The Age: Thinking of going vegan for the new year? Think again

Illustration: Simon Letch

by Elizabeth Farrelly | December 29, 2018

Thinking of going vegan for the new year? Maybe think again. It’s likely a lot less healthy – for you and for the planet – than is commonly believed.

There are three main arguments for veganism: planetary health, personal health and cruelty. All have some validity but none is ultimately persuasive.

Take personal health. Most of us should eat less red meat, yes. But less is not none. That too much is bad doesn’t imply that none is best. Indeed, most things that are good in small doses – red wine, vitamins, fat – are bad in large ones. So personal health alone does not argue veganism.

The cruelty arguments are also complicated. Certainly, some animal husbandry practices are cruel. Most would agree that cages, crowding, hobbling, debeaking, overheating and deliberate infliction of pain are cruel. I’d also include grain-feeding cattle.

Free-range Hereford cattle grazing on pasture at French Island in Western Port Bay. Credit:Richard Cornish

Cattle are ruminants, with four stomachs (rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum) specially evolved for grass. The grain and countless other supplements (including meat-meal and meds) of the typical feedlot’s dietary regime are designed to induce rapid weight-gain. All too commonly, however, high-grain diets also produce the low-pH, low-fibre and high-stress stomach environment that can cause abomasal ulcers and other conditions such as liver abscesses. In my book, that’s cruel.

Killing, however, is not essentially cruel. Killing may be wrong for other reasons, although if killing animals for food is wrong, why not also killing plants?

Scholarship increasingly reveals that trees, at least, communicate things very like emotions. In The Secret Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben writes: “We think about plants being robotic, following a genetic code. Plants and trees always have a choice about what to do. Trees are able to decide, have memories and even different characters.”

Given that it’s barely two centuries since we considered animals in sentient, it is surely possible that we’ll soon regard plants as similarly deserving respect. So the ruthless chopping-and-frying of a potato that could still generate shoots may come to seem as cruel as doing it to a kitten.

If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the eternal truth that life consumes life and if – as is wholly possible – animals get to live in relative safety and fulfilment and die without pain or fear, I think the cruelty charge fails.

And so to the planet. You’ll have read the polemics on how switching from beef to beans would end climate change and save the planet. There’s some logic in it. Livestock produce around one-fifth of greenhouse gases, beef is worse than chicken or pork (cattle being methane-farting ruminants) and replacing one weekly steak with beans saves the equivalent of 144 litres of petrol consumption a year.

That’s fine. On these arguments, going vegan may ease your eco-anxiety. Spouting such statistics at dinner may even bring a sense of moral superiority – the psychosomatic health benefits of which may be pronounced. But such figures do not show the whole picture.

Like most debates these days, the food-footprint issue has become emotive and politicised; less a debate than an exchange of barricaded fire. The science is used less as truth-bringer than weapon. It is also far too narrow in scope.

For over a century agriculture has been conceived as a branch of industrial manufacturing; production, processing, packing, market. In truth, agriculture is a complex system with so many variables that the “whole picture” is almost impossible to conceive or encapsulate, much less study. But we need to try.

At its heart is an extraordinary life-giving plant called grass. Grass-fed beef? There should be no other kind. “Grass fed” (meaning the animals have only eaten grass, ever) is still a small percentage of the meat we eat. Most are “finished” in feedlots which, in accelerating cattle towards market, shorten their lives and so (it is sometimes argued) reduce their lifetime methane emissions. But this argument is more than countervailed by the carbon-saving and nature-healing of grass.

We tend to think Australia was naturally forested, making grass an exotic substrate for exploitative grazing practices and destructive hooves. Wrong. Grass is native and, combined with hard hooves, has an extraordinary capacity to build soil, store water and sequester carbon. This is regenerative farming.

We don’t know our continent’s pre-human condition but we do know, from Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, that pre-colonial Australia offered vast tree-dotted savannahs of waving waist-high grasses; soft-soiled game parks managed by Indigenous peoples for eons. We also know that these native grasses, unlike the annual exotic pasture-plants still favoured by most graziers, were mixed-species perennials.

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe has written about the uses that Aboriginal people had for native grasses.Credit:James Alcock

That small difference is actually huge. Being perennial, Australian grasses are seasonal growers. Some, like kangaroo grass, are summer growers; others, like microlaena, grow in the cool-season. These mixed grasslands naturally sustain permanent ground cover, with all the soil-retaining, microbe-nourishing and nutrient-releasing benefits that brings.

And there’s more. Grazing doesn’t require treelessness. Indeed, pastoral ruminants delight in paddock trees for shade and fodder. Compare your average paddock of chickpeas or soy, a clear-felled monoculture that requires annual ploughing (denaturing the soil and killing its microbial culture) and broadscale poisoning of “weeds” before planting, not to mention petroleum-based fertilisers. Fifty years of this and what soil remains is thoroughly dead.

Regenerative grazing, by contrast, can produce beef that is carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative. Managed into intensive but fast-moving grazing, cattle eat grasses without killing them, trample nitrogen and fibrous dung into the soil, then move on. Because the grasses are perennial, this deepens soil instead of destroying it, from 300mm to 1500mm in a few years, multiplying water-holding capacity by eight and sustaining the complex microbial ecosystems that release soil nutrients and exchange them with plants for sugars.

A recent US study found that “adaptive multi-paddock grazing” sequesters so much carbon that “emissions… were completely offset”. NSW practitioner Martin Royds says this not only benefits the environment but can increase profits by 230 per cent. Plus, you get the odd hamburger.

By all means go vegan if you want, but don’t do it for the planet. Remember, too, the vast clouds of methane from several billion new human bean-eaters. Ruminate on that.