December 11, 2017

Must an ecological society be a vegetarian one?

Early in October 1976, six distinguished speakers from London and Sussex, Hampshire and Wales, converged upon the Wadebridge Ecological Centre in Cornwall, in order to debate the motion that “An Ecological Society Must be a Vegetarian One”. This took place before an invited audience with Teddy Goldsmith in the chair.

Here is presented the summing up of the Chairman.

Chairman: . . . We should judge these things by using ecological criteria to determine which system is the most stable. In this way we find that a forest comes out much better than pasture-land. The rate of soil erosion from pasture is many hundreds of times higher than the rate it is eroded from the forest floor, especially of course from tropical forest. So it’s not just a question of aesthetics, whether you have downs or forests.

In the U.K. we have only 8 per cent of woodland. In Italy it is 20 per cent; in France 22 per cent; in Germany 28 per cent; in Finland 65 per cent, and even Japan, with one hundred million people, is 65 per cent woodland. So you see that we are really very very short of trees, and this is very serious from many points of view, not least the question of waste absorption.

Eugene Odum, one of the world’s leading ecologists considers that every country needs to be at least 50 per cent wooded to absorb pollution and create oxygen.

[. . .]

Summing Up

Chairman: . . . First of all, we tried to establish whether man is a natural meat eater. Colin Blythe showed very convincingly that animals with very different diets often have a similar dentition. His other argument, that because our ancestors mainly ate vegetables does not mean that man was designed to be a vegetarian, I personally find less convincing. Evolution, after all, is a directive process, and if during most of our evolution we ate vegetables, then this must be regarded as the right diet for us. However, I do not believe that our ancestors did exclusively eat vegetables. As Nicholas Hildyard pointed out, we do not know of any primitive society that did not eat meat—at least occasionally.

We also considered what form of diet is most conducive to health. Colin Blythe pointed out that most human allergies are to vegetables rather than to meat. Alan Long answered that members of our meat-eating society enjoyed a worsening state of health and this he attributed to the practice of meat eating, in my opinion not entirely convincingly.

One thing we forgot to discuss, however, was the important argument put forward by Michael Crawford concerning man’s need for long-chain polyunsaturated fats for building up nerve tissue, which are apparently only obtainable from eating meat. I personally do not know how valid this argument is. It has already been debated unconvincingly in the pages of The Ecologist.

We also dealt with the question of morality. Here clearly vegetarians appear to be on stronger ground. However, John Seymour’s argument that death is a natural thing and that it is not killing that is immoral but causing animals to suffer by making them live in inhuman conditions is a very strong one. We also considered the problem of feeding the massive population in this country from the very small amount of arable land at our disposal. To satisfy this requirement would seem to justify a move towards vegetarianism or at least towards a very considerable reduction in meat eating. Both the vegetarians and the meat eaters agree on this point. They differed simply as to whether meat eating should be altogether banned or simply reduced.

It was also suggested that this would free a very considerable amount of food for aid programmes to the Third World where food is really required. Somewhat paradoxically, Mike Allaby considered that such a policy would not necessarily improve the food situation in the Third World, for supplies of food would only go to those who could afford to pay for it. He also denied that this policy would cut imports of food and feed from the Third World, which he regarded as insignificant in any case. This point was not accepted by Peter Roberts who pointed out that 200,000 tons of ground nuts for animal feeds are imported by us every year, enough to feed 16 million Indians. He could also have mentioned the tea, coffee, jute, cotton, etc. which is produced for export on good agricultural land that could produce real food.

We then looked at the problem from the point of view of the individual farmer. John Seymour pointed out how indispensable is animal manure for the maintenance of soil fertility. A vegan society deprived of manure would, according to him, be very much dependent on all sorts of undesirable agricultural chemicals. This was denied by Alan Long who insisted that vegetable matter, properly composted, would be as effective as animal manure. Besides, Long pointed out, human excreta could replace animal manure. John Seymour did not regard this as sufficient. In addition, he pointed out how necessary are the by-products of animal production—wool, hides, etc. without which we would become even more dependent on man-made fibres and hence the chemical industry.

Another aspect of the problem which was discussed was that of wildlife. Abandonment of meat eating would undoubtedly free vast areas of marginal land, at present used for rough grazing, for forestry and wildlife conservation. This is indeed a very alluring prospect, especially in view of the terrible shortage of trees in this country and the equally unacceptable shortage of nature reserves (little more than 280,000 acres in the UK, most of which are in Scotland). Our meat eaters tended to underestimate this. Seen from the conventional farming point of view, it simply meant a larger amount of land that was not suitable for arable farming, that must, with the abandonment of meat eating, be taken out of production. I must say that here my sympathies lie with the vegetarians.

Finally the problem was looked at from the point of view of the market. Mike Allaby considered that meat eating had to be allowed because people wanted to eat meat. It was pointed out that this was not always so. Look at India, for instance. Jon Wynne-Tyson suggested that people in the developing countries only wanted meat because of the prestige associated with eating it. In any case, I might add, what is so holy about the market? Those who have read Karl Polanyi must know that it was with the development of the market economy that our problems started to arise. Why should people be given things, whose real cost they totally ignore, just because they want them? I personally feel that the principle of consumer sovereignty is one that we must explicitly reject.

What is certain is that both vegetarians and meat eaters agreed on a number of fundamental issues. Both condemned modern methods of meat production as morally intolerable, and also leading to the production of poor-quality meat which is undoubtedly damaging to our health. Also, both agreed that we needed to bring about a considerable change to our diet, both in the interests of health and natural self-sufficiency, and that this meant shifting the accent from raising cattle to arable farming.

In fact, the real question at issue seemed to be whether meat eating should be drastically reduced or entirely eliminated—and this, to me, seems to be a minor issue in comparison with those on which agreement was reached.


For the full debate see The Ecologist Vol. 6, No. 10

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top