To eat or not to eat the cow: That is the question  

As the world creeps closer to climate crisis D-day, will a moo-ve to a plant-based diet really make a difference 

Old MacDonald had a farm, Ee i ee i oh… And on his farm he had some cows, Ee i ee i oh. With drastic effects on land here, and drastic effects on air there… Here some CO2, there some methane too, everywhere a moo-moo. Old MacDonald had a farm, Ee i ee i oooh.

Nursery rhymes, they say, have hidden meanings. They are a form of satire; folk songs used to tell, subversively, tales of historical events and the (often) bad people who brought them on.  Are these going to be the songs we share with the children of our questionable future? The truth is, no run-on line or rhyming couplet will ever be able to depict the devastation we see today in the throes of climate change

There can be no denying that planet earth is on fire. Eye-witness accounts of the devastation caused by the crisis are becoming more numerous by the day. Floods, cyclones, tornadoes, extreme weather patterns, famine, drought and increasing species extinction are all in evidence. In 2022 we are living in what climate scientists decades ago painted as a worst-case scenario.

To the average person, assuming responsibility in tackling the issue can be overwhelming. Something every individual on the planet shares is the need for food. What people are consuming, however, has and will continue to have a disastrous effect. It is here the solution may lie. If every individual can take responsibility for their eating habits and switch to a more climate-friendly diet, a real difference might be viable.

“I do not think the answer is in getting the big guys to change. People need to stop being passive consumers,” says food systems researcher and business strategist Michele Sohn. Therefore one must ask:  ”To eat the cow, or not to eat the cow?”

Why the cow? For Old MacDonald, back in pre-industrial days, cattle and other livestock used for food may not have been the biggest issue, but in the 21st century they seem to be a leading cause of climate change.  A 2009 study by Scientific American concluded: “Worldwide meat production (beef, chicken and pork) emits more atmospheric greenhouse gases than do all forms of global transportation or industrial processes.” A study published in 2013 in the South African Journal of Animal Science said, “Cattle are a major source of methane emissions from the livestock sector in South Africa, contributing approximately 72.6% of the total livestock greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The livestock greenhouse effect occurs in two ways. The first is in their feed, which requires year-round cultivation of land. This means trees and grasses that absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) are not given a chance to be grown. The second is the methane released by the animals in their waste and as they digest their food.  

The more humans consume these animals and their products, the greater the demand to raise and farm them, which leads to higher need for land. In a 2018 study by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, an estimation of emission per serving of different foods was made, and the results were staggering. Beef has the biggest carbon footprint, while non-animal products such as beans and nuts seem to have little to no emission. 

conducted a two-week experiment that tracked emissions from vegans, vegetarians and omnivores. The results revealed that: vegan CO2e emissions per week were 9.9kg (equivalent to 39.6km driven in a petrol-powered car, or 1 204 smartphones charged); vegetarian CO2e emissions per week were 16.9kg (67.4km driven in a petrol-powered car, or 2 056 smartphones charged); and omnivore CO2e emissions per week were 48.9kg (194.7km driven in a petrol-powered car, or 5 948 smartphones charged).

Software developer and vegan Hanno Brink told Wits Vuvuzela, “I always used to think vegans were people who ‘cannot face the real world’, but I now realise I was the one not facing the brutal reality of the consequences of my actions.”

It seems this food choice is attached to a lot more than some animal-loving form of protest. The diet holds real benefits environmentally, financially and nutritionally, but how viable is it in South Africa?  

There has been a rise in vegan culture in South Africa over the past few years and plant-based brands are pulling in significant numbers in the South African market. South Africa is one of the top 30 countries where veganism is most popular, according to Google trends. According to Uber Eats, the country is fifth largest in the world in vegan takeaway orders. 

A 2021 study conducted in the journal of Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems found the likelihood of consumers in South Africa adopting plant-based and cultivated meat as a pathway to a healthy, sustainable and equitable food supply was quite high. Sixty percent of born-frees, 62% of millennials and 53% of Gen X were highly likely to purchase plant-based meat. Fifty-five percent of born-frees, 55% of millennials and 46% of Gen X were highly likely to purchase cultivated meat. The study concluded, “Both plant-based and cultivated meat could be viable market-based options for improving the food system in South Africa.”

From an economic perspective, being vegan is not so straight-forward. In South Africa food security is a daunting issue. According to a 2020 report by Stats SA, nearly 23,6% of South Africans had moderate to severe food insecurity, while almost 14,9% experienced severe food insecurity.  Jessica Lazar, a registered dietitian at The Green Dietitian, told Wits Vuvuzela, “If someone is food insecure and they are vulnerable to malnutrition, they do not have a choice over what they eat; they can only eat what is available and affordable to them. We need to work to combat food security and malnutrition before we can have the privilege to decide what type of diet we want to live by, because it really is a privilege.”

Veganism has been through a bit of a greenwash over the past few decades. What was initially a clean and relatively cheap lifestyle turned into “a trend that companies and brands jumped on and used as a marketing tool”. Lazar says a lot of products are expensive, but a basic vegan diet made up of grains, fruits, vegetables and oils is not expensive; it is actually cheaper than animal products.

“I always used to think vegans were people who ‘cannot face the real world’, but I now realise I was the one not facing the brutal reality of the consequences of my actions.”

