions from livestock farming are just under 4% whereas those from aviation are broadly similar at just under 3%. Both are dwarfed by the emissions from other forms of transport and those from industry and electricity.[1]

Having shocked us with this bold and inflammatory statement about emissions, George takes us to meet dairy farmer, Abby. He labels her herd of dairy cows a massive carbon producing machine, before quizzing her about the feed she uses to supplement the diets of her largely grass-fed cows. He then rolls out a few statistics, telling us that one third of all crops grown are fed to livestock. Right. That means two thirds are fed to humans. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we be advising people to give up foods that come from these crops – foods like bread, pasta and the pastry wrapped around all those Gregg’s vegan sausage rolls, which have almost no nutritional value when compared to meat? Would that not deliver carbon footprint benefits to rival those George insists will come from a cessation of animal farming?

After arguing with George for a bit, Abby makes the valid point that if farmers were to stop supplying meat and dairy, people would have nothing to eat. Wouldn’t we have to import all our food? she asks. We would have to import some food, yes, says George. Some food? Come on George. Let’s be honest here. During a UK winter we’d be importing almost everything. What would that do to GHG emissions from transportation?

Next up is George’s claim that the UK’s 23 million sheep produce just 1% of our calories. I’d love to have seen the calculations behind this statement. But it’s the wrong comparison to be making in any case, though it is often made by environmentalists. Who cares if the 23 million sheep produce so few calories? What matters is how much nutrition they produce. And animal foods are more nutrient dense than plant foods, as Dr Zoe Harcombe explains in her book, The Obesity Epidemic. A meal based on pasta with spinach or beans with broccoli would be more calorific but far less nutritious than a small portion of lambs’ liver.

George’s maths is a bit off in the next segment too. He asks why we don’t simply take the £26,000 average subsidy paid to livestock farmers and give it to them for doing something else, the something else being growing trees. What he seems not to realise is that the subsidy would then be the only source of income for these farmers, since growing trees doesn’t generate any.  Maybe George has a more sophisticated plan for this. If so, he doesn’t share it with us.

After making this claim, George takes us to the River Wye, where the pollution caused by farming is truly horrific. The fisherman he talks to blames the local chickens. George expands on this idea, telling us that it is caused by the run-off from manure and from “other fertilisers and pesticides.” Because of the documentary’s title, and because George is a vegan, I suspect that most viewers will only have heard the part about the manure and not the part about all the pesticides and fertilisers used in non-animal farming. And most won’t stop to think about the fact that when livestock is pasture raised, the manure goes towards feeding the soil rather than being left to run into rivers.

In the next breath, George warns us that agriculture is destroying the soil, and that there remains just 60 harvests worth of soil left. This is frightening and true. But since it is mainly monocrop agriculture that’s destroying the soil, and since two thirds of the products of monocrop agriculture goes into human food (as per George’s own numbers), shouldn’t we be advising people to eat less of this food instead of demonising meat?  We would all miss the nutrients in meat, but no one would suffer from giving up processed foods, bread, pasta, or vegan sausage rolls wrapped in pastry.

Now we come to what George calls the “science fiction” part of the story. Meat grown in labs and protein produced out of thin air. Seeing these factories at work is fascinating, but more than a little creepy. I have questions about how long it will take to make this stuff scalable, or whether it really is true that we could produce enough protein to feed the world in an area the size of Ohio. But what most concerns me is nutrition. It doesn’t appear to concern George though, because he hardly mentions it. Both the lab grown meat and the weird orange flour are deemed tasty and rich in protein. But no mention is made of whether or not they contain all the other essential micronutrients we need – the vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids. No mention is made, either, of the bioavailability of the protein. And in celebrating the fact that all saturated fats can be removed from lab meat, George is betraying his ignorance of the enormous body of evidence demonstrating that saturated fat is not bad for us. Some fat is in fact essential, not least for ferrying around all of those fat-soluble vitamins, and we’re better off getting that fat from animal sources than from the highly toxic, Omega 6 heavy vegetable and seed oils beloved by vegans and found in most processed foods.

