Epona Talks

In the Epona-Talks we will discuss subjects like animal protection, animal rights, relationships between different beings, for instance between humans and horses, nature, environment, responsibilities etc. Through the talks we like to show different aspects, like the philosophical one, of certain subjects, amongst others ‘animal rights’ , as in the interview with the French philosopher Florence Burgat with which we start. With the ex-dressage-rider and horse trainer Johanna Wiig we will talk about her personal relationship with horses, which is a very special one in a world where it is’normal’ to use animals for one’s own purposes.

Thoughts about a vegan world

This time it is a mind game we publish here: How would it be ti live in a world which is total vegan, whiteout any animal products. We thank our friend Leslie who helped with the translation from German into English.

What would life be like in a vegan world?

We are living in the year 2035 and there have been no farm animals for ten years now, changing lives the world over. A mind game from Merlind Theile (Die Zeit, no. 2, 7.1.2021).

What has changed since 2020? You will notice changes as soon as you wake in the morning. Your duvet is filled with lyocell, a regenerated cellulose fibre made from wood, in your case eucalyptus: there is no down on the market any more. Your breakfast is coffee with pea milk, bread with avocado spread, yogurt made from cashew nuts, no eggs, no cow milk, no sausage from dead animals, because their suppliers, so-called farm animals, no longer exist.

In the past all your days started with animals, or more precisely what was obtained from them. Your morning shower: gel with collagen from pig body tissue, your shampoo with keratin from horns, hooves and feathers, your body lotion with elastin from animal tendons, your soap with glycerine from slaughtered animal fats, your toothpaste with bone meal. Animal products were to be found in almost everything, because there were so many farm animals, since they were so cheap. When they were abolished, industry switched for good to herbal products made from soya, algae, wheat and so on. Now you use shower gel from sea buckthorn and it cleans with sugar surfactans. The hyaluronic acid in your face cream is no longer obtained from rooster combs but from fermented beets.

The content of your wardrobe has also changed. There are still shoes from leather and sweaters from wool, but you seldom wear them now: they are relics from an ancient time. The market is now dominated by textiles from other sources, for example algae, bark, hemp or cork. Years ago now, you bought your first jacket made from piñatex, a pineapple fibre material that feels and looks like leather. It was developed by a Spanish researcher who had worked for years in the leather industry and could no longer bear its effects on animals, workers and the environment. In 2019, H&M was one of the first major fashion groups to add piñatex to its collections, but today it is a mass product. However, there is another aspect: after the end of livestock farming in the early 2020s, the petrochemical companies really entered the textile market with full force. Instead of bags, shoes, furniture or car seat covers being made of leather, they are now increasingly made of petroleum-based plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane.

You have a wide choice when you shop for food. There are dozens of milk substitutes, which are made from soya, oats, spelt, rice, lupins, almonds, coconuts, hazelnuts or yellow peas. You buy this milk mainly because it tastes less sweet and is full of nutrients, with more than 6 percent protein, twice as much as cow milk used to have. Yogurt and cheese are made from soya, nuts or yeast cultures. There is vegan cheddar, blue cheese, mozzarella and camembert. Foods that used to be made from milk had shaped the food culture to such an extent that most people did not want to do without. Some small companies therefore started to recreate almost all food of animal origin, even meat, from plants, and larger companies then followed suit, launching similar products.

You still remember your first vegan burger at a barbecue at the end of the decade. The package lying beside the grill bore the words “Based on pea protein”. The burger tasted juicy and a little smoky, almost like a beef burger. It was only much more expensive, like gold, joked your host. At that time very few people ate vegan burgers, but today they are cheap because they are a mass product. In the metropolitan areas of the meat industry, where animals used to be slaughtered and cut into cheap cutlets, companies now process tofu and seitan into sausages, gyros and burger patties.

