Save the World. Eat Less Meat

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 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: 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.

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Climate Doubters: ‘Farage from the truth’

Climate Change isn’t something you can choose to believe in.

In the wake of the devastating flooding this Christmas, Nigel Farage wrote a piece in the independent blaming the prolonged power cuts on the current government’s energy policy.

Leaving his rather bizarre and contradictory argument aside, he made a very alarming claim, that “man-made climate change is doubtful”.

Well no its not Mr Farage. The most recent IPCC report warns us that scientists are 95% certain that humans are the “dominant cause” of global warming since the 1950s. 95% leaves little room to doubt our role in climate change.

What annoys me is that many people, and an alarming number of our political leaders, have this opinion that climate change is something to believe in, or not.

It’s not a religion, it’s not the tooth fairy, and it is simply not a matter of belief. It is simply scientific observation and careful study, that has come to the conclusion that our emissions are impacting the world weather systems and climate.

If an engineer told you that the bridge in front of you had a 95% chance of collapsing if you were to cross it, you

would be suicidal not to take another route. Of course you could question the integrity of the engineer – perhaps at your peril. But would that any doubt still persist if you were told the same thing hundreds, or thousands of independent engineers?

 Of course the difference for the issue of climate change is that unlike the collapsing bridge, ignoring the warning signs won’t immediate consequences. However, if for example a doctor told you that you had the early signs of cancer and that you should stop smoking, you might find it hard to stop, you might decide you don’t want to stop, but you wouldn’t walk out of the hospital claiming the doctor is mistaken.

Climate change is not a belief it is a diagnosis. There is no place in parliament for numpties like Farage to dress up and play doctor.

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Hunting: Vile outdated ‘sport’ or a viable method of conservation?

Despite claims from the RSPCA that 80% of the public are against fox hunting, a quarter of a million people attended boxing day hunts across the country yesterday. Environmentalists and conservationists that I follow on twitter met this with outrage. Similarly, many wildlife organisations regularly post pictures demonizing individuals who pose with hunting trophies of big game.


I personally detest the thought of hunting for trophies. But we must be realistic, hunting is still a popular activity and a large generator of income used to conserve parks and wild animals. There still remains around 250 sporting estates in Scotland, covering approximately 2 million hectares – equivalent to 43% of all privately owned land in the highlands. Hunting is even bigger in the US, with nearly 15 million hunting licences issued in 2011. Much of the countryside we enjoy is preserved for the sake of game and sport. The very creation of ‘conservation’ as an idea and practise was pioneered by Buxton, Seton-Karr (in Africa), Roosevelt (in the US) and the like, who themselves were avid hunters. The first national parks were created to preserve wild game for sport.

In 1907 William Hornaday (largely credited with saving the American Bison and Alaskan fur seal from extinction) wrote that:“the great mass of worth-while sportsmen are true protectors and conservators, who sincerely desire the perpetuation of game and hunting sport, and the conservation of the rights of posterity therein”.

It is true that these men and these ideas are from another generation, and that conservation has progressed since then. However there is still the argument that well-regulated trophy hunting can provide net positive conservation benefits.

More than 18,500 hunters, mainly from the USA and Europe, visit Sub-Saharan countries each year, generating annual gross revenues of at least US$201 million (Lindsey et al., 2007). Take Lion hunting as an example. It generates significant returns ($60000 to $120,000 per lion hunt,) and is conducted over vast areas where ecotourism is often unviable. Quotas exist to prevent overexploitation, and supposedly only mature males, unattached to prides are targeted.

