Sustainability isn’t just about the environment. Is a vegan diet economically sustainable to our country? Part II of a series of articles.
We’ve discussed the environmental pros and cons of the vegan diet (if you missed it you can read Part I here), but it’s time to examine another key factor: economic sustainability. If everyone went vegan, what would happen to our economy?
I was inspired to write this article after a vegan activist stopped me in town one day to enthusiastically show me footage of animals being slaughtered in factory farms. We agreed it was awful. She told me how she wanted to avoid animal cruelty by going vegan. I agreed that was a logical course of action. She then said, “There’s absolutely no reason the entire country couldn’t turn vegan tomorrow.” That struck me as highly unlikely, so I decided to do some research. Was she right?
Could the UK economy sustain an overnight blow to its meat production industry?
Err, no. First of all it turns out that the striking statistic about the tonnes of food used for livestock feed is somewhat misleading: yes we could certainly be producing more food for human consumption, but not everything that we feed to animals is fit for humans. Animal feed makes use of waste by-products of wheat, maize, barley and other crops. If we stopped using it for animal feed, we would have to find an alternate use for it or else let the by-products go to waste and rack up carbon emissions. While this is hardly an insurmountable obstacle, it would require time and innovation into finding alternate agricultural farming techniques that produce less waste.
Additionally, we would have to reframe the foods we consume based on what our local climate allows. The UK imports around 40% of its fruit and vegetables and is unable to produce many of the technically-vegan foods we import, such as rice. Consumers are partially to blame here due to the rising trend in shoppers expecting all foods to be available year-round. How many times have you stopped to consider the current climate while standing in the fresh produce section of Morrisons?
As a result much of our food economy revolves around trade with other countries. Crucially 72% of our agricultural exports go to the EU – so perhaps certain dubious political decisions about the future of our country will force our hand on this particular issue before a satisfying sustainable solution is found that would allow the UK to provide sufficient food produced locally and reduce the carbon footprint of imports and exports.
A third economic issue to tackle would be the workers. Currently in the UK there are 474 thousand people employed in agricultural holdings, both livestock and arable: in 2015 there were nearly 97,000 jobs involved in the processing of meat and dairy. The industry and related jobs in manufacturing, distribution, wholesale and retail is a significant source of employment for many workers in rural areas. Agriculture contributes £24 billion in revenues to the UK economy annually.
So if hypothetically, the entire country switched to a vegan diet, we have to consider what would happen to these industries. Not only would we have to replace nearly 100,000 jobs but we would also have to replace the amount of meat we were producing and selling with an amount of vegetables that brought in the same revenue. I’ll spare you the maths, but that is a hell of a lot of vegetables on a rather small island.
On top of that, the farmers that would be hit by the loss of employment would be the small-scale enterprises: farming arable crops requires much more land to make a significant income than housing a small selection of livestock. This might feel contradictory given that just a few paragraphs ago we were extolling the benefits of using more land for crops, but that didn’t take into account the fact that the people owning and profiting from this hypothetical land will probably not be the same farmers who were previously making a living off livestock.
And it’s worth noting perhaps in other countries the situation is different: the statistics regarding agricultural land use were global and we are now focusing on the local. But in our country at any rate, it’s simply not true that all the land currently used for animals in the UK could be used for crops: 17.5 million hectares of land in the UK is used for agriculture but only 6.1 million hectares is arable. In addition, the land used for livestock which couldn’t be used for crops – for example, natural grasslands, bogs and moors – form a vital part of the biodiversity of the region and are natural habitats for many species of wildlife. There are 200 species of farm animal associated with land management required to conserve natural habitats in the UK.
So what are the counterarguments for what seems like a rather damning report for vegans on the impact of the meat and dairy industry to the UK economy?
Well, save for the fact that these warnings about the impact on the economy are purely hypothetical seeing as there’s no imminent likelihood the British population will be seized collectively by an compulsion to give up meat overnight. However this probably isn’t the counterargument vegan activists choose to emphasise.
In purely numeric terms, you could argue that nationally the cost to the agricultural sector and UK food industry is partially offset by the cost savings to the healthcare service: as mentioned before, reducing meat consumption would drastically reduce the number of people suffering from a myriad of health issues.
More practically, you could accept the challenges to the agriculture sector but argue that this just requires more funding into agricultural and food production innovation. If we can now grow meat in a lab it’s not outside the realm of possibility we can figure out a way to create more crops without destroying the British ecosystem in the process.
The third tenet of sustainability is also the least well understood: social sustainability. Inseparable from economic and environmental sustainability, this aspect requires that change supports the needs of the community, both locally and globally. This is partly addressed by the discussion of the benefits to individual health and the impact on the economy, and therefore the impact on the livelihoods of those employed in agriculture.
However I wanted to point out that the discussion so far has been largely contained to the UK. That’s partly because I don’t feel like it would be useful for me to try and become an expert in global agricultural economics for this article (you’ve all been spared), and partly because when you shift to a global perspective the issue of inequality comes to the forefront. It’s been said before (and vehemently countered) that veganism is a lifestyle for the privileged.
Whether or not this is the case, we are fortunate in much of the Western world to live in a context of food excess and overconsumption.
Outside of the Western world there are countries where livestock contribute a much greater part of the economy and are often the livelihood for low-income families. Different climates support different food economies: Sub-saharan Africa is 60% dryland which doesn’t lend itself to crop production and is therefore used for cattle.
However, once again it’s worth saying that the number of vegans on a crusade to get low-income families in developing countries to switch to eating quinoa is limited. After all, making a dietary change is an individual choice and we are in a Western world that makes it possible to reduce our carbon footprint through what we choose to eat, so arguments about global inequality risk missing the point.
We can’t fix the food system for the entire world with one solution – but what about the UK? What is sustainable for our society?
Follow us to stay up to date as we publish the third instalment of this series on veganism. Read the first part here.