To be fair, George does give a nod to nutrition by acknowledging that we will still need fruits and vegetables even in a world where our proteins are grown in labs. He takes us to a highly productive organic fruit and vegetable farm that is making “scrappy land sing” without the use of any manure or pesticides. This was wonderful to see, and whatever techniques this farmer is using should be widely shared. Questions remain, however. Can all soil be made to produce such bountiful rewards without manure as fertiliser? How much more land would we have to turn over to these sorts of farms if we eradicated animal foods from the diet? And – a question that applies to all plant-based diets scaled up to feed the entire population – how do we get enough of these fruits and vegetables in the UK in the winter without flying them in from other countries, thus adding to the carbon cost of our food?

We travel from the organic farm to the wilds of Scotland for a segment in which George shoots a deer (for environmental purposes), has a cry, and eats its meat. Later, around the BBQ, George claims not to feel bad about eating the meat because no ecological damage was done in the process of producing it. Which is pretty much an argument for eating grass fed beef from regenerative farms that act as carbon sinks, but that irony is quickly glossed over as we head from Scotland to the Netherlands for the final segment. We are shown an area that used to be filled with dairy farms but was purchased by the Dutch government and rewilded. It’s an astonishingly beautiful place. And who wouldn’t support the idea of governments taking this sort of action on a strategic basis? What’s less easy to support is the idea of eradicating all farming to implement rewilding on a huge scale. We need balance in this argument if we’re to accommodate economic realities and nutritional needs alongside environmental goals.

Witnessing George’s childlike awe as he walked around that Dutch natural reserve took me back to the segment in which he told a story about a hypothetical child of the future. That child, he said, would be horrified by the idea that we had ever used manure to grow crops, and eaten the eggs and meat of animals. But I’m not sure how George’s child of the future would feel about the fact that most of their food would be grown in laboratories, manufactured in factories, and shipped to them from somewhere the size of Ohio. For George this scenario is a dream, but for most of us it’s probably a nightmare.

[1] 2017 EPA statistics. www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions

Jayne is an author, currently working on a new book about food, health and the environment
twitter: @jaynebuxton2
George Monbiot’s Apocalypse Cow: Is this the truth about the future of food?
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16 thoughts on “George Monbiot’s Apocalypse Cow: Is this the truth about the future of food?

    • 11th January 2020 at 1:10 pm
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      Thanks for your comment and link Graham.

      Reply
  • 11th January 2020 at 9:30 am
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    Thanks Jayne.

    I’m an admirer of some of Georges ideas & writing but think he got this one really wrong.

    You expressed clearly & rationally many of my concerns around the whole ‘lets grow food in factories’ & the often very skewed statistics & arguments for us all becoming vegans right now. I find it difficult to hold discussions with vegans I know (some of them in my immediate family) about the realities of the statistics & sustainable farming & the issues you raise about nutrition. They get kind of really angry with me for disagreeing with them…..

    I was a vegan some decades ago. Stopped because my body/health told me to. Since then I’ve been a flexitarian eating no meat but eggs, fish & non cow dairy with a wide range of cereals, fruit & veg. Growing a lot of our own veg & soft fruit organically in our garden.

    Healthy & nutritious food needs to be grown & nourished by fertile soil, rain, wind & sun.

    For whats it worth I think that what we need is a coordinated international scientific organic farming programme to solve the problems of feeding everyone & contribute to resolving the problems of climate change.

    Unlikely to happen given the global hold of unkind greedy right wing international capitalism. But that’s my dream.

    This can be alongside the other actions we can take including coming off our addictions to oil & fossil fuels, planting many trees & changing lots of the habits we in the ‘developed’ world take for granted.

    Thanks again & I look forward to reading your book once its published.

