The Green Tau: issue 53

23rd September 2022

If we all went vegan what would happen to all the cows? 

This seems to be a frequent concern amongst those who are not vegan. If people didn’t eat meat or drink milk, would cows become extinct? 

The question is one of genuine concern but raises some other questions in response. For example what life does a cow have? Dairy cows will commence their milking life aged 2 when their first calf will be removed from her care within hours of birth.  She will then give birth once year, being milked for ten months producing quantities of milk (on average 8000 litres) greatly in excess of what a calf would consume. After 2.5 -4 years, when her milking yields drop, she will be slaughtered. The usual life expectancy of a cow is 20 years. Of her offspring, males calves will have a limited life to be slaughtered as veal at 5 – 7 months. Of her female calves most will follow in this mother’s footsteps unless they are deformed or ill, in which case they too will be slaughtered. 

Very few farmed cattle enjoy a full life. By contrast cattle kept on re-wilded land, although smaller in number, live a much more natural life. In the Lake District re-wilding projects are in place at Haweswater, Ennerdale and the Lowther Estate, whilst in Sussex there is the now famous Knepp Estate. According to Rewilding Britain 112,166 hectares of land are now part of a re-wilding project. 

So no, cows would not become extinct but would be kept in much smaller numbers – just as rare breeds of many farm animals are being conserved. 

In 2020 there were 9.36 million head of cattle in the UK. It was not always so! Originally there were only the early forebears of cattle, the aurochs. Overtime cattle were domesticated and as the human population of the UK grew so did the number of cattle. Selective breeding improved and diversified the      cattle with some favoured for milk production and others for meat. As the human and domestic animal populations increased, so the amount of uncultivated land and wildlife decreased: the auroch was hunted to extinction in the UK about 3000 years ago; the brown bear became extinct in the 6th century whilst the wolf hung on until the 17th century. What is true for the UK is also true world wide. Whilst once humans and domesticated animals were once nonexistent, they now comprise 36% and 60% of the biomass of all mammals, leaving just 4% as wild animals (biomass measures the quantity of a species by its mass rather than its numerical quantity).

Rather than it being a question of ‘what would happen to all the cows?’ perhaps the question should be ‘what has happened to all the wild animals?’ The State of Nature Report of 2019noted that since the 1970s, 41% of UK wildlife has declined, and that 26% of the UK’s mammals are at risk of becoming extinct. Re-wilding more of our land would help reverse this decline and allow for the reintroduction of lost species such as the lynx and the stork.

Globally 77% of agricultural land is used to feed livestock, including both grazing land and the land used to grow animal feed. In the UK 40% of the land (9.74 million hectares) comprisespermanent grazing, 6%  temporary grazing (1 – 5 years) and 5%  rough grazing. Only 20% of the land is used for arable crops. Even so home grown animal feed is supplemented by imports – somewhere in the region of 50%.

Globally the 77% of land used for grazing and feeding farm animals, produces only 18% of the world’s food calories. At the same time this major land use contributes more than half of the carbon footprint of our global food production. If everyone globally were to eat the same amount of meat as the average British person (approx 85g per day), then the amount of farm land needed would have to increase – putting even more pressure on natural habitats and wildlife. And if everyone were to eat as much meat as the average American, we would run out of land.

Reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products would release more arable land for growing more sustainably a great variety of plant-based proteins with the potential to improve the diets and health of billions of people world wide (subject to a radical improvement of trade and wealth distribution systems). Research the by the UN suggests that with fewer cases of lower coronary heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, a global vegan diet would also result in 8.1 million fewer deaths per year worldwide.

Britons have in fact already reduced their meat consumption by 17% over the last decade. The Government’s Food Strategy has the target of reducing that by 30% by 2030. This target has been set  in recognition of the adverse affect meat production has on both climate change and the environment, as well as the link between the consumption of red and processed meat the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Looking to the future, there will be fewer cows – but hopefully they will be enjoying a happier life – and instead more land used to restore greater biodiversity. 

Further reading 

The Green Tau: issue 49

19th August 2022

Conserving water effectively.