The butcher where you always shopped had already started changing his products during the days of animal farming. He was one of the first, changing gradually from animal meat to plant-based meat substitutes. In his old sausage kitchen, he now grinds rice crackers with water, tomatoes, beetroot and spices to make “onion meat”. He also makes “liver sausage” from potatoes (for creaminess) and chickpeas (for chunkiness), while he uses black lentils to make “blood sausage”. He once told you that he did not feel well when he still ate meat. Because of his profession, he ate a lot of meat, tasting it in the sausage kitchen. He became fat and ill with diabetes. After changing to plant-based food he lost 45 kilograms and he says he now feels great. In 2019, the average German used to eat almost 60 kilograms of meat annually, almost double the consumption recommended by the German Food Association. Studies showed that meat can indeed make people ill and scientists attributed cancer or cardiovascular problems to its consumption. People in industrial countries still eat a great number of ready-made meals, and industrially produced meat substitutes contain many flavour enhancers and excessive salt and fat. However, vegan people can in general live more healthily. According to a study by Oxford University, a healthy balanced nutrition could avoid 8.1 million deaths worldwide in the years up to 2050 and could save US$1 billion on health costs in a single year.

You also had various health problems in previous times, nothing serious, but annoying. A little arthritis in both thumb joints, increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure. Your doctor said that all these things were most likely connected with your meat consumption. Pig meat in particular contains large amounts of arachidonic acid, which fires up inflammation in the body. An exclusively plant-based diet is low in saturated fats (lowering cholesterol levels) and rich in potassium (lowering blood pressure). Since you stopped eating animal products, your problems have disappeared. You no longer need medicine to lower your cholesterol level and you go to your doctor only once a year to check your blood values. Everything is fine, she says, including your vitamin B12 level. She explains that a balanced vegan nutrition can supply your body with all the nutrients it needs, including iron, calcium and vitamins, except for vitamin B12, which used to be regenerated from meat and milk products. Even then, however, it was also produced biochemically with micro-organisms. Now you take a capsule which is vegan because it is made from cellulose and not from pig gelatine.

There are no longer any animal products in pharmaceuticals as a result of the abolition of farm animals. Another result is that animals are no longer used for experimental purposes. At the beginning, scientists criticised this, saying that so-called basic research, and also research on nervous systems and genes, could not be carried out without animal experimentation. However, your doctor explained, the end of animal experimentation freed up huge amounts of research money to develop alternative methods, something that used to be called for by opponents of animal experimentation, even among medical professionals. It used to be pointed out that computer simulations and so-called in vitro systems, studies with human cell and tissue cultures, could replace animal experimentation. And as a rule, they provide more useful findings for humans than the thousands upon thousands of experiments on rats, monkeys or rabbits in which about 2 million animals were consumed in Germany alone in 2019, all beings you never saw – as was of course also the case with most farm animals.

In your own neighbourhood you did smell them, although you never saw them. You live in the Vechta region of Lower Saxony in Germany. This used to be a pig farming region, with eight pigs per person. These animals used to live in enclosed hangars, never running free, sometimes 10,000 animals in one facility. The stink was all that reminded you of their existence.

In 2020, there were more than 20,000 pig farms in Germany, with 26 million animals. If you drive through the countryside today, you can still see a few abandoned barns. During the agricultural transition in the early 2020s, the German Government implemented an exit programme for livestock farmers based on the Dutch model: €12 billion for structural changes in the pig industry alone, a social show of strength comparable to the structural aid for the lignite phase-out. Even so, there were enormous protests from livestock keepers. The new Bauern für Tiere (Farmers for Animals) movement organized several demonstration trains to Berlin. On one occasion, the farmers crashed their tractors through a police barrier and reached the Chancellery, and many people were injured when water cannon were used on the lawn in front of the Reichstag. Farmers protested everywhere. In your own neighbourhood and on the news you saw cattle farmers who chained themselves to their animals’ barns. However, there were also some who were happy that they no longer had to draw their income from using living beings. The abuses of intensive animal farming, the many diseases and behaviour disorders were evident. One farmer explained on a talk show that many of his colleagues suppressed their feelings over the suffering of their animals. He suddenly saw a compassion that most of them had denied themselves during their professional lives. And of course, he said, the money would help him and his colleagues. Some of the older animal farmers retired with the down payment, while younger ones launched into something new.

