Vegetarian myths and realities

Mid way through 2015, my newfound awareness of the meat industry began in the area of animal cruelty; as I discovered the inhumane methods used to bring animals from being full of life, to simply an ingredient on your plate. I saw graphic videos of cattle being slit at the throat, wriggling in pain as a last movement before death. I thought of a beef stew my mum used to make, I thought of pork chops and cottage pie, all the meals I didn’t fully enjoy, and the numerous times I had left my meat on my plate. That simple act to me now symbolised a life going to waste. My conscious was filled with guilt, I couldn’t see meat the same again. For some reason my brain had short-circuited all my life. I had never fully made the connection before that what was on my plate, used to be alive. I felt especial guilty towards cows. Cows are mammals. Humans are mammals. Their experience of pain is recognised in the same way ours is. Putting yourself in the mind of the suffering animal is heartbreaking.

It was at this point my learning on the topic expanded further afield than simply aspects of cruelty. Once you delve into the world against consuming animal products, you can find so much information that most people simply do not have any awareness of. The meat industry is inherently profit-driven, reliant upon consumers, so a lot of the truths behind its impacts are not desired to be discussed in popular discourse. One of these aspects is the affect of meat-eating on the environment.

I discovered some shocking facts, two of which really stuck in my mind.

  1. The meat industry produces more emissions and greenhouse gasses than all the worlds transport combined
  2. If all the land used for feeding and rearing livestock for meat and animal products was used for growth of human food, theoretically there would be no world hunger

Everybody talks about the environmental effects of transport. London has introduced low emission zones, car pooling is being encouraged, expansion at Heathrow has caused environmental outrage, all these things have appeared in  the news over recent years, yet I had never heard about the damage that meat was causing.

Cowspiracy, released in 2014, gained popularity as an educational insight into the devastating effects of meat consumption on the environment, particularly from cattle. This was a shocking new discovery for many people, pushing the idea that ‘meat = environmentally bad’ into common thought.

Quartz recently discussed this, presenting the idea that veganism as the most environmentally sustainable diet could actually be a myth, in the article “Do the math: Being vegan isn’t as good for humanity as you think”.

The article refers to a study conducted on various diets, from unrestricted to completely plant-based to determine what actually uses land in the most sustainable ways. “When applied to an entire global population, the vegan diet wastes available land that could otherwise feed more people”. Purdy, the writer, elaborates on this by explaining about land use. This perspective is something I had not read about, or really even thought about before. It seemed to make sense to see the idea ‘meat = environmentally bad’ as an absolute, without looking into the complexities.

Purdy cuts through the verbiage and lays out the types of land use, and the facts I had not seen become instantly clear – of course, not all land is suitable for arable use. Its not like we could magically turn all grazing land into fields yielding masses of crops to feed the nations. Land, and nature, simply doesn’t work that way. Using technology is an option, but ultimately in order to use land for food production, we need to adapt techniques to suit the land itself, not force the land to function exactly how we demand it to. In order to grow only the food that we can directly digest, to support a world of humans leading a plant-based diet, it is likely that more land would have to be found to support demand – leading to other troublesome problems such as deforestation.

It is difficult to predict how theoretical diets could make a difference to the world, and though the article outlines the negatives in going “whole-hog vegan”, it would almost never be the case that every person in the world would suddenly become vegan, rendering this theoretical situation almost irrelevant to an individual and their personal choice to go plant-based. When I became more aware of all these negatives of a meat filled diet, I felt it necessary to cut down on meat. But I then thought about this lax rule I was so near setting myself, and saw its lack of concreteness. If I was to give up meat entirely, this would give the benefits of about 4 people just cutting down. So though the Quartz article raises some extremely important points, using a reliable study to show an alternative to general belief; I wouldn’t take a message of ‘don’t become vegan’ or ‘veganism is bad’ away from it. Purdy does point this out, writing “of course, this is not an argument to embrace a meaty diet”. He simply is providing a fresh perspective on a repeatedly discussed topic, which I have noticed Quartz often do.

If the ideal diet for environmental efficiency, and the best for humanity in the long term is plant-based with a bit of meat on the side, then a combination of meat eaters restricting nothing, and whole-hog vegans is actually the ideal situation when thinking on a large scale. And with more and more discussion of vegan and vegetarian diets in popular discourse (see figure 1), and more plant-based alternatives on offer to buy, I can assume this is actually the direction in which we are heading. The world needs a level of pro-vegan awareness for various improvements including sustainability, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons including many outside their control, this mentality is unlikely going to be adopted by every single person on the planet.


