As a vegan advocate, I hear many arguments against plant-based diets. One of these is that some land is unsuitable for growing crops, and so it must be used to produce animal foods instead. There are a few flaws with this argument which I would like to address. Firstly…
Do we have to use this land for agriculture?
As many people are now aware, producing animal products is very resource-intensive. It consumes, among other things, a huge proportion of our land – partly for keeping livestock, and partly for growing food to feed these animals. If we all shifted to a plant-based diet, far less land would be needed to produce our food. So would we even need to use this unsuitable land for agriculture? Probably not.
And that’s a very good thing, because the way we currently use land is devastating for wildlife. Where I grew up, in rural Wales, the land is generally considered unsuitable for growing crops. So it’s used for rearing livestock, primarily sheep and cattle.
In many areas, all the vegetation has been cleared to create fields for sheep and cows. This creates a pretty barren landscape, with heavily grazed grass and not much else. Biodiversity in this landscape is pretty poor, as you might imagine. Any plants which try to take root are quickly eaten. And any insects or animals which rely on these plants remain absent.
So allowing some of these areas to return to nature would be tremendously positive for wildlife, and also for all those who love the natural world.
Is it true that this land can’t be used to grow crops?
It’s usually taken as gospel that land in certain places – like the hills of Wales – is unsuitable for growing plant foods. For a long time, I too assumed this to be true. That is, until I visited a permaculture farm situated in the uplands of North Wales. It was right in the middle of sheep farming country, surrounded by barren fields on all sides. And yet the owner had created a little oasis, with a forest garden and a polytunnel brimming with produce. There were courgettes, tomatoes, runner beans, salad greens, kale, and even grapes!
It may not be possible to grow crops directly in the ground in areas with poor soil or an unsuitable climate. But as this farm demonstrated, the use of polytunnels, greenhouses, raised beds and permaculture techniques can make it possible to grow food in less than ideal conditions.
Why is this land so unsuitable in the first place?
Yes, soil in some areas – such as in the mountains – is less well-suited to growing crops. But in many areas, animal agriculture has contributed to the poor soil quality in the first place.
Desertification – where previously fertile land becomes desert – is a growing problem. And one of the main reasons for this is overgrazing, mentioned earlier.
In some cases, repeated overgrazing can cause plants to stop growing altogether. This leaves soil exposed, which leads to soil erosion. So keeping livestock can directly lead to poor soil which is unsuitable for growing crops.
Deforestation is another factor responsible for desertification. Trees are often cut down either to create pasture for livestock or to grow crops to feed them. So this is a less direct – but still very real – way in which animal agriculture can negatively impact soil quality.
To end on a positive note, desertification has been reversed very successfully in some areas, such as the Loess Plateau in China. And a key part of the strategy was to remove livestock from the land. Watch an inspiring documentary about this project here.