This year we are feeling the effects of climate change more acutely, with a series of heat waves, a lack of rainfall and now a drought.  As hot and dry summers will be an ongoing feature of climate change, so too will water shortages and droughts. 

Part of the equation lies with how much water we consume and when, and how much water we can store. Part of the dilemma is that the time when we consume most water is in the summer months when  the chances of restocking depleted water supplies is most limited. When  it is hot and there is no rain, we quickly use water we have previously stored to water gardens, to irrigate crops, to provide drinking water for animals and people, to fill swimming pools and paddling pools etc. And as many of us have experienced, the water we had stored (domestically in water butts) has not been enough to keep our gardens green. There has been much discussion in the press about water companies not investing enough in new reservoirs. 

Is collecting and storing more water the only solution? Building reservoirs is expensive and happens at the loss of someone else’s ‘backyard’. Cleaning and distributing water (and subsequently treating what is discarded) incurs its own energy cost and the greater the volume, the greater the cost. Should we instead be looking to reduce the demand side of the equation?  

According to CCW, the Consumer Council for Water, the average person in the UK uses 152 litres of water a day. A washing machine uses about 50l per load, a five minute shower 40l (more for a power shower), 10-14l for the dishwasher and each flush of the loo can use 10l.  Very quickly you can see how that 152l of water disappears!  And this is without including a sprinkler for the lawn, a hose to wash the car or a power jet to clean the drive. 

Yes, we can reduce the amount of water we use. We can change to taps that use less water by produce a spray. Ditto for shower heads. We can adjust toilet cisterns to use less water per flush. We can opt for washing appliances that use less water. We can turn off the tap when washing hands and teeth. We can bathe less often and wash clothes less often – saving energy as well as water. We can plant our gardens with drought tolerant plants and cut the lawns less often. We can install more water butts, and even install systems to collect and recycle grey water. 

Leaks from water pipes – whether that is within a property, or out in the street – account for 113 litres per property per day according to CCW. Thames Water puts its leakage rate at a staggering 24% of the water it supplies. Sometimes leak go unnoticed because the water is leaking into the subsoil. Keeping an eye on our water meter should alert us to any leaks that occur on the consumer side of the pipes.

Yet households only account for a small fraction of the water we consume in the UK. The data below ⬇️ comes from the  WWF Water Footprint report https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Orr_and_Chapagain_2008_UK_waterfootprint-vol1.pdf 

73.6% of the UK’s water is used in farming. 

17.9% is used by industry, and 

8.5% is used by households. 

Many of us are probably not aware how much water is used in farming. About a third of agricultural water is used for livestock, primarily as drinking water. A lactating cow needs 100+ litres a day, a farrowing sow, 30l and a beef animal 20l. Further water is used for washing/ cleaning dairy parlours, stock sheds and yards; for processing and cooling milk; and for disease control such as sheep dips and foot baths. (https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/sci/lifesci/wcc/research/resources/wateruse/technology/livestock.pdf)

Water for arable farming is primarily used for irrigation of outdoors in-field crops and undercover or protected, crops. Field crops requiring irrigation are primarily vegetables including sugar beet,  peas, beans etc (potatoes account for 54% of water consumption), sugar beet, orchards and other fruits such as strawberries. Grains and grasses only occasionally need irrigation. Protected crops include  (edibles such as salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuces, peppers, herbs, celery, and aubergines; and ornamentals such as pot plants, bedding plants and indoor cut flowers. (https://www.nfuonline.com/archive?treeid=141830)  Water is also needed for spraycrops with pesticides and herbicides.

Just as domestic users of water can make savings by using more efficient equipment and appliances, so too can agricultural users. Just as gardeners can reduce their demand for water by swopping to drought tolerant plants, so too farmers can look to grow less water-greedy crops or drought tolerant varieties. But when it comes to providing drinking water for livestock, the only way to achieve reductions in water consumption would be by reducing stock numbers.  

