'To eat less soya, eat more of it. The paradox bites only on those who are unaware of how much soya is contained in the meat they eat'
‘Most of the meat we consume is, in effect, a delivery mechanism for soya, and a cruel and inefficient one at that’
To eat less soya, eat more of it. The paradox bites only on those who are unaware of how much soya is contained in the meat they eat (producing a typical kilo of beef, for example, takes roughly 20kg of feed). Most of the meat we consume is, in effect, a delivery mechanism for soya, and a cruel and inefficient one at that. There is more soya in your steak than in your tofu.
If you are rich, leisured and determined, you may salve your conscience and lighten your wallet by eating only free-range, grass-fed beef. You may even be able to ensure that it comes from a cow which did not spend the last few months of its life being fattened on grain or soy in a feedlot. Natural and eco-friendly, right? Not necessarily. Where the livestock foraged, and on what types of grass, also matters hugely.
If those free-range cows ranged freely on seeded, sprayed, fertilised, and perhaps even irrigated pastures—and the label “grass-fed” covers a lot of sins—then you are wasting your time and money. That land will be a mono-cropped biological desert, akin to a soy, corn or wheat field, and almost certainly with the same problems of nitrogen run-off. You, and the planet, would be better off if the farmer ploughed the pasture and grew beans.
It is even worse if the bovines graze on the devastated lands of newly cleared rainforests or savannas. If you buy Brazilian beef for example, or eat cheap restaurant meats like hamburger, you are, in all likelihood, supporting an environmental catastrophe, an act of vandalism akin to feeding cattle on shredded Picassos.
So, a meat-free future then? Not necessarily. Many ecosystems depend on migrating wild graziers. They include the world’s grasslands (pampas, savannahs and the chalk downlands of southern England), as well as the primeval, semi-wooded areas in Europe (a mix of woodland, shrubs and natural meadows). Remnants of these largely destroyed ecosystems include the wildebeest migrations across East Africa, and Brazil’s Cerrado, the most biodiverse savanna in the world, now being ploughed up for soya and eucalyptus plantations.
Time was when enormous herds of springbok migrated across the Karoo in South Africa; buffaloes across the US Midwest; pampas deer across the Argentinian and Uruguayan pampas; dromedaries across the deserts of Arabia and Sahara; saiga antelopes and wild horses across the Eurasian steppe; Bactrian camels across western China; and yaks on the Himalayan plateaus. Even western Europe once hosted huge herds of migrating aurochs, wisent, horses and deer.
Indeed, some ecosystems have co-evolved with, and so depend on, natural, pulsed grazing. The original grazers are often extinct or near-extinct. But with the appropriate movement and density of stock, cattle can provide an ecologically functional equivalent. One example is Europe’s wood—or really wood-and-shrub—pastures. In Britain these remain only on a few surviving medieval commons; one has now been revived in the justly famous “rewilded” West Sussex landscape of Knepp. Better cherished and protected examples are continental Europe’s high-altitude grazing lands such as the Alps’ hochweide and alm; Scandinavia’s fäbodar; northern Europe’s coastal grazing strips; and the wetlands and marsh grazing lands of, for example, the Lower Danube. Buy meat from animals reared there, and you help support Europe’s most biodiverse and iconic landscapes.
There is a further complication: organic agriculture needs grazing animals. Hens clean vegetable plots and make orchards dual use; pigs eat scraps and rootle out weeds; sheep or cattle graze off cover crops and crop residues, as well as whatever weeds, herbs and grasses that sprout spontaneously on land that is fallow between food crops. Animal dung is necessary for organic agriculture (in many resource-constrained agricultural systems, including those of an earlier Europe, that animal dung included human faeces or what we once called “night soil”). Without dung, agricultural soils deplete. Manure returns nutrition to the land in a digested and absorbable form: it feeds and nourishes the living, biodiverse soils that we need to grow our plant foods. If you shun even free-range meat, you are, in effect, voting for more agrichemicals
The next trade-off for those mulling a meat-free diet is carbon capture. We won’t solve the climate change problem solely by improving soils, which means capturing carbon. but nor can we solve it if we continue to deplete them, which means losing carbon. It is not by chance that, as rapidly growing European populations spread across the world in the 19th century, natural grasslands were the first to go under the plough. Ukraine’s steppes, Argentina’s pampas, and America’s prairies all had rich, fertile soils—black, because of the carbon captured in them, and many feet deep, because of the ongoing carbon capture over many millennia. Many people today believe that livestock farming is intrinsically a carbon-release mechanism. It can be, if done wrongly. But livestock is also necessary in regenerative agriculture, to build soil and capture carbon.
The trade-offs between conscience, convenience, price and taste are tricky. Without the facts, they are impossible. Agriculture is the most poorly regulated of any economic activity. Without labelling to highlight the true origins of the meat we consume (including in commercial catering, ready-meals and junk food), and without politicians making the food industry tell the truth about what we are eating, it would be wrong to blame consumers for their planet-killing, soya-fuelled meat binge. Fries with your Picassos, ma’am?