Vegan Society Conference 2019 – the inaugural one!
“OK, I’m now pre-blog, on a late night Virgin train to Wolverhampton and, thence, to London, where I arrive at some unearthly hour in the morning. Half oneish, I believe. Then a few hours to kill afore the conference in the morning.”
Which I did by my now quite well established procedure of walking non-stop. For six hours I made my way around central London and watched the gang-fighting, listened to the frequent screams as yet more innocent civilians were brutally detached from their lives and sheltered from the gangs of muggers which awaited me around each and every street corner. Well, it was dark and my imagination was fired by the frequent reports I’ve been noticing in the media. After all, I was in the London dystopia and doubted I would survive the night.
Luckily, the Gods smiled upon me!
Then, eighteen hours later: “On the train to Crewe now, having wound down after the day, courtesy of Tavistock Square gardens, with its squirrels and many Japanese students taking pictures thereof, then a handy Costa with comfy seats, mocha coffee and a phone charging 13A socket and then finally experiencing Euston Road’s evening sunshiny dynamic, including THAT tree podium of yesteryear which now bears no such decoration! [I’ll show you the photo one day – it was an absurd four metre high and square dais with several five or six metre high trees upon it!] In Costacaff I’d typed up a fullish record of the meeting, from notes jotted onto my phone which had worked really well – so I no longer even need a physical notebook for minute taking!”
Cool, there’s the contextualisation. Now the meeting:
It was great to go to the conference pretty “blind” as I took few preconceptions. I imagined “Grow Green – helping the move to plant based agriculture” was to portray a winding down of animal husbandry and so increasing plant food in our diets. Clearly veganism was to be a solid part of it. Early on, as we all arrived, I had time for a relaxed chat at a militantly vegan table.
“No, no domesticated animals at all. Just wild ones, obviously – worms and mice and hares and birds and so on. But we cannot continue to eat meat, cheese or milks. That’s finished”. The couple at the stall were unmovable, this was not negotiable.
We didn’t talk of good Simon Fairlie’s rational, holistic wish for continuance of organic animal husbandry, not just for meat but also leather, wool, fleeces, company and, of course, the grazing they perform. For some, this is “Keeping our landscape the way we know and so love it” with grassy vistas everywhere, although it’s absolutely not for me. I see radical change as inevitable, but, like Simon, I see some continued contributions from farm animals.
I would have brought the Monkton sage in but they gave me no space in the conversation, so adamant and vocal were they in the vegan cause. [The sage is Simon who is based at the fantastic, eclectic, enthusiastic Monkton Wyld Court, near Charmouth in Dorset, but that’s a whole other tale to tell one day!]
Such was the extreme of this spectrum and there were a good number of adherents to it. But there was a tension, too, as another group felt absolutism was unnecessary for it would only scare folk who were just sampling the diet. “Too strict observance will drive folk away”, it was suggested.
This was seriously compounded because the vegan diet had been seized upon by the food industry recently, as it had became trendy. In catering for a burgeoning market with many affluent adherents (Look into “Planet Organic” on Tottenham Court Road, for example!) ingredients were sourced globally so had a high carbon footprint and were often actually not even grown organically. The end products, although utterly vegan, were frequently not even especially palatable! Just expensive and well packaged and advertised. In this it parallels other “specialist” diets such as gluten free or weight loss where supermarkets offer ranges of overpriced and lowly nutritious products, exploiting rather than serving its public. Does this veganism have any merit at all, many wonder?
We had John Taylerson, BIC Innovation, praising the “plant milk” sector, “growing rapidly” whilst traditional dairy is “flat”. OK, maybe this shows a move away from animal products but, if we are just switching to an expensive, manufactured and highly irrelevant substitute product, then I see little or no gain.
Carina Perkins (The Grocer), Nina Pullman (Riverford), Dr Marco Springmann (Oxford University) and Vicky Hird (Sustain) spoke in the discussion groups to decry this unsatisfactory market development. Carina noted that the imaginatively named “flexitarians” were actually responsible for most of the growth in plant – fruit and veg – purchasing, that is, folk who are neither vegan nor even vegetarian, just health conscious.
It was noted strongly that the best vegan food is home cooked from raw, simple ingredients
Then there was climate. Now here we were on safer ground. Nobody wanting anything other than to combat Climate Change in whatever manner we could. Good, local grown, simple, unprocessed Vegan food is self-evidently considerably less damaging than any derived from animal husbandry. The figure “50kg of plant matter is needed to make 1kg of meat” is a typical clincher in this debate – why not feed on those 50 kg ourselves! “We have to meet our commitments made with respect to the Paris Agreement – we want one single degree not the more massive three degrees warming”. One degree will be damaging enough, resulting in sea levels rising, glaciers and polar ice caps melting further and, most noticeably, increased weather abnormalities. Three degrees rise would compound this impact considerably and be more likely to trigger a catastrophic “tipping point” scenario.
To combat this requires a considerable effort and, in the agricultural sphere, providing for a vegan diet, will allow considerable decreases in CO2 emissions. Not yet, one notices, a correction – merely slowing the rate of deterioration.
How to achieve this? Well, simply, by altering land use patterns. Simply? Hell, no, it will be a battle! At present 83% of agricultural land in the UK is dedicated to animal husbandry (1) so there has to be fundamental change in attitudes. However, given that we work to achieve this, and then get there, we also require a nationwide relearning of how to grow our own fruit and vegetables – as, of course, we used to – so we no longer have to import the bulk of them from overseas (2&3). “Imports are now 90%” said Dr Marcela Villareal, a UN FAO, food and agriculture organisation, worker and she suggested Eire to be more like 98%. How crazy is that, for the Emerald Isle, with fantastic soil and mild climate?
