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Sustainable animal agriculture – real or unreal?

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Head of Campaigns and Policy, Louise Davies, discusses Michael Gove's proposed changes to farming subsidies post-Brexit and questions whether these changes truly encourage sustainability.

Early January in Oxford city centre seems like an odd setting for not one but two farming conferences. It must be convenient for farmers as the conference rooms at the Oxford Real Farming Conference are heaving. As a newbie to the farming conference circuit, I'm a little confused by the Real and not so real concurrent conferences. The original Oxford Farming Conference, taking place at Oxford University, has been going for decades and apparently debates more traditional farming issues. The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is concerned with sustainable agriculture, but with eco-champions George Monbiot and Phillip Lymbery both appearing at the “non-real" conference I think I can be excused for being a little befuddled.

The main room at ORFC was abuzz with talk of the Secretary of State for the Environment's speech to the delegates down the road. Michael Gove has committed to change our payment system to farmers when we leave the EU, in what has been heralded as a bold and radical move. Instead of being rewarded for simply having land, farmers will be expected to demonstrate that they are providing a “public good” in order to receive subsidies. These public goods, whilst not yet clearly defined, will be principally driven by environmental enhancement.

Of course, how farmers are funded will affect their decision making, so this new announcement could bring about all sorts of new activities from farmers. However, first, they will need to know exactly what counts as a “public good.” This was a topic of debate at ORFC with suggestions including improving biodiversity, soil management, food security, water management, protecting landscape and heritage features, all of which bring clear environmental benefits. It's no surprise that this change in focus is seen as hugely positive by the environmental sector.

However, to me, the idea of animal agriculture as a public good is anathema. Is a “public good” producing food that is considered carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation? Is a “public good” creating more greenhouse gases than the transport sector? Is a “public good” creating and ending lives for unnecessary consumption?

Gove said that there is "no inherent tension between productive farming and care for the natural world". I would question whether contributing at least 14% of our carbon emissions is caring for the natural world. And what about the needless slaughter of millions of animals who are themselves part of the natural world?

If you read Gove's speech closely there is one sentence which could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the need to rethink animal farming. He explains that many entrepreneurs are looking at innovations such as "how to derive more protein from plants than animals".

He spoke a lot about the need to "adapt, evolve and embrace change" and it is our job at The Vegan Society to make the case for a move to vegan farming to be part of that change. We do also need to be pragmatic and get “real” ourselves too. Hearing from the farming community at this conference highlights just how far we have to go, how complex the sector is, and how far on the outskirts the vegan movement is. Naturally, we are disappointed that the new subsidy system will continue to support the meat and dairy industry, but that won't stop us campaigning for our vegan vision which would mean a truly sustainable future for farming.


by Louise Davies, Vegan Society.


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