A friend of yours who kept pigs before that now grows vines in the Osnabrück region on the edge of the Teutoburger Forest. Climate change has turned Lower Saxony into a wine area and the region has been awarding cultivation licences since 2016. Most of the fields in the Vechta area have recovered from over-fertilization with pig manure and the groundwater is no longer polluted with excessive nitrates. The spread of antibiotic-resistant germs, another result of animal farming, was halted. Instead of forage grains, ex-pig farmers now grow other crops such as peas, which are rich in protein, soya, oats, lupins and rapeseed. The demand for these crops increased a great deal because of people’s vegan diet. Another option is to allow large flower strips to grow in order to boost biodiversity, an approach also supported with large subsidies. The European Union paid over €50 billion to farmers in the past as part of the common agricultural policy, but since the change-over this money has been used to offset livestock farmers’ losses and redesign landscapes. In the days of animal farming, animal feed was grown on over 70 percent of fields in the European Union, covering a total of 125 million hectares, three and a half times the area of Germany. The loss of energy for human nutrition was very high: up to seven vegetarian calories are needed to produce one animal calorie. A vegan needs a third of the space needed by a meat-eater to produce his or her food. The change therefore freed up a lot of space, which was then transformed. Many bog areas that had been drained generations before for agricultural use were re-wetted as a measure against climate change. Bogs store much more carbon dioxide in their peat than forests. They can also be used economically. You read a newspaper article about an ex-cattle farmer who now cultivates his re-wetted grassland in Mecklenburg Western Pomerania, in what is called paludiculture. He grows alders, reeds and grasses and can sell the reed biomass for construction or heating. The article stated that the energy yield per hectare is equivalent to that of some 1,000 litres of petrol. Other areas are just left empty, without human beings. The area of protected nature parks doubled after animal farming was halted. When nature is left to itself in central Europe, grass grows first, then bushes, then trees, and in 100 or 200 years the deciduous forest will be back. The red list of endangered species will be halved. There will be fewer domesticated cats, benefiting certain bird species. Cats alone kill millions of birds each year in Germany.

Cats and dogs can live very well on vegan food. However, is it ethical or logical to abandon farm animals and then keep pets, growing and breeding them simply to serve our own needs? The debate on this question is still going on in society. You, like many other people, did not get another cat after your old one died. You are now even more excited than before about squirrels, hedgehogs and butterflies. In the past two summers you have seen black-veined whites, swallowtails and gossamer-winged blues fluttering through your garden, and in general there seem to be more insects. You have the impression that you now have to clean the windscreen of your car more often after driving on the freeway in summer.

Pesticides, which used to be considered the main cause of insect mortality, are still used in conventional agriculture, but less than in the past, partly for the simple reason that once crops were no longer being grown for animal feed, less land had to be cultivated. Moreover, increasing numbers of farmers, thanks to European Union subsidies, have changed to organic vegan agriculture without the use of pesticides. And these farmers are not replacing manure from farm animals with artificial fertilizer, but are using composted grass and clover. A farmer in the market once explained to you that this kind of fertilization restores all the minerals that plants need for growth. Then there is human urine. The main nutrients – nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus – are also excreted by humans, although they all used to go down the toilet. The agricultural conversation stopped this waste. Now up to 90 percent of the minerals in human urine are recycled and used in agriculture. Phosphorus is particularly needed. According to the amended Sewage Sludge Ordinance, German cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants are obliged to recover phosphorus from their sewage sludge. Public toilets have been converted into urine-recycling systems, and there is an example in the market square of your own town of Vechta. One thousand litres of urine yield up to 70 litres of fertilizer after treatment. The processes for this type of phosphorus extraction were developed in Germany and Switzerland and are now used in many arable areas of the world to compensate for the loss of animal manure. In 2010 there were 82 billion farm animals worldwide, mainly pigs, cows, poultry, goats and sheep. Over 90 percent of all non-human mammals on earth and 70 percent of all birds lived only to be eventually slaughtered by humans. Taken together, all the fields and pastures needed to feed these animals covered an area as big as Africa. Almost one-third of agricultural water consumption worldwide was used to produce animal products. Over 14 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions were due to the animals themselves or the production of their food. This means that this sector caused five times more climate-damaging emissions than air traffic as a whole. The end of livestock farming has reduced food-related greenhouse gases by 70 percent and freed up 3 billion hectares of land.

