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The big interview   |   Environment & ethics

Fighting for nature

George Monbiot is a man who feels his moment has come. We’re speaking the day before the first of two Global Climate Strikes and the long-time environmental journalist and campaigner is jubilant about what it could achieve.

“I’ve been involved in loads of protest movements over the years, but none of them have really been big enough to counter the huge scale of our problems. Maybe one day we’ll look back and say this was the day the world woke up,” he says.

He’s talking of the mass awakening in environmental and climate consciousness, galvanized and spearheaded by teenager Greta Thunberg’s youth movement, and the powerful uprising of Extinction Rebellion.

“I’ve been an environmental journalist and campaigner now for 34 years, and it’s been a pretty depressing 34 years, on the whole, where I’ve seen most things spiral downwards very rapidly,” he laughs, sadly. “But I also feel that this is the moment I’ve been waiting for, throughout that entire time.

“We’re seeing a level of engagement in terms of the number of people, but also the commitment, that is beginning to look commensurate with the scale of the problem we face.”

XR and Monbiot
Monbiot has joined both the Global Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion.

Monbiot’s career began as an investigative environmental documentary maker for the BBC, before travelling to Indonesia, and subsequently Brazil, where he became involved in social justice, indigenous rights movements, and uncovered an illegal mahogany trade.

His influence in environmental debate is well-established – food writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote in a book review that Monbiot has “reshaped the surface of the planet several times over, [and] has the intellectual temerity to suggest how we might do it better from here on in.”

These days, he is most well-known for his regular columns for the Guardian newspaper, some of which turn into books, and which can be tied together only through the sheer breadth of topics he tackles – from wealth, to land reform, to ecological and economic justice.

His most recent column at the time of our interview outlines an idea to cap an individual’s wealth, citing a whistle-blower at a private airport where jets regularly take off with only one passenger. Is he, after 34 years in reporting on the area, resigned to such acts of environmental madness?

“I am still shocked by the extraordinarily careless way in which we treat the only planet known to harbour life,” he says. “It’s almost a necrophiliac obsession, as if we want to accelerate towards a dead planet.”

As with any question put to him, the answer doesn’t end there – from wealth, we move to consumerism, capitalism, ecological collapse and the need for a new economic system.

“One of the things we need to recognise is there is no such thing as green consumerism, just less consumerism,” he says. “The one thing that is completely correlated with environmental impact, is wealth. The richer you are, the more harm you’ll do to the planet. It really is that simple.

“What we need is a system that I call private sufficiency, public luxury,” he says, explaining how that includes public spaces like parks, galleries, allotments and other amenities that are owned by a community under a ‘Commons’ system.

As vocal as he is on consumerism and wealth, it’s on food and farming where Monbiot is perhaps most radical.

His thinking is underpinned by the concept of rewilding – letting nature restore itself as a natural climate solution and using forests and other ecosystems as carbon sinks – something he explains in a mesmerising TedTalk that has now been seen by almost 170,000 people.

But to rewild, you need land, something Monbiot believes should come from nothing less than getting rid of livestock production, period.

Sheep
Monbiot would replace grazing livestock with mass ecosystem restoration and rewilding.

“Livestock numbers are rising at twice the rate of human numbers: that is the real population crisis. There’s simply not enough land to support that livestock without destroying everything else,” he says.

And it’s not just intensively-farmed meat that he takes aim at – under his vision for true natural climate solutions, even land-extensive livestock systems, like free range, must be replaced.

“We have this woefully ill-informed pastoral idyll that says we ought to be eating free-range meat, or pasture-fed beef, that’s the way to go,” he says. “It has a far greater impact, even than the disastrous impacts of indoor meat, because it requires so much more land.

“In a way, the more extensive your system is, or the more land it requires, the more it is taking away from nature, natural climate solutions, and the solutions that we need. In fact, it’s a counter solution. We just need to get out of livestock production.

On fertilising crops without animal manure, Monbiot, who is a vegan himself, cites ‘veganic’ farmer Iain Tolhurst, who has been growing organic vegetables without any animal input for 30 years, although there is some debate within the industry on just how competitive the system is in terms of yields.  

