Do vegetarians actually have to be cretins?

It\’s possible to have entirely serious discussions about going veggie or not. It\’s also possible for people to be entirely cretins about the subject:

With many regions like the Sahel in Africa already facing near-famine conditions, 2 billion people already malnourished, and an estimated 2 billion increase in the world population by 2050, a global plant-based diet seems not just desirable but inevitable.

Dear God you stupid bloody woman. The Sahel is marginal land at the, err, margins. It is largely suited to nomadic pastoral farming. That is, if you\’re going to get any food value out of the bit north of the sorghum belt and south of the Sahara you\’ve got to get it by raising animals and eating the products thereof.

There are vast areas of the globe that fit this profile too. There\’s no point in trying to grow wheat or potatoes on Britain\’s hill farms for example. Plowing the Scottish Highlands won\’t get you anywhere: but mutton or venison can be usefully raised. Truly maximising the caloric production of the land would include raising animals: for there are plenty of areas where you can\’t actually raise much else.

And she\’s obviously not bothered to read this report:

The Stockholm International Water Institute\’s report notes that one third of the world\’s arable land produces grain to feed livestock rather than people.

She says she\’s aware of it, sure, but she\’s obviously not read it.

Overconsumption and the corporatisation of food supply chains also underwrite the factory farming responsible for unconscionable levels of animal suffering and the depletion of marine ecosystems.

Because, you miserably ignorant cow, that very report states that corporatisation of the food supply is exactly what is needed in the poor countries.

42 thoughts on “Do vegetarians actually have to be cretins?”

  1. Although the Highlands did support a far higher population, largely engaged in cultivation, before the clearances, when the people were replaced with sheep.

  2. Not all vegetarians are nutters but this appears to be someone with a hardly hidden lefty agenda posed as a veggie one. Also like most lefty agendas, this story seems to have ethier little no basis in fact.

  3. (1) “Plowing”: offs, Tim.
    (2) “the Highlands did support a far higher population, largely engaged in cultivation”: no – a little cultivation, a lot of cattle.

  4. There are plenty of vegetarians who enjoy moaning about Polly and Monbiot as much as Tim. I find it frustrating when people assume they can guess my politics when they find out that I’m a vegetarian.

    Partly Tim is doing the Lords work by mocking this kind of stuff, but partly, headlines like this (and some other posts) create the impression that all veggies are nutters and the quick disclaimers like the first sentence isn’t really good enough to get rid of that impression.

  5. H (#4) said “the Highlands did support a far higher population … before the clearances”

    Not necessarily.

    There may have been a higher population before the clearances (I don’t know), but today a lot of the lamb, mutton and venison is eaten by people away from the Highlands, it actually now supports (in a food sense) a far wider population than those who live there.

  6. “There are plenty of vegetarians who enjoy moaning about Polly and Monbiot as much as Tim. “

    Yes, but those sort – the ‘live and let live, you eat what you want and I’ll eat what I want’ type – never get articles in the ‘Guardian’…

  7. Richard @ 8 “There may have been a higher population before the clearances (I don’t know), but today a lot of the lamb, mutton and venison is eaten by people away from the Highlands, it actually now supports (in a food sense) a far wider population than those who live there.”

    Are you suggesting that the Highlands, and Highlands lamb, mutton and venison, are a serious source of food to the world at large? I doubt it (though they do produce farmed salmon, fed by fish meal from god know where).

    There’s been the odd (vaguely anti veggi?) comment/post about hill farms/highlands and the Sahel. The point being that these are suitable for sheep etc, not crops. True, but they’re still utterly crap for producing sheep, just marginally less crap than anything else. The solution to real (or imagined) food shortages is unlikely to be found in arid deserts or desolate peat bogs.

  8. What a lot of these people seem to not get is that the corporatization of animal farming leads to greater animal suffering because it *increases* the efficiency of meat production.
    Maximizing efficieny in production means cramming animals into small areas with lots of other animals and doing nasty things to them to stop them from doing what comes naturally in these conditions and increase yield/unit of input.

    To reduce suffering in food animals we actually take a step back and *reduce* efficiency – consider the difference in yield/animal between free-range and factory chicken farms.

  9. Brian, follower of Deornoth

    “It is largely suited to nomadic pastoral farming.”

    No land is in the slightest suited to nomadic pastoral farming; the evidence is, that all land so used becomes desert, as is indeed happening in the Sahel.

  10. Luke (#11), the numbers are so tiny that it’s very easy for the Highlands to be feeding more people now than they were before the clearances – contrary to what H (#4) claimed.

    I can’t easily find numbers, but I have found some for Sutherland (1.3 million acres in the northern highlands), so let’s have a go with that.

    In Sutherland the clearances removed 9,000 people, allowing the sheep population to increase from 15,000 to 130,000.

