Should we all turn vegan?

By Colin Tudge


Perhaps in a perfect world we should all be vegan. But this isn’t a perfect world, and a low-meat diet served by agroecological farming is probably the best we should aim for.

Rumour has it that Oxford City Council, following the County Council’s lead of 2 years ago, has banned meat from all its catering. Jeremy Clarkson, who has 1,000 acres at Chipping Norton and has mysteriously emerged as the farmers’ champion, condemned the county’s decision as “Utter, utter, madness”. But, as sometimes seems to be the case, it seems the rumour is wrong. The 2 councils have merely banned meat from their internal events. They will not serve meat to their own councillors and clerks, but guests need have no fears.

So that’s that. Oxford politics aside, however, it’s abundantly obvious that vegetarianism in its various forms is catching on and in some circles is de rigueur. Individuals may choose to follow the veggie path and do very well on it but is this what’s best for all humankind and for the world at large? Is all-out vegetarianism or veganism wise?

Well, in practice, the arguments for a meat-free or totally animal-free diet are of 4 main kinds: nutritional, ecological, economic, and moral. So how do they stand up?


Vegans argue that diets rich in animal fare are unhealthy. The body does not need masses of animal protein and some people don’t handle it well, and animal fat tends to be highly saturated which causes blood cholesterol to rise, which furs up the arteries (atheroma) and leads to coronary heart disease and heart attack. Fat intake should be modest, the lore has it, and the fat we do eat should be polyunsaturated, which mainly means plant and fish oils. Red meat – particularly beef, with its tasty “marbling” – is supposed to be the worst. White chicken (breast) meat is not so bad. The energetic American nutritionist Ancel Keys (1904-2004) promoted these ideas between the 1950s and the 1980s with a stack of persuasive evidence including the “Seven Countries Study” showing for example that societies that consumed a lot of saturated fat, like the Americans and Finns, suffered far more heart attacks than people who ate little or none at all, like some traditional Japanese and southern Italians. This among much else prompted Unilever to develop and promote Flora margarine, made from sunflower oil.

Others meanwhile, especially the Indian nutritionist P V Sukhatme (1911-1997), pointed out that human beings don’t need a great deal of protein, as was then generally supposed and widely taught, and in fact we could easily get all we need from plants. In particular, cereals and pulses complement each other beautifully. Any amino acid that may be deficient in either one is compensated by surplus in the other. And, of course, the cereal-pulse theme runs through all cuisines, from dhal and chapatis, to tortillas with frijoles, to beans on toast. So it seemed we have no real need for meat and that too much of it, especially juicy steaks, are life-shortening.

Yet others, however, pointed out that meat isn’t just a source of protein and fat. Among other things it’s a prime source of calcium and zinc, which can be hard to obtain in adequate amounts from an all-plant diet. See my recent blog on the absolute importance of cryptonutrients. These are hypothetical, organic molecules that act somewhere between vitamins and tonics – not quite essential for life as vitamins are, but nonetheless beneficial. Plant sterols are an example: molecules similar to cholesterol, found in plants, which are said to lower blood cholesterol, and already are promoted as food supplements. I suggest, though, on evolutionary grounds, that there could be many more such agents out there – even thousands – lurking in all kinds of foods (plant, animal, fungal, and perhaps especially in all fermentations) waiting to be investigated.

It turned out, too, that Ancel Keys’ stats weren’t as clear-cut as he suggested. Some societies on high-beef diets suffer very few heart attacks. Of course, vast intakes of anything are unwise, but what really matters, it now seems, is what the animals are fed on. The fat of 100 per cent pasture-fed cattle apparently is significantly more unsaturated than the fat of those fed on concentrate and raced to the abattoir. In any case, for people in extreme environments (high mountains, high latitudes, semi-deserts) it can be very hard if not impossible to live well without meat. Even I could be a vegan in Kerala with its year-round cornucopia of coconuts, rice, miscellaneous pulses, fruits, green vegetables, and spices. Overall though, it is very hard to improve on the idea that all we really need is “plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety” (close to what Prof Tim Spector advocates in his latest best-seller, Food for Life).

The fat of 100% pasture-fed cattle contains significantly less saturated fat than that of intensively farmed beef


Vegans argue too that we should all eat an all-plant diet because the planet is all too obviously finite and livestock farming is too profligate. Commonly, we are told, we can produce 10 or 20 times more protein per unit area by growing wheat than by dairy, or by raising cattle or sheep. Again the stats are far from straightforward (as Simon Fairlie in particular has pointed out not least in Meat: A Benign Extravagance, in 2010). Ruminants can be raised in places where arable farmers and horticulturalists would fear to tread (too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet) while chickens and pigs can be raised on surpluses and leftovers. Since we don’t need much meat, that’s enough. Of course it makes no sense at all to grow high-grade cereals and pulses in vast quantities just to feed to livestock, as is now the norm. At least, it makes no sense nutritionally or ecologically.

