You’ve heard it from the Greens, you’ve heard it from your friends, you’ve probably even heard it from your grandma… and now you’re hearing it from the government too. What’s the big deal? Do we really need to eat less meat – or none at all? I would argue that becoming vegetarian could be the most effective action you take against climate change. Consider the following.
A meaty blow
In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released the Livestock’s Long Shadow report, which showed that livestock farming accounts for 18% of all human-produced global greenhouse gas emissions, more than cars, planes, ships and all other forms of transport put together (which account for 13%). And this may even be an underestimate: a 2009 report from the US think tank, Worldwatch Institute, suggests a figure of at least 51%.
The UN emissions figure for livestock production includes all associated activities, including clearing forested land, making and transporting fertiliser and the use of fossil fuels by farm vehicles; Worldwatch included additional factors such as exhalations from livestock. The environmental impacts of these activities include water, air and soil degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change, the report concludes. Furthermore, due to population growth and rising levels of affluence in low and middle income countries, meat production is likely to rise: the FAO estimated that it would more than double between 2001 and 2050, although this projection is contentious.
Striking as these figures are, I’m not sure they are news. The environmental impact of livestock production is so well documented in the media it seems somewhat banal to report that, for example, a single cow (or bull) emits up to 200 litres of methane a day, a greenhouse gas that has at least a 25 times greater impact on warming than CO2; or that animal manure generates nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas that has a 296 times greater impact on warming than CO2; or that there are more than 100 million cattle in the US alone, belching and pooping, every day. Houston, we have a problem.
Nor is it breaking news that a vegetarian diet is better for the planet. Back in 2008, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told The Guardian that he thought people should “give up meat for one day [per week] at least initially, and decrease it from there”.
These views were echoed in 2010 by Lord Nicholas Stern, former adviser to the Labour government on the economics of climate change. The UN has issued a further report urging a global move toward eating less meat and dairy. Even some British MPs are encouraging people to reduce meat consumption in response to the related issue of making the global food supply more sustainable, with the aim of easing pressure on developing countries and the world’s poor.
Many of us would consider one or more meat-free days a week. It requires no radical shake up of our meal plans or social life – it’s manageable and probably healthier too. The more affluent might consider consuming organic or local; although meat produced in this way offers few benefits in terms of reduced CO2 emissions, it is better than factory farmed equivalents (fewer pesticides, less transport).
But if you are serious about reducing your carbon footprint, you’re better off becoming vegetarian. At least you can still enjoy dairy and eggs, right? Unfortunately, the rearing of animals to produce these products results in environmental problems at least as severe as those associated with the production of many kinds of meat.
A comparison of the carbon footprint of a number of common foods, above, clearly shows that a kilo of cheese is over five times more carbon intensive than a kilo of chicken. Yikes! If you’re like me, you probably don’t want to hear this but – from the planet’s perspective – you should probably become vegan: no animal products at all.
In the interests of brevity, I have passed over a number of caveats and qualifications, including claims that some mixed, closed-system farms can obtain a high level of efficiency or that some grasslands are better suited to grazing than agriculture; however, due to their exceptional nature, objections such as these are unlikely to seriously challenge the arguments presented by the UN and others. If doubts remain about whether continuing to eat meat can be justified, you might consider the enormous inefficiencies and waste associated with its production, the abject conditions in which most farmed animals live and die, the issue of global food security, and the question of whether raising and killing animals because we happen to like the taste of their flesh is defensible at all.
We lack neither the quantity nor the quality of arguments – just the willingness to act on them. Are we bothered enough to do anything? Assuming we are bothered, and assuming also that we decide to take action by changing what we eat, then the remaining challenge is turning those good intentions into action. Psychologists obsess over it and whole books have been written about the problem of the ‘intention-behaviour gap’ – the ‘gap’ between intending to do something (e.g. to eat vegetarian) and implementing the action (actually eating vegetarian).
Yet, without getting too technical about the science of behaviour change, we can choose to focus on easily achievable goals, simple actions and choices that alter behaviour gradually through reinforcement. It doesn’t have to vegan or broke. Deciding on one meat- or dairy-free day a week or selecting a veggie option when next faced with a meal choice requires little planning and forethought. The important thing is to start.
I take little joy in the prospect of a meat and dairy free future. But I take even less joy entertaining the possible consequences for the planet and its inhabitants if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates. Individual food choices might be personal and challenging them a politically sensitive ‘sacred cow’, but we cannot afford to continue to respect this taboo. Vegetarianism is a serious response to a serious environmental problem. Is this one cow we do need to send to the slaughter?