A pressing issue both in the UK and globally,  is food waste. In the UK WRAP estimates that 3.6 million tonnes or  7.2%, of all food harvested is lost each year. 4% is classified as surplus which is food that would go to waste were it not diverted for use as animal food or other bio-based products. 3.2%  is pure waste, of which horticultural crops make up 54% of the total, cereals 30%, livestock 8% and milk 8%. (https://wrap.org.uk/resources/report/food-waste-primary-production-uk)  Such food waste may arise became the crop is damaged whilst growing in the field (pests and/ or weather), because supply exceeds the market demand, or because the product is the wrong shape/ too large/ too small, or because there is a lack of available labour to harvest the crop. 

On top of this primary level of waste, there are issues with food waste during processing, on the shop floor and in the home. WRAP estimates that a further 9.5 million tonnes of food is wasted of which 70% is wasted in the home. The most frequently thrown away foods are potatoes, bread and milk, whilst in total fresh vegetables and salad makes up 24% of the total.

So far  I have focused on the consumption of water in the UK, but as the WWF Water Footprint report goes on to demonstrate, when we import food and other items we are in essence importing the output of  someone else’s water. There are some products that we cannot – climatically – grow in this country such as cocoa and coffee. There are others, such as strawberries and tomatoes which have a longer growing season when grown elsewhere – say in Spain – than if grown here. However if these products come from areas where there are water shortages, our consumption of the same may be exacerbating that problem. As consumers we need to be conscientious in understanding the environmental costs of what we buy. When we buy Spanish strawberries are we endangering ecosystems in Spain? There has been a number of reports this year about the extraction of water by some strawberry growers that is adversely affecting the wetlands in the Doñana national park. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/08/bitter-fruit-strawberry-boom-water-plan-raises-fears-for-spanish-wetlands?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other and https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/22/uk-supermarkets-urge-andalucia-against-huge-strawberry-farm-expansion?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other)

On balance, whilst we should certainly save water in the home, we can do far more to safeguard water supplies and thus avoid water shortages, by rethinking what and how we eat. Eating less meat and dairy produce. Eating what’s in season, including the small/ large or wonky. Buying and cooking only what we need. 

 Counting on …day209

10th June 2022

According to the WWF, ‘Local communities are key to equitable, sustainable food systems’. They see working with local communities is the best way of developing climate resilient farming practices that enable communities to feed themselves. The charity Practical Action takes a similar approach using on the philosophy of Dr E. F. Schumacher that ‘small is beautiful’. The Fair Trade movement also puts communities at the heart of its work. Supporting groups like these and opting for fair trade products are ways of creating a sustainable world.

Midday Prayer

Friday 7th January 2022

Trust in the Lord and be doing good; dwell in the land and be nourished with truth.
  Let your delight be in the Lord and he will give you your heart’s desire.
Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass. 

Psalm 37:3-5

You Lord are the bread of life;

feed us with your wisdom.

Our meat is to do the Father’s  will.

guide us in all we do

Whenever we eat or drink

Let it be to the glory of God.

Reading 

But he was quite serious. “How many loaves of bread do you have? Take an inventory.”

That didn’t take long. “Five,” they said, “plus two fish.”

 Jesus got them all to sit down in groups of fifty or a hundred—they looked like a patchwork quilt of wildflowers spread out on the green grass! He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples, and the disciples in turn gave it to the people. He did the same with the fish. They all ate their fill. The disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. More than five thousand were at the supper.  Mark 6: 38-44 ( from The Message)

Table Piece

Around the table, smallest to largest, 

youngest to oldest – comfortable and companionable.

Bread, first mixed and kneaded, 

shared together at the table.

Wisdom, debated and pondered,

gathered from around the table. 

Gentle chiding, loving acceptance, laughter –

differences reconciled at the table.

Thanks given, prayers said, hands clasped 

a place of worship at the table.

Kith and kin, friends – all welcome:

a community built around the table.

Prayers

We give thanks O Lord, for the food we have to eat, 

for the opportunities we have to eat together, 

for the times we gather to share and  learn together, 

and for the joy of worshipping at your table. 

We pray Lord, for all who struggle to get food to eat, 

all who lack the companionship of friends and family, 

all who are exploited and all who are fall prey to disinformation, 

and for all who have yet to feel included at you table. 

Stir us Lord, to respond with generosity and determination 

to feed the hungry, 

to transform the inequalities of society, 

to reach out to those starved of love,

and to nourish all with your word.

Amen