Meat is bad. Well at least that’s what all the vegetarians want you to think. But what exactly compels them to say this and confine themselves to a baron world with no burgers, no juicy lamb chops, and not a single Hassan’s kebab? I wanted to find out.
More specifically though, I wanted to find out about the environmental reasons for giving up meat. Sure, many vegetarians still claim that “animals have rights too”. While not denying they may be right, more and more people seem to have stopped eating meat because it kills the planet, not because it kills baby cows. Most will have experienced their JCR adopt meat free Mondays, and so probably won’t be strangers to such environmental arguments but perhaps, like myself initially, you just brushed them aside.
In fact, its hard not to, especially for me. I come from Somerset, where one of the main areas of employment is farming. I’ve grown up around cows and sheep and always just accepted that eating meat was part of life. Eating a roast on a Sunday from the local butcher was never questioned in my household. Of course, I knew vegetarians and was often was curious about why they’d decided to give up something that was such a staple for me, but, for the most part, they were nothing more than a curiosity. As I grew up already I became more aware of arguments against meat consumption, and constructed some pretty weak defences so I could continue brushing them aside. But about a year ago, content to brush no longer, I searched for the facts.
Should meat get the chop? The poster children for climate change are gas-guzzling cars and fume- producing factories, not cute little cows. However, it turns out the latter may be more of a culprit than I’d assumed.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a body set up by the UN to assess the science related to climate change and according to their headline figures, Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) account for 24 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. This figure is well ahead of transport on 14 per cent, industry on 21 per cent, and this is only superseded by Electric- ity and Heat Production on 25 per cent. These figures are striking, and led me to seriously question my image of vehicles and factories as the destroyers of the planet.
The AFOLU category isn’t just telling us about the impact of our diets though because it contains all emissions from forestry and land use, not just agriculture’s contribution to emissions. So we need to break it down. Although, a large but decreasing proportion of the AFOLU emissions is from forestry, most deforestation takes place with the aim of clearing land for cattle rearing, especially in the Amazon (80 per cent of Amazon deforestation is for cattle, accord- ing to a Yale research group) this all adds to the impact of meat. The next largest subcategory of AFOLU is enteric fermentation, which is basically cows and sheep producing methane through digestion and farting it out (nice). A further large category is manure spreading. Together these three agricultural processes make up a substantial proportion of AFOLU emissions.
But if we replaced meat with other food, would the effect be similar? It turns out that the same IPCC report found cut- ting animal-based products out of our diets could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 64 per cent. It also turns out not to be true that meat is a more efficient source of protein than other foods. If we compare greenhouse gas emissions per ton of protein consumed, beef produces roughly 15 to 20 times the CO2 of pulses (beans, lentils, etc.), according to the World Resources Institute, a global NGO focusing on resource sustainability.
Dairy, meanwhile, produces roughly five times the greenhouse gases of pulses, and poultry and pork four times. And not only is meat an environmentally damaging source of protein, the same report also suggests we do not need nearly as much protein as we currently eat, so we can decrease our impact both by reducing our protein intake and eating more efficient sources of protein. It really does appear, then, that we could be reducing our carbon footprint substantially by dropping meat and animal products from our diet, especially beef. This is bad news for fans of a medium rare steak.
But what about the reasons for eating meat? You can’t simply say meat has a negative impact on the environment and call for an end to the debate. The good things about meat need to be considered. The most significant factor for the majority of people, including myself, is simply that meat tastes good. Obviously whether you think this outweighs the bad effects of eating meat is a somewhat personal decision, but there is at least one thing that we should all be taking into account. If we eat meat because we think we get enough pleasure from it to make the detrimental effects worth it, we need to remember if we did not eat meat we would consume a non-meat product, which presumably would give us some pleasure.
So, what is important is the additional pleasure we get from eating meat as opposed to non- meat products. Given the growth of non-meat alternatives in recent years, such as Quorn (their sausages are almost as good as real sausages, if you ask me), as well as the existence of the many delicious vegetarian recipes that have existed for years, this difference is likely to be minor and may struggle to outweigh the negatives.
This seems even more obvious once we consider what meat is probably taking more out of our pocket that could be spent on beer rather than burgers. However, ultimately, I leave questions of pleasure to the reader.
One other countervailing factor to consider is the economic effects of significantly reducing meat production. Although agriculture is a vanishingly small part of the economies of the developed world, in some less developed countries people can be quite dependent on it. I thought perhaps the effect on those in the poorest regions of our stopping meat consumption might outweigh the environmental benefit. However, although countries in Southern Asia and Africa are quite dependent on agriculture — according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, in a few agriculture makes up over 30 per cent of the economy. These are not meat producing regions. Most meat imports to the developing world come from South America, which is much less dependent on agriculture (it’s less than 10 per cent of the economy in most places).
In fact, if we started eating more vegetables, the poorest regions would probably benefit, because we’d have to start eating more plant based foods which these countries do produce. Also, we cannot know how regions that are dependent on meat exports would adapt to any change in meat production. Seeing as a lot of the cattle rearing farms in South America, for example, grew up very quickly in response to demand for meat, the region may respond quickly to a reduction. It seems to me, then, that the economic benefits of meat are at best quite uncertain whereas reducing meat consumption would bring obvious environmental benefits.
