Counting on… day 318 

24th September 2022

Manure and urine from farm animals is a major source of ammonia: in the UK 87% of ammonia released into the air comes from agriculture. Here ammonia reacts with other compounds in the air to form particulate matter that pollutes the air, irritating lungs and affect people’s breathing.  Ammonia also leads to the creation of smog, and the acidification of water and soil. It is harmful to plants and wildlife as well as humans. 

A particular concern at the moment is the health of the River Wye in Herefordshire. A large number of intensive chicken farms have been established in the Wye valley and the affluent from millions of chickens has created an algal bloom that is destroying the biodiversity of the river. 

This is another good reason for reducing our meat consumption. 

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 52

Positive Tipping Points

Scientists have long predicted tipping points in the climate crisis, vis events that will be triggered by rising temperatures and which will be irreversible even if temperatures fell. EG a temperature increase of 1.5C will cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt. Even if temperatures subsequently fall back that ice sheet cannot be recreated – it was the product of thousands of years of cold temperatures. 

The widespread destruction of the Amazon rain forest is leading to another tipping point where the loss of tree cover, and thus the ability of the ecosystem to absorb water, such that other trees cannot grow.

But there are also positive tipping points. For decades the petrol car has ruled supreme. Roads and service stations have all been developed to facilitate the use of the petrol car. The more ecological option of an electric vehicle has been slow to take off. The initial cost of each vehicle was high as productions numbers were low and scale of economies as yet untapped. Recharging points were limited in number and far apart as low numbers of vehicle discouraged investment. All these factors deterred would-be consumers, and expansion was therefore slow. However in recent years, rising demand has boosted the impact of change. Soon a tipping point will be reached where the number of electric cars produced and used in the UK will exceed those reliant on fossil fuels. The number of charging points will exceed petrol pumps. Petrol stations and the huge carbon footprint of vehicular transport will become a thing of the past. 

At present domestic heating is another big contributor to our national carbon footprint. The use of heat pumps and solar panels,  and the equipping of houses with double glazing and insulation, will be the norm, with the economies of scale and the increasing number of qualified technicians ensuring the affordability of these options. There will also be the swing in social norms that means that everyone will expect such technologies and the alternatives of  gas and oil fired boilers will be seen as antediluvian.

Whilst the number of people who follow a vegan diet has increased significantly, absolute numbers are still low as a proportion of the total population. So whilst the availability of plant based milks in cafés is widespread, there is not yet a comparable selection of vegan cakes and sandwiches. Whilst  in restaurants there may be the option of a vegan burger and possibly risotto, we are still waiting for the time when the dishes at the top of the menu are vegan and meat based items are the minority fare at the bottom of the menu. But when that tipping point is reached and the vegan diet is the norm, the carbon footprint for our food will be reduced by more than a third.

In the past we have seen positive social tipping points past. We have moved from a society in which wearing seat belts in cars went from being the exception to the norm. We have moved from viewing a last drink for the road as acceptable, to one that deplores drink driving and where taking a taxi after an alcoholic evening is the norm.  We have seen the change in expectation of maybe one holiday a year, typically in the UK, to two or three holidays a year with at least one involving taking a flight to hotter climes. 

In Sweden ‘flygskam’- flight-shame – has led to a fall in the number of people taking domestic flights and an increase in those travelling by train. Here in the UK Flight Free aims to persuade people to give up flying, not through shaming them, but through providing people with both illustrative information that shows the damage and pollution air travel causes, and testimonies from people who have made the Flight Free pledge. 

In the Netherlands 43% of people cycle everyday compared with 4% in the UK. Whilst a government survey found having off-road and segregated cycle paths (55%), safer roads (53%), and well-maintained road surfaces for cycling (49%) were most likely to encourage people to cycle more, there has not been sufficient investment to significantly improve the cycling infrastructure. In terms of tipping points, the more cyclists there are on a route, the more confident other cyclist feel about joining them. And the greater the likelihood of more investment!

We can all be part of the tipping process. If we make the beneficial changes the climate needs and talk about them with friends and family, at church, in the work place, at the gym and in the café or bar, the desire for change will grow in momentum and change will happen.

 Counting on … day 307

13th September 2022

Whilst harvest is often celebrated in September, harvesting is ongoing throughout summer and autumn. To provide for the winter months, fruits and vegetables as they are harvested, can be preserved as jams, chutneys and pickles or they can be bottled. All these methods of preservation don’t need a freezer or fridge. Follow this link for chutney-making and other  preserves https://greentau.org/tag/chutney/

With a glut of apples, this can also be a good time to make mincemeat ready for Christmas. Find a recipe here – https://greentau.org/2021/09/09/count-down-47/

Counting on … day 304 

9th September 2022

A resolution that is both environmentally kind and healthy, is to reduce the amount of meat and dairy products in your diet, replacing them with plant based foods instead – opt for those that are in season and locally grown. 

See these Eco Tips for switching to a vegan diet https://greentau.org/2021/10/12/eco-tips-11/

Or for a whole range of articles on vegan eating and recipes see https://greentau.org/tag/vegan/

Counting on … day 289

25th August 2022

Another recycled Counting Down action : Go out for a vegan picnic. Sandwiches are the basis of a picnic and most bread is vegan. Vegan options for spreads include plant based butter/ pesto/ mayonnaise/ tapenade/mustard. Add fillings such as vegan cheese (nut-based cheeses are good for protein), hummus, mushroom pate. Add slices of  vegetable such as red pepper, radishes, grilled aubergine or courgette, nasturtium leaves, cress or rocket or add chutney/relish.  Or try a banana hot dog roll? Pack sandwiches in greaseproof paper or fabric wraps. Pack fruit and pieces of vegetables that can be eaten with fingers and again see if you can avoid plastic packaging. Fill flasks with either hot or cold drinks. Pack some vegan cakes – rock buns, muffins etc – or a bar of chocolate to finish.

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 …day 266 

4th August 2022

It is surprising that more cafes don’t serve vegan food. Many cakes and biscuits can as easily be made with margerine as with butter and would instantly become vegan – flapjack and Anzac biscuits for example.  And egg is an easily replaces ingredient in brownies and tray bakes. It maybe the perception that people might avoid foods labelled vegan but research shows that the more vegan options available, the more people will choose vegan items! So make a point of asking for vegan food when in cafés and restaurants and ease the change: we will all benefit!

Counting on …day 265

3rd August 2022

Rather than expecting farmers both here and globally to produce an ever growing amount of animal based food – which is adding to the crises of both the climate and biodiversity – we would all benefit far more from adopting a largely plant-based diet. 

Courgette, Dill and Almond Soup (serves 4)

Chop and gently fry 1 onion and a clove of garlic in some oil. Cover pan so it doesn’t burn.

Chop into chunks 500g (thereabouts) of courgette and add to the pan. Stir well. Add more oil if  necessary.

Add a teaspoon of dried dill or a handful of fresh dill, and a little black pepper.

Add 100g almonds. Stir well.

Cook for a few minutes so that everything is beginning to soften and cover with water. 

Cook for 10-15 minutes.

Blitz with a hand blender till smooth.

Stir in half a carton of vegan cream (about 100ml)

Either serve hot, or cool before chilling, to serve cold..