    Gordon
    http://www.facebook.com/elementalmovements
    http://www.naturemandala.org

    Reply
    • 11th January 2020 at 1:10 pm
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      Thanks Gordon, I have forwarded your message onto Jayne.

      Reply
  • 11th January 2020 at 5:53 pm
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    One thing which needs pointing out is where George and a salmon fisherman did some invertebrate sampling in the very polluted Rive Wye. As any biology student knows to sample invertebrate life you take the samples from the very slow flowing edge of a watercourse or a pond, certainly not the fast flowing centre of a stream! Of course there was not much life living on those bare stones!

    The rest of the programme just showed the skewed evidence he produced to back up his flawed ideas.

    Reply
    • 11th January 2020 at 6:04 pm
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      Thanks for pointing that out Kate. My understanding is that our rivers are in a bad way due to agriculture but it isn’t from the cows out on pasture. It is intensive agriculture which is primarily to blame and we do need to make some significant changes in how we do things.
      To be honest I had a lot of sympathy for his viewpoint and enjoyed the program rather more than I expected to.

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      • 14th January 2020 at 10:23 pm
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        Take away all the environment and sustainability, carbon footprint issue, a high percentage of vegans are vegan because of the dislike to the way animals are slaughter un necessarily for human consumption, cows artificially inceminated to be keep consistently in lactated state to produce milk etc.

        Reply
        • 15th January 2020 at 9:14 am
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          Yes, we quite understand this however we do believe it is possible to be an ethical omnivore. We promote small scale local and mobile abattoirs and only animals raised in a natural way. We also recognise that animals are harmed and biodiversity lost growing plant foods which would seem even more unnecessary as they will not be eaten. We have some links on our ‘eating meat’ page: https://realfoodcampaign.org.uk/issues-v-solutions/eating-meat/

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          • 5th October 2020 at 2:57 pm
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            You encourage your readers to read –

            Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands – published in Insight 2011, updated Apr 2019

            One point raised in the article is –

            ‘Most of Australia’s arable land is already in use. If more Australians want their nutritional needs to be met by plants, our arable land will need to be even more intensely farmed. This will require a net increase in the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and other threats to biodiversity and environmental health. ‘

            Doesn’t Duijvestijn Tomatoes in the Netherlands prove you can increase yields per a square kilometre without increasing your use of pesticides?

            This article (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/11/netherlands-dutch-farming-agriculture-sustainable/) is about Duijvestijn states that –
            ‘No pesticides are used and the farm pipes waste CO2 into the greenhouses from a local Shell oil refinery, which the plants need to grow, and which reduces the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

            “Our greenhouses cover an area of 14 hectares, and we produce around 100 million tomatoes a year,” says van Adrichem.’

            Using figures from American sites I estimated that in the States they produce 18,953,626 tomatoes in 14 hectares (all my numbers and sources are at the end of the comment). If pesticides are so neccesary then why can Duijvestijn Tomatoes produce 5.276 times as many tomatoes per hectare as American farmers. Is the solution to have pesticide free, vertical green house farms instead of bigger outdoor farms?

            I read this article about tomatoe yields in the USA (https://www.gardenguides.com/13406985-how-much-will-one-acre-of-tomato-plants-yield.html) and it stated –

            ‘Tomatoes are an annual vegetable that takes around 75 days from transplanting to first harvest. 

            Tomato harvests are counted by the number of 25-pound cartons. On average, one acre of tomatoes will produce slightly more than 1,500 25-pound cartons, or 37,500 pounds of red, ripe fruit. About 5,000 tomato plants are required to meet this number.’

            And (https://www.floridatomatoes.org/faqs/#:~:text=One%20pound%20of%20tomatoes%20equals,or%203%20medium-sized%20tomatoes.) states that ‘One pound of tomatoes equals about 2 large or 3 medium-sized tomatoes.’

