interviews opinion pieces veganism

Farmers, Vegans, Unite! Working together for the planet

Maude Agombar talks to a third-generation farmer from Cardiff and a representative of the Vegan Society from Birmingham to explore the relationship between veganism and farming

The BBC recently released the docu-series Veganville where vegan activists spent three weeks in a rural Welsh community, Merthyr Tydfil, attempting to educate the residents about veganism. The series had mixed reviews but came under fire from the NFU and highlighted the negative discourse between the two communities. Abi Reader, dairy farmer and chair of the NFU Cymru Milk Board and Matt Turner, PR and Media Officer for The Vegan Society talk about the link between vegans and farmers.

Do you know any vegans?

AR: I have two friends who are vegan and a couple of veterinary students that completed work experience on my farm were vegan. They don’t eat meat, dairy or eggs. Those taking a stricter line will also stay away from certain clothing and fabrics, beeswax, honey and other various products that have animals in them. Basically, different people have a different level of tolerance.

Do you know any farmers?

MT: My Grandad is a (recently retired) farmer! Although I don’t think he’ll be adopting a vegan diet soon, we can have a sensible and mature discussion about its merits. I also live in quite a rural area. I have engaged with farmers on some of the issues they face in the community such as hare coursing or fly-tipping. We want to have an open dialogue with the agricultural industry. The most common misconception about veganism is the notion that we are ‘angry’ or ‘militant’. Instead of shouting farmers down, I’d much rather have a sensible discussion with them about transitioning to a more sustainable and compassionate farming system. Animal farmers are in their industry because there’s demand for their products, so we focus on decreasing that demand rather than blaming farmers for what happens.

NFU Cymru has recently criticised the BBC docu-series Veganville for its “unbalanced and disproportionate” reporting at the expense of mainstream food production. What are your thoughts?

AR: NFU Cymru raised its concerns about the filming process ahead of the programme’s broadcast with both the BBC and the producers of the programme. I featured in the programme, inviting one of the vegan programme participants, Dan, onto my farm. I found it extremely rewarding that when he left my farm he said on camera that being on my farm had changed his perception of farming and that it was nothing like the things he had seen on the internet, which goes to show that people shouldn’t believe some of the misleading information they see. I have to say that I don’t think the programme resonated particularly well with its intended audience. A lot of the comments from residents of Merthyr Tydfil featured in the programme, Twitter users and people I’ve spoken to indicates that the message from the Veganville vegans was too forceful and it hasn’t made much difference to people’s attitudes.

MT: I don’t think the docu-series was ‘unbalanced and disproportionate’, it was an interesting watch that highlights some of the positive arguments for veganism as well as some of the barriers that we face as a movement. Claims of ‘bias’ can sometimes be a defence mechanism, but the last thing we want is for farmers to feel threatened by the abundance of documentaries on veganism. We are always happy to open dialogue with farmers about transitioning to a more compassionate form of agriculture and what support they need to make that happen.

What impact is the emergence of veganism and plant-based eating having?

AR: At a farm level very little has changed, meat and dairy is still found to be in 98% of households in England and Wales according to the latest independent survey by Kantar. There are stories coming into mainstream media that focus on plant-based diets, usually at the detriment of meat and dairy. This is very frustrating when the main food staple we produce on British shores is grass – due to climate and soil type – so our ability to grow food for a vegan diet is extremely limited. The climate and conditions mean we would largely be limited to growing grains and pulses and these would be quite poor quality on most ground. As a business I see no significant increase in demand, and therefore price of this food, to make it an attractive business venture to attempt to overcome climate challenges or mitigate against losses. If the market demanded it the price to sell it would become more attractive and then I might examine ways to change practises.

MT: Research conducted by Ipsos Mori for The Vegan Society found the number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled to 600,000 over the last five years. The image of veganism is undergoing the most radical change in history, while shedding some tired, old stereotypes. Instead of militancy, people now associate it with compassion, sustainability and wellbeing. More and more people are realising it’s an easy, accessible and more ethical way of living. I think it’s natural for the dairy industry to want to fight back with campaigns such as Februdairy, but it still doesn’t change the harsh reality of the exploitation animals face. The exploitation of cows for reproduction and milk by the dairy industry is often considered by vegans to be worse than the meat industry as not only are cows ultimately slaughtered and enter the food change at a relatively young age but prior to their death they experience constant cycles of birth and having their calf removed within hours of birth which causes them both suffering.

How can vegans support farmers despite conflicting ideologies?

AR: The best way is to buy British food. Reducing food miles is always important, but actually the key thing is supporting local economies, keeping rural jobs alive in rural areas. Also avoiding negativity and hatred.

MT: Vegans rely on farmers for food too and we want to work with farmers to see an end to animal agriculture and a transition to a more sustainable, healthier and compassionate farming system. Our Grow Green campaign helps farmers to transition to plant-based agriculture. The campaign is a package of policies that would help farmers transition away from animal farming into other productive practices, including plant-based agriculture. We want to see greater education around the environmental and economic benefits of pulse production, subsidies to be directed more towards protein crops than animal protein, support for rewilding and agroforestry on land that can’t be used for pulse production and crucially, a package of support for farmers willing to transition out of animal farming.

What is your opinion of vegan activists that film undercover footage and hold vigils?

AR: They are trespassing on farms without permission, they go onto farms with intent to harm and intimidate. They have no respect. They have never stopped me as I use a haulier. Many hauliers are unable to stop in places like motorway services for a break because the threat of someone opening the tailboard and letting the animals out, or being subjected to verbal abuse, is too strong. The vigil is designed to intimidate the farmer, not respect the animal.

MT: Paul McCartney said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian, but knowing what happens to animals in the dairy and egg industry, it’s fair to say everyone would be vegan if they knew the suffering behind these industries. Seeing footage like this does make me a feel a sense of shame that animal exploitation is still so prevalent in our society, but at the same time I think it’s vital that this information and footage is shared widely so that more and more people realise the truth behind the meat and dairy industries.

For the majority of vegans, my advice would be to make your own dietary choices based on your beliefs. I would urge them not to believe everything they see on You Tube or Netflix –farmers here in the UK take great pride in the environment and animal health and welfare standards they farm to and in 99.9% of cases farming practices in the UK are far superior to some of the videos you see doing the rounds on social media. Try and visit a local farm. Maybe try Open Farm Sunday.

Abi Reader, 38
has been involved in farming for all her life and completed an agriculture degree which excited her about the many opportunities within the industry. She is the chair for NFU Cymru Milk Board and runs her 800-acre farm with her father and uncle, caring for 200 head of cattle.

A politician called Tony Benn (a vegetarian) once said that “there are two flames burning in the human heart all the time. The flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope you can build a better world.”

Matt Turner, 24
is a Media and PR Officer for the Vegan Society and a Cardiff University graduate. The Vegan Society was founded in 1944, making it the oldest vegan group in the world. They are a registered educational charity for vegans and non-vegans to share information with one another.

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