    Apparently you can sell 1.4 lambs per sheep per year (allowing for replacement of the breeding stock), plus some of your old ewes and rams, giving you the equivalent sales (in weight) of 1.67 lambs per sheep. So that flock of 130,000 could support permanent sales equivalent to 216,000 lambs per year.

    Apparently you’ll get around 35lb of useable meat from a side of lamb, so 70lbs from a whole lamb, 31.75kg.

    Lamb is around 250 calories per 100g, so a whole lamb would be over 78,000 calories.

    2,000 calories per person per day (taking an average of men, women and children), so a lamb would keep a person going for 39 days (OK, better as a quarter of the nutrition for 4 people, but let’s keep in person-equivalents).

    Therefore the 216,000 lambs we can sell from our flock would provide enough calories to permanently support over 23,000 men on a good calorie level – over two and a half times the 9,000 half-starved highlanders that the same land supported before the clearances.

  11. I wasn’t saying that the Highlands are the solution to the world food crisis, just that they fed more people by sheep farming, after the clearances, than they did by agriculture beforehand.

  12. @ Brian, follower of Deornoth
    Vast areas of the world have in the past hundred thousand years been used for pastoral nomadic farming. The expansion of the Sahara is mostly a recent phenomenon following a major increase in the population of humans in the region and a consequential increase in the number of herd animals resulting in over-grazing, the destruction of trees to provide fuel eliminating windbreaks, attempts at monoculture crops etc.

  13. Richard at #15: you have just very well described the difference between comparative and absolute advantages…

  14. “Richard // Aug 29, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Luke (#11), the numbers are so tiny that it’s very easy for the Highlands to be feeding more people now than they were before the clearances – contrary to what H (#4) claimed.”
    Very interesting calculation. Proof of the advantage of globalisation (of course the tennants were badly treated).

  15. @ Richard #14
    Your link doesn’t work on my computer so I can’t check but I have always understood that numbers of sheep included rams and lambs as well as ewes.
    When you say 1.4 lambs per sheep you surely mean 1.4 lambs per breeding ewe – the 1.67 implies that there are 5 lambs (and a small fraction of a ram) for every three ewes. So the number of lambs is roughly five-eighths of the total number of sheep i.e. 81,250 not 216,000 and so the number of people it would support *at today’s calorific need* would be around 10,000.
    BUT manual labourers pre-mechanisation needed nearer 4,000 calories (NB your 2000 figure only applies to women, the standard figure for men is 2500), so the current sheep population of Sutherland would not feed its pre-clearance population.
    Obviously I am ignoring fishing, but that only provides a relatively small minority of calorific intake. It is recorded fact that the Highlanders emigrated after the clearances because *there was not enough food*. The economic gain to the landowner was from the sale of wool not from increased food production.

  16. …the people were replaced with sheep (H, Nº 4).

    Reading the Grauniad, I was under the impression that the people have been replaced by sheep almost everywhere.

  17. John77 (#19), you may have a point about the number of sheep. Yes, 1.4 lambs is per breeding ewe.

    But what I don’t know is whether the 130,000 is the number of breeding ewes or if it includes the lambs (rams are numerically irrelevant).

    130,000 was described as the “sheep stock”, which I assumed meant the relatively permanent stock of breeding ewes, excluding the temporary lamb population, but I don’t know for certain.

    But my 2,000 calories per day figure was an average including children, not just adult men and women (assuming 5 children per couple with evenly spread ages), so I did include some men at 2,500 and some teenagers at even more.

    However there were serious problems of malnutrition and even starvation before the clearances, so I suspect the men were not getting their 4,000 calories per day.

  18. Evidently she’s a bit hazy on the details, but Ms Gopal is basically right – if we fed much less grain to animals we could feed more people, or feed the same number of people with less envirnomental impact.

    One way to move in that direction would be to end corn subsidies in the US. I suppose we’re all in favour of that.

  19. Ah, here we are; estimated food of a Scottish agricultural worker, circa 1800 (i.e. just before the clearances):
    20 oz potatoes
    8 oz oatmeal
    4 oz kale
    2 oz turnips
    1 oz barley
    1 oz butter
    1 oz cheese
    1 pint milk
    1 pint ale

    Quick work with a calorie counter brings that to 2,587 – so pretty much the 2,500 modern male calorie intake that I used in my estimate, rather than the 4,000 John77 said they should have been getting (as I said, they were malnourished even before the clearances).

    So even if John’s right about the sheep numbers, the sheep are still capable of supporting more people than the land did beforehand.

    Whether or not they were supporting more scots is a matter of distribution, not production.

  20. PeterS said:”Reading the Grauniad, I was under the impression that the people have been replaced by sheep almost everywhere.”

    No that’s just the Guardian reader you’re thinking about.

    Seaside Sourpuss,nothing wrong with quorn burgers I just don’t want to be force fed them.

  21. If I may, I’ve met plenty of sensible people who are vegetarian, I’ve also met the headcases as well the ones who seem so unworldly that they make Neil from the Young Ones comedy show look like thrusting executives.

