UK livestock farmers fret as veganism challenge grows

One recent morning, Abi Reader saw two strangers wearing head torches strolling across the dark fields of her 200-cow dairy farm in south Wales. A worry flared up in her mind: were they animal rights protesters?  The walkers were probably harmless but the 38-year-old, third-generation farmer fears fallout from her appearance on the BBC show Veganville, which features five vegan activists sent to Wales to convert people to their cause. 

“I’m quite nervous for the safety of the farm,” said Ms Reader, the only local farmer willing to meet the vegans. “We haven’t had any incidents but all the staff have been briefed that people may come to the farm with cameras or hidden cameras.”  Like Ms Reader, there is a feeling among British livestock farmers that their way of life and businesses are being challenged as veganism wins adherents: they account for only 1 per cent of the British population but their ranks have quadrupled in the last five years, according to the Vegan Society.  Nearly a dozen farmers who spoke to the FT described being both repelled and fascinated by the lifestyle whose followers eschew all products derived from animals, from meat to leather.

Many believe veganism is being pushed by big food[1] companies eager to profit from highly processed foods despite their healthy-sounding “plant-based” branding.  They are also particularly irked by how the still-niche movement[2] has influenced people worried about global warming, leading many to see Britain’s sheep and cows as little more than a dangerous source of emissions, rather than as an important part of natureand the rural economy.  The conflict between farmers and vegans has played out largely online.

Every January, fights flare up on Twitter during “Veganuary” as farmers face off with campaigners recruiting people to give up meat for the month. 

Some farmers complain that Greggs’ vegan ‘steak’ bake is an example of misleading labeling (C) Owen Humphreys/PA

Last week, farmers protested on social media and via industry groups against a Channel 4 TV documentary[3] hosted by vegan activist George Monbiot, which predicted that most farming will soon be replaced by food grown in laboratories. Others grumbled about the “misleading labelling” of Greggs[4]‘ new vegan “steak” bake and M&S vegan[5] “chicken” Kiev ready meal, saying it was “bonkers” that marketers were allowed to call such products meat.  Matthew Glover, who created “Veganuary”[6] in 2014, said farmers and vegans needed to “dial down the anger” given that they had much in common, such as a love of nature.

Efforts should be made to bridge the demographic gulf between vegans who are largely younger and more female and urban than Britain’s farmers, he said. “Social media tends to bring out the worst in people. We’re just not getting around the table and talking to each other.” 

Britain's changing diet. Average quantity of food purchased per person per week

Calls for reconciliation are likely to be ignored, however, by the more militant wing of the vegan movement, which at times espouses extreme advocacy tactics like kidnapping pigs, defacing butcher shops, and accosting people with videos of slaughterhouses.

One explanation for farmers’ angst despite veganism’s niche status is that it has become part of the zeitgeist, and its impact reverberates widely. The Game Changers, a Netflix documentary about elite vegan athletes and the many celebrity champions of the diet, including pop star Billie Eilish and actor Joaquin Phoenix, are but two examples. 

Veganuary has advertised its campaign on the London Underground (C) Dinendra Haria/Alamy

Another reason for why livestock farmers are obsessing over vegans is because many of them are struggling economically. British people are eating less meat, dairy and eggs per week compared with diets in the mid-1970s, according to government statistics. Many now identify as “flexitarians” or “pescatarians”, who reduce meat consumption for health reasons or over environmental concerns. 

Meanwhile, beef prices traded far below five-year averages for most of last year, according to Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board data[7], which has left many British livestock farms unable to cover their costs of production and heavily reliant on government subsidies.

Revenue at all types of livestock farms fell last year. Average income per farm in England (GBP)

Further stress has come from uncertainty related to Brexit[8]. The UK plans to overhaul its system[9] for doling out subsidies starting in 2021, and new trade rules may soon mean new competition and tariffs. 

Fights between farmers and vegans often break out when the latter argue — as the Veganville activists do repeatedly — that cutting out meat and dairy is the “single-biggest” thing an individual can do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. British farmers dispute this since domestically produced, grass-fed beef has a lower carbon footprint than meat produced elsewhere. Not only do cows grazing on pasture help store carbon in the soil, most of the country’s land is unsuitable for anything other than livestock. 

“We don’t have a problem with vegans, and as farmers, we are quite happy to support that lifestyle with our produce,” said Minette Batters, the head of the National Farmers’ Union, an industry body, who also runs a livestock farm in Wiltshire. “The problem comes when the vegans start lecturing everyone else on how to save the planet. There is nothing wrong with a plant-based diet but it should not masquerade as the only solution to climate change.”  The truth lies somewhere between the extreme positions, scientists say.

Figuring out the carbon impact of changing to a vegan diet depends on where your meat comes from and what you replace it with. The NFU has recognised that farming must contribute to the climate change fight and has set a voluntary goal[10] for British farms to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Beef prices in the UK have been declining. Annual % change in steer prices

Nevertheless, some vegans feel they are on the right side of history. “I don’t think this is really about farmers versus vegans,” said Jonathan Petrides, who founded a London-based start-up called Allplants that makes plant-based frozen meals. “It’s actually about how farmers are having to adapt to a disruption in the marketplace as people eat less meat.” 

The 35-year-old entrepreneur, who went vegan a few years ago, likened farmers to truck drivers that will soon be supplanted by autonomous vehicles. 

“I strongly believe that rearing animals for meat and dairy products will become obsolete in the coming decades or our planet cannot survive,” he said. “Farmers will have to adapt and they should get help from the government and society to do so.”

References

  1. ^ pushed by big food (www.ft.com)
  2. ^ movement (www.ft.com)
  3. ^ documentary (www.ft.com)
  4. ^ Greggs (www.ft.com)
  5. ^ M&S vegan (twitter.com)
  6. ^ “Veganuary” (uk.veganuary.com)
  7. ^ Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board data (beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk)
  8. ^ uncertainty related to Brexit (www.ft.com)
  9. ^ overhaul its system (www.ft.com)
  10. ^ voluntary goal (www.ft.com)

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