Hyper Normal Cows

hyper normal cows

This picture is from the 19th century. At the time there was a trend to breed larger livestock and over-feed them, as the chap is doing in the picture, to produce excessively large cows. It has been suggested that this was for little more than as a status symbol, the bigger your cow the higher your status as a farmer. However they were not normal cows, they were not healthy cows and would have had obscenely high levels of fat.

One of the big televisual events of this week was the airing of George Monbiot’s “Apocalypse Cow” a documentary to raise awareness of the lack of sustainability of rearing cows for food, looking specifically at Britain. My social media has erupted yet again with farmers upset at seeming to be targeted as the bad guys. This perception is bolstered by aggression directed towards the farming community by those demanding sustainability, largely extremist vegans. In reality, this is a false perception, so it was disappointing that Mr Monbiot failed to ensure this was not the ‘take home message’ of the programme. I think it’s all to do with hypernormalisation.

As a man, I shave my face. When I started shaving I experimented with various methodologies and concluded that what worked best for me was wet shaving using a traditional brush and a soap block. However, over the years getting hold of reasonable quality block soap for shaving on the high street has become ever harder. Harder because most people who wet shave purchase cans to produce their shaving foam. This is surely an inferior way to shave for several reasons:

1/ the quality of the foam isn’t as good. 2/ It’s environmentally damaging as a single block of soap will last longer then several cans 3/ the cans are much more expensive.

It seems that most men are not making the optimal choice, particularly financially. This may because of marketing. I have never seen an advert for block shaving soap, but I have seen countless adverts for cans of shaving foam on the telly and in magazines as the only way to be a “Real Man”. The reason for that is likely because the soap makers  and the retailers make more money from selling multiple quantities of the more expensive cans. Use of cans is now regarded as the normal way to shave. The whole process of how society shifted to an inferior product is an example of hypernormalisation, normalisation of something that rationally is abnormal. Everyone kind of knows that this situation is bad, yet continue to buys cans of shaving foam. It is also partly this desire to conform, to not be the oddball who buys block soap like their ‘old-fashioned’ grandfathers did.

The conspiracy theorist in me has a theory about this. In most supermarkets, you are lucky if there is one shaving block soap. If there is only one it is usually Wilkinson Sword shaving soap, this has to be the worst shaving soap ever produced; it is very difficult to get a decent lather with it. Every other block soap brand produces a good lather.  Anyone who experiments with block shaving soap is likely to trial it with Wilkinson Sword soap, so they conclude that it’s a poor way to shave and go back to the cans. It is entirely possible that Wilkinson Sword simply produce poor soap to encourage people to buy canned foam to boost their profits. This is perhaps the inherent weakness of modern capitalism.

This hypernormalisation also happens with cows. Society has become accustomed to generally buying cheap, intensively produced meat through this process of hyper-normalisation. As household food budgets are squeezed, the idea of spending more to get sustainable local produce seems crazy, let alone the hassle of queuing at the butchers on a Saturday morning. There is the idea that it is only oddballs that obsess about only buying sustainable meat, have become vegans, or indeed do really mad stuff like learn to speak Welsh as an adult.

These conventions of habit and hypernormalised thinking need to change if humanity has any hope of averting the looming climate crisis. There was a very poignant example of this in Apocalypse Cow.

One segment of the programme involved Mr Monbiot visiting a pasture based cattle farm. Mr Monbiot was accusing the farmer of not being sustainable. The farmer was visibly upset by this accusation as hers was a traditional, extensive, pasture -based farm and she was carrying on the long proud tradition of cattle farming on that farm, how was she not one of the good guys? Mr Monbiot then delved further about the feed supplements that she used, which contained unsustainable palm oil. To feed her traditional cows she was playing a part in the destruction of primary forest to release land for production of palm oil. Hence, her farm was not as sustainable as she thought. She had believed that her farm was sustainable through hypernormalisation. Both the farmer, the shaver and everyone else are victims of hypernormalisation leading to unsustainable situations like the world is in now. Everyone else buys these sacks of animal feed, it is normalised.

These myths are so easily entrenched, most of us exist in these self-confirmatory social bubbles, telling us that we are the good guys and the baddies are elsewhere. The uncomfortable truth is that we are kind of all the bad guys when it comes to the environment, our intentions are good, but we have been misled through hypernormalisation. The vast majority of farms in Wales fail to achieve sustainability, even the hill farms I grew up around.