Where does this all leave us? It is undeniable that meat is bad for the environment. Stopping beef consumption especially could go a long way to saving the planet. What’s more, unlike with the alternatives, we could quite easily make diet changes right now. We don’t have to wait for the invention of super-efficient technologies, for businesses or the state to invest in renewables, or go and hide in a cave with no electricity. We could simply stop eating meat tomorrow. That for me seemed a pretty hard fact to avoid when I found all this out, but still the pull of culture and pleasure was hard to resist.
Not only am I surrounded by farms but we, as a family, have actually raised pigs on a very small scale to sell to local friends and to eat ourselves. It’s hard to escape the mentality that eating meat is just a normal, acceptable part of life, so I struggled with all this. Slowly though, the pull of the arguments became too much and I reduced my meat intake. I’m now a vegetarian, and have been for over a year, and am slowly reducing my dairy consumption. It was hard, but it felt like the right thing to do.
So what is being done and what should be done?
If meat is so bad for the environment, and if it’s really true that climate change is one of the greatest problems facing the world, then surely this should be a major issue.
We seem constantly being advised to turn out the lights, cycle more, or take shorter showers, and investment in renewables and electric cars are hot topics in the world of politics. Meat, on the other hand, rarely seems to come up in these public discussions.
This is more than just an impression. The government report from the Department of Energy and Climate change says absolutely nothing about meat. Meanwhile, in a piece heavily tucked away on their website, Greenpeace does talk about meat’s effect on the environment.
It claims veganism and vegetarianism are not practical solutions, citing subsistence farmers and fishers who would have very restricted diets if they were vegetarians.
This is all well and good but it hardly applies to most in the West- ern World, and for us reducing meat consumption would be a highly effective way to reduce our ecological footprint. WWF do talk about the problems with meat consumption on their website, but they only go so far as saying “eat more vegetables”, which is hardly an ambitious target.
Even more shockingly, Peter Singer and Frances Kissling, both prominent ethicists, have noted in the Washington Post that at a UN conference on sustainable development, meat was served at most of the meals, and environmental spokesman could be seen unabashedly chowing down on beef. Clearly, giving up meat is at the bottom of the agenda for those involved with conservation.
This may sound familiar to those who have heard of Cowspiracy, a documentary that says there’s a massive conspiracy to protect the meat industry which charity interests allegedly protect. Whilst I think this is a bit far-fetched, it does strike me that governments and charities have self-serving reasons not to sing the praises of vegetarianism and veganism. First, they would annoy the farming lobby, which is powerful enough to have inefficient agricultural subsidies, mostly through the Common Agriculture Policy of the EU. Second, no government or NGO wants to face the nation and say “You shouldn’t be eating the food that you eat for nearly every meal.” This would admittedly be a hard sell, especially compared to advising walking a bit more or investing in green technology.
However, if we want to avert major environmental catastrophe, hard decisions are going to have be taken and governments are going to have to be the ones to make them, by coordinating our actions. Plus, encouraging reduced meat consumption could actually be one of the easiest environmental decisions. It wouldn’t be massively costly and could be achieved fairly quickly. It’s time governments and campaigners started getting loud about just how bad meat is.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more the idea of a meat duty tax seems an obviously good idea. One easy way to reduce consumption of something is to increase its price, and one way to do that is through a tax. Not only would this help the environment, it would im- prove health, since it is well known that red meat in particular is bad for you when consumed too often.
The money raised could also be used to subsidise the price of fruits and vegetables, further encouraging a healthy diet. This would help alleviate the negative effects on low-income groups as they could swap meat (which is expensive anyway) for cheaper vegetables. Of course, those who consume a lot of meat through low-price outlets such as fast food restaurants would suffer, but that would be the point: to encourage them to change their habits or to incentivise the restaurants to offer meat-free alternatives.
They could be given fair warning and this would allow them to adapt their diets or menus accordingly. A meat tax, combined with a strong public voice on the negative im- pact of meat, should be at the head of governments’ environmental policies.
However, these hopeful reflections are, unfortunately, just that. I realise governments are unlikely to tackle their bad relationship with the agricultural lobby or have the strength to stand up to meat eaters any time soon.
We must ask, therefore, what we can do in the inevitable case our government fails to do anything for us. Whilst personally the facts I uncovered did lead to me becoming vegetarian, I do realise this might be hard for everyone to do.
However, we can all take steps to improve our diet’s environmental impact. You could simply reduce how much meat you eat, or cut out beef, the worst culprit, or even, if you love meat that much, forgo other greenhouse gas emitting activities to compensate for your meat consumption. In particular, you could try swapping Quorn or something similar for meat in a curry or bolognese.
It’s almost as tasty and produces 90% less greenhouse gases than beef. Or have eggs for breakfast instead of milk and cereal, as eggs have greenhouse gas emissions almost as low as vegetables. But however you change your habits, be loud about it! It’s great if you eat less meat, but if you encourage others to as well, you can multiply your impact. Personally, although my family still eats meat, they eat much less, and they’ve pretty much given up beef as a result of my slow (but still, I’m told, slightly tedious) prompting. We should not be quietly virtuous, because no movement was ever built in silence.