All food is “plant-based” – particularly meat and dairy
25 November 2019
Academics, policy makers and businesses increasingly consider a shift towards so-called “plant-based” diets that principally require less land, energy, and other resources.
Without a doubt, life forms on earth are in crisis. As revealed to the public by Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, our society exhibits a menacing lack of maturity in how ecological crises are practically addressed. In the context of food, avoiding climate breakdown and mitigating the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet (Ceballos et al. 2015) requires swift action upon Livestock’s Long Shadow (FAO 2006). Therefore, academics, policymakers and businesses increasingly consider a shift towards so-called “plant-based” diets that principally require less land, energy, and other resources.
Why exactly is that so? Whilst meat’s, less so dairy’s, high environmental impact has received some public attention, rarely are the biophysical reasons for it made explicit. Essentially, in the production of all animal-sourced foods that involve the metabolism of an animal, energy is lost and emitted to the environment. Rather than electricity or fuels, the energy here means the nutritional energy within the plants eaten by animals that in turn produce or become food. The feed conversion ratio puts the feed input in relation to the food output. Raising and slaughtering cattle for beef, for example, requires about 18kg of feed for 1kg of yielded meat; 4kg/1kg for pork; 2kg/1kg for chicken (de Ruiter et al. 2017). Based in the laws of thermodynamics, this poor energetic efficiency is to an extent improvable but ultimately inevitable whenever animate beings, who by moving and maintaining body heat use energy, grow the tissue that becomes food for another animate being. Thus, via an additional body, animal-sourced foods are an energetic detour in comparison to the energetic shortcut of so-called “plant-based” diets in which humans eat plants directly.
The physical necessity of feed conversion losses not only means that meat and dairy too are based on plants (in the form of feed crops), but that base of plants is also much greater than what is required for direct human consumption of plants. Thus, by focussing only on the consumption end, the conventional use of the term “plant-based” falls short of conveying the plant-intensive (and thus energy- and land-intensive) materiality of animal-sourced foods. That term we use to describe our food, as much in academia as in everyday life, only scratches the surface of the materiality of production, and I contend that so does our mindfulness of why meat and dairy play a major role in mass extinction and climate breakdown.
Vegan identity and stock free agriculture
Another question arising from the popularity of the term “plant-based” is when and why it replaces the term “vegan”. Are people avoiding to call a spade a spade? Admittedly, as a concept, “plant-based” is perhaps a bit broader. Next to veganism, “plant-based” often comprises vegetarianism, which includes dairy or eggs, and flexitarianism, i.e. people who deliberately consume meat only occasionally and thus in comparatively small amounts. However, the relatively low environmental footprint of all of these diets is rooted in giving vegan foods a priority over animal-sourced foods. By relying purely on plants, veganism is simply the most consistent one. So why say “plant-based”, rather than “vegan”, when depicting, for example, a bean patty without any animal ingredients?
Despite its boom in terms of media attention, veganism is surely not (yet) a lifestyle everybody wants to self-identify or be identified with. From analysing social media, print and online news, or movies, social scientific studies have shown that vegans still face stigmatisation (e.g. Cole & Morgan 2011). Stereotyped as following a mere fad, being sentimental and extreme, it is understandable that people might avoid being put in that box. Well aware of that, businesses often choose the innocuous “plant-based” when they mean vegan food. On the one hand, this is wholly comprehensible and perhaps eases some meat lovers into something new. On the other, the avoidance of a clear identity highlights that, oddly enough, today’s food debates largely revolve around one thing (and little else): identity.
My concern here is that it may be precisely its confinement to an identity that limits veganism’s potential to help to solve the climate breakdown and extinction crisis. Everything is centred on individuals’ dietary identities, ranging from “meat-eaters” (carnists) to vegans. As a result, the transition towards a sustainable food system can only happen, or so it appears, with a focus on consumer identity and at the level of purchase. Turned into a question of consumer choice, the responsibility of businesses is merely to ease consumers into making environmentally sound decisions. What remains unaccounted for is the (ir)responsibility within producers offering both sustainable and unsustainable products in order to make that “choice” possible. Put differently, in confining heated public and political debates to consumer choice and identity, the material, spatial, and relational dimensions of food production are at risk of being neglected.
