Despite Allan Savory’s recent bizarre and discredited claim (in a recent Ted Talk) to have found miracle technique that allows us to reconcile our insatiable demand for meat with the need to protect the living planet by eating more meat, it has become increasingly apparent that our carnivorous diets are the biggest threat to the worlds biodiversity.
A recent article in Science demonstrates that “human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity” – largely due to huge amounts of space and energy that go into meat production. More recently it has been claimed that giving up beef would reduce our carbon footprint more than giving up driving cars.
It’s common knowledge that more people could be supported from the same amount of land if we were all vegetarians. Most livestock are fed on soy grown on land cleared from forest. However I still think is it surprising to learn that about one-third of global cereal production is fed to animals (Godfrey et al 2010).
Equally surprising is that fact that cattle ranching (to provide cheap meat for our hamburgers), is the single greatest driver of deforestation in the Amazon (Barona et al 2010, McAlpine et al 2009). Livestock production is also a major source of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas.
Furthermore, as the billions of people in the emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India, continue to develop they will quite rightly aspire to reach the lifestyles enjoyed so complacently by all of us in the West. Such lifestyles include a substantially greater demand for meat. Over the past 50 years there has been approximately a 1.5-fold increase in the global numbers of cattle, sheep, and goats, with equivalent increases of ~2.5- and ~4.5-fold for pigs and chickens, respectively (Godfrey 2010). This trend is set to continue.
Graphs showing the annual dependence of per capita demand for (A) crop calories and (B) protein on per capita real GDP for each of economic Groups A–G (Tilman et al 2011)
Of course the argument that all meat consumption is bad is overly simplistic. Laurance et al, argue quite reasonably that meat is an important source of protein needed for good health by people who are under-nourished, and that meat production is the most appropriate agricultural land use in ‘marginal’ lands unsuitable for crops. Grass fed livestock still make up substantial proportion of the population and often livestock are also used for ploughing, transport, manure, income, and are of huge cultural importance for many poorer communities. Hence meat and animal products aren’t always bad.
However in the UK we have the luxury to largely be able to choose what we eat. Yet as the Cambridge group behind the blog thinkinglikeahuman.com point out, there is still limited serious public debate on diet, and for the majority, meat is not held in the same regard as other causes of environment degradation (carbon, pollution, pesticides, ect.) This is even more surprising given that well-balanced diets rich in grains and other vegetable products are considered to be more healthful than those containing a high proportion of meat (especially red meat) and dairy products. And of course there is the subsequent drain on health services that poor diets create.
Some people just don’t care about nature and are blinkered about the long term impact that unsustainable behaviours might have on human wellbeing. However I would argue that a large proportion of people would like to do something but struggle due to ignorance, lack of information or even cultural norms. In the UK for instance, serving a vegetarian meal to dinner guests might be scoffed at and would be unthinkable in many countries. People are also understandably very sensitive about their right to decide for themselves what they eat. Perhaps most importantly however, meat tastes good and so people like eating meat! And I am no different. Nonetheless, the damaging environmental impacts of our diets and general consumption patterns are undeniable and for too long have been undressed.
What we could do in response:
thinkinglikeahuman.com gives a number of suggestions on how to tackle this issue:
Firstly they argue, doing nothing is bad. The status quo diet in most developed countries and for many people in developing countries is proving very damaging, and needs to be addressed.
Secondly, they appreciate that whilst doing everything is fantastic, it is very difficult to put into practice. “Scrutinizing every label, asking about the ingredients at every restaurant and spending hours online doing background research is great for those with the time and determination, but surely it isn’t reasonable to expect enough people to do this to make much of a difference.”
Perhaps the most reasonable option therefore is to do something, but not everything. Hence this option is just to try to eat less meat. This is a compromise, but it is one that could still make a very big difference. Of course becoming a vegetarian or vegan would be the best alternative, but for many people, including myself, that seems like a daunting and unlikely prospect.
I tried being a vegetarian once when I was about 10 years old, purely on the promise that it would mean I wouldn’t have to eat sausages and mash; a meal I loathed after spending too many evenings painfully prodding at the cold mush of food trying to “finish my dinner”. After about a year of making my family cook things like quorn bolognaise, they were dismayed at the discovery that I had been tucking into roast chicken at a friend’s house on the odd Sunday. That was the end of that ‘phase’ and eventually I learnt to like sausages.
However having spent three years of university learning about the perilous state of the worlds biodiversity, and preaching solutions in essays and this blog, I realised that I ought at least try and do something practical to help. I also saw some of my friends adopting more vegetarian diets and realised it wasn’t so bad after all.
So for the last six months I have been adhering to ‘no meat Mondays’ and have now progressed onto ‘no meat weekdays’ (or a flexible 5 and 2 system). I haven’t always been entirely faithful to my new resolution, but at least but I’m heading in the right direction. I am still able to carry on eating nice meals with my friends and family, and at special dinners. But I am now cutting out all things like processed ham and bland chicken sandwiches. I also tend not to cook with meat when eating alone. Perhaps at some point I might have the determination to go fully vegetarian, but for the time being I have reduced my meat consumption by probably 3-4 times, yet I have been eating just as well.
No meat Mondays is a good start and is easy to achieve. It also opens your eyes to huge range of vegetarian meals on offer, which you may never have considered before. Moreover, through doing it you may also become more consumer conscious. This makes the step to ‘no meat weekdays’ or even just cutting down on meat generally, much easier.
Furthermore I think most people would expect environmentalists to be leading by example. Although as Zoe Williams points out in a recent article in the Guardian, those working in the environmental movement should not be expected to be perfect in their own behaviour; “The aim is to work towards better systems, not to exist in this system as superior people”.
She is right in the fact that conservationists cannot be expected to make tough sacrifices in all areas of their lives. We also certainly don’t want to alienate or put people off sharing conservation values and adhering to the cause. However, conservationists must be willing to show the way and promote a good example for others to follow.
Eating less meat is a positive step, and something that we can all achieve.
Barona, Elizabeth, et al. “The role of pasture and soybean in deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon.” Environmental Research Letters 5.2 (2010): 024002.
Godfray, H. Charles J., et al. “Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people.” science 327.5967 (2010): 812-818.
Laurance, William F., Jeffrey Sayer, and Kenneth G. Cassman. “The impact of meat consumption on the tropics: reply to Machovina and Feeley.” Trends in ecology & evolution 29.8 (2014): 432.
McAlpine, Clive A., et al. “Increasing world consumption of beef as a driver of regional and global change: A call for policy action based on evidence from Queensland (Australia), Colombia and Brazil.” Global Environmental Change 19.1 (2009): 21-33.
Machovina, Brian, and Kenneth J. Feeley. “Taking a Bite Out of Biodiversity.” Science 343.6173 (2014): 838-838.
Tilman et al. “Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture”. PNAS 109: (2011) 20250 – 64.
Article inspired by http://thinkinglikeahuman.com/