A vegan world would be a miserable one

Grazing animals are vital to a healthy planet. We should treat them with respect, but still eat them, says Philip Walling

  • Published 31.01.18

Utopianism has never lacked presumption. So it’s hardly surprising that vegans presume to commandeer the first month of 2018 in support of their muddle-headed cause by inventing “Veganuary”. However, catchy phrases are no substitute for vigorous debate. So at the Oxford Union recently the motion was proposed that “by 2100 meat eating will be a thing of the past”.

If the proposal is right, humanity is doomed. Without animals, all soils grow sterile and eventually become desert. Animals are as necessary to life as the vegetation that they eat and the micro-organisms that make the soil a living thing. And the most effective producers of fertility are well-managed grazing animals, particularly the cow. Her manure is a magic product. She is the alchemist that transforms sunlight through grass into fertility and supports the health of nations. 

Much of the world’s land is unsuitable for annual cropping. But it is clothed in perennial grass and other herbs. That is why we’ve been given animals to convert the grass into food that we can eat and to make our soils fertile with their dung and urine. Nothing can replace this. Chemicals and artificial fertilisers kill living organisms in the soil. Grazing animals on permanent pasture do the opposite. Perennial grasses and plants absorb carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. In other words, they store carbon. Cultivating the land for annual crops does not. Environmentalist Joel Salatin has even argued that, if all cropland was pasture, in 10 years it could re-absorb all the carbon released since the start of the industrial age.

When the first Europeans arrived in North America, there were 100 million bison grazing the perennial grasslands that covered a third of the continent. Over millennia their dung and urine had created some of the deepest, most fertile soils on the planet. By 1880, they had been all but exterminated. Settlers had begun to plough millions of acres of virgin sod. By 1930, land that only a century earlier had supported immense herds was becoming a desert that couldn’t feed rabbits and the Dust Bowl was created. 

It is not whether eating meat is right or wrong. It is that it is essential for the health and survival of all humanity and the land we depend upon. If we stop eating meat, domestic animals will not benefit, they will disappear. And what will we eat instead? Soya is the vegans’ preferred alternative, but it is grown using industrial methods — huge machinery, chemical fertilisers and herbicide, and it is processed using petro-chemicals. Between 80 and 90 per cent of the global soya crop comes from GM seed and can contain residues of glyphosate, applied to keep down the weeds, and hexane used in the crushing of the beans. Its cultivation causes rural depopulation and displacement, loss of soil fertility, and it has to be shipped across the world. 

That’s not to say that the vegans are wrong about everything. They are right to decry ploughing up large parts of North and South America to grow herbicide tolerant annual crops with chemical fertilisers to feed factory-farmed livestock. They’re right to care about cruel animal slaughter, broiler chickens, battery hens, factory farms in general, and anything that uses energy to create waste and pollution rather than contributing to fertility. They’re right to deprecate our treatment of animals, but animals are not humans. Their lives are given to us for our sustenance. Without them we would die. So, for that reason we should respect them, but that does not mean that we should not eat them. 

Not only does eating meat give us pleasure, it is good for us. If it is proper meat, reared and killed humanely, grass-fed beef, lamb, outdoor pork and natural game are full of goodness that you can’t easily get from anything else. It has more vitamins, minerals and nutrients than any alternative. 

So, let us give thanks for our grazing animals and enjoy them. They sustain us, the land we live on, and the people who
work to maintain its beauty and health. No civilisation has long survived the destruction of the fertility of its soil. Neglect its health and, like all utopias, it will crumble into dust.

Philip Walling is the author of Counting Sheep and is writing a sequel titled Till the Cows Come Home