Monbiot
'There is no such thing as green consumerism,' George Monbiot. Image Dave Stelfox.

Such a dramatic change to farming systems would be “disruptive”, he admits, but argues that we could replace the rural economy and farming subsidies of today by paying farmers to protect the natural environment and draw down carbon.

To replace animal protein in diets, meanwhile, he believes developments in microbial protein technology will offer the solution, not something you’d necessarily associate with the man whose biggest passion is the natural world.

“This has a tiny land footprint, and if, as I hope, it will displace the great majority of livestock farming, then all that is land that can be turned back to nature, can be rewilded, and used to draw down carbon through natural climate solutions. It could be the crucial technological change that allows us to stop both climate and ecological breakdown.”

Does his interest in biotech extends to genetic modification of crops, the nemesis of so many environmentalists?

“I’m generally opposed to the genetic engineering of arable crops, simply because it’s been used to a large extent to create animal feed monocultures with the complete elimination of all arable weeds,” he says.

“But I think there is some scope for genome editing in microbes to produce cultured palm oil, so we don’t have to have palm oil plantations, and cultured fish oils so we don’t have to catch fish anymore. Things that will massively take the pressure off the natural world.”

Monbiot appears indefatigable on the topic of environmentalism, despite talking openly earlier this year about dealing with a health scare, and I wonder what drives, or at least sustains him.

It becomes clearer when he talks about his biggest passion outside of work, brought to life in the opening chapters of his book, Feral. “The days I spend on my sea kayak, off the coast of Britain, those are the days around which my life is built,” he says.

“I spent my whole childhood fantasising about it [the sea]. I’ve always had a deep attraction to it. And kayaking is where I sort of find myself, where I find it working best for me.”

It’s this image of him bobbing alone off the coast of Great Britain, immersed in the ecosystems he writes so much about, that perhaps best sums up the drive behind a career fighting and writing for the love of the natural world.

    Comments

    Rachel

    1 Month

    I admire George Monbiot a lot. He's a good guy. But when it comes to food and farming I just don't agree with him at all. I come from a farming background. Ive seen people struggle with 'vegan' rotations. You cant treat food like another business that is ultimately disposable and get so idealistic ad to risk it failing. That would lead to starvation. We cant muck about with the fundamental wisdom of high farming either. X

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    tolhurstorganic

    1 Month

    Be interesting to know who these farmers are that "struggle with vegan rotations" as there are very few farmers actually doing it. the ones I know are doing very well, we have lead the field in Stockfreeorganic systemsNo we do not need livestock in order to produce food within intensive horticulture. Our farm has proved over 4 decades that technically it is viable and productive. We are a fully commercial farm and have to pay our rent and all costs from the produce that we grow, we are not supported in any way. Some figures: only 35% of our land is in long term fertility crops the rest is cropped intensely. We produce over 140 tons of vegetable annually and yields continue to rise year on year. This year we harvested yields of 38 tonnes/ha potatoes,29t/ha squash, 31 t/ha onions and stacks of other crops that we harvest and sell all year around. Our inputs to this are primarily green manures which are within all cropping years, they even share vegetables in the same space. Woodchip compost and ramial wood from our own land supports a wide range of fungal activity in the soil. Our farm is one of the most intensely surveyed and scrutinised within the organic world and we have amassed a huge amount of data in respect of soil analysis and biodiversity mapping over 3 decades. Soil fertility is almost twice what it was 30 years ago with higher carbon and major nutrients. We are not gifted with grade 1 land in fact it is grade 3b (suitable for grass/tree cover) The farm supports a wide array of animals from the 10 million earthworms per hectare to the wild deer, badgers, weasels and others. More than 80 species of wild-flowers grow not just around the edges but within the cropped land. There are several rare species of flowers and birds present. So; we are farming with livestock, we just don’t see the need to eat them and mess up the planet in the process. George has spent a day with us as part of a Channel 4 programmes due out in a few months, so I am aware of his views some of which are clearly radical and are bound to piss some people off, not possible to make changes without doing so. I do not have to agree with all he proposes but broadly speaking he is correct to say that animal production has to dramatically reduce if we are to see a future planet. There will always be farmed livestock and people that consume their products I am not so naive as to think that they will a go away and everybody live happily ever after. Pulses and cereals are much easier to grow within a Stockfreeorganic system than they would be within a livestock rotation. ADAS Terrington trials during the 80s clearly showed that as perfectly viable. Our farm is open to anybody who wishes to see for themselves just how productive and planetary supportive it is to grow food in the absence of farmed livestock and is visited by people from all over the World.

