The ethics of food and diet is such a diverse and difficult topic to cover. For every ethical answer to a question, there are other equally valid ethical answers dependent upon differing circumstances, considerations and priorities. I have been a vegan for over a year now, and in the last month have been seriously reconsidering the ethical implications of my diet regarding the impact that I am having on the whole.
It’s easy to find statistics to back up pretty much any argument. It really depends on who is funding the research, for the most part. However, it is up to us personally to make out own choices, and to educate ourselves as best we can so that we make informed choices about our lives and the way we live them. I chose to be vegan because I thought that it was the most ethically environmentally sound option. However, now I’m not so sure.
The first thing to consider is food miles. Much of the vegan’s diet comes from lands thousands of miles away. The carbon footprint of air travel to bring these foods to the UK is considerable. The second thing to think about is what the growing of these crops is doing to these faraway lands and their people. Quinoa and rice are traditional crops for South America and China respectively, however, now that the West’s desire for these foods has grown the demand for growing them has increased drastically. This has caused the prices of these foods to soar, a lot of time to a level that the farmers themselves cannot afford to put what they grow onto their families’ plates. The third thing to think about is what effect these crops are having on the native land. As crops such as soy, rice, quinoa, lentils, etc are all grown “far away” we don’t really have an understanding of what it is doing to the land itself, as we don’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind. Soy is a great factor in the destruction of rainforest, whether through legal or illegal logging to create new monoculture crops. The monoculture crop itself has a great impact on the land as well – the earth loves and needs diversity. Monoculture is not sustainable, and susceptible to a great many attacks that a bio-diverse ecology would be able to fend off. There are hundreds of other factors to consider – these are just a few.
I’ve been studying permaculture these last few months, learning more about it and how it works. Working with the principles, it seems to me personally that the most ethical way that I can sustain myself it to eat local and organic, either growing my own or supporting those who do. I can check on what they claim, how they go about it as they are just down the road from me. What is happening is not happening thousands of miles away. I know that there are laws in place to protect people, land and animals. I feel like I have a little more control over my diet, knowing where it comes from, how it was grown, etc.
It’s not an easy choice. It requires a lot of research and investigation. It would be easier just to be vegan. I have to read food labels for everything. I have to check farms. I have to talk to neighbours and others in the village if I want to eat their surplus food. It requires an actual positive relationship with not only my food, but my environment.
We grow some of our own food, and will have a small vegetable garden this year. However, our garden is mostly a wildlife garden, dedicated to supporting birds, bees and other pollinating insects, hedgehogs, badgers and the occasional deer that come scrounging through. We decided not to grow the majority of our food, as there is an organic farm down the road that we would like to support instead. It’s their livelihood, and we want to ensure that it is as successful as can be. They grow organic crops, but also raise meat for livestock. It is an ethical consideration that must be taken into account.
Studying more and more about permaculture, I’ve found that I was quite ignorant about the keeping of livestock in small, organic flocks. Large scale industrial farming and monoculture crops are seriously threatening the earth, however, small scale flocks that are organic and actually benefit certain ecosystems, especially where crop growing isn’t a viable alternative. There are also ways to raise livestock alongside different crops that are beneficial to all involved – the very essence of permaculture.
While it’s beyond the scope of this blog to go into the details of permaculture, there are many good resources out there to find out more about the subject (see below).
So, after weighing the pros and cons of being vegan, I’ve decided to go local and organic, with a little dairy in the form of cheese from local farms and eggs from neighbours who keep and love their hens. It’s easy to just say that being vegan is the best thing for the planet, but it leaves out a lot of considerations for the planet that are perhaps “outside the box” in the usual arguments for making the switch.
As with everything, there is no black and white answer, no single answer to such a debate. All we can do is to enlighten ourselves with all the arguments, the pros and cons of each side, and make our own choices based upon what we know.
We also have to know that the choices we make are the choices WE make. We cannot make these choices for others. We cannot push our lifestyle on others. We can inform them of why we make the choices we do, but we cannot condemn them for the choice they make – we are not “better” for the choices we make. It is a trap that is easy to fall into, a sense of self-righteousness that we are definitely doing the right thing. No one really knows that the right thing is, really, or even if there is a right thing at all.
I remember being disappointed when my friend (and now Druid College colleague) Kevin made the switch to eating local meat that he had killed himself. I saw no need from my vegan perspective for the killing of another animal. Having spent time further researching the various implications of western diets on the rest of the world, I’ve changed my mind about his choice, and while I wouldn’t eat meat myself I applaud the well-researched and informed choice he made about Conscious Killing .
We all have to take responsibility for our lives. We have to walk our talk and work to make this world a better place for all, in any way that we can. We have to inform ourselves of the issues that our living has upon the rest of the planet. If like me you follow an earth-based religious or spiritual path, that is a major consideration and part of your path – otherwise why follow it at all?
I can say that after I made the switch two weeks ago (while still using up old foodstuffs like soy in the freezer) I feel a lot better physically. I feel like I have more energy. Whether this is because I’m eating food that hasn’t been treated for long world-wide journeys, eating food in season, eating local and organic I’m not sure – although I think that has a large part. I feel more connected to this land, its rhythms and cycles. So this will be the last month that I eat apples until end of August or beginning of September, providing that local UK apples will not be available in April (dependent upon quantities). There are even further issues that I need to look into, such as the amount of energy required to refrigerate apples throughout the winter from the various local farms. Spring greens in the form of soups are a staple this month. The nettles are growing in my garden – the perfect spring tonic. The sheep and goats are lactating – a new vintage of cheese will soon be available. Purple sprouting broccoli and artichokes will soon be out. Rhubarb is growing outside my conservatory, which will replace the apples in my baking and sauces. It makes the next variety of food available a real event, a real marker of the season.
Whatever your path, whatever your decision, I support you in making honourable choices for the benefit of the whole based on intelligent research and empathy for the land upon which you live. Talk to the gods, the ancestors and discuss these issues with them. Walk the land in reverence and find out how you can fit within that landscape with the least amount of impact. An earth-based tradition is all about relationship, whatever the path it is that we take. Let us take it right back to the earth in every shape and form, in every choice that we make.
What’s in season in the UK
The quinoa debate
Local and organic veg box scheme UK
The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Climates