Farmers Union chief says Hollywood celebrities' anti-meat comments are hurting its members

Emma Gatten
Joaquin Phoenix joined Animal Equality on Tower Bridge in London ahead of the BAFTA awards ceremony - Animal Equality/MEGA

Vegan activist celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix are contributing to a "hurtful" atmosphere for British farmers, the head of the National Farmers Union has said. 

Minette Batters singled out Phoenix, who used his recent Oscars acceptance speech to criticise dairy farming, as she said farmers’ mental health was at risk from growing criticism of the meat industry. 

"Celebrities have to be careful. There are real life consequences for others," Ms Batters said on the first day of the NFU annual conference. "Joaquin Phoenix has had a really challenging life...but he's got to remember there are people at the end of this. There are small family farms and they get hurt too." 

In his speech Phoenix, who has been vegan since he was three, said: "We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable."

Ms Batters said there had been a "sustained assault on meat" in the climate change debate, and a false equivalence between global meat production and British farming, which the NFU says has a carbon footprint 2.5 times lower than the world average. 

She said that last year’s BBC documentary Meat: A Threat to our Planet, which focused on farming in the US and Brazil "showed a production system that nobody is eating here, [but] it never made that point." 

“Evan Davis asked is eating meat the new smoking - he compared us with the tobacco industry,” she said. 

“If we carry on with this polarised binary approach, I have never seen farmers so upset. They feel victims, and they feel like they haven’t got a voice. They want it to stop. We’re all humans. We've got to be kind, we've got to look out for each other.” 

Phoenix is one of several celebrities to have spoken out in support of veganism in recent months, either for animal welfare or climate change reasons. Lewis Hamilton last year said going vegan was the only way to save the planet. 

The number of vegans in the UK rose from 150,000 to 600,000 between 2006 and 2018 amid a rising availability of plant-based options from restaurants and supermarkets, including lab grown and 3D printed meat.  

The government’s own climate change advisory body has recommended a 20 per cent reduction in the consumption of red meat and dairy, citing evidence of the lower carbon footprint of a plant-based diet. 

But Ms Batters said veganism was not necessarily the most sustainable option. 

“You don't deal with climate change by saying take meat out, go to plant-based, because there's just as much unsustainable plant-based as there ever is meat.” 

Research has shown certain popular vegan products may be more energy intensive than meat, partly because humans cannot take in as many nutrients on a pound-for-pound basis. 

Ms Batters suggested that the current trend for veganism was the result of “certain activists, the huge investment in Silicon Valley, animal rights activists suddenly thinking we can be the saviours of the planet here, and retailers in very price dominated retail price wars seeing an enormous opportunity to add value in plant-based products.”

The Vegan Society, which advocates a meat-free diet to cut 50 per cent of your carbon footprint, yesterday said: “The Vegan Society doesn’t want conflict with farmers – we are keen to collaborate and advocate for policies that help farmers transition to a more sustainable and compassionate system. Consumer demand for plant-based food is rising rapidly, which presents an opportunity for British farmers, and we want to see them benefit.”