Diet for a small planet

The arguments for and against a vegan diet

Factory farming of animals and chemical drenched arable crop monocultures are two sides of the same agribusiness coin. Most of the grain, soya etc. is grown for animal feed. Fertilisers and other agrochemicals increase yields, but their use has broken a crucial connection in the
nitrogen cycle: manure from animals is no longer always returned to the soil where the animal feed grew.

In the middle ages, growing crops specifically to feed to animals was unheard of. Consequently animals had to be slaughtered en masse during "bloodmonth" (October), and their meat salted for the winter. There was not enough winter food for the animals. The introduction of the turnip during the agricultural revolution changed this. Turnips provided animal feed during the months when the grass didn't grow.

Since then feeding of crops to animals has increased. The problem is once again inside peoples heads. To the medieval peasant, animals were a way of converting the inedible (grass, waste food) into food (meat, milk, eggs) clothing (wool, leather) and manure for the crops. Animals grazed on marginal land that was of little use for growing crops. The only legumes were wild ones and the system was deficient in nitrogen.

Beans have traditionally been seen as "poor mans food", whereas eating meat was a sign of wealth. For many people in the past, meat was a rare luxury. Nutritional theorists of the early 20th century grossly overestimated the human protein requirements, and undervalued vegetable protein. Consequently, it was believed that increasing meat production by whatever means was desirable. You are what you eat, and the same applies to animals. Animals do not "make protein" they obtain it from their diet. Only a fraction of the protein in an animals diet is converted into meat, milk or eggs (the rest goes into dung and urine - fine on a mixed farm, not so useful if the farm produces nothing but animals). It therefore makes more sense to eat the food the animal eats, than to eat the animal.

For this reason, a vegan or near vegan diet has been called the "diet for a small planet", because this diet would feed far more people than a diet based on grain-derived meat, milk and eggs.

This does not rule out animal products altogether. Animals (especially grass fed ones) produce essential fatty acids which are important for a healthy diet. Local food production is widely acknowledged as a good thing. Many areas of the world do not and could not produce much vegetable protein for human consumption. Rearing animals is better in these areas. Mongolia is a good example. Russian inspired attempts to grow cereals in Mongolia created a dustbowl, similar to the one which affected parts of the USA in the 1920's. The Mongols have traditionally believed that it is wrong to disturb the soil, and consequently eat a diet that is almost exclusively meat. Manure is also extremely beneficial for the soil, and ploughing land to grow crops without manure can be damaging, whether organic techniques or conventional ones are used.

Permaculture and forest gardening enthusiasts suggest that a form of agriculture based on trees and perennials, rather than arable crops would overcome these problems. Nuts and seeds could replace annual cereals, beans and pulses. There are even perennial grain legumes like the Siberian pea tree. I don't know how practical this is though, or what the yields are. Our nut trees have suffered badly from squirrels in the past. A tricky problem for a vegan forest gardener! Perennial cereals are being investigated, mainly by farmers wanting to feed gamebirds on set aside land, but also by permaculturists. The yields from perennial cereals are low, and weeds can be a serious problem (especially grass weeds). I suspect that perennial cereals won't be a practical food source unless herbicides are used.

Hunting and fishing can also be low impact ways to feed yourself from the land, as long as the wild animal populations are not over-exploited. Hunting and fishing also create an incentive to preserve aras of wild or semi wild habitats. Bloodsports enthusiasts, butterfly collectors and anglers have in the past been reponsible for many nature reserves, whatever their sins. Yields of wild meat per hectare are low, but can be higher than the yields of meat from farmed animals, especially when animal feed (and the land used to grow it) is taken into account.

The diet for a small planet has been promoted by vegetarians and vegans, who reject meat because of animal cruelty. A few points need to be made here:

Many vegetarians reject red meat first, but are less keen to give up chicken, bacon, milk and eggs. I believe this is topsy turvy. Intensively reared beef is rightly rejected, on the grounds that it takes approximately 10 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat. However not all beef is produced that way. In Europe, a lot of beef is free range, mainly grass fed, and only fed on grain when it is fattened for slaughter. Sheep are also mainly free range and grass fed. Dairy cows are fed far more grain than beef cows, and pigs and chickens are fed on a diet consisting mostly of grain. There is generally more cruelty involved in the rearing of dairy cows, pigs and chickens than in the rearing of beef cattle and sheep. Those who believe that they are not killing animals by drinking milk or eating eggs are also mistaken. Male chicks and calves are slaughtered as surplus to requirements. In India, the male calves are allowed to grow up and roam freely, so that people can drink milk without bad karma. The problems are obvious. Few European farmers would be willing to support large numbers of effectively useless animals. In addition, ploughing land for crops invariably kills earthworms.

We believe that agriculture should be about producing food in the most efficient and sustainable way possible. Currently many farmers see themselves as producers of meat, milk and eggs. This is partly due to subsidies that make milk, meat and eggs artificially cheap, partly due to grain surpluses (feeding grain to animals is seen as a way to increase its value), and partly due to greed and snobbery* on the part of wealthy consumers who are unwilling to consider alternatives to diets based largely on animal products. It would be better for people and the planet if demand for grain fed animal products was drastically reduced. We don't believe that a totally vegan planet would be practical though. There is a role for animals in agriculture and in our diets. Our diet is mostly vegan, and we strongly endorse freeganism as a practical solution to a wasteful world.

Animals on the Italian farm

The farm already has chickens, dogs and cats. The dogs are reasonably useful for deterring burglars (and maybe chasing squirrels too). The cats catch mice. The chickens lay eggs, weed ground and produce manure. The dogs and cats are reasonably cheap to feed, but their manure is not easy or pleasant to collect and compost (so I don't). The chickens are currently fed on commercial chicken feed and waste food, although they have been fed on home grown grain in the past. The chicken feed almost certainly contains GM maize and soya. Buying in grain for chicken feed is one way of importing valuable nutrients into this depleted soil. If I was starting from scratch, I would probably not buy chickens until I had a surplus of home grown grain. Geese, on the other hand can feed mainly off grass, and if we could create a pond, ducks could be very useful. We are considering getting a donkey or two, for light work around the farm, and for the manure. Donkeys can feed happily on rough grass and weeds, but we may still have to buy in feed. Sheep and goats can feed themselves off the natural vegetation, but can be destructive in areas like this (Nomadic shepherds have caused problems in the past, by grazing vast herds of sheep and goats on the farm, and then moving on to greener pastures. The problem goes back to Cain and Abel). Pigs could also be useful, but we would probably need to buy grain for them. I suspect that the best source of animal food on the farm is the enormous edible snails, that are so common here. Snail farming could fit in well to a permaculture type system, or we could simply gather them from the wild.

*As well as greed and snobbery, there is also gullibility. Dr Atkins and his followers (many of whom are linked to the meat industry) have convinced large numbers of overweight westerners that they are eating too much carbohydrate and not enough animal protein. Something many Africans would find amusing. It is possible to reduce your calory intake by eating only meat, milk and eggs, but there are far more practical ways to do so. Carbohydrate cannot be converted into fat (protein can), but it can prevent fat from being burned. Refined carbohydrates, such as white sugar, white bread etc. are empty calories, almost worthless junk food, but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. You are unlikely to get fat on brown rice. [back]

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