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    Rachel

    1 Month

    I will certainly look at what you have been doing. It sounds impressive. Im by no means blinkered.
    For me, the soil is at the heart of this conversation, hand in hand with emissions. Just as horticulture can be high impact or low impact, so can livestock farming. In high farming the system was always mixed to work closest with nature.
    In the wider world right now today, ruminants on herbage are good for the soil and most commercial plant based cropping systems are not. I see every day with my own eyes that away from the mist environmental food growers, that typical hill farm and suckle reared livestock farmers preserve biodiversity and maintain hedges whereas typical commercial arable and intensive pig / poultry units do not. There is nuance when we talk about all food production in relation to climate change and indeed sustainability. Xx

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    rick741

    1 Month

    George is one of the few who dares to say what society as a whole, doesn’t wish hear. I sympathise fully with those who earn their living in farming. It is a fully engrossing lifestyle with many working hours far in excess of other employments. Having listened to a few farmers response to George’s views, it is clear many are, quite understandably, in denial. Those working on the land are often viewed as possessing “fundamental wisdom”, it fits our romantic view of a life lived in the soil. Regardless, our situation is sufficiently grave that we must move away from the present bias towards livestock. Challenging though it is, there are no alternatives if we are to survive this crisis.

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    tolhurstorganic

    1 Month

    Well said. Things need to change agriculure including most organic is stuck in a bubble of conformity.

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    Annie Leymarie

    2 Weeks 4 Days

    Looking forward to listening to you again in London tomorrow, Tolly, (at VegFest) as I bow to your wisdom and dedication. Also appreciating Guy's willingness to listen to other views and try new ways, even though I'd love him to... try harder! We need far more farmers like the two of you. Respect! :-)

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    3 Weeks 6 Days

    As an organic vegetable growing son of a pig farmer, brother of a dairy farmer and butcher and living surrounded by livestock farmers George Monbiots views make uncomfortable reading. However vegetable my crops i have spent 30 years using animal manures to grow them and, as yet, know no other way. I accept, to a degree that ruminants can, under some management systems, contribute to soil health and building soil carbon but for the most part I am with George; to stand any chance of living sustainably on this planet the wealthy must radically cut their consumption of animal protein. I am inclined to support the rewilding of smaller areas than George advocates, as a way of promoting biodiversity; more, thicker hedgerows, areas of poorer land left nature nature, ideally connected together; perhaps the less productive 20% of lowland Britain. I think there are strong arguments for rewilding larger areas of uplands but i am sceptical that we can do this on the productive lowlands without just exporting our environmental impact to the countries we would buy our food from.

    I am trying to reduce our dependance on manures through the making and use of compost and longer rotations, but i am not finding it easy. Like Ian tolhurst, we are on grade three soils but are glowing on a larger scale. We would find it almost impossible to source enough material to make enough compost to feed all our land with our animal manures to supplement.. I am sure with time and learning we could use less but for now I am not in a position to advocate removing all livestock for the countryside.

    guy singh watson, founder of riverford

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    lynne_skinner@hotmail.com

    3 Weeks 4 Days

    I fully support the idea of re-wilding but slowly. Unfortunately the Pandora’s box has been opened and it will take time to change people even though we need to do so. I have two questions:
    1. We were once hunter gathers - do we need to return to that? It still entails eating meat!
    2. As a vegan how easy is it to get all of the nutritional needs (and the enjoyment of good food) from UK land and resources.
    I understand that it’s not easy to grow many of the beans and nuts required for a vegan diet on our land and in our climate or am I wrong?

