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Veganism? It's for the birds!


I look out of my window this morning and I can’t see a single bird. It’s the same every morning.


Of course it’s the middle of winter. But somehow the empty garden shocks me more than all the statistics I heard recently on BBC’s wildlife programme ‘Winterwatch’. And the statistics are grim. Billions of common garden birds – sparrows, thrushes, blackbirds, tits, finches, many more – are just not there in large numbers any longer in the UK. Our garden is not unusual. Keeping watch and making a record of what we see makes it clear. This ecological disaster is unfolding outside our back door.


I leave the house and go just round the corner where there’s a small row of shops. There is a queue of people -on Saturdays quite long sometimes - waiting to buy the pieces of dead animal in the window. Apparently, this family butcher sells good quality meat. The former cows, sheep and pigs are very popular around here and reasonably priced.


In the same row of shops a few doors up another queue will form at lunchtime and again this evening - this time it’s for fish and chips. The shop does a very good trade and emits wonderful savoury fumes on a cold winter’s evening. Innocent enough you might think!


Losing birds and eating fish – both local reminders of global trends.


Ah! There goes a pigeon…


This week we hosted a lecture on animals and the environment by David Clough, professor of theology and applied sciences (unusual!) at the University of Aberdeen. We were disturbed to hear the statistics he has amassed as we think about the kind of world we will gift to our grandchildren.


The meat on our tables has so many costs. The emissions from large-scale husbandry of cattle is a major contributor to CO2 emissions and the climate crisis. For the sake of maximizing production and thus profits to politically powerful agribusinesses, animals are kept in very cramped conditions. Not only do they suffer but disease spreads quickly. The antibiotics used to deal with animal disease have an effect which threatens us all. We absorb the anti-biotics either directly through eating meat or through the medications running via urine and watercourses into our river systems. Maybe after Covid there will inevitably be another, different pandemic, no less devastating. And maybe the antibiotics will no longer work.


Then Professor Clough talked about fish farming where several ships work together and scour the sea floor and close in on the shoals of fish discarding thousands. It’s not a fair fight. This week 100,000 dead blue whiting – a discarded and illegal ‘bycatch’ were found floating on the Atlantic coast of France. Large-scale egg production where male chicks are immediately disposed of and female chicks go the same way when they can no longer lay. A third of all cereal crops in this country go to fatten up cattle. It’s a very inefficient way of using our cereal crops. It takes 20 times more water to produce one kilo of beef than to produce the same nutrition from plant-sourced food. And ‘There is no path to net zero while we are doing animal agriculture’, said Clough.


But Professor Clough is not a doom-monger. As global meat consumption continues to grow, he is under no illusion about the size of the task. But he believes that we can reverse distressing trends. Trends in consumption do change. Just look at the meat-free options in your local supermarket. Clough said that the change begins at the check-out, on our dinner plates – and in our voting patterns and pressure on MPs.


None of this will be new to our readers. But messages have to be repeated if they are to be heard. Flexitarianism, vegetarianism, veganism are all really for the birds - for the sake of those birds, now absent. And for all our sakes and for our children and grandchildren. Our well-being is more than ever inter-related.


Ah there goes another pigeon…or is it the same one?


A recording of Professor Clough's lecture including the Q&A can be heard on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page here


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