Figure 1: Google trends search on the words ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’ and ‘plant based’

Back to me. I have recently realise that what I believed to be simply a love of cheese, is more of a dependancy. I find it difficult to comprehend how a meal could taste good without some cheesy element to it. The image I have included shows some of my recent favourite vegetarian meals, of which only 2 out of 9 escaped the grasp of my cheese addiction. Like they say however, the first step towards recovery is recognising the problem… so I intend, to an extent, to faze cheese out of my diet. It is unhealthy, and I need to get rid of my reliance to begin to explore and enjoy new flavours, particularly by consuming more vegetables. I have already eliminated milk from my diet, so cheese is the majority of the dairy I eat. If I cut this down I would be almost totally plant-based, with a few exceptions such as eggs and butter, just to make student life a little easier and cheaper. Living that lifestyle for me feels like the ideal – the best way I can be good to my body, to animals and to the environment. However, if everyone suddenly adopted these restrictions, it would certainly not be the most sustainable act for the environment.

There is so much to learn in exploring diets across the spectrum, each individual food, each ingredient has its own nutritional and environmental effects, and many foods can in some way be considered ‘cruel’. It is difficult to determine what exactly is the ideal diet, as years of various traditions, cultural changes health benefit rumours, marketing, trends and technological developments have caused constant changes to how different people view foods. I certainly would recommend a step towards the plant-based end of the spectrum. Vegetarianism for me has had a wealth of benefits, and I do feel like by cutting out some cruel food products, I am doing something good.


Chase Purdys article for Quartz: https://qz.com/749443/being-vegan-isnt-as-environmentally-friendly-as-you-think/


Why should we care about the Lynx

On Boxing Day this year I met the only two lynx cats living in the UK, at Woodside Wildlife Park in Lincolnshire. Not much information was given about the animals aside from this quite shocking fact apart from a mention of the desire by some groups to see their reintroduction into Scotland. If only two lynx live in the UK, I assumed they must be quite severely endangered. The lynx were majestic looking creatures with clean fluffy fur. The way they carefully padded around the enclosure made them appear non-threatening, though I doubt considering a big cat as ‘cuddly’ would be a good idea, and their nature of carnivorous hunters would probably mean that would not be taken as a compliment.


Recognisable by their tufty ears, the lynx is undeniably regal looking. I found out some information about their population, and through this discovered that it is not unique to the UK that people want to see these cats reintroduced to the wild; many countries are now creating reintroduction programs, along with the UK. This species is protected by groups which have aided hopeful recovery from population lows, but supporting the regrowth of a species almost hunted to extinction in Europe entirely is not cheap. So why is this big cat so important?

Originally the cat was found from the UK through to China, their population now estimated at 50,000 worldwide – mainly inhabiting China and Russia. It is assumed its presence in the UK was eradicated way back between 500 and 700 AD. This makes its reintroduction seem slightly more unnatural, given how much the environment will have changed since these times. Lynx populations in Europe reached a low in the 1950s, with only 700 cats remaining. The reason the lynx disappeared from the wild in the UK was, of course, like many other endangered animals, because of us. They were hunted to extinction for their fur, their habitats were destroyed, in a cycle of mistreatment for monetary gain. Humans ey.

The ‘advantage’ of having these animals present in the wild is to “return a vital natural function to our ecology helping control numbers of deer and a variety of agricultural pest species whilst protecting forestry from deer damage caused by overpopulation”. As far as big cats go, I was right in thinking the lynx is non-threatening. They do not naturally present threat to humans, as they have a “solitary and secretive nature”, and like to spend their time undisturbed in the forest, making them the best lot for the job.

It is sad to think that the effort made to conserve and protect the species and spread the area in which lynx inhabit is essentially for human benefit, but the idea that we could see big cats like these wild in the UK again is kind of wonderful. I love the idea of going on a trip somewhere with the aim of seeing lynx in their own wild habitat. These big cats are native UK dwellers. They should be living their natural existence. We disturbed them in the first place, it’s only fair we make the effort to put this right.

Despite it having been over 2000 years since wild lynx inhabited the UK, reintroduction programs look hopeful, as they have succeeded in other European countries. these environments are perhaps easier to integrate new lynx into because the populations were not entirely forced out, but understanding the way the cats adapt to their surroundings, and where they will be able to act in their normal ‘wild’ way, will help conservationists and specialists identify successful methods of reintroduction to the UK.

Another important consequence could come about from the lynx being reintroduced, conserving and helping potentially disadvantaged small-scale rural and agricultural communities. Some successful and well managed programs in other European countries have constructed “whole new eco-friendly industries such as wildlife tourism around their presence, breathing new economic life into remote rural communities”. I studied geography at A level and I know how important it can be to support communities like these, who in turn support local rural areas, animals and the environment. Another cycle, but this time a really positive one.

In years to come I don’t just want the word lynx to bring to mind only mens aftershave… Known by ancient cultures around the world as the mysterious and elusive ‘Keeper of Secrets’, I believe this gentle creature is worth protecting. If we are the ones exerting our power over animals, harming species and destroying their habitats, we should also right our wrongs, and use our many tools to help endangered creatures and to bring new wild populations to the environments they never should have been forced out of; for the benefit of human communities, the environment and the animals themselves.


The Lynx UK Trust site gave me lots of new knowledge on these animals, they also have detailed information on plans for reintroduction into the UK, if anyone is interested: