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.
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.