“…rafts of vegans bearing down on me as I speak.”

Is that what he said as he criticised veganism for not being as climate friendly as you would think?

I had half an ear on Costing the Earth on BBC Radio 4 this evening. This programme attempts to raise awareness about various anthropogenic environmental situations, including debunking eco-myths.

Today’s was A Meaty Subject. This is a poor response – I haven’t honed the arguments, but there’s more to eating animals than climate. Probably the first thing I can do is stick in a link to The Smiths’ Meat is Murder video:

That’s old now but not much has changed. And we know a lot more about animal emotions now than we did when The Smiths wrote that song.

The programme – from a climate change point it was good and all of it was interesting. It’s good to know how to weigh up environmental impact of different food choices. There was a top-ten (top four in fact) of green meat based on whether they survive in places where we can’t grow stuff, eat naturally occurring stuff we can’t eat and – particularly if they eat grain – efficiently convert plant energy to meat (the golden ratio is 1kg of grain to 1kg of meat) – sheep won, with intensively-reared chickens in second place. But the language used was intolerable for anybody who sees animals as not food, or more than food. This programme viewed them as commodities.

They were out for the vegetarians (for the same reasons I became vegan – a fundamental ethical blindspot that milk needs calves, half calves are male and the only use humans can get out of male calves is meat). They were also out for the vegans on the grounds that a vegan diet would alter our grazed landscape and reduce biodiversity by doing away with ruminant animals, that ploughing releases carbon and that we have to import soya (this vegan doesn’t live on soya, this vegan doesn’t want to do away with animals or tamper with anybody’s precious landscape).

They took a cold look at intensive farming without once mentioning animal welfare. They were talking about animals as if they’re food. Nothing is food until its been killed and prepared, and you should never kill animals, or cause them to be killed, unless you need to in order to survive. The case that we in Britain need to isn’t being made. We have enough plant foods and yet we imprison, exploit and kill sentient animals for no reason except we are like their flavour and respect very few of their rights and certainly not the fundamental one.

It was terrible to hear animal farming dealt with as just a matter of carbon and when a lecture started about how we should eat offal for the environment omitting that not to eat the entire animal is sticking two fingers up to people suffering famine and is also akin to killing an elephant just for its tusks, I switched it off in disgust. I don’t care that the programme is called ‘Costing the Earth’ – you can’t draw those kinds of lines round the way humans deal with animals, which is inhumanely.

I found myself caught grotesquely between trying to engage with the programme on its own terms – the hegemonic terms of omniverous climate worries – and trying to cope with the sense that raising and eating animals as we eat animals might be normal – slavery was normal once, so were ritual sacrifices – but it’s intolerable. Animals feel. We have no right but might and wit, and when it comes to life, death and exploitaton of humans, those are usually rejected as rights. Are we so confident that the animals we are currently raising and killing are all that different from us?

The end of the programme particularly revealed its superficiality. The Oxford researcher was confronted with a choice – beef burger or veggie burger. He chose beef on the grounds that we could control its production. We were never told what the veggie burger was made from. Nuts and seeds, which have a long shelf-life and can be locally grown? Who knows.

The presenter had begun the programme by telling us that the only carbon-neutral life was, uh, death. The message I took away was a small amount of very mild scare-mongering about what might happen if we moved away from meat, and no solid case for eating it. I hope the Vegan Society will respond, rigorously.

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