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    sparclear

    3 Weeks 3 Days

    Plenty of pulses do grow in the British Isles. Suffolk company Hodmedods is where to look for favas, chickpeas, etc so crucial in a vegan and vegetarian diet and they are helping growers research and market the best kinds.
    With regard to animals in the context of land health and habitat restoration, let's study the benign role of grazers and browsers and not fall for the factoid that 'our countryside was once all woodland'. Read isabella Tree's book, Wilding,
    My take on all of this is that industrialised & megalomaniac human intervention does the damage. Smaller herds of slow growing animals need less fodder = less arable devoted to fattening crops like sileage maize, etc = more available to plant annual crops for us + orchards and to restore riparian habitats. Less polluted water = good all round (seaside too).

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    Richard Young

    3 Weeks 3 Days

    I applaud George Monbiot for his longstanding efforts to increase awareness about the serious environmental problems we face, all of which we have, of course, created ourselves.

    But when it comes to food, his normal diligence in getting to the bottom of an issue seems to be overwhelmed by vegan zeal, and this results in a very superficial understanding of food systems. He refers to increasing livestock numbers, for example.. Globally they are increasing, like the population, but in the UK, cattle and sheep numbers have fallen by 25% and 27% respectively since the mid-1980s. We need to address the issues country by country, there is no one solution that fits all situations as the resources and the agricultural potential of each region varies hugely.

    He also holds up Iain Tolhurst's system for producing organic vegetables without any livestock or animal manures, as a way forward. I agree the system is very successful, but it wouldn’t work on many soil types and about half the land has to be in fertility-building crops at any one time and therefore producing no food. The UK is already chronically lacking in vegetable production self-sufficiency and the widespread adoption of this approach would only increase our dependence on imported veg, often flown in by plane and carrying with it high water and soil carbon footprints, from regions suffering drought and soil degradation.

    But growing enough veg in more sustainable ways is the easy part. What George rarely considers is a detailed way is how to produce enough dietary fats in a vegan world without heavy reliance on agrochemicals or ongoing rainforest destruction, and what he never, as far as I am aware, has considered is how to produce enough grain in that way too. He appears unaware of the many lessons from history which teach us that continuous crop production without periodic returns to grass and grazing animals is unsustainable and leads to disaster. He also assumes that all livestock are eating grain that could be fed to humans. In the case of intensive pigs and poultry that is largely true. But he usually ignores these intensive and unnatural systems and saves his greatest criticism for naturally grazed, and in contrast naturally contended cattle and sheep which produce high quality protein and animal fats from grass, with, in some cases, supplementation from crop by-products – all from feeds which are inedible to, or unwanted by, humans. These include brewers’ and distillers’ grains, sugar beet pulp, miller’s offal, wheat and barley grown for flour or malting, which fail to meet quality standards – something which invariably happens in the UK’s unpredictable climate, oilseed cakes and bran, the latter not wanted because so many people still choose to eat white bread. Without cattle and sheep all this would go to waste and in a world with more than 7 billion people we cannot afford to waste resources like that.

    Obviously planting more trees in the UK would be hugely beneficial, but these need to be carefully integrated into existing systems so as not to destroy the precious harmony between species-rich grasslands, grazing animals and much of our wildlife, or reduce the area of land producing food. This could be achieved with more hedgerows, smaller fields and a lot more oak trees in hedgerows, for example. With over 800 million people on the planet seriously under-nourished it would be immoral to take vast areas of our land out of production and depend even more on what is in many cases, their land. A thousand acres of new hardwoods planted in the UK wouldn’t even begin to compensate for the biodiversity and carbon losses from ten additional acre of rainforest destroyed to make up for productivity lost at home.

    But worst of all, while he may not realise, or like it, George's childlike ideas on diets and food production are playing right into the hands of the agrochemical and biotech seed companies and the brave new world future they envisage for us all.