            Let’s crunch the numbers

            1 acre = 0.405 hectare

            34.5948 acre = 14 hectares

            If tomatoes take 75 days to grow then we can repeat the cycle 4.87 times a year (assuming they can be grown 365 days a year).

            34.5948 × 4.87 × 37500 * 3 = 18,953,626

        • 15th January 2020 at 9:16 am
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          Mark, you are right of course that most vegans object to the consumption of animal foods on grounds of animal welfare. And that is their prerogative. The one thing that is often ignored , however, is nutrition. Most vegans cannot or will not accept the (vast) amount of literature showing that vegan diets are nutritionally deficient . However, other people (non vegans or those considering a vegan diet), must be made fully aware of these deficiencies in order to make an informed choice.

          Reply
    • 14th January 2020 at 5:14 pm
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      I am pretty certain that sampling in the center is not particularly wrong at all. You underestimate how adapted creatures are to just about every niche that exists. Amongst the stony bed of a fast flowing river there can be many invertebrates thriving, in fact many of them depend on that fast flow and depth of water just above them for various reasons (eg. protection from predation).

      Reply
  • 13th January 2020 at 5:19 pm
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    Hi, great article. However I’m unclear as to how George is being misleading in your explanation following…

    “Alarm bells rang for me at about the ten minute mark. George states that the carbon footprint of 4 kilos of meat is equivalent to a return flight from London to NY. In the leadup to dropping this bombshell, George inserts a qualifier, stating that this figure is true”

    Not saying he isn’t, of course. Just that I don’t really understand what’s happening. Could you clarify? Thanks.

    Reply
  • 14th January 2020 at 4:16 pm
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    Well in the UK we consume 20 million chickens a week and they are mostly produced in Factory farms which the waste releases Ammonia into the environment which is damaging to human health,and if the manure gets into watercourses is high in Eutiphying Phosphates. So eating Chicken is far more damaging to the environment than grass fed beef or lamb.With Methane only having a 14 year cycle it cannot be compared to CO2 from Planes,car,trains shipping because the co2 from these forms of transport lasts 1000 years in the atmosphere.
    Please understand that grazed grass sequesters more co2 than trees and in England that is just what is needed to rebuild the Organic matter level in soils as 70% of arable land used to grow crops has less than 3% Organic matter and this is why soil needs rebuilding with livestock and so they are essential for the future production of cereals and oil seeds.
    Please also note that it is not co2 which is the issue but Nitrous Oxide which is 300 times more damaging to the ozone layer than co2 and lasts for 114 years in the atmosphere.This comes from diesel engines and the production and us of Nitrogen fertiliser which is highly inefficient.
    The argument is that we need Nitrogen fertiliser to feed the growing World population and so this is ignored but if we all ate less cereals then this continuous growing of crops would stop and our soils will be saved by eating more meat from grass instead and the return of a rotation based agriculture with less losses into the environment.
    Nitrous oxide is at a level in the atmosphere never experienced before on this Planet but is being side-lined by the focus on C02 which is a smoke screen to hide its implications which are unknow terretory!!

    Rice growing on the Planet which is a staple food of over one third of the Worlds population is the most damaging crop and food produced on the Planet and releases Methane and huge quantities of Nitrous oxide into the atmosphere because it is grown in waterlogged soils and only a third of all applied synthetic Nitrogen fertiliser ends up in the crop.
    I want to BAN RICE EATING IN BRITAIN!!!

    48% of the Human diet is based on cereals which is out of balance and refined sugars and startches consumed at this level is resulting in Diabetes ,heart disease ,strokes and Cancers and brain disorders at a scale never experienced before.

    Reply
  • 15th January 2020 at 9:10 am
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    Excellent reply Jonathon. All facts that must be considered in the wider debate, which is very skewed at the moment.

    Reply
  • 3rd February 2020 at 3:50 am
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    Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do some research about this. We got a grab a book from our area library but I think I learned more from this post. I’m very glad to see such wonderful information being shared freely out there.

    Reply

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