Country Living debate: Can changing what you eat save the planet?
A meat-free diet could help combat climate change, but would the impact on British farmers and the countryside be too damaging?
Most of the five million people in the UK who are wholly vegetarian or eschew red meat choose their diet on the grounds of ethics (intensive farming, animal welfare) or health (high blood pressure, cholesterol). Those in the ethical camp are often passionate about green issues, but only recently has a non-meat diet been suggested as a way to combat climate change. A 2006 UN report, Livestock's Long Shadow, argued that beef and dairy farming globally create more climate changing gases (18 per cent) than the world's transport system (13 per cent); although some have questioned the details of this report, there is no doubt that the carbon footprint of livestock production is hugely significant - and growing.
The Vegetarian Society claims that cattle rearing causes the most environmental damage worldwide of any non-human species, through overgrazing, soil erosion, deforestation and methane emissions - not just from burping bovines, which release 500 litres a day each of methane, a greenhouse gas 33 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, but also through the manufacture of fertilisers needed to grow the crops to feed the livestock. Organic methods reduce carbon emissions, though not substantially.
Soya is a mainstay of animal feed, its cultivation entailing rainforest destruction in South America, which releases carbon when trees are chopped down. The Sustainable Livestock Bill aims to reduce UK farmers' dependence on feed grown in South America and make it more economic to use home-grown fodder, and will have its second reading in Parliament this November. But while 90 per cent of soya is intended for animal consumption, it is also a staple of the vegetarian diet, used in meat substitutes such as tofu. A study commissioned by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), concluded controversially that this and other vegetarian favourites such as chickpeas and lentils were more harmful to the environment, because of the food miles incurred, than British-reared beef and lamb. Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern, an agricultural and environmental scientist, says, "Tofu and other meat substitutes are not necessarily the badge of merit that people claim. Simply eating more bread, pasta and potatoes instead of meat is more environmentally friendly." Undoubtedly, a meal made with locally sourced venison or wild rabbit is more eco-friendly than a vegetable curry containing exotic ingredients.
And if reducing your carbon footprint is the motivator for giving up meat, merely going vegetarian isn't enough. Continuing to eat dairy products derived from cows' milk means you are still contributing to the rise in greenhouse gases; only a vegan diet (no animal products) could make a difference. Pork and chicken are half as damaging as beef and lamb, but still carbon-intensive.
The National Farmers' Union warns that if there was a shift to a vegetarian diet, our beleaguered farmers would go out of business and the industry would move overseas where the ethical and animal health standards could be questionable. This would also be a threat to our food security - we currently produce only 60 per cent of our food, a figure that has decreased substantially in the past two decades.
So is there a middle way - one that supports British farmers but can also tackle climate change? Intensive farming involves antibiotics and concentrated fertilisers, but hill farming on upland pastures uses far fewer resources and arguably converts nutrients not suitable for human needs into valuable foodstuffs. The terrain occupied by most sheep farmers in Britain is difficult to use for any other purpose, argues the meat industry. Careful management of grazing in the hills also maintains one of the biggest carbon sinks we have - peat bogs. Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, urges that we manage the land in a natural way along organic principles. "Provided land is not overgrazed, long-term pasture traps carbon and therefore livestock farming can be a benefit."
Research by campaign groups Friends of the Earth and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) found that reducing meat consumption to three times a week would allow forests to recover, animals to be reared in free-range conditions and greener farming methods to be adopted. "Animals are being reared like factory units to provide us with cheap meat," says a CIWF spokesperson. "The true cost of eating too much meat is animal suffering, deforestation and obesity. We have the power to save our planet and be kind to animals. All we need to do is change our diets to a healthier and fairer option."
EUGENIE HARVEY IS DIRECTOR OF 10:10, THE CAMPAIGN TO REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS BY 10% PER YEAR FROM 2010
"There is a growing trend towards mindful consumption of meat. As an Australian, I was brought up eating it every night, and I still love my lamb chops, but the environmental consequences of beef, sheep and pig farming have to be addressed. We already have people eating vegetarian and vegan diets; our view at 10:10 is that the way forward is negan' - nearly vegan.
Voltaire said, The perfect is the enemy of the good', meaning today that if people feel they must be perfect - stop flying, never drive - in order to reduce climate change, they will simply give up trying and feel helpless. But if they can do one thing such as fly less often or eat less meat, they can make a real difference. It's the carrot not the stick. The stick doesn't work, but if there are tangible results of an action, such as feeling healthier because of eating more fruit and veg and less meat, it's a win-win situation. Becoming vegan overnight may not be feasible, and would hurt British farmers, but being aware of the issues makes us more mindful of the solutions.
To people who think they could not give up meat, I suggest having one red meat day, one chicken day, one fish, one dairy and so on. Then there would be no sense of deprivation. If we signal that we don't want cheap food, intensively produced, things will change. And those of us who can afford to buy organic and free-range should keep doing so and grow the market, because that will lead to lower prices. We may think we are just one person doing our weekly shop, but supermarkets will listen to what customers want, and so will local and national government.
Large numbers of people never fly, but all of us go food shopping and may buy meat several times a month. Changing our diet to reduce or exclude meat is a first step towards a low-carbon lifestyle. It's all about re-programming our lives around simple, everyday activities."
PROFESSOR ALLAN BUCKWELL IS POLICY DIRECTOR OF THE COUNTRY LAND AND BUSINESS ASSOCIATION (CLA)
"Man is an omnivore: a balanced diet of meat, fish and vegetables is how we have evolved. Milk is a brilliant food for growing children, and livestock products are delicious. Of course, agriculture cannot stand aside from doing what it can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but its role will be secondary, for the principal solution to climate change is to switch away from fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas. We must deploy all the ingenuity we can muster to reduce methane production, but the keys are breeding, feeding and manure management.
A large part of livestock production in the UK is grass-based, on land that is not suited to crop production, so it is perfectly intelligent to use livestock (sheep, goats and cattle) to produce food. Without these grazing systems some of our most treasured landscapes would change out of all recognition. A lower demand for meat would not mean an end to factory farming, because whatever the demand for livestock foods, we are going to have to produce them in the most cost-effective way.
Research shows that the most intensive livestock systems such as housed animals, fed carefully constituted, highly digestible diets, produce the lowest emissions per kilo of meat. They are the most efficient converters of feed, so it would be crazy to turn our backs on this production system. Obviously any system must heed acceptable standards of animal welfare, but consumers show by their weekly purchasing patterns that what they want is cheap food.
Those who advocate lower livestock consumption need to explain how they intend to bring it about. VAT on meat and milk? Government determined rations? Sensible eating and exercise for good health might well involve lower consumption of saturated fats (and sugar and salt). These are changes that we bring about through balanced, scientifically based information, advice and discussion. But this sort of behaviour change takes decades. Fossil-fuel alternatives such as anaerobic digestion, which generates energy and fertiliser from food, garden and animal wastes, and the next generation of biofuels, which utilise woody plant material are already happening.