This might not be what you were expecting me to blog about this month but when asked (it's one of the unfortunate hazards of being around the sustainable ag community) if I was taking part in veganuary this year, I declined. The #veganuary website asks, Why take part in Veganuary? Well, why not?, so I thought I'd summarise some of the reasons why you too might decide to give it a miss;
1) January is one of the worst months to rely upon plant based foods
Think about it for a second, in conservation, when do we feel the need to feed wildlife most? That's right, winter. Food is in short supply for our wild animals at this time of year and it is during these months that many animals die for lack of sustenance. Humans, on the other hand, have developed sophisticated food production, storage and transport techniques that allow us to eat exactly what we want, when we want it, but this does come at a cost.
2) It's not seasonal
We're always being urged to eat more seasonal food, for a variety of reasons, and it makes sense for us to eat whatever is available in abundance at that particular time of year. Our vegetable crops are at their most naturally productive during summer, so you'd think they'd schedule a month for eating more veg when there is naturally more available, but apparently not.
Image credit; http://tonythegardener.blogspot.co.uk
On the other side we have meat which, as a natural food for humans, would tend to be consumed in greater quantities during winter when alternatives were less available. At the same time, a limited plant based food supply encourages more hunting to protect the valuable crops and stores from all the other creatures that are struggling to survive the winter. The temperatures (usually!) tend to be cooler in winter, which makes for easier preservation and storage of meat too, so if ever there was a time to eat meat, it's now .
4) It drives imports
You may be thinking that the seasons don't apply any longer and we can produce everything we need from plants, in which case have a look at some of the recipes designed to tempt your tastebuds this month. Chickpeas, Coconut, Tomatoes and Tofu - not exactly your usual homegrown favourites from the garden in January, or indeed any time of year for three out of the four. So how far does your meal have to travel to reach you, and is it really ethical to be importing so much water in fresh produce from arid regions?
Image credit; Holy Cow vegan recipes
5) It drives exports
Britain has quite a wet, cold climate that isn't so great for growing annual crops year round, but it is a wonderful climate for grass! About 65% of our agricultural land in the UK is grassland so we are capable of producing a lot of meat at home. The trouble is that we can't just change our land and climate to suit changing diets, so our farmers continue to rely heavily upon livestock to produce edible food. A switch to less meat, particularly in winter, gives them fewer options to continue making a living from the land. One solution is to export what we can produce in order to pay for what we can't.
Exporting food just to import alternatives is hardly sensible, even if you don't care about the environment or animal welfare. We believe that animals should be killed as close to the farm as possible, which is why we use small, local abattoirs, just a stone's throw away from the fields where the animals graze.
6) It's dull
OK, so maybe you don't feel the need to import all your ingredients and already buy everything locally. In the UK that probably means you have a few dried pulses, winter brassicas and selected root vegetables to make a meal from. Far better to give it a go in the summer when there's often a glut of fresh produce available, so much so that we end up feeding the excesses to animals because we can't possibly eat or store it all.
Image source; youtube.com
7) Wildlife suffer
We have a climate suitable for growing grass but we've still lost 97% of our wildflower meadows over the past 100 years. These are important habitats for a wide variety of insects, birds, plants and mammals and often the last haven for biodiversity in otherwise arable landscapes. Our grasslands are very important threatened habitats for winter visitors too, with waterfowl and waders enjoying the seasonally inundated wetlands as safe places to feed and spend the winter. Grasslands have developed over thousands of years of pastoral farming but to date there have been few efforts made by the vegan community to support these habitats.
Winter visitors to the Lower Derwent Valley
8) Farmers suffer
Farming, particularly with livestock, is a 365 days a year job - animals can't be turned off for a few months. Winter is the most expensive season for farmers, at a time when animals require greater daily care and attention while they are not able to be out grazing. While every farmer needs to make a profit to feed both his/her own family and to reinvest in the business, more often than not it is cashflow, rather than profit, that means a business ceases to trade. With many abattoirs and markets closed over the Christmas period, January is an important time to start selling livestock and produce again.
9) It drives factory farming
A commonly held belief is that reducing the amount of meat we eat is beneficial for animals and ourselves, but as a recent assessment from the US Food & Drug Administration showed, we're eating less meat but using more antibiotics to produce it. By cutting back on consumption there is a negative feedback loop where the farmer receives less money and therefore has to produce more, for less. Most likely the smaller farmers simply have to cease production enabling, larger industrialised units to increase their size & economies of scale.
10) It was very carefully planned to be this way
They were correct, January was the ideal month to capitalise on the post-Christmas lull as both personal finances and mood are at an annual low. It was obviously not chosen to make the most of the wonderful food we can produce seasonally and sustainably in this country.
So, rather than indiscriminately cutting out a whole food group at the worst possible time of year, I urge you to take a look at the food you buy each week and consider just how much you do know about how and where it was produced. All meat and dairy sold in the UK can be traced all the way back to the farm or farms where it was produced, veg and manufactured goods are a little harder to follow. Vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, I challenge you to do this for at least one item of food this week (and don't make it too easy by choosing the last of the winter greens from the garden!). It may not be immediately apparent from the labelling and you might need to ask your suppliers for some more information, but what better way to connect with the food you are eating?
Once you've discovered where your item originates, call or email the farmer to talk and learn about your food. Ask if it would be convenient to visit the farm sometime and really reconnect with it's origins. I hope, for your sake, that this means a short journey into the local countryside, rather than buying a plane ticket to the other side of the world!