There are some basic principles we need to consider when making lifestyle choices about the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Most articles and books about food and agriculture do not link to textiles, which in my opinion should be part of this discussions. So I am including it here, with an emphasis on wool, hemp and flax, which are the three fibres we have a long history of growing and processing in the UK and which I feel should be part our our future.
Humans have an impact on the environment whatever we chose, and given the devastating effect we are currently having on the climate, it is supremely important that each and every one of us make the choices with the least affect, and to do that we need information and education. It is not a simple question and there are no simple answers. I do not think it helps to put ourselves into a pigeon hole, as this shuts off discussion and narrows our vision. Becoming a member of the tribe of vegans for instance, is one such pigeon hole. Humans are omnivorous. This is fortunate, as it means we can thrive on a huge variety of foods and therefore, with education and planning, have the capacity to source the food and textiles that has the least impact on, and could even enhance, the environment.
Let me differentiate between grass fed animals and grain/soya fed intensively farmed animals as it is of supreme importance and there is a planet of difference.
Before humans became agrarian, rather than hunter/gatherer, there would have been vast numbers of grazing animals to hunt, living in balance with preying animals. These animals – and grass-fed equivalents today – belch a minute amount of methane that would not affect the planet in the way that our belching, methane emitting, grain and soya-fed intensively farmed animals are today. There would not be the methane emitting slurry to deal with either, as a roaming, grazing animals’ dung will be taken care of by nature, in the natural way. Roaming or field grazing animals that are carefully managed outside and year round, are actually keeping carbon in the ground, especially if they are managed without imported feed supplements, but with herb rich leys. Agriculture accounts for the highest percentage of carbon emissions which are causing the change in our climate. Changing agricultural practices takes time, planning, knowledge and willingness. As consumers, we all need to take part in this ongoing discussion, so below, I set out some basic questions to consider.
1. Insects and habitat: Do you know the source of all the proteins you eat, plus the displacement of that source’s local ecology? For instance, by eliminating meat from your diet and switching to pulses and nuts for your protein is likely to carry a far higher level of carbon emissions, and an adverse effect on aquatic life, marine animals and insects. 95% of almonds consumed in the UK come from California. Growing almonds (or any other food) as a mono crop has necessitated high levels of insecticide use, which has wiped out local insect populations. To ensure pollination beekeepers are employed to transport thousands of hives of bees annually by road from Canada. The question is; is this a truly vegan alternative to locally sourced, organic, grass fed livestock?
2. Soil erosion: Replacing (local) animal livestock with plant mono crops – soya, wheat, maize, palm oil and pulses – increases carbon emission through soil disturbance and also is the cause of a catastrophic loss of soil through erosion, which in turn is affecting the natural balances in the sea, and adding to the loss of marine life. Soil health should be at the top of the list of priorities. Small, integrated farms produce more food per acre than large industrial farms whilst also keeping a wider diversity in the local ecology.
3.Marine pollution: What is the full cost of wearing synthetically manufactured fibres? Polyester and other synthetics are made from oil (fossil fuel). The high levels of chemicals and energy used to transform them into fibre are not sustainable. Added to this, every time a synthetic garment is washed, small microfibres leach out into our waterways and are now found to be polluting the seas and killing marine life. They do not biologically break down, unlike natural fibres.
If animal farming is replaced by the farming of more soya, wheat, maize, palm oil and other plant monocrops, how can we prevent the mass destruction of the local environments to make space for this?
Livestock has a huge part to play in providing us with a very sustainable source of protein and fibre, especially sheep. However, I cannot stress enough how important it is to manage them in a sustainable grazing system, with a mindful knowledge of the impact on soil and wildlife. We need to reduce our consumption of meat, demand grass fed animals, campaign for a return to local, humane slaughtering by highly trained and skilled employees, limiting or banning the cruel practices of transportation of live animals on the hoof.
This whole subject is incredibly complex, and there is no single answer to it. There is confusion about sustainability, and there is a backlash against the many flaws in livestock farming. The current conventional system is not sustainable and cruelty is prevalent. But we need to encourage good farming practice by buying it, and especially supporting smaller, organic farms, localising our consumption and checking provenance.
Further information: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org