Why industrial agriculture has to go

Adopting a plant-based diet poses several possibilities including a more direct relationship with our food. Picture: Unsplash.

Adopting a plant-based diet poses several possibilities including a more direct relationship with our food. Picture: Unsplash.

Eating meat has gone virtually unquestioned in the industrial countries that comprise just 15 percent of the world’s population but are responsible for 37 percent of global meat consumption. With over one-quarter of the Earth’s surface used for grazing animals, the vicissitudes of a changing climate will dramatically curb this model. 

By LAURA JEAN SCHNEIDER

Currently, while consuming forage and grains, meat animals produce protein dense muscles, which people consume as meat. But adopting a plant-based diet poses several possibilities: a more direct relationship with our food; a substantial reduction in fuel use, greenhouse gases, and commercial mono-cropping - and more food production. While reducing meat consumption, which the BBC claims one-third of Britons have done,  is a solid first step, it seems that eliminating the animal from the plant-animal-food equation makes solid economic, ethical and planetary sense. Exactly how to tackle the issues that loom in such a transition are big questions. Journalist Laura Jean Schneider speaks to Natalie Bennett, former leader of The Green Party, about why we need the shift to a plant-based agricultural system and which groups are doing it well already. Bennett spoke at Grow Green: Farming for a Plant-Strong Future, organised by The Vegan Society in London earlier this year.


Too tidy - but bad for the planet.

Too tidy - but bad for the planet.

Schneider: In a recent tweet, you ask for stories of a future that does not end in cataclysmic collapse. How does a shift to plant-based agriculture inform that vision?

“If [plant-based agriculture] means massive impacts on biodiversity, bio-abundance, water quality and air pollution, then it [will turn into] part of the problem.”

“If [plant-based agriculture] means massive impacts on biodiversity, bio-abundance, water quality and air pollution, then it [will turn into] part of the problem.”

Bennett: Our current diet is deeply unhealthy for people as well as the planet. The obesity crisis, the huge leap in Type 2 diabetes, can all be helped by shifting to a more plant-based diet. But it isn't a panacea - and it depends very much on what type of plant-based food [we consume]. Greg's vegan sausage roll does not help. Highly-processed, high-calorie, heavily advertised and promoted, multinational company products - usually sold wrapped in plastic - are disastrous, whether animal or plant-based. 

Schneider: I’m fascinated by your concept of a “war on tidiness,” as you wrote about recently in The Ecologist. How does a move toward a plant-focused food system fit within that?

Bennett: It is important that we don't just focus on a plant-focused food system, without thinking about what sort of system [that will be]. Industrial agriculture - the large-scale, high-input monoculture of plants  - is a model that is disastrous for the environment and our health. And not all of it is going into animal feed. If [plant-based agriculture] means using large quantities of pesticides and artificial fertilisers, with massive impacts on biodiversity, bio-abundance, water quality and air pollution, then it [will turn into] part of the problem, not the solution.

According to conventional views, an enormous field of heavily-sprayed rape seed with identical yellow flowers stretching as far as the eye can see is very "tidy'“. That’s what farmers and communities have been told a "good, tidy farm” looks like for decades; indeed, for centuries. Whereas the same area, farmed through permaculture or bio-intensive methods, on the Bec Hellouin model [a market garden farm in Normandy, founded by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer in 2006] might look very untidy indeed [but has] a wide mix of crops, including trees. It offers different crops at different stages of development and is managed through no-till or minimum-till methods, which means it uses cover crops and high levels of mulching with raised beds made out of scrap material.

A beautiful chaos: Bec Hellouin

A beautiful chaos: Bec Hellouin

The "untidy" approach extends to distribution and sale. Current systems involve packing near-identical produce into neat, identically sized packaging. Anything that doesn't fit is very often waste. And it goes into identical supermarkets around the country, neatly stacked into standardised shelves, always there, never running out. Again very tidy — and hugely wasteful. If you contrast that to a traditional greengrocer, with bins of produce of different sizes and shapes, sometimes running out of some items, arriving in bulk in reusable containers, which may be a bit battered around the edges - well, this isn't tidy, but it is far more environmentally friendly and healthier. The same applies to bulk products. Farmers are forced to produce standardised crops that can go into mass production systems. Unlike a skilled local baker, they can't adjust for seasonal, natural variations in moisture content or protein or other characteristics. But the loaves are very tidy - indeed identical.

Schneider: How do you suggest communities approach utilizing their own bioregions in an effort to phase out animal farming?

Bennett: We need to rediscover many traditional crops, whether that be bean and oil crops, as Hodmedods [producers that works with British farmers to provide pulses and grains from fair and sustainable UK production, organic where possible] has been doing in East Anglia and beyond, traditional orchard species in Kent or Shropshire; ”wild" forage crops, as found pretty well everywhere. Even nettles make a very nice soup. I’ve heard it said the supermarkets would sell them as a “superfood" but even they don't quite have the gall for that. 

Schneider: What is the largest challenge for getting plant-focused agriculture implemented on a large scale?

Bennett: Corporate interests. Agrochemical companies, multinational food companies and supermarkets, and their extreme influence over political systems - particularly in the US, UK and Australian. Political reform is a must, and I'd urge everyone to devote some of their time and energy to that issue.