As the notability of climate change increases, many activists are turning their attention towards the food sector. Rightfully so, considering that the global food system is estimated to be responsible for around 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and 31% of these can be attributed to livestock and fisheries. This has caused many scientists, such as a group of researchers at Oxford University, to suggest that for humans to minimize carbon emissions and limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees celsius, we need to see a worldwide shift away from meat and fish. While over the past decade we have seen a monumental increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans, for many people, the thought of completely stripping their diet of meat and fish is impractical and unrealistic. That’s why I want to explore the question: Can we eat meat and still consider ourselves sustainable consumers?
First of all, let's consider why we might not want to completely eradicate meat from our diet. Many people’s reluctance to drop this food type stems from health concerns, such as the fear that they may become protein or zinc deficient. Keeping livestock also unquestionably has some benefits for the environment, such as providing fertilisers for crops through their manure. Lastly, they are an incredibly crucial source of many people’s livelihoods, especially in low-income rural areas, where there are limited other job opportunities.
If, for the reasons mentioned, we don't want to completely ban meat, we should explore how we can make our omnivore diet more sustainable and reduce the impact it is having on the environment globally.
To begin with, when choosing the meat that we want to consume, it is important to research the method of farming used to produce it. For example, animals that have been intensively farmed will invariably produce a greater impact on the environment. Intensive farming describes farming where a high proportion of fertilisers, pesticides, labour and money are used in relation to the area of land. Due to the large-scale nature of these farms, the process of deforestation has often occurred, presenting environmental issues such as the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as desertification.
Checking which location your meat is sourced from is also crucial, as the further the distance from your home, the greater the greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. Therefore, buying meat that has been produced more locally, such as in the UK, will substantially reduce your ecological footprint, especially considering greenhouse gases emitted from beef production in the UK are around half the global average! If before we put the meat in our shopping baskets, we consider all of these variables, then we will undoubtedly be making a more conscious, sustainable decision, therefore reducing the effect our consumption of the meat product will have on the environment.
Changing the types of meat we consume will also help reduce our ecological footprint. Red meat, including beef, is proven to be a significant cause of greenhouse gas emissions. While carbon dioxide is rightfully given a large amount of media attention, it often means that the other greenhouse gases, such as methane, are overshadowed, even though they are having similarly devastating impacts. In fact, methane is estimated to be roughly 28 to 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, cattle, which produce beef, contribute 250-500 litres of methane every day to the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect.
The ‘greenhouse effect’ describes the phenomenon of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour, absorbing solar radiation and re-emitting it in all directions, meaning that the atmosphere is being warmed up. Consequently, the high level of demand for beef is contributing to global warming through the harmful methane that cattle emit. While there is interesting research being undertaken by AgResearch in vaccinating cows so that they don’t produce methane, since this is not widely available yet, it is imperative that we limit our beef consumption, and focus on non-red meats i.e chicken.
Another trick that can help make meat consumption more sustainable is by producing less food waste. Sounds simple, right? Well, a shocking 6.7 million tonnes of food is thrown away annually in the UK. Apart from meaning that all the greenhouse gas that was emitted from the production of this food was pointless, the food is mostly sent to landfills, where it can rot, once again releasing methane and consequently contributing to global warming. Cutting down on food waste can be as simple as ensuring that you have used all of the edible components of the meat or only buying the meat that you need, yet the effects can be profound.
So, we’ve explored several ideas and ways in which we can eat meat, while still limiting our ecological footprint. The Eat Lancet Commission recognises the environmental and social challenge that faces us, including the reluctance of many people to move to a completely vegetarian diet, as well as the health issues that can sometimes arise with the eradication of meat from our meals. As a result, they have created ‘The Planetary Health Diet’, which if followed globally would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%, while increasing life expectancy by 19%. While it does massively reduce the amount of meat that we consume, it doesn't completely cut it out of our diet, but rather allows us to consume it in more reasonable and sustainable portions.
While the pathway to being more sustainable while still eating meat would significantly decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, are all these methods attainable or helpful to everyone? Decreasing the amount of meat that we consume will inevitably cause the loss of jobs, and this can be particularly damaging in rural communities who overwhelmingly rely on the production of meat as a source of income.
Another issue is that unfortunately a sizeable proportion of the cheaper meat that is on offer to us is unsustainable, while more environmentally friendly meat is sold at a higher price. Therefore, people on a low budget are instinctively going to choose the cheaper, more environmentally damaging meat. The practice of researching where the meat is sourced from is another solution that can often exclude people from low-income backgrounds. But doing the research in itself can be a time-consuming process, and so if you already have the stress of struggling to earn a living, time can often be limited for activities like this.
So how can we fix these divides? Reducing the prices of these more environmentally friendly meat options will hopefully ensure that they become more mainstream and realistic options for ordinary people. The involvement of the government is invariably going to be needed in helping make our consumption of meat more ecologically friendly, from introducing policies on the importation of meat to ensuring that Britain’s farms are as sustainable as possible. We can already see that some of this work is being started, with the government proposing to introduce a scheme that pays farmers to preserve ecosystems and farm more sustainably.
Hopefully, you have seen that we don’t completely need to remove meat from the menu in order to be environmentally friendly. While helping to fix the climate crisis will invariably require some sacrifices and labour on our behalf, it is encouraging to note that we can still play our part without totally changing our diet.