Three bullfinches were spotted in our garden today. A cause for jubilation, we might say, as bullfinches are now increasingly rare. No doubt they are eyeing up the buds of apple blossom about to burst open, for bullfinches love to eat blossom, you see. This is a deep irritation for profit-conscious fruit growers of course. Their answer to this hindrance is to poison the bullfinches, and so these pretty little birds are in steep decline.
Here we have the foundation to Agricultural Man’s attitude to the difficulties of food production – if it gets in the way, eliminate it. This basic premise is ubiquitous, entrenched, indiscriminate and largely overlooked by the general public. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. A poisoned bullfinch drops dead and is picked up by a passing small furry animal, which in turn is poisoned and dies. No one really notices. No one really cares. As an aside, I have to say I find it profoundly offensive that the biggest producer of industrial cider in this county, and therefore by definition the biggest sprayer of apple trees, currently features the bullfinch in its marketing materials.
Another principle of agricultural dominance is the desire to remove all life that does not contribute to profit. Through the use of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and other poisons, we kill unwanted wild plants, the insects that feed on them, the birds and small mammals that feed on them in turn, as well as the mycorrhizal networks and supportive living ecosystems that maintain the health of the soil. We clear land with no conscience about loss of biodiversity or destruction of habitat. For every tree that is felled and every hedge that is uprooted to make way for cereal prairies, the habitat of countless living creatures is lost forever. They die just as surely as the poisoned bullfinches. Today we face a global mass extinction currently running at around 200 species a day, precipitated by us and our unwillingness to allow other forms of life room to thrive undisturbed alongside us.
Thus we come to the vexing questions posed by the vegan/vegetarian lobby, which becomes ever more strident in its condemnation of those who eat meat. With emotively charged phraseology, they claim the moral high ground, pointing out that there is no justification for eating meat, as there is no ethical argument for deliberately killing animals. In an abundant supermarket-dominated world of permanent global summertime, where fruit, vegetables and cereals from around the world are available anywhere, any season, anytime, it is easy to adopt this kind of ethical pose. But I say it is a specious stance.
Each of us is entitled to make our own personal choice when it comes to what we eat. I certainly have no problem with someone who chooses not to eat meat, but I do have a very big problem with someone who tells me that I too must give up meat in order to save the planet, because I think the argument has not been thought through. I also take issue with those who object to killing a living creature for food, whilst (albeit in innocence, ignorance or denial) they fill their supermarket trolleys with a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables and cereals, the production of which kills millions of creatures indiscriminately. There is much talk of why it is immoral to kill sentient beings for food, but virtually no talk about how many sentient beings die unseen in and around our vast monocultures. At least I am prepared to eat (and thereby put to good use) the meat of an animal that has been bred for food. But what of the creatures that die in the name of non-meat food production? They simply vanish without trace, unnoticed and unlamented.
It is my strong belief that the vegan/vegetarian lobby is missing the point by confining its thinking to arguments that suit a very specific agenda on personal food choices. I believe that our Mother Earth is more important than our anthropocentric debates. A staunch vegan might well say, “But I’m doing this for the sake of the planet!” Yet I wonder how that can be so, if no real consideration is being given to how our non-meat foods are generally produced. It is not merely a question of opting out of eating meat. The fundamental issue is how we feed ourselves in the modern world and whether our global food production system is wholly ethical. I say it is indisputably unethical. I say that anyone who feels moved to construct an ethical eating plan should first take a long look at plant-based food production (fruit, vegetables and cereals) to see how it is actually achieved.
Since our species worked out how to grow its own food, millions of acres of good ground around the world have simply been cleared of all natural vegetation and put to the plough. The 21st Century version of this is chemically supported monoculture on a gigantic scale, predominantly dedicated to cereals. Whilst a large proportion of this cereal crop is absurdly used to feed herbivorous animals, the rest feeds us, mostly through processed breakfast cereals, factory bread, other bakery products, brewery products, pasta derivatives and cooking grains such as rice. The food industry loves cheap versatile ingredients on which it can turn a huge profit, so the Unholy Trinity of maize, soya and palm (for oil) now dominates our industrial agriculture, displacing in its inexorable growth tropical rainforest, savannah and a diverse range of habitats on five continents. Biodiversity vanishes and soils are exhausted to the point of collapse. Our modern plant-based agriculture is, quite simply, killing the planet.
For the sake of rounded debate, I offer the following radical suggestion – that we accept our current exploitative food production as insane and unsustainable, that we instigate immediate measures to begin to repair the damage we have done and set as our ultimate goal a localised system of food procurement based on chemical-free permanent polyculture. Farm animals will have a role to play in this scenario, as their proven contribution to the repair of exhausted farmland will be vital. Inevitably, they will also provide a source of nutrient-dense food.
Whilst this might be anathema to those supporting the vegan (and, up to a point, vegetarian) argument, it is a simple fact of life that if we are to replace a system that is currently heading for terminal decline, a return to some kind of small-scale, wildlife friendly mixed farming is inevitable. The vegan stance appears plausible and attractive in its desire to protect anything with a face, but a bullfinch has a face too, and it has the right to live unmolested by anything other than its natural predators. To make a deliberate decision to kill such creatures in order to maximise our apple crop is clearly morally wrong. It is equally wrong to support a system that condones such practices, and there is no place for such a system in our future.
Therefore, no matter what we choose to eat, our decision should be based on how our food choices impinge on the greater biodiversity of the planet. By that token, the rearing of grain-fed feedlot cattle is loathsome, as is the production of battery hens and eggs, the subjugation of hybridised Holstein cows into expendable milk machines and the despicably cruel factory production of pigs. All such practices should fill us with absolute shame, but so too should the industrialised monoculture of commodity crops, cereals, vegetables and fruit that deliver most of the foodstuffs consumed by non-meat-eaters. Plant-based agriculture as a whole is deeply tainted with cruel practices. Those wishing to take an ethical stance in their food choices should not blithely condemn the eating of meat, but should instead work out for themselves how they can opt out of the industrial food system and support instead food production that does the least possible amount of damage to all the other life on Earth, by working with nature rather than against it. In that way a person can morally defend their food choices – and let the innocent bullfinch live.