  22. Would it better serve the starving sahelians to clear hamstead Heath of vegetarians, and inleash sheep, or burn it to encourage heather, and stock grouse?

  23. Isn’t it the case that the world’s population could easily be supported by soya beans?

    It’s a bit angels-on-pinheads though, because most of us would probably rather die of starvation.

  24. Your argument would be better served without painting all vegetarians with the same brush. Worse, why did you feel the need to write “stupid bloody woman” and “cow”? Is the author’s gender particularly relevant? I’ve certainly seen equally poor writing from men but few feel the need to criticize them using gendered insults.

    Tim adds: I always use gendered insults. It’s one of the things that the English language rather likes you to do: use the appropriate gender. Don’t worry, when I insult men I use similarly gender appropriate insults.

  25. @ Richard #24
    Your reference leads me to a chapter of a book which discusses at length the predominance of meat in the diet of the upper classes and the large amount of fish in that of the agricultural labourers and other highlanders. So your summation of the calorific value of the vegetable and dairy product part of their diet gives a sub-total, not a total. Adding in any reasonable estimate of the meat and fish content of their diet would still leave them somewhat malnourished but not as ridiculously as 2587 calories – they would have starved or frozen to death if trying to live on that calorie intake for a long period and within months been unable to farm because their muscles would have faded away.

  26. I actually agree with PaulB.
    There is no need to feed grain to animals.
    Also if the Americans and other rich nations wasted less food, there would be less demand for intensive feeding of cattle prior to slaughter and more food available to export from the USA to other countries.

  27. “Also if the Americans and other rich nations wasted less food,”
    Which they do in comparison with poorer nations. Refrigeration. Freeze drying. Control of vermin. Efficient & rapid transport from field to table. Pink slime ( yes pink slime, we don’t let one tiny fragment of an animal go to waste).
    If only the poorer nations were as frugal with food as the rich..

  28. @ bloke in spain
    Maybe you’re my generation and were taught to eat the food on your plate, but Guardianistas claim that it is normal to waste one-third of the food that they buy.

  29. “Evidently she’s a bit hazy on the details, but Ms Gopal is basically right – if we fed much less grain to animals we could feed more people…”

    Well, there you go, assuming we WANT more people.

  30. Did everyone read the same article i did? She says going veggie seems to be the answer but then cautions that it isn’t. She lists downsides to mass farming techniques, but doesnt totally disparage them. Thought it was surprisingly balanced for the guardian.

  31. John77 (#30), the article starts by looking at the decline in the Scottish diet over the 17th and 18th centuries, and gives various references to the highlanders eating no meat by the end of the 18th century.

    The diet listed, including butter, cheese and milk, seems intended to be complete.

    I’m a bit dubious about your claim that people on a 2,500 calorie diet would be unable to farm “within months … because their muscles would have faded away”. In 1960 the average calorie intake in the developing world (most of whom, then, would have been subsistence farmers like the Highlanders) was only 2,000, and many of them seemed to survive on that:

    Remember that people then were smaller than they are today, so the calorie requirement would be lower.

    Average adult male weights in 1790 are estimated at 61kg (9.5 stone) for England and 50kg (8 stone) for France. The Highlanders, after decades of poor nutrition, would have been at the lower end of that.
    (top of page 3)

    The UN recommends 3,200 calories per day for adult males weighing 50kg and engaged in heavy manual agricultural work (including an hour collecting water and wood). But that is against a background of most people not actually getting it.
    Table 5.5, column “2.20 × BMR”, explained on the previous page.

    Unless you can find something more definite, the 2,500 that I used seems to be a poor diet but a common one – and probably what the Highlanders were actually getting around 1800, before the clearances.

  32. Richard @36. You cite an average weight in 1790 of 9 1/2 stone. When I was 24 (just before starting full time office work) that’s what I weighed. I’m 6ft. Slightly unusual circumstances (I’d just ridden a bike 800 miles through France while eating like a pig). Not really sure where this leads us, but I think ww’re forgetting how light peasants/skinny students are.

  33. If it is true that we should be growing more crops and veggies that rearing cattle, then WTF are we doing subsidising cattle through the CAP…?

  34. Go vegetarian the world over and forget about milk, cheese, butter etc? Or does she want animals farmed but not eaten?
    Hillsides can be used for growing food. Vines can be encouraged to grow – not sure I’d like the wine or like the return on effort put in. Crops often have a good soil/drainage etc area they do well in. Can grow them well outside those ideal conditions – if getting 5% on a hillside of the crop you get in a field its still a crop. Pretty crap one though.

  35. It’s trivially true that we can feed more people with grain than with the animal protein you get from feeding the grain to cattle or sheep.

    It’s also trivially true that the problem the world has is not too little food, but rather too little economic freedom and too little free trade, and that food production is not zero-sum.

    This is just veggies trying to ram things down the throats of everyone else.

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