Nutrition-wise, Lazar says veganism can be a helpful diet meeting all nutritional needs. “I do not think it’s valid to say veganism is the healthiest or is healthier than any other diet patterns, but it is among the healthiest,” she says. “Cutting down animal products and replacing them with more plant food is a healthy way to live.”

Dalya Gerson, also a registered dietitian, disagrees. “You are not really living a healthy lifestyle being a vegan because you are losing out on the key nutrients (specifically B12, which can be found only in animal products, fortified foods and supplements) that you should be getting,” Gerson says. ”I would not necessarily say a vegan diet is healthier than a Mediterranean diet.”

Arabella Parkinson, who has a master’s in sustainable development and is a food consultant and vegan chef, told Wits Vuvuzela, “I am not an advocate of a fully vegan diet, because a lot of the time people tend to sacrifice the healthier side of things because veganism is so strict, people tend to eat junk food based on the fact that its vegan rather than it being healthy. It is a very strict way of eating, and to do it properly you need a lot of time, energy resources and access to a variety of healthy, good food.”

Most of the people Wits Vuvuzela spoke to mentioned culture as a point of contention. Food is an emotional aspect of people’s lives and it is often difficult for people to change the way they eat, especially when it is embedded in indigenous cultures, says Parkinson. Lazar adds, “We need to respect culture specifically around food. Usually meats are used for celebrations, not daily consumption. A solution could be if we say, ‘change your daily diets and leave the meat for the bigger events’.” She notes, however, that a plant-based diet is nothing new to many Africans, who for centuries have been living off fruit- and vegetable-bearing lands.

From an agricultural perspective, Heinz Meissner, an adviser to the dairy and meat industries, told Mail & Guardian in a 2019 article that South Africa is complex when it comes to production of fruit and vegetables. “Just 12% of the country has the right mixture of soil and water to grow crops, whereas livestock can live on marginal land,” he says. A lot of water is mostly used for high-value crops such as grapes, citrus, avocados, nuts and blueberries, and these are usually exported overseas. Meissner says the resources needed for optimal crop growth that would suit veganism throughout the country ”will not be used for grains, vegetables and fruit production to feed the population”.  

The department of agriculture also seems to side with the meat. In June 2022 it threatened the vegan industry with a ban and seizure of all foodstuffs not in line with Agricultural Product Standards Act regulations. This includes that if it is not processed meat in a packet, it cannot be labelled as such. This caused a stir, as renaming products would have been economically crippling to producers, Daily Maverick reported.   

South Africa’s relationship with the meat industry is very complicated, says Parkinson. “The meat and dairy industries are huge and subsidised and have a lot of bargaining power,” she says. In a 2022 op-ed for Daily Maverick, Jason Bell, a researcher at the Centre for Competition Regulation and Economic Development, says, “The market power that [the meat and dairy] industries possess was facilitated and has continued to be supported by government subsidies, protection and support to ensure that these industries survive competition and shocks.” He adds that the vegan industry’s growth threatens the meat and dairy industries’ market power; thus, regulations such as that mentioned above were implemented.

Parkinson tells Wits Vuvuzela it is about planting and producing fruit, vegetables and grains that are seasonal and indigenous to the country. She says plants such as sorghum and beans, which are superfoods, are highly nutritious, resilient to terrain and climate, affordable to grow and buy and do well with little water.

To make a change we must learn to eat the rainbow. We don’t need to buy expensive fruits and vegetables, even growing your own garden can make a massive difference.  Photo: Elishevah Bome 

Sohn says if government and farming corporations do not come to the party, the South African public can and must take it into their own hands: “It’s about consumers becoming producers. Everyone should grow something, either in their own backyard or in a community garden.” According to Stats SA, fewer than 20% of households were involved in agricultural production of food between 2017 and 2020.  Sohn further says, “We need more urban farmers to grow organic food close to where people live, and to buy from small local farmers.”

Parkinson and Sohn bring up regenerative growing practices. “If the farming sectors could shift the way they produce the meat to [these] farming techniques, they can also have a positive impact on reducing the effects of climate change,” says Parkinson, adding that the meat and dairy farming industries will not just disappear. With regenerative farming, animals graze in rotation and help pull carbon back into soil. This strengthens resilience against climate change, droughts and floods. By doing so, meat will be produced in a better way. 

So to the question of ”to eat the cow or to not eat the cow”, it can be derived from the people Wits Vuvuzela consulted that there is no clear answer. What is clear, however, is that climate change is exacerbated by the meat and dairy industries. Lazar says, “At the end of the day we cannot get everyone to be vegan, but if one million people cut down on meat it will make more impact than if a couple of hundred thousand go fully vegan.”

Parkinson echoes this, saying that two to three percent of South Africans are vegan and the global trends of meat consumption are growing only in lower-income countries. ”I believe we do not need everyone to be vegan, but we do need people to eat less meat,’’ she says. She encourages campaigns such as Meat Free Monday and Sustainable Sunday.

Sohn says, ”The trick is not to be too purist about it; to eat beyond labels. Eat more veg, more fruit, less chemicals, less preservatives and, if possible, less meat.’’

Old MacDonald had a farm, Ee i ee i oh. And on his farm he had some cows, Ee i ee i oh. With some moderation here and a meat-free Monday there, here some fruit, there some veg, now a controlled moo-moo… Old MacDonald may still have a farm in 2030, Ee i ee i oh.

FEATURED IMAGEThe growth of the vegan industry in South Africa may be a solution to the climate crisis, but is cutting out the cow the remedy? Photo: Elishevah Bome