Listeners to BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show may have been fortunate enough to hear farmer and author Jamie Blackett discussing the relative merits of veganism, during a spirited debate with YouTuber Madeleine Olivia on Tuesday.
Jamie, a cattle farmer from Dumfriesshire and author of ‘Red Rag to a Bull’, explained to Jeremy how vegan rhetoric was getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to sustainable farming. In fact, buying locally sourced meat is often more beneficial to the environment than flying vegan favourites such as soya and avocados half way across the world.
The debate was lively enough, without sacrificing civility, and vegan activist Madeleine admitted that she rather liked the sound of Jamie’s CO2-sucking top soil and nitrogen-replenishing clover fields. However, she maintained that this sort of old-school farming was sadly no longer feasible to a global population of 7 billion, and that the best way to feed the world was to go vegan.
A moderate listener might see the case for compromise in this debate. Indeed one might conclude that we can go on eating meat, provided it is sourced from sustainable farms like Jamie’s; but equally that meat-alternatives are helping to keep emissions down globally.
This equilibrium, however, seems totally undermined by the recent court decision to classify veganism as a philosophical belief.
Those familiar with the case earlier this month will recall that Jordi Casamitijana sued his employer, the League against Cruel Sports, for wrongful termination on account of his vegan beliefs. Apart from seeming a ridiculous reason for such a tree-hugging organisation to sack anyone, the case was notable for the extraordinary lengths Mr Casamitijana went to in pursuing his zealotry. Casamitijana’s lawyer explained to the court how his client would regularly attempt to convert his co-workers to veganism, would refuse to socialise with non-vegans, and even avoided taking the bus so as not to squash flies on the double-decker windshield.
By enshrining this fanaticism as a philosophical belief – so-called 'ethical veganism' – the court may have mistakenly polarised the debate even further. Protecting veganism in this form, as a bona fide philosophy, arguably upends all the good work done by ordinary vegans, who just want people to consider their choices in food.
Initiatives like Veganuary encourage people who wouldn’t normally consider vegan options to start to introduce them into their lives. It also reminds us all to consider what food we eat, and to make sustainable decisions on both plants and meat.
By protecting veganism as a philosophical belief, we cordon it off from mass participation and once again obscure the middle ground of ethical farming. By way of comparison: no one considers becoming a Buddhir for a month - no matter how compelling the arguments might be. Likewise the court’s decision might embolden militant vegans such as Mr Casamitijana, who could in turn hijack the important narrative around sustainable food production.
In his conversation with Jeremy Vine, Jamie highlighted a few of the many benefits that responsible cattle farming can bring, including replenished nutrient contents in soils and the renewal of bee and other insect populations. If we continue to polarise the debate between veganism and responsible farming, these crucial factors will remain overlooked and the consequences could be devastating.