I’m currently reading John Davies’ ‘History of Wales and here are some quotations from the book:

“Welsh rural communities experienced greater changes in the thirty years following the Second World War than they had in the previous three hundred years. The key change was mechanisation… Between 1950 and 1970 the number of sheep in Wales increased from 3.8 million to 6 million, cows from 369,000 to 528,000 and a decrease in hectares under grain by 45%”

That is a substantial change. If we imagine the  practises of my grandfathers’ farms compared to them now the differences are substantial, but aren’t at first glance. I think it is reasonable to suggest that those farms were sustainable; they grew fruit, vegetables and grain for human consumption and as winter supplements for their herds, didn’t use pesticides and fertilisers as has now become normalised and probably had greater areas of the farm as nature refuges, such a trees and hedgerows, where the soils had time to recover from grazing, to get the nutrients back into the grasses. Those processes are likely now reduced due to modern practises, they may have passed a tipping point on many farms.

It can be understood that through these changes we have made Welsh farming unsustainable. We are losing biodiversity and the ecosystem services provided to keep the soils, plants and animals healthy and full of quality nutrients at a rapid rate. Where Wales is fortunate is that to develop sustainable agriculture should not involve major changes to our farms. Welsh farms can be sustainable with relatively minor changes to practises compared to much of world agriculture. We do kind of need to return to the ‘Child’s First Farm Book” with a pictures of cows and sheep, a couple of pig sties and chickens pecking around the farm yard, surrounded by abundant wild birds, because it it is mixed farms that are the most sustainable and productive.

My other criticism of Apocalypse cow was the suggestion that all of the UK under pasture can be rewilded and we can eat instead food from bacteria grown in vats. The problem with academics or ideas people is they ask the “What if?” questions. Attempting to answer those questions leads to some big useful numbers, so we can predict how much carbon is stored in the remaining parts of the Amazon rainforest. However this scientific, big picture thinking doesn’t break through very well to the general public, it doesn’t relate to our understood reality or the farm next door.

We may indeed as a species need to grow food in vats to get us through this environmental crisis. However we are still going to need some fresh fruit and veg and the most sustainable way of doing that is to also rear some animals on the land to facilitate nutrient cycles. It is often said we need to ‘Think global, act local” however this message makes it look here as though farming itself is to blame, rather than the broken system of capitalism at work that is responsible for all this hypernormalisation of unsustainable practises.

We are all the bad guys. We all know it’s wrong to buy so much plastic, so much food from the other side of the world and many of us non-farmers in the developed world drive to work. we kind of know this commuting is wrong, but we have to do it to have a job, we have little choice, so we can buy food to put on out tables and only have time to visit supermarkets in the evenings when the butchers is closed. Farmers are no more to blame than the rest of us, so we should not pick on farmers as being the bad guys here.

The real bad guys I suppose are the beneficiaries of our broken system of capitalism, the fat cats of big ag’, multi-national corporations and corrupt governments run by people far removed from the land and the everyday life for regular people. The people who allowed it to be decided that promoting cans of shaving foam, sourcing animal feed from primary forests was an okay idea and not tackling the housing crisis forcing so many of us to not live where we work.

So, how do we resolve all these problems? They are big and complicated and they are powerful vested interests in not changing them. I believe that what we need to do is work together, gather data, share ideas and best practise, and support those making an effort. What will hinder us is the divide and rule of the rich and powerful, who will set Farmer against Vegan , Brexitier against Remainer, Town against Countryside, Welsh against the English. If we can get beyond that and work together we can have a better quality, more sustainable quality of life, with wonderful productive farms with the highest animal welfare standards so that even those who believe it is morally wrong to rear animals for meat can accept those farms providing a service for those that don’t believe so.

We have to get beyond this black and white, good guys and bad guys, the reality is always more complicated.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys

On a personal note, I think the best way to achieve this is stronger democracy and more local government by people who live in and understand our communities, from the bottom-up  rather than the top down. That is why I support Welsh independence.

 

 

 

Happy Veganuary/ Regenuary !

I’ve seen some slanging matches going on on Social Media, with Vegans and Livestock farmers spitting acid at each other. It’s so wrong and unnecessary, it really isn’t a black and white issue and in fact diverts energy from finding sustainable solutions. This whole argument of ‘you’re not perfect so why should I change my ways’ thing. None of us are perfect, but we desperately need to tackle climate change and that includes developing sustainable agriculture.

We should all be celebrating Veganuary, so Happy Veganuary folks. There are two main reasons. Firstly that vegans are doing a lot to help make living on this planet more sustainable  and for those thinking about transitioning to a vegan diet a month to try it and for support to be available is great. Secondly,  the vast majority of meat eaters, like 99.9% of people should substantially reduce their meat consumption. To do that people need to learn how to make vegan meals and that isn’t easy. Yes, we also need to cut out flying and using cars so much, but we all have to eat.

If, like me, you grew up in a traditional “meat and two veg'” home it is quite a transition. Most of my meals when growing up where meat based, so removing this central feature of meals is a challenge, it’s about finding combinations of tastes and textures to produce enjoyable vegan meals. From there comes a need to ensure a balanced diet and that involves quite a bit of knowledge about nutrition, that most people don’t have to start with. It takes a lot of effort.