Removing the EU and US markets for lion hunting would likely result in a significant drop in the price of lion hunts and could make it difficult for operators to sell lion hunting safaris. Such changes would render trophy hunting less viable in many areas, and in extreme cases could result in a conversion to less conservation-compatible land uses such as agriculture and pastoralism. In Kenya, where trophy hunting has been banned since 1977, for example, protected areas now lack the buffers that are provided by hunting blocks in many other African countries, and wildlife populations have declined by 60–70% since the hunting ban. While it is not possible to determine whether, or to what extent, the trophy hunting ban contributed to negative wildlife population trends, the prohibition certainly failed to improve the conservation status of wildlife (including lions) in Kenya (Lindsey 2013). Furthermore, despite Lion populations being in decline on the whole, Trophy hunting takes place on private land in regions of high lion densities. If income is not generated through hunting, then poor local farmers – not necessarily the rich land owners- may be less tolerate of lions (or other game) leading to their killing anyway.

However, there is evidence that suggests that like ecotourism, trophy hunting actually adds very little to the income of the local communities. Moreover, age restrictions and quotas are often ignored and overexploitation may result.  Whether or not trophy hunting may be a viable – if ugly – conservation tool requires further research, and perhaps much greater regulation. However when thinking about demonising individuals who choose to hunt – legally – I think the conservationist should appreciate that outrage is not argument.  I believe this extract from a recent article in the Guardian by Tauriq Moosa is worth consideration

“When people say it’s “morally wrong to kill animals, regardless of practical considerations”, one must ask what that means: Saying “morally” before “wrong” doesn’t tell us anything. Right and wrong are conclusions, not the beginning of a position. Disgust doesn’t negate moral agreement: I am “disgusted” by hunting, but I’m uncertain that it’s actually always wrong. It could be right – given certain scenarios, such as it actually benefitting the environment, reducing suffering (since animals aren’t forced to die painfully with ethical hunting practises as they might with natural predation or illegal poaching, for example), and so on. Situations are complicated more than feelings allow. Disliking doesn’t mean opposing: it means merely disliking. By always maintaining a sense of uncertainty in moral claims, it can help prevent solidifying into a stance that sees people threatening others, like Melissa Bachman. Preventing moral certainty is as important a goal as preventing the suffering of creatures. This case of outrage is a good example of where so many fail.”

I don’t like hunting. But we must be realistic and appreciate that in our capitalist world everything has a price. If well managed trophy hunting estates can contribute to the conservation of Africa’s big game than so be it (although I would urge for greater study to validate this).

I’d rather see a picture of a dead lion every so often than never seeing one again at all.

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Tigers or Transition?

Thinking like a human

Is biodiversity conservation part of the environmental movement? To what extent is the protection of species like tigers an integral part of wider concerns about transition to more sustainable lives on earth?  These questions came up at a recent meeting Conservation and Sustainability: Do We Practise What We Preach?, organised by the Cambridge Conservation Forum. The questions are simple enough.  The answers turn out to be a bit more complicated.

Historically, it’s a no-brainer.  The birth of the modern conservation movement in the late Nineteenth Century was strongly environmentalist, in that it was a broad-spectrum reaction to the depredations of capitalism and industrialism. In colonised territories like North America or Africa, the extinction of species (blaubok, quagga or passenger pigeon) and the settlement of frontiers drove a wave of sentiment for wilderness.  Yet in countries like the UK, conservation had broader roots: the founders of organisations like the…

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‘Cambridge Loose on Climate Change’ – A response

After recently reading the Tab article ‘Cambridge Loose on climate change’ which slams the University for having investments in BP, Shell and Rio Tinto, –  – I was left feeling slightly annoyed. I’m not quite sure why, but it’s the same annoyance I feel when I hear people bash bankers and blame them for everyone wrong in society – usually on Question Time.

Furthermore I was annoyed by the assertion that Cambridge departments such as Geology, by having a working relationship with an oil company, are contradictory to their teaching on climate change. I spent two years in the Geology department, and benefited hugely from the sponsorship of BP, which heavily subsidized field trips and equipment.  Naturally British oil companies should want to attract the most qualified graduates in their field. Someone has to sit down and go through hours and hours of seismic reflection profiles to identify potential oil sites. If no one did then we wouldn’t be able to run our cars, or waste time reading this. Moreover, the relationship between department and BP certainly has no bearing on the content of the course. Some of the world leaders in climate change research are based in the department, and what we learn comes directly from their mouths.