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    Nicolette Hahn Niman

    3 Weeks 3 Days

    Richard, I could not agree more about the need for intelligent conversations about ecological food production to avoid blanket generalizations. I live in California, a state where 30-40% of the land is too hilly, dry, rocky, or windswept for crop cultivation. On the land we occupy, where we raise cattle, cultivation of any crops would be nearly impossible and certainly ecologically inappropriate. This is actually true for MOST of the areas of the world that are currently grazed by livestock. So all of these "livestock are wasting land" notions are simply silly. Similarly, talking about how human health would be improved if we ate less meat is also nonsensical. Agencies of the United Nations have repeatedly noted the need for more animal-based foods in the developing world to meet basic nutritional needs. And in the developed world, where many people have moved away from animal fats and replaced them with industrial oils, flours, sugars and other foods that damage health, we are seeing record levels of diet-related diseases precisely due to this shift. So the blanket recommendation that people should "eat less meat" is equally dumb.

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    Catherine_Broomfield

    3 Weeks 1 Day

    I fully endorse the points Richard articulates so well, and his response illustrates a) the value of the practitioner's voice in the big sustainability debate. This is not to dismiss George Monbiot, but to recognise that unless you have experience of farming - growing vegetables or raising livestock - it is all too easy to miss the nuance and detail that comes from the knowledge and wisdom of practice. Secondly, Richard's point highlights the need for those who speak on this to inform both public and policy-makers, to take into account local context when talking about global problems. There is not a one size fits all answer. Livestock farming in one part of the globe may be inappropriate, just as crops maybe equally inappropriate if grown intensively in areas of water scarcity. Responses to the challenge of living and feeding ourselves within planetary bounds must take into account what is regionally appropriate. Across most of the west and north of the UK, the most sustainable food we can produce at the least cost to the planet is meat and milk from grazing ruminents. As with all things, balance and diversity is everything. Environmentalists like George Monbiot are champions of balance and diversity when it comes to nature, but seem to have an ideological blind spot when it comes to our food systems. In proselytising for 100% plant based diet, George is not solving the problem of unsustainable food systems, he is just shunting it elsewhere

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    Nicolette Hahn Niman

    3 Weeks 3 Days

    There is no "mass ecosystem restoration" without livestock. Period.

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    delsworth

    3 Weeks 2 Days

    I read George Monbiot's articles and books with interest and frustration. Unfortunately, Mr Monbiot does not understand the importance of grasslands (which are one of the earth's main carbon stores) and the role of the ruminant/herbivore in grassland ecosystems. In a functioning grassland ecosystem the grass growth is processed. In natural environment this is by a ruminant/herbivore. Humans can use a diesel powered machine instead. For example, the grass can be mown, driven 25 miles by tractor and trailer to a biodigester, Digested to produce methane for humans to burn and then the digestate can be transported back to the land from whence the grass came by tractor and trailer, dumped in a heap, then a further set of tractors, manure spreaders and loaders can be used to distribute the digestate across the fields.

    The advantage of using the ruminant/herbivore is that the energy for processing the biomass (grass) comes from the sun (the carbon current account) and the processing occurs in situ in a mobile unit (the animal), whereas for the tractor (at least so far) the energy comes from diesel (the carbon deposit account). In order to raise the levels of carbon stored in the UK's arable soils they need periods in which they grow perennial crops, typically grass leys of one kind or another. There will therefore need to be an increase in the number of grazing livestock to process the biomass they produce. I would really like to see Mr Monbiot think about the vast quantity of soya that is grown in South America and imported into the UK for human consumption and what that means for the rain forests of South America, instead of demonising the ruminant/herbivore.

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    Jim Thomas

    3 Weeks 1 Day

    I am also a fan of George's work and writing over the years and know that he is someone who is willing to rethink his assumptions in the face of thoughtful evidence. In that spirit I would encourage George (and other readers of this blog) to reconsider some of the underlying assumptions being made here about the potential benefits of producing proteins, oils and other ingredients in vats of genetically engineered microbes.