The face of the planet has changed since those days. You have seen television documentaries about the reforestation of parts of the Brazilian rainforest and the re-naturation of formerly intensively used pastures in the United States. Flora and fauna are regenerating in many waters that used to be heavily overfished or destroyed by aquafarms, for example in the Philippines, where two-thirds of the mangrove forests had been cut down in favour of shrimp farms.

The nutrition of the nearly 9 billion people in the world is now ensured even without animal food. However, this is not the case everywhere, and in some less developed countries, the loss of livestock threatened catastrophic famine. Some nomadic herders in Asia and Africa saw their food sources dwindle without their grazing animals. In some regions, the United Nations has therefore designated reserves in which animals may continue to be used and consumed by humans under strict conditions, provided that no populations affected by extinction are hunted and no ecosystem destroyed. The international community recognizes the Inuits’ right to hunt seals, as well as the Tsaatans’ use of reindeer in the Mongolian taiga or the Masai’s cattle and goat husbandry in East Africa. The residents of the reserves are only allowed to use animals sustainably and to cover their own needs. The trade in animal products outside these special areas is prohibited and subject to high fines. This does not mean that it does not exist: on the news you sometimes hear about illegal animal stalls and meat cartels that also offer their contraband in Germany. Fourteen members of a smuggling ring were arrested just last month in a raid in Brandenburg. They had been selling steak from Argentina for very high sums on the black market in Berlin.

So-called farm animals have not completely disappeared from the world. They still exist even in Germany, and quite legally. In coastal areas, sheep keep the grass short on dykes and trample the earth with their hooves. In the Allgäu and Rhön regions, too, herbivores still graze many pastures in order to preserve the cultural landscape and its biodiversity. Meadow birds like whinchats and meadow plants like plantains, and even daisies, could disappear if pasture areas became overgrown and eventually forested. Many workers who used to earn their living in the animal industry are now employed in landscape maintenance and are paid for mowing. However, animals can do better on rough terrain and in sensitive habitats, so now goats and sheep roam grasslands in some places. There are still farmers looking after these animals and the state still pays subsidies for their work, but it is no longer about products such as wool, leather, milk or meat. The animals are neither milked nor slaughtered by humans. Everything they do is a service to nature.

“The animals are my employees” said the farmer running the farm where you spent your last holiday with your daughter. About 100 animals live there – cows, sheep, goats, some chickens and pigs. Some in fact were saved from the old farms for farm animals. It did not take long for these farms to come to a standstill. In the conversion process, the animals were still used, but their reproductive cycle was soon halted by stopping artificial insemination. After only a few weeks, the supply of broiler chickens dried up, while the slaughter of pigs stopped after half a year. Of the 12 million cows, 26 million pigs and 174 million poultry in Germany, only a few remained, according to fixed quotas. They graze, rummage and peck about on what are known as farms for life (Lebenshöfen), with some of the farms converted to educational and meeting centres. School classes and tour groups visit them, and holiday guests like your six-year-old daughter and you. Your daughter particularly liked the domestic pigs. Pigs, explained the farmer, are clean, social and intelligent. They want to be friends with other living beings, including humans. Indeed, Irma, a twelve-year-old house pig, seemed to know us after a short time. When your daughter ran across the farmyard, Irma would follow her and let herself be petted and played with in the way you only knew with dogs in the past. When your daughter called her, Irma answered to her name. One day when the farmer said that people used to lock up, kill and eat animals like Irma, your daughter was amazed and just could not believe it.

Backgound to the story

The question: “What would a vegan world look like?” was asked by our reader Christa Witthämper-Hüppchen. Merlind Theile, who is a flexible vegetarian, got involved in the mind game of imagining a world in which humans no longer enclose, slaughter and eat animals, so that so-called farm animals would no longer exist.

The investigation: Research on this question is only just beginning. However, there are indications of the effects that the loss of livestock could have on the climate, on land, on our diet and health, on industry, medicine, cosmetics and clothing.

The scenario: The author spoke to scientists and practitioners, and viewed specialist articles, documents and studies. She then combined all the case studies, calculations and model tests into one picture, a utopia based on currently available knowledge.