I also spent a bit of time this summer interning at a well-regarded investment firm, and got to know a bit about how they construct portfolios for their clients – some of whom could easily be Cambridge colleges. Low risk, long term portfolios that pay consistent dividends almost always include BP and Shell. This is simply because they are huge well established companies that offer a product that will always be in demand; by everyone.

However, whilst interning at this Investment firm I also learnt a little about their ethical investment branch. This is where clients with specific ethical or environmental views can invest their money safe in the confidence that it won’t be used to fund sectors that they have blacklisted. Interestingly, despite the restrictions, the ethical investment team could produce performance results that matched ‘non ethical’ portfolios.  Green investment therefore, shouldn’t come at a price.

Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, our economy and that of the entire world is utterly dependent on fossil fuels. No realistic environmentalist can truly believe that giving oil companies the cold shoulder would solve the world’s problems. In fact the main concern for the environmentalist should be in shifting the dependence for energy from coal to ‘cleaner’ fossil fuels such as gas and oil – or further to a largely nuclear economy, but that’s a different argument all together. Obviously renewables would be the best scenario, but they simply can’t produce enough to match our current demand.

I am not trying to defend some appalling practices – such as the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill – for which ultimately these organisations are responsible for. But the point I do want to make is that given we are still dependent on these companies; we must work with them to develop cleaner energy solutions and better environmental practices, than against them.

Lastly, I do in fact agree with the Tab article that the University should move its investments away from oil and mining companies; to make a statement if nothing else. However I still feel annoyed about a journalism style that demonizes organisations and the people working for them, especially given that it is US the consumer that ultimately forces them to drill deeper.

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What is ‘Nature’?

This Easter I spent a fair bit of time in the “Great British countryside”. From the Pembrokeshire coast in South Wales, to Lizard Point in Cornwall. But whilst walking along picturesque coastal paths from one outcrop (Geology feild trip) to the next I had a fair amount of time to let my mind wander. I grew up in the countryside and for all my life I have considered everything about the countryside quintessentially British, unspoilt, and natural. Large swathes of land quite distinct from the bustle of the city, for which I believed it was our duty to protect and conserve.

Many people share this view, hence why there is always so much uproar when new airports, roads or fracking is proposed; those filthy politicians always trying to tarnish our countryside. Right?

I realised last week whilst gingerly stepping over cow pats and hopping over styles, that there is simply nothing remotely natural about natural England. Every aspect of our landscape has been crafted by us and our ancestors before us. No area of Britain has escaped. Heather shouldn’t grow on hill tops, grass shouldn’t carpet the landscape. Deformed bovines with swollen udders and emasculated mouflon (the ancestors of sheep apparently) with ridiculous white puffy hair shouldn’t even survive. Why is the national bird of India, the peacock undeniably more well-known and common in ‘wild’ Britain than (the formally) native Great Bustard. A What? Yes, precisely…

Our ancestors have been altering the Earth for at least 400,000 years, since controlled fire was first used to clear the Savannah. Although the biggest change to the ecology of the Earth in millions of years (since the last ice age) began with the emergence of agriculture in the Middle East 7000 years ago.

Before this time, almost the entirety of Britain – and Europe – was covered in dense forest, such as what survives today in a few pockets of Central Europe. Bears and wolves of course limited the populations of herbivores, which we know in Ireland at least contained Giant Elk, with antlers up to 12ft long. The story is similar elsewhere. Recent findings, and re-interpretations of the writings of some of the earliest explorers, indicate even the most virgin of virgin rainforest in the Amazon basin is an anthropological artefact.

Research by Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania found tens of thousands of km of raised banks across the Bolivian Amazon that he believes were dug by humans. He claims, “By corrugating the flooded fields, farmers created ridges on which they could plant their crops, clear of the floodwaters and also of highland frosts, while also collecting water for irrigation in the dry season. It was a flatland equivalent of the ancient practice of terracing hillsides. The digging and earth-moving involved in creating these structures, is comparable to building the pyramids. They completely altered the landscape.”

