In Switzerland, gebana offers small amounts of meat a few times a year. Almost every time, customers ask us how this is compatible with our company values. We don’t think that gebana and meat are mutually exclusive but agree that we should buy as little of it as possible.
"All animals on Earth eat different cell-based life forms," writes astrophysicist Ben Moore in Out There. His book is about the origins of life on Earth and provides interesting arguments for the discussion surrounding the consumption of meat.
Moore’s thesis includes us humans, since we are not biologically different from animals. We too must eat the cells of other living things in order to live. But do these living things have to be animals?
Moore gives a surprisingly rational answer: "The energy requirement of a plant is significantly less than that of an animal because plants do not have to move or think. [...] This is one of the reasons why consuming animals is quite wasteful. "
Given this logic, humans should eat less meat.
But what exactly does "less" mean? And what criteria should we use to select the meat we do eat? Working on behalf of Greenpeace, the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) recently found an answer to the first question: 14 kilos per year.
By way of comparison, per capita meat consumption in Switzerland was 51.25 kilos in 2019, and in Germany it was just under 60 kilos.
The ZHAW study provides much more than just an indication of how much meat consumption is reasonable. The authors describe a new type of agriculture, which they simply call TOP, an abbreviation that stands for animal-friendly and ecological production system (Tiergerechtes und Ökologisches Produktionssystem). According to this system, producers should not feed any arable crops to animals (known as Feed No Food), adhere to strict ecological animal welfare requirements and produce less animal food overall. Instead, farmers should cultivate more plants for human consumption than they do today.
Today, only around 20% of the agricultural land in Switzerland grows food for people. We produce feed for animals on the remaining 80%, which is not even enough for all the animals. Around 25% of the animal feed comes from abroad. That amounts to almost 40 % of agricultural land just for feed, as the authors stated in a report.
The simplest solution to this dilemma would be to completely avoid meat and animal products, but that would pose a problem for family farmers in regions where arable farming is difficult or even impossible.
"There is no mountain agriculture without animals," says André Siegenthaler, an organic farmer from the Sernftal in the canton of Glarus. On his pastures, Siegenthaler keeps 9 cows, 21 goats and several horses. The animals live freely in a huge area that partially extends into the forest. The goat pasture is littered with boulders, some as big as small trucks, others even bigger – a climbing paradise for the animals.
"Without the animals, the pastures would grow wild within a few years and the forest would reclaim the land," says Siegenthaler, pointing to the western slopes of the Sernftal, where the young forest extends almost all the way to the bottom of the valley. "There used to be several hundred farming families here in the valley. Today, there are still a handful with far fewer animals than before."
What’s wrong with wild pastures and forests? Nothing really, but when a pasture turns into a forest, it falls under the responsibility of the foresters. Forest maintenance on slopes as steep as those in the Sernftal is time-consuming. Helicopters are often needed to remove diseased trees or harvest renewable biomass. Depending on the model, such a helicopter can require over 200 litres of kerosene per hour.
It could be argued that the forest will grow even without a forester. That’s also true, and a wild forest is always better than no forest. But for a forest to supply wood, be used for recreation and not pose any danger to humans, we have to look after it in a targeted way. If we want to preserve the culture of alpine farming and promote biodiversity, we have to keep it in check.
In mountain areas like the Sernftal, clearing is best accomplished with animals. Siegenthaler’s goats, cows and horses act as autonomous lawnmowers that take care of the pastureland for him, thus secure his direct payments. The goats are his favourite. "Goats eat three dimensionally," he says. "They start at the top, make their way down and continue at the bottom." There is hardly a shoot, shrub or weed that they would not devour.
1240 Kiloalories From Domestic Production Would Be Possible
As important as the animals are for pasture preservation, the males end up at the slaughterhouse after a year or two. The mother animals are slaughtered after 10 to 20 years. Couldn’t he keep them until they die of old age? "Yes, I could," says Siegenthaler. "But the mountain pastures are not suitable for anything other than meat and milk production. If I do without them, I won't produce anything anymore. And I don’t want to throw away animals." That’s why the farmer slaughters some of his animals every season and sells the meat – about 500 kilos a year.
When asked what he thinks about feed imports, Siegenthaler just shakes his head. "With feed, we actually import energy that is produced and transported with x times the amount of additional energy," he says. "In the end, this energy is missing in the form of fertilizer and biomass at the place of origin and creates a surplus." The consequences are over-fertilization, uncontrolled nutrient inputs in waters and weeds in the pastures. "The whole cycle is out of balance."
With his approach and thoughts, Siegenthaler comes quite close to the criteria of the production system proposed by ZHAW, and we need more like him.
The authors of the study write that if all of Swiss agriculture were to switch to the new system, it would lead to more respectful treatment of the animals that we eat. "The animals would go from being an efficient production unit to living beings with an individual claim to a dignified life."
Using the TOP model, it would be possible for Swiss agriculture to produce 280 kilos of milk per capita per year, the above-mentioned 14 kilos of meat and a wide variety of plant-based foods. This would amount to 1240 calories per person per day, which means that importing would still be necessary if we don’t want to go hungry. However, the import of feed for all that livestock would be completely eliminated.
Despite all these arguments and thoughts, we believe that meat consumption is a matter of common sense. It isn’t reasonable to eat meat three times a day or to consider it as separate from the animal. Animals are living beings that deserve respect and a dignified life.
On the other hand, it also isn’t reasonable to tell people how to eat. "Just as we need and must promote biodiversity in agriculture, we also need a diversity of opinions," says André Siegenthaler. "Dogmatists don’t get us any further."
So, let’s buy less meat. And if we do buy it, it should be as holistically sustainable as possible, and produced by a company that doesn’t use any food that we could eat ourselves as feed and that treats its animals with respect.
Baur, P., Flückiger, S. (2018). Nahrungsmittel aus ökologischer und tiergerechter Produktion. Eine Studie im Auftrag von Greenpeace Schweiz. Wädenswil: ZHAW Institut für Umwelt und natürliche Ressourcen. doi:10.21256/zhaw-1411: https://digitalcollection.zhaw.ch/handle/11475/13361 (consulted on 25.8.2021)
“We are outsourcing many of the problems of our food system” - Interview with Theresa Tribaldos from Centre for Development and Environment, Bern University. https://www.cde.unibe.ch/forschung/cde_reihen/wir_lagern_viele_probleme_unseres_ernaehrungssystems_aus/index_ger.html (consulted on 20.8.2021)
Agrarbericht Fleisch und Eier https://www.agrarbericht.ch/de/markt/tierische-produkte/fleisch-und-eier (consulted on 25.8.2021)
FAQ von Wald Schweiz https://www.waldschweiz.ch/schweizer-wald/wissen/schweizer-wald/faq.html (consulted on 25.8.2021)
Dimensionen der Futtermittelimporte und des Futtermittelanbaus in der Schweiz https://digitalcollection.zhaw.ch/handle/11475/21943?locale=en (consulted on 25.8.2021)
Moore, Ben (2014), Da Draußen – Leben auf unserem Planeten und anderswo, Zürich: Kein & Aber.
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