A debate between academics, especially those working within the same narrow scientific field, tends to have a strong soporific effect on outsiders. Once the experts get going, it soon becomes challenging to keep up with their elaborate points, often extremely detail-oriented and conveyed in a language intentionally studded with terminology that is vaguely familiar, at best.
This October, however, it has been a rather refreshing experience to follow an evolving discussion between two groups of researchers, most of them affiliated with SLU (the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), via the pages of Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish daily. Maybe it is simply the peasant blood in my veins that quickens slightly upon reading those seldom-used Swedish words like ‘trindsäd’ (leguminous plants) and ‘vall’ (pasture). Anyway, I find the articles highly readable. Both sides manage to present relevant arguments for and against meat production and consumption up in the Nordics while keeping a sharp yet civil and respectful tone.
It would be just as inadvisable as judging a book by its cover to dismiss the articles based on their rather populistic-sounding titles, ‘Harmful propaganda against meat and milk’ vs ‘There is no doubt that we must eat less meat’. Well, fellow journalists like to polarise opinions in the noble pursuit of attention. Fortunately for the reader, both camps seem equally and genuinely preoccupied with the complexity and fragility of the agricultural ecosystem and concerned about making it more sustainable.
Meat and dairy lovers might find some consolation in the arguments presented by Professor Agenäs and co. We need pastures that can survive the long Nordic winters and yield plentiful pest-resistant crops year after year while storing carbon in their enormous root systems, point out the researchers. Yet humans are not as good as cows at converting those green meadows into delicious edible proteins like milk and steak. Pigs and chicken, too, are great at taking care of the waste that we inevitably end up producing after extracting all the goodies from plants to brew beer or make ethanol, for instance. Swedish agriculture’s carbon emissions are indeed significant, yet the products it delivers to society capture plenty of carbon equivalents, too, argue the article’s authors. So, quit shaming and blaming our farm animals (and farmers) and urging everyone to switch to eating and drinking legumes in various forms, they write. It’s just not viable.
The opposing camp, Elin Röös and co., have no objections to growing more pastures. However, the crops from those meadows could just as well be used for producing biofuels instead of feeding cows, they argue. And let’s face it, most of the animals and poultry that end up on our plates are not raised on those idyllic grasslands or waste products but imported soybeans. Better agricultural practices should be part of the solution, but ultimately, it looks like we do need to cut down on meat.
Quoting research (that I admit I haven’t yet perused myself), the authors argue that increasing the proportion of Sweden’s arable land used for growing legumes by one per cent only, from today’s meagre two to three per cent, could supply enough beans and peas to replace half of the meat we consume today and decrease our food-related climate footprint by 20%. Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Bring on that chili sin carne!