By any measure, the OFC 2018 debate “This House Believes Eating Meat Will Be A Thing of the Past By 2100” was a controversial topic for a chamber full of farmers and in a world where meat plays such a significant part of society's diets and lives. The UK may be a proud producer of world-class lamb and beef, but with veganism up by 360% in the last 10 years, a meat-free future may be a very real possibility.
Prompted by OFC Director, Julie Robinson who introduced the debate, a show of hands confirmed that 2% of the 396 in the room were smokers. Eighty-two years ago, the same question would have seen 98% raise their hand, she noted. Eighty-two years from now, could the 5% who believed meat would be a thing of the past by 2100- in a poll before the debate started - become a majority 95% of non-meat eaters?
Emily Norton, dairy farmer and researcher, denied it would happen in her argument opposing the motion. She lit a candle to demonstrate how, despite the vast improvement and undeniable convenience of the electric light, candles still exist, and consumers usually, in fact, now pay over the odds for them.
The well-versed campaigner, persuasive speaker - and vegan - George Monbiot, put forward a strong case as the first proposer of the motion for the strain meat production put on the world’s land. The quickest solution to slow climate breakdown, he said, is to change from a meat-based to a plant-based diet. The land used to produce food for animals could be used much more efficiently to produce more food for the growing world population. It may seem marginal now, he said, but it will become entirely ordinary “in the same way that the motor car replaced the horse and carriage or the computer replaced the typewriter.”
Welsh hill farmer, Gareth Wyn Jones, as first opposer brilliantly countered George Montbiot’s speech with a pull on hearts and minds, recalling generations of hill farmers who have preserved the land and how nature and farming can live as one. He called for city people to be brought back into rural life - to rebuild the connection through education and engagement. He recounted a story of a vegan who had visited his farm last summer from the city, and after a day spent together, they agreed to disagree - but he did ask the vegan if he had been Gareth’s son, growing up in the country, on a farm, if he thought he would be a vegan, and the reply was ‘no’.
Gareth recognised in a small concession that if he is to see his grandchildren farming sheep on the Welsh mountains, consumers will need to eat less meat for it to be sustainable but he urged the floor to see that through education and bringing people out on to farms, consumers would make their own choice and no doubt, he argued, choose to eat meat.
The final view came from Philip Lymbery from Compassion in World Farming who eloquently supported the first proposer’s argument for preserving the world’s agricultural land and use it instead for plant-based production. He said that when cattle and sheep were first domesticated for meat there were one million people on the planet. Now there are nine billion.
Some humorous contributions from the floor included Stuart Agnew MEP suggesting that if we all moved to a plant-based diet, the flatulence would lift the roof, but also that we will need sheep to feed the wolves and leopards as part of Mr Monbiot’s rewilding plans. Mr Fell took the floor with a poem, cleverly integrating the meat argument into the events of the day in clever prose.
The motion failed ultimately, with a vote of 276 noes and 120 ayes, but the proposition could congratulate themselves on persuading a further 100 to its viewpoint through its convincing debate.
Eve Turow Paul, an American writer attending the conference, commented after the debate: “I left feeling scared after the debate for you farmers. You feel safe in what you family has been doing forever but your children are not going to be farming in the same way.”
Watch the debate.