Our monthly series, Your Questions Answered, collates questions from Wicked Leeks readers and puts them to our expert team of writers and contributors. Submit your question for consideration by commenting on this article.
What benefits British farmers most – me being vegan or not? What benefits the soil most? I know these aren’t easy questions to answer.
Manderjee via Twitter
Whether you’re a vegan or not, there’s no denying that the movement has brought the environmental and animal welfare issues of intensive livestock farming to the mainstream. It has confronted us with horrifying animal welfare abuses, how the industry drives deforestation and is responsible for 14.5 per cent of global emissions. But the animal welfare-led movement has potentially been lacking other aspects of sustainability, and many plant-based products are ultra-processed and sourced from far-flung places. However, as this question highlights, the debate surrounding vegan diets is becoming more nuanced and there is a growing awareness that food and farming is rarely simple. Excluding animal products doesn’t automatically mean that the food we do eat is being produced in a way that is actively beneficial for the soil, farmers and even our health. Plant-based products can still be grown in a harmful way and exploit farmers.
This question raises what is best for soil, as well as farmers, which is an interesting point. A vegan diet abstains from meat, but organic farmers where soils are most healthy rely on animal manure to fertilise their crops instead of greenhouse-gas emitting nitrogen fertiliser. To make this work, they often run small-scale mixed farms, rotating animals among veg to create build up nutrients as well as storing carbon in the soil. Who will buy the animals to sustain these kinds of nature-rich systems if veganism is the dominant diet? As ever, there is no answer to be found in the extremes and if some people eat a sustainable vegan diet, while others eat less and better meat, that would most likely enable a shift to an all-round more sustainable and fairer system for farmers. When considering whether veganism is better for farmers, another big part of the question is where you are buying that vegan food. Is it a vegan meat alternative sold by a brand with minimal links to farmers, or from a supermarket where complex supply chains leave farmers with a small fraction of the final cost? Or is it a vegan meal made with fresh fruit, veg or pulses bought from a farmers’ markets, organic veg box, community-supported agriculture or food co-op? These places are the best way to support farmers as they receive a greater share of the price.
A similar question was raised by another reader about plant milks, who asked: Is there a way to compare the ethics, environmental impact and health benefits of a full fat organic cow’s milk and comparative oat milk? The carbon emissions of plant-based milk may be a fraction of the dairy equivalent because plants require a lot less energy to grow than raising and feeding cows, which also release potent greenhouse gas, methane, into the atmosphere. But many plant-based milks are ultra-processed and grown in intensive farming systems that use energy-intensive inputs such as fossil fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides that drive biodiversity loss and high levels of emissions. That’s not to say all plant milks are made equal. There are small-scale organic producers who make ‘milk’ from crops like oats or almonds grown on organic farms, without chemicals and in diverse, nature-friendly systems. It’s complicated but, as a general rule, whether your diet has a positive impact on the soil depends not just on what you eat but how it’s grown and where you buy it.
Jack Thompson, staff writer, Wicked Leeks