Thursday 8th December 2022
Our resident writer Lizzie Rivera interviewed author Jayne Buxton whose latest book, The Great Plant-Based Con, leaves little question where she sits.
Buxton felt compelled to enter the debate having become acutely aware that many of the facts being used to support plant-based advocacy stood in contrast to the facts as she understood them. The tipping point was watching the influential documentary, The Gamechangers, which strongly advocates for a plant-based diet. She felt the film was full of misinformation and spends a huge chunk of her book debunking the type of research and studies that were used.
Inevitably, a vegan advocate could do the same when examining Buxton’s book and the studies and reports she uses to defend her arguments for a diet that includes meat and dairy – farmed regeneratively, of course. And so the cycle continues.
So, how do we know who to trust? And is there a way to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us?
We sat down over an organic milky coffee with Buxton, to discuss how we got to where we are and where we go from here…
What would you like to see more of in the debate?
For a start, I would like to see people using numbers and facts in a more honest way. The reason the book is so long is because there are so many facts to counter, whether it be about nutrition or land use or emissions. I want readers to open to the fact that perhaps there’s more nuance in this debate. I do feel this book has helped to give those in the confused middle the confidence to ask more questions. If it’s done anything valuable, it’s been that.
There is a lot of conflicting information. How do we break out of this cycle?
Unfortunately, there is the need for each individual to be sceptical, check the data and ask questions. Everybody’s data must be open to scrutiny to uphold standards of integrity.
When it comes to the environment and ecosystem health, I also think we need to go back to some very basic facts and root ourselves in reality by looking at what’s really happening on the ground, as observed by farmers working on farms day-to-day. We can get carried away with looking at complex models, which are based on a large number of debatable assumptions. There is a divide between the ‘modellers’ and the ‘experiencers’, and I think we need to start to bridge that divide and pay more attention to the experiencers.
The experiencers are saying that cows are not the climate villains they’ve been made out to be. What’s your view on this?
There are some facts that stop you in your tracks. The other day, I was reminded of this one: in 1950 there were some 10.6 million cattle in the UK, and four million cars. In 2018 there were 9.8 million cattle and more than 32 million cars. Looking at these numbers it’s difficult to believe that cows are the key factor driving the growth in emissions.
Professor Myles Allen, from the University of Oxford is really leading the way in trying to help us understand that cattle are not the primary drivers of climate emissions. He’s gone on record to say that eliminating methane from cattle would have a small effect on global warming in the immediate decade. But, if we don’t eliminate the warming from carbon-dioxide from fossil fuels, everything else is pretty much irrelevant.
Why is this?
The emissions cows produce are part of a natural cycle, they produce methane and they help to sequester carbon [draw it back into the soil]. Fossil fuels, however, are linear – C02 is dragged out of the ground and pumped into the air. A factory never sequestered anything, right? So, we need to keep perspective.
My perspective is that cattle and livestock are not as bad for the environment as we’ve been led to believe. But, they’re also not as good as they have the potential to be. So, if we want to really capitalise on the potential of cattle to sequester carbon we need to raise them in a truly regenerative fashion where they’re doing the best for the land, not the worst. In a way where all of their actions – whether it be trampling, eating, pooping, urinating – are building the health of the soil in the land and enabling it to draw down carbon.
If cows aren’t as bad for the environment as we think then should our efforts be focused on capitalising on their potential? Or should our efforts be on reducing our reliance on fossil fuels?
I’m going to say yes and yes. I think the core of our efforts need to be focused on what drives the majority of emissions – on industrialisation and consumerism. You can eat a 4oz British steak three times a week for a year and your emissions would be 1/10th of those from a transatlantic flight. So, of course, we should be focusing elsewhere. But we should also focus on cattle in terms of their potential to actually help with global warming. Greenhouse Gases are not the only issue here – managing cows in this way is also a win for biodiversity and for land to be protected and restored.
So, out of everything that could have been chosen to be the culprit, why the cow?
I’ve been fathoming this for such a long time. I think it’s several factors. One is the animal welfare movement being so strong and once they got a glimmer of research that was on their side, boy, they’ve played that for everything it’s worth. The argument of an animal welfare activist who also cares about the environment and health is seemingly indomitable.
There is also the influence of corporations in the food industry, who have spotted an enormous profit-making opportunity in the vegan processed food market and have ramped up marketing activities that promote plant-based messaging. The media also has huge influence, pumping out headline-after-headline favouring the plant-based cause while failing to interrogate the studies on which they’re reporting, which invariably fail to provide robust evidence in favour of plants-only diets.
Now, why are people listening to this message? I think, partly, because reducing or giving up meat is the easy option. The easiest route is to say: ‘I’ll give up meat because I have to do something. But, I’ll keep flying. I’ll keep driving. I will keep living my life.’
Finally, you speak a lot about nutrition in your book. How do people navigate this?
Nutrition is an evolving field underpinned by an imperfect research process. That process needs to be less dependent on funding from individual companies. In the meantime, eating a good variety of real, whole foods and understanding where and how they are grown, and minimising intake of ultra-processed food, will get people a long way in terms of eating for their own and the planet’s health.
I think instinctively people know that ingesting food from nutrient rich soil rather than the bi-products of artificial fertilisers and chemicals must be better for you.
We must reframe the debate so that it’s not about plants versus animal foods or veganism versus omnivores, and more about how we ensure that we are eating a nutrient rich diet full of real foods, and producing those foods in a way that restores soil and enhances environmental health.