AT the launch of the ‘Vegan Now’ project during Labour’s party conference this week, Michael Mansfield QC suggested that meat eating should be made illegal because of the damage it is doing to the planet. He called for the destruction of nature, or ‘ecocide’, to be to be made a crime, comparing it to a crime against humanity. He said: ‘We know that the top 3,000 companies in the world are responsible for more than £1.5trillion worth of damage to the environment with meat and dairy production high on the list,’ adding: ‘We know that because the UN has told us so.’
Scientists have warned that food production causes more than a third of estimated greenhouse gas emissions, and that meat, especially beef and lamb, is the single worst food for the environment. The UN report also claimed that eating less meat will reduce climate change by saving millions of square miles of land from being ‘degraded’ by farming.
As a lawyer, Mr Mansfield will of course be very happy to have even more statutes on the books for him to defend or prosecute.
There are many reasons why this is not such a good idea. First of all, in terms of biology, a superficial analysis of the human body shows that man’s gut is not that of a ruminant, and his teeth have also evolved for eating meat. Man is essentially a carnivore, and this has contributed directly to his survival and flourishing as a species. According to Matt Ridley, early man’s meat-rich diet enabled homo erectus to grow a larger brain, an organ that burns energy at nine times the rate of the rest of the body, while reducing the size of his gut. Progress was further enhanced by cooking meat over fire. These factors contributed to the rapid development of man compared with other species, leading to settled communities and the sustaining of larger and dominant populations.
Secondly, livestock farming is widely accepted as a driving force for food security and sustainable development. The FAO Animal Production and Health Division reports that livestock production constitutes a very important component in agricultural economies, not least in developing countries, where there are an estimated 800million suffering from malnutrition.
A 2015 report in the Journal of Nutrition further emphasises the importance of animals in agricultural sustainability and food security. Most arable land in the world is already in use, while the availability of water and energy is also limited, with the result that any increase in food production to keep pace with population growth will require a substantial increase in efficiency. The importance of animals in achieving food security in terms of their valuable contributions to agricultural sustainability cannot be over-emphasised. The report highlights four main reasons for this:
Meat, milk, eggs, fish and seafoods are an important source of high-quality, balanced, and highly bioavailable protein and many critical micro-nutrients.
Global demand for high quality animal products is almost certain to increase dramatically as affluence continues to increase.
Farm animals contribute additional resources such as manure for fertiliser and on-farm power, and improved management technologies and genetic selection have saved considerable amounts of resources, including water and land, and have reduced the carbon footprint of animal production.
Ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep efficiently convert grasslands into high quality animal products and grazing can promote the health and diversity of well-managed grasslands.
The report concludes that food security is critical not only to national security but also to global stability. Livestock farming will play an important role in feeding the world’s rapidly growing population.
Mr Mansfield should be aware that to facilitate a shift to a vegetarian-based diet world-wide would require massively more land coming under the plough, and a much greater dedicated agricultural workforce – not exactly fulfilling his, and the UN’s, determination to save ‘millions of square miles of land from being degraded by farming’.
Perhaps most important, how many people, even just in the UK, are vegan or vegetarian? The Vegan Society suggests a figure of around 600,000 while other studies suggest that around 1 per cent of the UK population is vegan, with a further 2-3 per cent identifying as vegetarian. This suggests that the criminalisation of meat-eating would adversely affect the life-style choices of at least 97 per cent of our population. It would also put companies out of business and many thousands of people out of work. But you also have to wonder who would be charged and prosecuted under Mr Mansfield’s envisaged legislation – the eater, the farmer, the vendor, the processor? Will meat-eating also be identified as a new form of hate crime – or even, as he suggests, a crime against humanity?