Beyond that there is the social elements, where people disrespect your dietary choice and the fact that eating out with friends is always a pain in the arse, though it is a lot easier these days. People should not be attacking vegans for being pioneers in food sustainability as vegans do a lot more ethical shopping than most people do, even if occasionally the world isn’t perfect and they need to import soya beans from some rather unsustainable sources.

On the other hand, there are some from a more extremist angle who are activists who protest at farms and hassle farmers, but they are a minority and actually are symptoms of the main problem. The main problem being that since probably the Second World War, there has been a growing disconnect between food producers and consumers. Agriculture rapidly industrialised, without social consent for some of the developed practices  and we now live in world where the majority of people buy almost all their food pre-packaged in the supermarket, often with little idea about how that food got to be there.

Yet, these farm-gate protesters are also at fault. Farmers are not to blame for this whole mess. Most farmers care about the land they farm and want to farm in as sustainable way as possible. However they need to earn a living and to do that they have to do whatever the broken food market tells them to do, which has been to intensify, despite all the environmental damage that causes. Farmers, Vegans and the rest of us shouldn’t be fighting each other but instead work together to sort out the broken food market and support anyone who is taking things forward in a positive direction.

Recently, finally, at long last, we are starting to see some promotion of sustainable meat production. The problem is sustainable meat production has been neglected for so long and is so far behind the vegan movement, which has it’s own labelling systems, supply chains and support groups, which sustainable meat lacks.

I grew up in rural Wales, surrounded by upland sheep farms and yet became vegetarian at the age of 15, not because I thought the farmers who were my classmates were terrible people, they are certainly not. It was my discovery of factory farming and a realisation that this was simply wrong in animal welfare terms and sustainability and finding a way of only eating local sustainable meat seemed far to challenging to me at 15, so I went Veggie. I’ve never been vegan for more than a few days at a time (I just have a serious blue cheese fetish), but about fifteen years ago I decided to eat meat again, as I felt educated enough to make informed decisions about sustainable, ethical meat sourcing and it’s been incredibly hard work. I should point out that I’ve never thought that rearing animals for food is morally wrong, though I respect people who have that view. It may be that a lot of people are tempted to veganism because of concerns about animal welfare, health or sustainability and there is a sensible compromise to consider for these people who don’;t have the moral imperative to go 100% vegan, but it needs better support.

Yet with no ready made framework, no labelling system and no-where to go to for support. Purely to make my life easier, my initial rule was organic meat only as it was and regrettably still is the only reliable labelling system for ethical meat consumption. It means meat is very expensive, so you can’t eat much of it and really the price makes it a genuine sustainable market, rather than the generally broken food market.

From there I worked out when I could eat locally produced reasonably sustainable lamb and beef from butchers and very very occasionally get hold of a chicken. Why is eating sustainable meat important? Because if we want to maximise sustainability and look after the soil, which is degrading horribly in almost all agricultural systems, some livestock farming is sustainable and supports soil sustainability and low consumption of meat may actually be healthier. Recently there has been a growing awareness of how bad processed food is for us, yet fresh meat doesn’t seem to have such issues with it from a health point of view.

We are blessed in Wales with land that isn’t great for arable farming, but is great for ruminants, cows and sheep and to move to a fully sustainable system I don’t think there is a necessity for a single farmer to stop lamb or beef production or for such radical change that is needed elsewhere on the planet. However flocks may need to be a little smaller and the land managed in new ways (or a rediscovery of old ways). The food market is broken in much the same way the housing market is, we need to pay more for our food and less for our housing and in that way create a real food market and a real housing market, which maintains farming traditions, rural incomes and gets Wales to be sustainable.

It is crazy for people who eat meat every day to complain about vegans as that diet choice of everyday meat (and often processed meat at that) is far less sustainable. As I’ve said to get to sustainability, as a species we need to eat a lot more local, seasonal, sustainably produced food. Some have suggested having “Reganuary”, where sustainable regenerative agricultural practises are supported. Why not combine the two, start making vegan meals and then reward yourself with some local sustainably produced meat, that will actually taste a lot better and have more nutrients in it!

It’s just been so challenging over the years to be ‘holding the fence up’ with one wellie in a muddy field and a sandal in a vegan shop. I get so frustrated with vegans and farmers attacking each other when we need come together and share ideas to find solutions to create sustainable communities and ways of living that don’t wreck the one planet we live on.

Like so many arguments these days, we only hear from the people at the extremes, the livestock farmers and the rearing animals is wrong vegans, whilst the majority of people with no axe to grind struggle to get listened to ast all. This happens with the Brexit debate too.