    George here refers to 'cultured' palm oil - that's a biotech industry PR term for genetically engineering microbes such as yeast or algae to pump out altered oils that mimic the lauric oils found in palm kernel or coconut oil (the correct term is synthetic biosynthesis... 'cultured' is deliberately meant to make it sound like fine dining or opera and hide the artificial/ biotech nature of this approach). Such vats of proprietary microbes are currently fed by sugar from Brazil - grown on land that used to be diverse cerrado watershed (see http://www.syntheticisnotnatural.com/ecover-petition/method-synthetic-biology-faq/) . There is no evidence that switching to sugar-fed algae oil will reduce overall palm oil use.. that is just an assumption played on by biotech PR companies. More likely if there is any displacement in teh market it will eat into coconut oil production (which is grown mostly by small farmers on land that also provides food). See: http://www.etcgroup.org/files/Syn%20Bio%20Coco-Primer%20Oct2013%20RESIZED%20BW%20revised.pdf

    This isn't just about fake palm oil. Biosynthetic production is a thriving multibillion dollar biotech industry across hundreds of ingredients driven by big grain companies, big flavour and fragrance giants, big oil and big livestock. Much of what is being targeted is to 'disrupt' botanical natural product markets that support small farmers in the tropics (such as vanilla, patchouli, stevia) - see https://www.etcgroup.org/content/synthetic-biology-biodiversity-farmers. for some case studies.

    George also repeats the assumption that producing proteins from genetically engineered microbes is a good way to reduce overall livestock production. Again this is over-simplistic and unproven. Even if we accept that livestock production needs to be reduced or replaced (and i personally share some of the views of others posting here that truly agroecological agriculture generally includes includes some element of animal farming) the fact of the matter is that there is no evidence that bringing highly processed, corporate 'alt-meat' products to market makes any dent on the overall problems of the food system even on overall meat production . The major investors driving the alt-meat bubble are currently silicon valley venture capitalists out to make a quick buck on a hot new trend and large industrial livestock producers who are re-inventing themselves as 'protein' companies (eg Hormel, Tyson) so they can cash in on a new niche income stream by selling fake meat to privileged northern 'vegan' and 'green' consumers, The products they are now increasingly bringing forward promoting are 'blended' meat/alt-meat burgers that they can sell in green packaging as 'less meat' for a premium - cashing in on the well meaning endorsement of folks such as George. In reality these proprietary petri proteins are highly processed, use pesticide drenched commodity crops and do nothing to support the food sovereignty of the peasant farmers who actually feed the world (and cool the planet). When you think about it, Its hard to see how extending the industrial agriculture model hand in hand with big protein giants through corporate biotech processed burgers is any kind of equitable and real "solution." for food sovereignty?.

    A short introduction to these petri-proteins by ETC Group and and the International Union of Food Workers can be found here:
    https://www.etcgroup.org/sites/www.etcgroup.org/files/files/2019_lab-grown_meat_and_other_petri-protein_industries.pdf

    There are real solutions of course -and Riverford as an organic pioneer has been part of that for years. We should be scaling up complex, long term , community -based approaches to agroecological production that employ people, draw on local knowledge, strengthen cultures and nurture soil - not waving the flag for quick industrial techno fixes in some far away corporate vat.

    i urge George to reconsider.... :-)

    Jim Thomas _ ETC Group (www.etcgroup.org)

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    george@wexcombefarm.co.uk

    2 Weeks 6 Days

    I admire George for his tireless work to highlight climate change and environmental degradation over the last 34 years, however on the idea of our environment being free from livestock I have to disagree. Firstly when he says the land use of extensive livestock is too great, agroecological grazing systems (with trees included) can very easily combine livestock and wildlife in harmony AND sequester soil carbon and water at the same time. Livestock can be an integral part of the fertility building phase of any organic system, either with composted manure or directly by grazing cover crops and fertility building leys. While also producing nutrient dense high protein foods.
    Producing home grown vegetables must be a priority to reduce the need to import fruits and vegetables from around the world, often from areas of water scarcity (most fruits and veg are over 80% water). Not all plant based food s are better for the environment or humans, 10% of all California’s water goes into almond production (vast monoculture plantations). Parts of southern Spain are covered for hundreds of acres with poly tunnels to grow vegetables and fruits which are then flown around Europe. Many “meat substitutes” being lauded by vegans are nothing more than over processed foods made from GM soy and peas.

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