Wouldn’t a meat-eater taste better than a vegan?

The subject of yesterday’s example on the derogatory use of “ginger”, Jeremy Clarkson, popped up on my radar today with an anti-vegan essay. (He’s apparently basing his attack on a foundation offered by EarthSave.)

The facts it produces, however, are intriguing. Methane, which pours from a cow’s bottom on an industrial scale every few minutes, is 21 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And as a result, farmed animals are doing more damage to the climate than all the world’s transport and power stations put together.

What’s more, demand for beef means more and more of the world’s forests are being chopped down, and more and more pressure is being put on our water supplies.

Plainly, then, EarthSave is encouraging us to go into the countryside at the first possible opportunity and lay waste to anything with more than one stomach. Maybe it wants me to shoot my donkeys. Happily what it’s actually saying is that you can keep your car and your walk-in fridge, but you’ve got to stop eating meat.

In fact you’ve got to stop eating all forms of animal products. No more milk. No more cheese. And if it can be proven that bees fart, then no more honey either. You’ve got to become a vegan.

It’s worthwhile and intellectually honest for both sides to debate the impact of factory farming on land and its consequences. It may be devastating or it may be managable, but this method of food production produces a negative. That is simply not open for debate.

After much gnashing of teeth on how dull and uninteresting a world of only plant foods would be for him, he offers this “tough” question:

There are wider implications, too. Let us imagine that the world decided today to abandon its appetite for sausage rolls, joints of beef and meat-infused Mars bars. What effect would this have on the countryside?

Where now you find fields full of grazing cows and truffling pigs, there would be what exactly?

Going vegan alone will not solve global warming¹. And going vegan without a rational transition period to accommodate the existing animal population and redevelopment of factory farm land into other productive uses would be a mistake. So, while I harbor no fantasies that the world will soon see a mass switch to veganism, I also understand that benefiting from such a miracle wouldn’t be an overnight reality. Not all vegans are “free-range communists and fair trade hippies,” to use Mr. Clarkson’s term.

He then informs us that a much less radical solution may be possible:

So plainly the best thing we can do if we want to save the world, preserve the English countryside and keep on eating meat, is to work out a way that animals can be made to produce less methane.

… We all know that the activity of our bowels is governed by our diet. We know, for instance, that if we have an afternoon meeting with a bunch of top sommeliers in a small windowless room it’s best not to lunch on brussel sprouts and baked beans.

There are more negatives from animal agriculture than just methane, but Mr. Clarkson is actually thinking a little. There may be more than one solution. I have no problem admitting as much because my preferred solution is obviously open to subjective challenge. Working the argument down to a core issue helps.

If only his facts were completely correct:

So if we know – and we do – that diet can be used to regulate the amount of methane coming out of the body, then surely it is not beyond the wit of man to change the diet of farmyard animals.

At the moment, largely, cows eat grass and silage, and as we’ve seen, this is melting the ice caps and killing us all. So they need a new foodstuff: something that is rich in iron, calcium and natural goodness.

He then suggests feeding vegetarians to cows to get those nutrients. I laughed, because it’s a joke. But do you remember his pleasant story about “fields full of grazing cows and truffling pigs”? It’s nice to imagine, especially if we throw in a few rolling hills and a pretty violet sunset. With or without my embellishment, it’s also not generally true. Cows raised in industrial settings generally get less grass and more silage. Their bodies are not designed for the large quantities of grains we feed them to fatten them up and make it easier to raise more cattle in less space. Surely this factors into the debate.

How much will new drugs to reduce methane production help? Even if we can decrease the methane, what would result from actually creating Mr. Clarkson’s idyllic world of cattle grazing in open fields? What happens to the economics of grain and other foods as a result of using land to grow food to raise animals?

Link via Fark, where you can find the usual commentary that not eating animals places you lower on the food chain because animals are ours to do with as we see fit, and besides, humans need protein and that only comes from animals. Oh, and not eating meat means you’re a “sackless nancy” who is also a hypocrite because, come on, we all know that vegans kill many varieties of living beings, like bugs and algae and bacteria. Probably on purpose.

¹ For the sake of this entry, assume global warming is a serious problem that man can halt and reverse.