Erickson also stumbled on something else: a vast system—estimated to cover 500 square km’s—of fish ponds and weirs, which captured the fish in the wet season, to eat during the dry. They were fish-farming on the edge of the rainforest. These fish ponds and raised fields stretching across the plains for thousands of square km’s could have sustained maybe a million people. Buried charcoal in the roads and mounds suggests that they were created up to 2,000 years ago.

An Early Spanish on expedition to Baures, Bolivia in 1617, described entering towns along causeways that could take four riders abreast. The records of the explorer Jesuit confirm this and suggest that some islands and causeways remained in use into the eighteenth century. It is likely that the once flourishing people of Baures were devastated by famine or disease, and subsequently nature has retaken what was once hers, capitalising on the rich soils left behind, resulting in the diverse biodiversity that we see today.
The point here is that what we consider to be nature is prejudiced by what we consider to be the norm. The amazon, it appears, is no more natural than Cambridge fens which were long ago drained to farmland. However, true nature doesn’t care for fences or boarders, and when given the chance it will take bounce back, although not always in the same way.

To illustrate my point, today is the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and this is what the abandoned town of Pripyat looks like now:

27 years on, now an eden for wildlife.

Chernobyl, 27 years on, now an eden for wildlife.
The exclusion zone (approx. 3000 km2) has paradoxically become a unique sanctuary for biodiversity. The evacuation put an end to industrialisation, deforestation, cultivation and other human intrusions, making it one of Ukraine’s environmentally cleanest regions – except of course for the radioactivity. Beavers, deer, wolves, lynx, as well as rare birds such as black storks and azure tits have all moved in. The rare white-tailed eagle now thrives in the area, and Europe’s last remaining mega-fauna, the Przewalski horse and the European Bison have been introduced successfully. Suprisingly studies on voles have shown that the still existing high levels of radioactivity do not have any genetic (or physical) abnormalities.
It appears ‘Nature’ is just somewhere where humans aren’t. Mega cities might be the green solution.
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Numbed by the facts, we are hiding from the realities of Climate Change

The threats of ‘Global Warming’ ‘Climate Change’ have been drilled into us to such an extent that it appears we are become immune to them, in fact instead of addressing the issues, we are ever more comfortable turning a blind, obnoxious, eye. Today the World Bank has released the latest report warning of the devastating effects of a predicted 4oC rise in mean global temperatures over the next century. So what, we heard that before, and we are all still alive right? Let’s continue driving our 4X4’s and drilling for oil, and we will work out some way of dealing with it later. In any case, cold old England could do with a nicer, warmer summer.

The fact that this report has failed to make it into the headlines is worrying. Instead of warning us that ‘we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise’, PM time-wasting welsh income tax, tube strikes have made it onto the BBC homepage today. In august this year, on the day that it was announced that artic sea ice has reached an unprecedented low level, three weeks before the average annual minimum, the argument about where the new runway should be built filled the media. The question of should another runway even be built was not even considered. The recent American election was taken to a standstill by a freak tropical storm, most likely of higher intensity due to the effects of climate change on ocean currents. Yet as they recover from Sandy, the US is pledging to increase the oil industry substantially over the next decade.

Read the report ( ) it’s scary. Look at the figures released by the IPCC regarding the observed effects of climate change that we can see right now. Even more scary. The raw data is undeniable. The predictions of course cannot be perfect, but these are the accumulation of almost 30 years of climate science to date. We should be taking notice.

Take a minute to browse the environment section of the Guardian or journals such as Nature. Reports and studies demonstrating the decline of animal species come in by the day. Today for example the guardian reports that Britain’s bird population has decreased by 44 million since 1966.

What is concerning is that all these figures, warnings and predictions are now so commonplace, that it seems we are becoming immune to them. I urge you to take a step back, really think about it and read the report as if you have never heard about climate change before. If asked by your grandchildren, “you knew about climate change, so what did you do”? I for one want don’t want to say ‘nothing’.

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