By: Stuart White 23-01-2023

There’s an ad running on UJ radio currently which begins with a female voice intoning ‘I’m a plant-based athlete’.  I have no idea what she’s promoting as I mentally tune out at that ludicrous statement.  Approximately 99% of the human body comprises just six elements; oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, calcium, and phosphorus.   A further five elements make up about 0.85% of the remaining mass;  sulphur, potassium, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium.  So sorry, dear, you are a chemical element-based athlete, just like the rest of the human race.

What she means, of course, is that her diet is ‘plant-based’.  That’s the new, supercilious phrase that non-meat eaters have conjured up to make them sound holier-than-thou and somehow more in touch with Mother Nature than evil carnivores.  Scarcely anyone these days claims to be ‘vegetarian’, even though it’s exactly the same thing; ‘vegan’, too, is fading into obscurity; and whatever happened to ‘macrobiotic’?  That was a trendy food fad back in the ‘70s & 80s’, defined by my dictionary as ‘A dietary system in which foods are classified according to the principles of Yin & Yang.  It advocates diets of whole grains and vegetables grown without chemical additives’.  But the beauty of plant-based is that it’s as close to ‘planet-based’ as dammit is to swearing - if you’re plant-based, you’re helping to save the planet whereas if you’re vegan, you’re just an ordinary herbivore.

Speaking of herbivores, that brings me to my focal point this week - Edinburgh, the cultural and political hub of Scotland, now the first major European city to commit to removing meat from menus in schools, hospitals and nursing homes.  The city has voted to adopt the 2021 WHO-endorsed 'Plant-based treaty' – including a pledge to promote vegan food over animal products and is now one of 20 cities worldwide to adopt the treaty, including Los Angeles.  Proponents said that by changing local diets the city will be able to reduce the greenhouse gases it produces.  A council report said, “Overall, the science is clear: Meat and dairy consumption must reduce to achieve climate targets”.

However, there are many problematic aspects of this move and in particular, that official statement.  The science of methane emissions from cattle and its effect on greenhouse gases (and, by association, global warming) is very far from clear and is still being studied.  One such major study is being carried out at the University of California, Davis, where massive tent-like structures house Black Angus cattle and   feature an intricate system of fans and tubes running from structure to structure while measuring cattle emissions.  The project is the brainchild of Frank Mitloehner, a UC Davis professor studying animal agriculture and its relationship to air quality and the climate. Based on his research and work with farmers worldwide, Mitloehner believes food sourced from livestock is necessary to sustain a world population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050. He maintains that can be achieved without furthering climate change and that the claim that cattle are responsible for polluting the atmosphere is an urban legend rooted in falsehoods and a misunderstanding of where animals’ methane comes from and how it behaves in the atmosphere.  The science of his study is complex but loosely it is based on evidence that whilst cows do produce methane, just as fossil fuels, not all methanes are alike and those from cattle, unlike other forms, turn into carbon dioxide and dissipate into the atmosphere after a decade, whereas the others hang about indefinitely.

There are other serious issues with the Edinburgh Council’s diktat.  First, and most obviously, should any local or national government be forcing certain groups of people into following a particular dietary fad?  To which rhetorical question, the answer is of course, certainly not.  And by targeting hospitals they are imposing that stringent order on very vulnerable people who are not in any position to object and whose particular dietary needs should be assessed by professionals not city councillors.  Much the same can be said for nursing homes, where inmates mainly comprise the elderly and infirm who may be lifelong carnivores and now suddenly find themselves deprived of one of the major food groups in the latter stages of their lives and who, like hospital patients, have no say in what should be a personal choice.

Even worse, though, is the extension of that order to schools.  Growing children’s protein needs far exceed that of the average adult and meat and fish are the most complete sources of pure protein that can be found.  Milk, eggs, and cheese are others but a plant-based, or vegan diet, will also preclude all dairy products, relying solely on pulses and beans which are poor protein sources at best and lack essential amino acids.  A study last year led by University College London, including 187 vegan, vegetarian and meat and dairy-eating children aged five to ten years old, found children on vegan diets were on average three centimetres shorter, suggesting they were growing more slowly, or potentially could be smaller as adults.  Vegan children had a lower bone mineral content, although they also had less body fat and lower levels of bad cholesterol.  This is by no means to preclude parents serving their children the occasional vegetarian meal as part of a healthy diet, simply that we should always include othr animal-based forms of protein.  

The Edinburgh Council’s ruling was condemned as 'anti-farming' by the Scottish Countryside Alliance, its Director Jake Swindells stating that it was 'pandering to misinformation about livestock farming'.  Ironically the restriction comes only a few days before Burns Night, a major event in the Scottish calendar which involves the serving of, and reverence towards, the haggis, a meat pudding traditionally made from a sheep's liver, lungs, heart and wrapped inside the animal’s stomach, a dish so revered that Caledonian poet Robert Burns described it as ‘Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race’!  Hard to imagine a vegan version but if someone tries, prepare for a major earth tremor in the Edinburgh region – that will be Rabbie Burns turning in his grave!