Brendan Montague, editor of The Ecologist, labelled Brexit as “US agriculture taking over”, adding that “our government is not fit for purpose”. Nice to see The Ecologist far from Zac Goldsmith’s stance on this issue! Brendan saw the need for “new rural operators such as worker coops to run farms to be a new power base” to help bring forward the changes we need.
This new arable production will be, of course, on some of the land formerly used for livestock. Some, too, could be put to hemp cropping, for a variety of excellent products, and to new crops such as lentils, chick-peas and many other at present ignored crops, to extend our present all too limited range of arable produce. A lot more of such land must be replanted as woodland – including productive orchards and nut trees, which I can see sensibly undergrazed with sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens and geese. But a large percentage should end up as native deciduous woodland – much of the country is designated “temperate deciduous rainforest” land. That’s what much of our marginal agricultural land must return to – areas such as the uplands of Wales which are now so largely a sheep shorn desert! Several speakers emphasised this change during the day.
Nathaniel Loxley (of Vitality Hemp) gave an impassioned pitch for increasing UK hemp production, praising its 12000 year history of continuous cultivation by humanity, calling for new growers to join him and a very few others in the UK doing so. Its long been on my list, so I heartily agreed but had to point out the present obstacle – that there is an annual licence fee of about £700 payable rather than a support grant given! In France they have no such problems and, in recent years, they have rapidly grown to become by far the world’s largest producer of this commodity, overtaking China, who have actually reduced their output.
Nick Saltmarsh, of the intriguingly named “Hodmedod” talked of novel crops, such as lentils. The company is carrying out inspirational work, encouraging farmers to move to non-standard crops. At present there are 700000 tonnes of legumes grown each year in the UK, 4% of our arable production. Cropping is good but we import far more soya beans. I cannot say “we should grow these here” as most are fed to livestock and that industry cannot be encouraged, although I guess it would be better than importing the beans from Brazil and fields planted in freshly cleared tropical rainforest lands. This situation anyway illustrates how cheap carbon prices mean we subsidise unsustainable food habits and drive climate change in one single industry which can also, at the same time, extinguish the indigenous trades which would, otherwise, be feeding us.
In this proposed move to growing far more fruit and vegetables, and other arable crops, we find an integral ingredient of the “Green New Deal” now offered by the more enlightened political groupings operating in the country. It is apparent that there have to be far reaching changes to the financial strictures which currently control land use, most notably the system of agricultural grants which have, in Wales for example, inflated land prices absurdly. Removal or redirecting these subsidies seems to be a vital first step! This could then lead to lowering of land prices and the dividing up of the present ranch size holdings to allow far more growers to make a living and live a healthy life.
In a “keynote address” Dr Villareal gave the conversation a global perspective, asking how we could arrive in a position where 821 million live in abject food poverty whilst levels of obesity accelerate in all countries, now standing at 672 million obese with two billion overweight, with one third of food wasted and thrown away in the “developed” world. She also lamented the sad fact that 12 million hectares of agricultural land were being lost each year to desertification. Clearly unsustainable in so many ways.
Vegans and vegetarians rationally also bring animal cruelty into the equations – and farming has been becoming increasingly uncaring and callous towards its charges. This is not an economic or even a climate argument. Instead it is emotional and asks that we, as human beings, be sensitive – even empathic – towards species we coexist with. “Ah, but we are killing them anyway – what does it matter” is a standard reply. Me, myself, I don’t want to waste my breath responding to such statements. I would hope that those making them would themselves in time see how hopelessly untenable such positions are.
So, I paraphrase and summarise to get the ideas through. But it was a live, vibrant event and my above dry distillation gives little of the flavour. I didn’t try to count but imagine there must have been around a hundred and fifty of us. Venue was excellent, well equipped, comfortable, practical and reasonably chic. Attending were vegans of sundry origin, greens, farming folk and other growers, journalista and simply the interested. Young guy next to me in the lecture theatre was a maker of natural wood furniture, but he was really interested in my pet project to cultivate Stevia.
With so many like minds there was, of course, much networking capacity but, faced with a very busy gaggle of discursive delegates deeply engaged in passionate conversation, its actually difficult to get stuck in! I managed but could have done with some small group discussions for this to have been more fruitful.
I enjoyed a good chat with two notable tree folk, who approved of my “Five Trillion Trees” concept and agreed it to be the correct order of magnitude. Andy Egan of the International Tree Foundation, a global woodland establishing group, pointed out how I’d raised the total higher than anyone else, but accepted my logic fully. One trillion was the nearest rival! Alan Watson-Featherstone of “Trees for Life” is based in Scotland and connected to the restoration of native “Caledonian” Scots pine forest. He spoke of ecological restoration and the need for an integrated, comprehensive land use strategy. “Perverse subsidies” for sheep farming, he pointed out, are incentivising the degeneration and erosion of topsoils.
I had other conversations, the most notable of which was with former Green party leader Ms Natalie Bennett. As a first degree agriculturalist, she is well placed in the Green movement to argue the case for fundamental system change to revolutionise our food production structures. In her addresses to the meeting she imparted much common sense, such as emphasising Organic as the only useful and practical form for “agro-ecological” growing. She also observed that we must challenge the idea of cheap food: “Cheap food costs people’s health and costs us all the Earth”.
Yes, we think alike and so it was easy to talk. Happily she agreed that she’d love to come and spend a day with us in Colwyn. Hopefully as we lead into our own such new growing venture, bringing the twenty first century agricultural revolution to my home town. I am, of course, already laying my plans to bring such a venture into existence………..
2)”Home production contributed 16% of the total UK supply of fruit in 2017, compared to 17% in 2016″. From HMG stats:
April 13th, 2019