On the other hand, I suggest, there are no (or very few) systems of arable farming or horticulture that would not benefit from a judicious relationship with livestock, if only to supply manure. It’s not just a matter of nitrogen. Manure-fed crops ought to contain more cryptonutrients than those raised on artificials, and this may well justify the organic farmers’ claim that their crops are nutritionally superior to the industrial kind. (This is speculation, but the idea is surely worth looking at).


The economic case for veganism ought to be open and shut. Of course it could and should be far cheaper to get your calories and protein from cereals, pulses, and tubers. In practice, as always, life is not quite so simple. If we want to eat well – good cooking as well as basic nutrition – then we need high-class crops, which are not cheap, and should not be. But some cuts of meat from what are considered to be the less desirable part of the animal are often the most nutritionally beneficial and also the tastiest – and for people who know how to cook, a little goes a long way. As the Rothamsted scientist N W Pirie pointed out in the 1960s (and I have been quoting him ever since), all the greatest cuisines on an axis from Italy to China use meat sparingly.

More broadly: if we are serious about the future of humanity and of the natural world then we need to gear everything we do to ecological and social reality – and this applies crucially to the economy. The goal should not be simply to achieve material increase, but to seek to make the world a better place: kinder, more secure, more diverse. E F Schumacher spelled this out in Small is Beautiful in 1972. Wildlife-friendly and people-friendly agriculture is key. It is not beyond the wit of humanity to devise a more ecologically and socially friendly economy (there are plenty of good ideas out there) but, it seems, no major political party anywhere dares to say so, or to do the necessary re-thinking. So we have agriculture that contrives to maximise profit (for a few) by growing vast quantities of cereal and pulse with lashings of fertiliser and pesticide so as to maximise the output of livestock that nobody really needs, with tremendous collateral damage, not least to the climate, all supported by big business and by governments like ours that put their faith in big business, and countered by an increasingly influential vegan movement that seeks to eliminate livestock altogether. It’s all very colourful and lucrative (for some) but it is not sensible.

Small is beautiful: we need to devise a more ecologically and socially friendly economy


The moral objections to livestock farming are the hardest to answer. To be sure, some moral points seem obvious enough. It is often pointed out that livestock farming can be harsh to the point of cruelty – although a great many people don’t really care about this, and some take comfort in the thought that animals are just flesh and blood eating machines that don’t care either. Some industrial farmers also point out that life in the wild is hard, too – and so, for example, battery chickens were first introduced in the 1950s partly to save the birds from predators and the weather. But most people, including most farmers, at least in the west, agree these days that mammals and birds at least are sentient and even intelligent creatures that can and do suffer both physically and psychologically when they are badly treated, and are prevented from doing the things they are naturally inclined to do. Intensively-reared sows, for example, cannot make nests for their young as they would in the wild. The immediate answer to the obvious charge of cruelty is simply to provide the animals with the kind of food they are adapted to and enable them as far as possible to follow their behavioural instincts.

Cow eating tree leaves
Given the choice, cows naturally browse on trees in an agroforestry system. Photo: Nikki Yoxall

But by what right do we presume to breed and confine other sentient beings simply for our own benefit? The question becomes more cogent since it’s now clear that unless people are living in extreme conditions (like north of the Arctic Circle) then they don’t really need to eat meat at all. On ecological as well as on moral grounds we surely should be seeking to live in harmony with other species. The key concept here is that of oneness, as emphasised in Eastern religions (Hinduism and its variants; Buddhism; Daoism; Shintoism); and in many indigenous religions. By contrast, the Abrahamic religions at best urge us to behave as stewards, and not simply as plunderers. But stewards do not regard the creatures they aspire to look after as equals. To raise animals entirely for our own predilection and profit, and to control all aspects of their lives, is not compatible with the idea that other creatures have rights too.

Yet the various Eastern religions also supply a get-out clause: that although we have a right and even a duty to try to live the best lives we can, and to achieve fulfilment, that we should strive nonetheless to do least harm. And, it seems, agroecological farming that incorporates at least some livestock should in general produce more good food per unit area and be more wildlife-friendly than all-plant farming, and so should leave less of a footprint.

In short: we don’t really need to be vegetarian or vegan. The best course is to farm agroecologically and emulate the great cuisines, and this, more or less, is what the Oxford councils want to see. As Liz Leffman, leader of the County Council said way back in 2021, “Having plant-based only food at council events will not stop me or any other Cabinet member enjoying sausages and bacon at breakfast or chicken or beef for dinner. It simply sends out the message that more balance in our diet in favour of fruit and vegetables does not need to be at the expense of taste.” Indeed.

This is an extract from an article previously published at