Veganism, as conventionally applied in food regulations and everyday life, is merely a label either for people or for vegetal products. Normally, we do not see production practices as part of veganism’s definition. For example, a vegan person is “vegan” because they abjure from consuming animal products; a carrot is “vegan” per se because it is (the root of) a plant. This identity-based understanding of foods and diets discourages any questions about the food supply chain beyond “the consumer” or the end products they buy.
However, this is now challenged by a marginal but emerging agricultural and culinary paradigm: vegan organic production. While totally normal in both conventional and “conventional organic” agriculture, the use of manure, bone meal, or other animal derivatives for the replenishment of soil fertility is not allowed in this stockfree organic mode of production. Instead, soil fertility is supposed to be restored through composting and building humus soil, nutrient-fixing plants and mulching.
Looking at it from a sociological angle, this food practice challenges and redefines the very foundation of veganism – away from an exclusive identity- and consumer-based phenomenon towards a processual and also production-based one. Our carrot, for instance, is no longer “vegan” per se; it acquires this status by not being nourished by animal derivatives. What matters is the process of how that carrot came into being. What matters is whether or not a farmer performs vegan organic food practices.
Similarly, that focus on the wider process brings into mind that not only self-identified vegans are able to eat or produce “vegan” food. Rather, what I call vegan food practices is a performance that any of us can do, regardless of both our personal identities as vegans, vegetarians, or “meat-eaters” (carnists) and our economic positions as consumers or producers. And it is precisely this undogmatic focus on performance where the political potential for a sustainable food transition lies.
The absolute ethical minimum: A safe operating space
No longer producing beef and dairy, Bradley Nook Farm is being reconfigured towards vegan organic crop cultivation. My own interview with the farmers revealed that, next to compassion with the farm animals, they based their decision on concerns about the human right to food, global biodiversity, water use, pollution through animal manure, and climate change. Despite these very much collectively oriented concerns, a report by BBC Countryfile claimed that ‘the reasons for the change on this farm in Derbyshire are strictly personal’. Personalising the decision by tying it to the farmers’ dietary identity as vegetarians, the programme refrains from addressing social-ecological incentives for degrowth of animal agriculture. Thereby, it failed to convey the ways in which the farmers’ decision is an issue of public, rather than just personal, concern.
Linguistic representations can reveal a lot about our understanding of material processes, the underlying social and ecological problems, and power relations. In this article, I try to convey the importance of extending the scope of “plant-based” and “vegan”. Conventionally, these terms are largely confined to identities seen from the consumer side. By contrast, exploring materiality with a processual outlook provides new insights that prevent us from premature assumptions, for example, that vegetables have a fixed identity and are essentially “vegan”. A compelling definition of “vegan” should take into account whether animal manure or bone meal are used to nourish food crops. Likewise, having a chunk of meat or cheese should not be mistaken as a plantless meal. In fact, animal products are more ‘plant-based’ due to feeding conversion losses intrinsic to animal husbandry. The case of Bradley Nook Farm illustrates the necessity of acknowledging the food conversion gains from converting stock-based to stockfree Agri- and culinary culture (e.g. gains of nutritional energy, land, biodiversity, safer climate, moral integrity).
Creating a safe operating space for all life on earth is the absolute minimum of food ethics. This requires putting aside dogmatic identity debates until the lurking existential threats of mass extinction and climate breakdown are dealt with. Not everybody currently wants to become a vegan, fair enough. Rather than striving for the individual purity that a vegan identity promises, the crises of our food system might better be overcome by commencing on material grounds rather than ideational heights. Yielding the conversion gain of enjoying relatively safe living conditions requires that vegan food practices will be performed predominantly, and not exclusively by self-identified “vegans”, but by all producers and consumers. Precisely because feed crops for meat and dairy are still produced in excess, current Agri- and culinary culture is too plant-based and not vegan enough to be sustainable.
Steffen Hirth obtained is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, he was awarded his PhD in Sociology, funded by the SCI, in 2019.
- Ceballos G, Ehrlich PR, Barnosky AD, et al. (2015) Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances 1(5): e1400253.
- Cole M and Morgan K (2011) Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers. The British Journal of Sociology 62(1): 134–153.
- de Ruiter H, Macdiarmid JI, Matthews RB, et al. (2017) Total global agricultural land footprint associated with UK food supply 1986–2011. Global Environmental Change 43: 72–81.
- FAO (2006) Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.