Reflections on the Compassion in World Farming conference, October 5-6 2017

I Love Vegetables.

Arriving mid evening from London to my companion’s sister near Hertford was a comforting experience. A welcome of real food, prepared by her husband; cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, parsnip, french beans and potatoes all simply and perfectly cooked along side organic sausage playing its part as ‘toad in the hole’ and some onion gravy.

No wait, ‘toad in the whole’ may help explain why this meal was even more special than it was already! It was in contrast to two days of vegan food at the Extinction & Livestock 2017 conference convened by Compassion in World Farming and WWF where I had little idea of what I was eating but it all seemed a little too processed or too contrived. I do know that taste experience is learnt and so this could be just me. The soya milk substitute was organic but despite requests for reassurance, no other information was given that any of the other ingredients were produced without artificial pesticides and herbicides that incidentally destroy wildlife in and around soils. Apart from this I was looking forward to the experience. I eat a lot of vegetarian meals, I love vegetables but I also eat meat if produced to organic standards.

The conference speakers in the first session Katherine Richardson, Philip Lymbery, Duncan Williamson and Tony Juniper were an excellent start to the conference, informative and inspiring, setting the background for constructive discussion. Session two added with further insight, passion and experience from Stanley Johnson, Carl Safina, Jean Francoise Timmers and Dave Goulson, relating livestock production to the natural world. These I understand will be available soon on the CiWF website.

Should I not have praised the speakers before criticising the food? Although, is food not so utterly fundamental to what this is all about that I should judge by what is practiced rather than what is said?

It is so confusing – Compassion in World Farming has asserted that Soil Association animal welfare standards are some of the highest in the world. As an organisation CiWF have achieved huge gains for animal welfare globally and deserve everyone’s support. The proceedings of the conference however as a whole could be seen as having a somewhat contradictory understanding of underlying principles and even in the portrayal of some facts. Simple messages are the order of the day but from such an intelligent gathering I became concerned at what weird reports (from flawed conclusions of the evidence presented) might emerge from such a reputable and credible organisation, throwing those with less time to explore in completely wrong directions.

The conference continued with more world class speakers, for instance Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard, Frank Hu. I could see nothing wrong with the presentation he gave, no reason to doubt the findings of their research that finds meat diets were the cause of much ill health in the US. However, in the context of the conference I felt these findings were being abused, an inadvertent magician’s sleight of hand? My attempts to question from the floor were overlooked but when approached after, Professor Hu openly admitted that these findings were in the US context where the vast majority of meat consumed is from CAFOs or Industrial agricultural units. The findings therefore could not be assumed to apply for more naturally produced meat, free ranging, eating the diets they had evolved to eat. Would this produce the same ill health in people? In fact, there is now good evidence that shows that for instance ruminants allowed to graze pasture are healthier and this in turn does provide high quality nutrition for humanity if persons choose to eat meat.

One consistent and it seemed unanimously agreed theme throughout the conference was the recognition that industrial agriculture has nothing good to offer the modern world. Producing vast quantities of food but without adequate nutritional content is resulting in poor human health, poor animal welfare and large amounts of pollution and wasted energy, all having a deleterious effect on the environment. With this increasingly in the control of a few large corporations, perhaps of concern in itself. Why then were some resorting to generalisations in their conclusions, dismissing the benefits of animals reared with compassion and environmentally intelligent ways, when almost all of the time the session references were only decrying industrial meat production? This did appear to be in stark contradiction to the caution and explanation of distinguishing between fact and belief in the opening film of day two featuring Yuval Harari. It seems there was a divide in opinion and, very sadly for such a conference, not in keeping with the evidence that is available.

There were two speakers who particularly for me, drew attention to all the other benefits of animals to good agricultural practice. The presentation given by Professor Hans Herren, now director of the Millennium Institute did much more than this, for me a most important foundation for directions that agriculture must take if humanity and the planet are to survive. This was corroborated by Patrick Holden in the closing session, although regrettably there was not sufficient time for his slide presentation as I believe earlier sessions had overrun. This particularly aggrieved me as too much time was spent in the session 6 ( Healthy People Healthy Planet) and session 7 (Future Food solutions) on what seemed like an extended commercial break with various companies pushing their innovations for plant derived imitation meat products as though this was some solution to avoid eating meat – meat that is from industrial units that shouldn’t be there in the first place. (Trying to solve a problem by the same approaches that created it and particularly in the ways of prevailing flawed economic frameworks of growth on a finite planet, is doubtful.)

As I said I love veg but I like it to be unadulterated. The products being talked about seemed to be so processed which in itself could be causing alarm. Some of the recent food awakening has been a trend to return to natural foods partly born out of healthy mistrust of food additives causing problems. We have lived through an age of a food experiment where the artificial and contrivances have used the populations as though guinea pigs and with enormous cost to health and happiness.

The ‘moving to flourishing food systems’ session where Hans Herren spoke was brilliantly complemented with presentations from Tim Laing, Karl Falkenberg and Peter Stevenson. In subsequent sessions I would have liked more from for instance Professor John Webster and Professor Don Broom on practical welfare matters. There was no evidence at the conference that showed that a vegan diet of artificial food derived from vegetable production would be better for the planet other than those that arose from industrial food production. For instance frequent reference to the amount of water consumed in animal production was only applicable to industrial units. However as was also said at the conference, agroecological systems, organic regenerative and mixed farming practices actually help solve water issues, along with helping put back carbon into the planet’s degraded arable soils.

Throughout the conference there were continual references for the need to cut meat consumption. The proposal put at the end was that we recommend cutting our meat consumption by half. What would this achieve? This would mean that a large proportion of the meat consumed would still derive from factory farms with all the associated health and pollution problems. Identifying that the problem is industrial farming but making this synonymous with meat consumption per se is ignoring the benefits of proper animal husbandry. If instead we advanced all animal farming to natural systems, with ruminants grazing extensively vast areas of permanent pasture with all the benefits for biodiversity both above and below ground and with these and other farmed animals playing their part in mixed farming systems, this would actually remove all the problems deriving from industrial agriculture, provide more nutritious food and have a net positive effect on many of the factors that are bringing about climate change.

Before going to the conference, the policy decision to serve only plant based foods appeared to be avoiding the issue and confusingly not representative of the more informed position CiWF has. Decrying meat consumption without making any distinction between destructive and sustainable farming methods is counter-productive to the health of the earth, plants, animals and people. Eating less meat simply leaves the fundamental issues unresolved: those of land degradation, soil carbon, soil loss and erosion, biodiversity loss, waste, pollution and so on. Replacing industrial agriculture with agriculture in harmony with the natural world and raising awareness of our dependence on the natural world properly functioning will only bring improvements. It is the whole of farming activity that will determine our and our fellow species’ survival.

October 11th 2017 Martin Peck

Conference programme

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